It's not easy to admit to having problems that are essentially psychological. Whatever we might believe about the situation ourselves, there's a stigma attached. So I reacted badly at first when Brian Stewart asked:
"Whatever happened to your adventures in inkjet printing that started close to two years ago, Mike? A well-crafted print is a beautiful thing."
To quote my late friend and mentor David Vestal, I'm in the disclosure business, so after I stewed (sorry!) about it for a while I opted to answer honestly:
"I tend to fixate on the cost of materials, paper and especially ink," I wrote back, in a little note appended to the comment. "This is a psychological problem, like my irrational fear of dentists (I sometimes cannot talk myself into keeping appointments), but knowing that doesn't make it less difficult to deal with."
Jack Stivers chimed in: "Re your response to Brian Stewart, I, too, get fixated on ink and paper costs. A set of 12 'tanks' for my Canon Pro 1 costs $350. Given I only paid $450 (via a one-day special deal at B&H a few years ago) for the printer, I can't bring myself to nearly double that cost by buying a full set of tanks. The tanks included with the printer ran dry long before I was near being proficient with the printer. So all 70 pounds of the great hulking howitzer, er, Canon, sits on a table in my office like a huge, black paperweight gathering dust and mocking me."
That made me feel a little better. But I don't feel good about it. The baseline fact is that I don't think I can afford paper and ink, and so using it up makes me feel anxious. And of course we tend to avoid doing things that cause us to suffer anxiety.
Part of the anxiety is my background conviction that I'm being exploited—a grittier word is cheated—by ink prices. Falsely high ink prices are part of the common model for making money selling printers, like Gillette sticking it to you for their good but way, way overpriced razor blade cartridges. But the same thing is true at McDonalds, where they make all their money on french fries and soda, selling everything else at cost*, as well as with the prototype, razor blades, an industry that Harry's and Dollar Shave Club (now owned by Unilever) are currently trying to disrupt.
I do recognize that my anxiety is somewhat irrational, like my avoidance problem with the dentist (I don't feel I can afford that, either). I used to budget up to $3,000 annually for film, chemicals, and silver gelatin (enlarging) paper, so why can't I just do the same thing with the inkjet printer? It really doesn't make a lot of sense.
And I wish it weren't so. But I gotta be honest: it's a problem for me. One that is, to quote another great man, Yogi Berra, is ninety percent half mental. At least with Jack on my side I don't feel completely alone.
*By some analyses McDonalds is actually a huge real estate corporation that plunks restaurants on properties merely as a way of defraying holding costs. I'm no expert.
"Open Mike" is the not always off-topic editorial page of TOP. It's supposed to appear on Wednesdays...what is today, anyway?
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Timo Virojärvi: I am also rather—umm, let's say—cost conscious when it comes to running costs. However I am not that bothered by buying expensive stuff, so for me the solution was to buy a 44-inch printer. Ink per milliliter is not expensive in 330 ml cartridges and roll paper is much less expensive than small sheets for the same area. Of course the big cartridges and paper rolls cost a lot, but I don't have buy them often. What matters is that each print is really inexpensive, so I am not bothered at all by the cost of actual printing. I also print a bit for others, which helps to cover the material costs and is fun, too. I know this is doesn't really make sense economically, but suits my psychological profile perfectly."
Jim Dobbins: "Thanks! I feel much better now. I have the same problem and viewed it as a personal failing. Now I realize that it might be just the nature of owning an inkjet printer."
JAYoung: "I simply don't make enough prints to justify the costs of maintaining a good color printer at home. When I want a quality print I take a thumb drive to my locally owned Insty-Prints and use their latest printer and fresh ink. If I want snapshot prints I can go to Walmart and do the same. I picked up a Brother B&W laser printer for text printing at home and it's always ready when I need it."
Robert Newcomb: "I wondered why you said this yesterday, 'Most pictures exist only on screens, and that's as it should be.' I don't agree with this but it's what you said."
Mike replies: Well, because it's the nature of the media. When most photographers shot B&W film, when developed we had a negative, and it generally had to be printed to be able to see it. (Slides were the major exception, and those needed to be projected to be seen properly.) Thus prints—at least contact prints—were not only natural but necessary, an integral part of the process. Larger prints were needed for viewing or reproduction. Now, pictures are taken using digital sensors and naturally displayed on screens—computer screens, device screens, etc.—and it's not necessary to make prints as part of the process of seeing and sharing them. That's all I meant.
Kenneth Tanaka: "Your printing expense anxiety is not at all irrational, Mike. Today's home printing products and techniques are sublime. But they ain't cheap. Ink is expensive. Good paper can be expensive. (Personally, I feel that paper is where economies can be achieved. But that's another story.)
"But images not printed are images headed for extinction. Here are two thoughts, for whatever they may be worth. First, reallocate your budget. Instead of replacing equipment spend that money on printing. Unless you’re doing commercial or stock work with specific requirements, prints will be far more valuable to you personally than more gear in the long term. Second consider outsourcing your printing. There are several excellent, well-capitalized printing services that have established themselves in recent years. Their costs tend to be very reasonable and their products, in my experience, excellent. Plus they tend to offer more alternatives than you could ever provide for yourself. The incremental costs are going to at least seem lower than home printing. You have to print, Mike. It’s not a negotiable item. It’s fundamental for your photographic cred."
Geoff Wittig: "To me this is one of the genuine advantages of the bigger 24-inch wide 'professional' inket printers. They're costly enough in terms of the up-front investment that the marginal cost of additional ink tanks doesn't seem so irrational. The Canon Pro-2000 I'm using now is 'only' $2,300 brand new at B&H. (For a bit of perspective, that's about the same as a brand-name 80–200mm ƒ/2.8 zoom; but I've gotten much more joy from the printer than the lens.) The cost of an additional full set of 12 ink tanks was about $1,000; but I just installed the first replacement tank this week, after using the printer for the better part of a year, so they should last me at least another 6–8 months, and I print quite a bit. Paper likewise is rather more economical at large rather than smaller sizes; even the gorgeous Canson platine fiber rag paper is 'only' about $170 for a 24"x 50' roll, which is not too horrible per square foot. I find it pure joy to print a 24x36" image on a whim after playing with it in Photoshop and getting it to where I really like it. To me it's self-evidently a completely different art form when compared to a 1000-pixel-wide JPEG on a monitor. I consider it a no-brainer; the quality of my work, and my enjoyment of photography, have both gained far more from my investment in a large format printer than (say) a single new camera body or two lenses of similar aggregate cost."
David Bennett: "As my Economics professor said: 'Why are Kodak cameras so cheap? Because Kodak film is so expensive.'
"As a way out, have you thought of printing very small? Maybe that doesn't scratch your itch, but maybe you could produce a thing of beauty."
Mike replies: That's what I'm doing currently—making small prints from my iPhone project files. Ironically (given current fashions) they work best if they're not too large. The best one is 6x8" in size.
Richard Skoonberg: "Here are my two cents. So I have a Canon PIXMA Pro-100 (13x19) printer which uses dye ink instead of pigment ink. A dye ink print is supposed to last 100 years whereas a pigment print should last about 200 years. To replace the eight inks in my Canon is about $114 on Amazon and the Canon Papers are cheaper too. I see a lot of prints from other photographers who have Epson pigment printers and truthfully I cannot tell the difference. But the Pro-100 doesn't clog or require the maintenance that the pigment printers do. which is great. If I need to print something for a gallery, I will usually print it larger 20x30 and I will send it out and get a pigment print. The place I usually go to charges $30 a print. The rebates on the Pro-100s make it a real bargain."
Rob de Loe (partial comment): "I read an interesting counterpoint over at Andrew Molitor's blog. He points out, correctly I fear, that with very few exceptions, nobody will care about whatever prints you make in 100 years (and likely sooner).
"So just go ahead and make prints with cheaper materials if printing makes you happy. Consider using non-archival papers, good quality third party inks, etc. Let it go and just print!"
Mike replies: Here's my problem with dye inks. Again, it's partly psychological. I was badly burned in the early days of inkjet printers by dye inksets. I worked very hard making excellent prints that turned out not to be lightfast at all—even in the pages of a closed(!) album a strip at the tops of the prints faded from daylight getting in from above—and this was indoors. Granted, the Pro-100 is supposed to be radically better than early dye printers. But once bitten and all that.
The PIXMA Pro-100 is the best-selling photo printer. It's economical to buy and run. I haven't researched specific print LE with that model and don't have a sense of the reliability of the claims. It does use three inks for B&W.
As for Rob's "let it go and just print," the reason it's not appealing is that I might have to do the work again. I'd rather do it right the first time and not have to worry about it later. That attitude matches the care I put into getting it right. Using ephemeral materials risks wasting the effort and attention you invest in the output. I'd say that the materials should fit the amount of time and effort you put into the printing: if you are casual and just churn stuff out, then, fine, use cheaper materials. But the more time and effort you spend crafting the output, the less sense it makes to use cheap materials and the more sense it makes to use the best materials. Whether "nobody will care" is not an issue, because I care.
Stanleyk (partial comment): "Here's one for you: A little over a year ago I ordered a replacement set of tanks from B&H. The UPS guy threw them over the neighbor's fence. Charlie, my neighbor's dog, destroyed the entire set of 12 tanks. Now that was expensive.... :-)
Brian Stewart [The OP —Ed.]: "My question was prompted by your apparent initial enthusiasm in printing, which then went quiet. I wasn't expecting that response, but in hindsight, perhaps I should have. If it's any consolation, you're absolutely not alone. Just about everyone who starts doing their own inkjet printing hits this obstacle. It may be a fear, but it's not at all irrational.
"The pleasure derived from the outputs and the creative process does eventually outweigh the pain caused by the inputs. A well-crafted print is a beautiful thing. As you said, we agonised less over the equivalent darkroom costs. Part of the problem is that inkjets can churn out prints faster than I could in a darkroom, and, unlike printers, enlargers didn't clog and wear out.
"The obstacle I had thought you might have hit, and one I still struggle with, is what to do with all those prints? Brooks Jensen of Lenswork has written and spoken about the 'pile of prints' problem, given that there's only so much wall space, and exhibition possibilities and print sales are not that common. I think that confronting the growing pile of prints and finding your own solution is a larger obstacle."
egads: "Mike! No! You sold me my printer and I love it! There are kids who look up to you! Well, I’m 36, anyway. Er, 37. I don’t feel the pinch so much, because I print small: 4x6 mostly, in batches of my best work every two-three weeks. I hang them with clips from a string across my living room wall, rotating them at whim, and occasionally decide I want to see one bigger. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you for that."
Fritz (partial comment): "If I could not print, at least the best of my images, I probably would no longer do photography. And if nobody (except me) could ever see the prints, I would probably also stop."
MikeR: "Philosophical question: what is the cost/benefit justification for a Miata? Walsh speakers? A Vitamix? Anything 'audiophile?' Some people really like boats—a hole in the water into which you throw money. I have a pilot license and no plane. I would love to own a plane. Economic justification? Why? A passion overrides economics. Since a plane is out of reach for me; next in line to throw money at is photography."