Digital photography - why should I print?

In days of yore, when gentlemen wore top hats, women donned corsets and a horse and cart was the fastest way about town, there was such a thing as film photography. This ancient art saw crowds gathering about a camera awaiting rolls of 36 exposure film to be loaded. Weeks would be spent for the pictures to return, only to find underexposed blurs, subjects with red-devil eyes and those annoying stickers telling you how to improve your shots when it's already too late and you've paid your tenner.

The advent of digital photography has saved us from all the pain and expense of shooting film. Now we can snap, save and edit as many of our pictures as we like without having to worry about making a mistake. The problem is that all this photographic freedom has stopped people printing and, without tangible photography and a well made print of a photo, few will ever fully experience the joys of a truly decent shot.

So why get printing?

Well, the first and most obvious reason is because you can hang your photos on the wall. Anything you're particularly proud of will look a hundred times better once it's framed and hung. 

In terms of photographic technique and practice, those who are keen amateurs, or just want to better their camera skills, will find prints help massively. Laying a picture out on a table, holding it, viewing it in different light and generally dissecting it in a way only prints allow mean a massive boost in knowledge of what makes a photo look good. 

Post production and photoshop work will also improve dramatically as you can begin to test what sort of edits look good anywhere and not just on your own personal computer screen. This means building a much more adaptable photographic technique which can be put to use in different situations. It may be that you like shooting bokeh and at night because of the way it looks on your PC but are cautious of daytime or studio work because your monitor is unforgiving. Printing will help fix this by allowing you to experiment, examine and correct until you get it right. 

Amateurs and professionals aside, there is one vital reason as to why we need to get printing again: family photo albums. The digital camera has killed off the embarrassing booklet filled with pictures of babies in the bathtub and bad teenage haircuts. This is a shame as the awkward family photo was one of the reasons why photography became so popular in the first place. Peering through a person's Facebook albums will never create the same feeling you get from looking through a decent set of printed family pics. There's an emotional connection that the physical flicking through pages at photographs, themselves printed on paper and with ink that ages and fades along with the memories, with which a pixel rendered image just cannot compete.

But getting started with digital printing is difficult. Many of us are used to the reduced expense of electronic snapping and avoid what looks to be costly digital development. Printing at home can be an expensive process, if not done right, and many who've been stung by the costs of ink simply avoid it. For the amateur getting favourite pictures professionally printed is also a stressful affair. What are all these different file types, sizes, image compression, colour calibration? All things which can easily put you off printing out a pic.

But things don't have to be difficult. Digital printing is easy once broken down into simple steps and options. Once you know where to look and how to do it, the idea of blowing photos up and hanging them on your wall seems nowhere near as daunting. 

Online, in shops or at home?

This is the first question you will want to ask yourself once you do make the decision to print. From the start you will be confronted with three options: online, in a store or at home.

Home

Taking the D.I.Y. approach can often obtain wholly good results. You are going to want to get setup with a nice inkjet printer, not necessarily a massively expensive one but do bear in mind that the more you pay, the better the quality and the less you'll end up spending on ink. For reproducing family snaps, something like a Kodak ESP7250 is a great place to start. The included software is easy to use, wireless functionality a bonus and you get a scanner thrown in for good measure. The Kodak is also very good at saving on ink costs, which keeps prices down when you do make photographic mistakes.

A step up would be something like the Canon pixma iX7000. Admittedly at around £300 things aren't exactly cheap but, for the money, you are getting a printer that can turn out gorgeous and vivid A3 shots. Use this if you want the best possible quality without going online or in shops. 

A good set of paper can make just as much a difference as the printer itself. It may be tempting to save on photo paper but the results will be disappointing. The cheaper papers tend to let inks bleed across the page and don't allow colours to be properly absorbed into the page, meaning duller prints. You may also want to choose between different types of paper. A high gloss for example can look great with colourful shots but you might want a pearl paper or matt for those moody black and whites. The best bet is to stick with companies that made their name producing paper for film printing. Fork out for something like Ilford's inkjet photo paper or Kodak's Ultra Premium range and you can expect very nice results.

The final part of the golden triangle of home printing is the ink you choose. While it might be more expensive, you'd do best to stick to the cartridges produced by you printer manufacturer and refills are best avoided. 

One thing you may notice is that print-outs don't look the same on screen as they do on paper, this is because of calibration differences between printer and monitor. You can opt for a calibrator like ColorMunki, but things aren't going to be cheap, nor are they going to be straightforward. We personally recommend that only professional photographers deal with calibration, getting it right takes time and only the best home printers can really take advantage of it. Instead, for the amateur, we say once you begin noticing major differences, that you head online.

Online

Of all the services we have used so far, one of the best value is Photobox, which will turn round a decent number of digital images quickly and in a different number of sizes. Things start at conventional 6x4 prints and go all the way up to a huge canvas or poster. Printing online does mean that you take the risk of not being able to try before you buy. To combat this run a few test prints through different services and find which one you like the best. Free trials on most of the services should help with this.

You also want to make sure that wherever pictures are sent that they are of as high a resolution as possible. For a compact camera, this means uploading the original JPEG file which should be around 3 or 4 MB in size. People with more expensive DSLRs can convert RAW files to JPEG, but beware the conversion will look different program to program, we like Lightroom the best.

Professional

If you want absolute quality, however, you are going to want to go into a professional printers. For the amateur or the first time printer this can be a daunting experience. Many professional stores will expect you to be able to reel off all sorts of technical jargon. They shouldn't. The best ones should help you through the entire process, checking you are happy with calibration, paper and test prints. This means looking at a shot on screen and in physical form.

It can be a great learning experience provided the printer's is friendly enough. Pick up a few tips from them and then next time you'll be able to tweak shots to exactly how you want them. One thing to be cautious of is the massive price gap between photo printers. Some will charge upwards of £50 for one single picture. Whilst this is acceptable if you plan on hanging shots on the walls of the Tate Modern, things really don't have to cost that much. £20 should be a reasonable asking price for a very nice A3 print. Try Camulet for something affordable or Bayeux if you really want to push the boat out.

Taking printing further

This is when things get exciting. Thanks to digital photography you can do all sorts with a photo that would once have cost hundreds of pounds with film. Now you can turn snaps into postcards or even iPhone cases.

Fun

The best thing to do is to get creative with your pictures. First place to start is Flickr, just about the best online photo sharing community. A £15 a year pro membership will get you unlimited storage space for snaps, meaning never having to worry about losing pictures to a dead hard drive again. Once you have got a few shots uploaded head over to Moo, which will allow you to convert Flickr snaps to stickers or business cards. Moo turns out particularly saturated prints, which make colour shots look very nice in sticker form. 

Books

For those who want to go a step further there is always the possibility of a home made photo book. These can be simple family snap affairs or entirely publishable, beautifully finished offerings. For Mac users, a very simple place to start would be with iPhoto's built in book making setup. Whilst somewhat overly basic, it is possible to layout and produce a totally acceptable snaps book. You can also use the software to make calendars or cards if you are so inclined. Expect to pay £20.39 for a 20-page hard cover book.

Not a Mac user? Or want more customisation options then best to give Blurb a go. The printers offer a service so complete that many professional photographers, including world renowned photojournalists, use them to publish their own books. 

"Looking at an image through projected light on a screen is a very different experience from looking at work in a printed form," explains Blurb's CEO Eileen Gittins. 

So where to start? Well head to Blurb's make page and choose between one of three options. Bookify Online is the simplest way to do things and will allow you to turn round a really high quality book quickly and without any real difficulty. The web-based software can draw direct from Flickr and will allow you to place images easily across pages. Prices are £12.95 for a 20-page hardcover, cheaper than Apple's offering and slightly better printed. 

BookSmart is a step up, requires a download and allows far more customisation, like fonts and layouts. The software strikes a really good balance between customisation and complication. It means you can drag and drop different bits of photos and text onto a page and create a much more personal book.

Finally is the Adobe InDesign templates, which like going to a professional printer, will allow total control but take a lot longer to produce. For those yet to use inDesign it is an industry standard lay-outing software used by many magazines and newspapers. This kind of control of the book will allow you to create something that would not feel out of place at a gallery or in an art shop.

But it's too expensive!

Printing doesn't have to be costly. As we said earlier, doing it yourself and making snaps at home can be easy and still look great. Kodak has a good range of ink efficient printers that are cheap to run and still turn out great quality pictures. A combo colour and black ink pack is around £15 and should last you easily around 30-40 photos. You can save even more on ink costs by recycling them at places like Tesco, who will return the favour with clubcard points.

Framing and mounting can be taken care of cheaply by somewhere like theprintspace, who make everything from card to aluminium mounts. Local framers will also be keen for the business. Bring in a print you have made at home and you should be looking to pay around £10 for a card mount that will look perfectly acceptable on the wall. 

All in, from print to framing, if done at home, you are looking at about £11 per picture, going up to around £30 to have something done professionally. Compared to film developing, which costs anywhere upwards of £8 just for 6x4 prints, this is a big saving. 

I'm still not convinced...

Until now there has been one decisive factor we have failed to mention - quality. Simply put, a home-made glossy print from a current generation compact camera will look beautiful when compared to the faded film shots you are likely used to seeing. 

What many don't realise is the printing capabilities that 12 megapixels allows you to create. A favourite shot of the same resolution blown up to A3 will look sharp as a razor and, if printed well, also beautifully saturated and full of all the dynamic range and contrast that only the best photographers used to be able to get from film. 

It is a real treat turning a photo you are particularly proud of into something that can be hung on the wall and now thanks to digital photography, also entirely affordable. So get out there, get snapping and give it a go!

Got a better idea? Let us know why in the comments below.



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