Man vs machine
When creativity and technology unite in a symbiotic relationship.
Photography is incredibly creative; it's very personal and often about a person's vision. Printing is becoming increasingly about technology. Yet each is reliant on the other because print presents photographers with the means to get their image off the screen and into the world.
The ability to capture an image with a camera and somehow transfer it onto paper goes back almost 200 years to 1826. Over the years, both printing and photographic technology have evolved to a stage where it's hard to tell where creativity ends and the technology takes over. Over the past 25 years in particular, photography and printing alike have shown tremendous technological change, largely driven by the digital evolution.
The question is, is print technology (including ink and media) evolving to meet the creative needs of the photographer better than ever before, or are photographers having to adapt what they do in order to be able to print the image they see through their lens?
However, the first question that comes to mind is do people still print photographs? According to George Rosa, managing member of ImageMed Technologies, people are printing more than ever before, it's just what they're choosing to print that's evolving.
Rosa says: "Today, just about every single person has a camera on their person in the form of their mobile phone. Surprisingly enough, people are choosing to print some of those images, albeit in small format to keep as mementos. Then you have professional photographers printing their work for various purposes. And you also find interior designers who want to print on a wider array of media for various applications, from wallpaper to art to upholstery fabric. Just to satisfy that market, we're seeing growing demand for alternative media and fine art media."
However, printing photography - especially for certain markets - is highly specialised and not all printers offer this service or have the necessary technology. Rosa says: "You used to find operations that could print your photographs in virtually every shopping centre; now you have to seek them out. Especially if you want certain media and large-format prints."
Photographer Vernon Reed agrees, saying he uses a printer who specialises in printing photography when he needs to print work that's either been commissioned or scheduled to be displayed at art galleries or exhibitions. Reed says: "Most big commercial print houses can't do the kind of printing that I need. I use printers who are dedicated to producing art prints for photographers."
Asked why he thinks people still print out their images in this digital age, Reed responds: "The whole idea of photography is that you generate a still image of a moment in time that you can look at for as long as you wish, as many times as you wish. It's not like a film, where you see an image for a split second. Photography has always been about that one image that endures, regardless of whether it's on your wall or in your wallet."
Asked what his top five priorities are when it comes to printing out his work, Reed lists size of print, colour, longevity, ink and media.
What the photographer wants vs what the printer can deliver
Rosa and Reed (printer and photographer) agree: media and print size are vital considerations when it comes to printing photography. Rosa, because the ability to offer larger format prints on a wide variety of media means greater demand for photography printing for a wider assortment of applications. Reed, because he's creative and some images just need to be larger than life in order to be appreciated.
Reed says: "Choice of media is often dictated by the image. Your initial decisions are glossy or matte, but from there you can take it further and choose heavy, light or even textured media, depending on the image. For instance, a metallic modern building would require a high gloss paper to do it justice."
Then there's the matter of colour. What the eye sees is not always what the lens sees, which in turn is not always what you see on the computer screen, which can vary enormously from the end result. Reed says: "One of the more useful advances that technology has brought is the ability to detect a slight red or blue colour case that the naked eye might not detect. A photographer should always ask for a test print prior to producing their final printed piece, allowing for any final colour corrections to be made."
Commenting on how technology has made his job easier, Reed says: "Pre digitalisation, the only way to see whether the colour was right in your image, was to print it out. Technology has helped take away some of the uncertainty around printing out an image and has freed up the photographer to be more creative."
According to Mark Broude, Head of Commercial Division at Kemtek Imaging Systems - certified distributor of Epson large format production printers: "Today's printers have a wide array of tools at their disposal to enable them to meet even the most discerning photographer's demands. For example, colour management software means that you can closely match the colours you see on the monitor and those in the print. Any printer worth the title will have a good colour management system in place."
Modern printers have technology that enables improved image control, colour reproduction, as well as longer lasting, more durable prints and a wider colour gamut. Broude says: "Durability of the print all comes down to a combination of printer, ink and media. With today's modern offerings, prints can last anything from 50 to 100 years."
Reed explains why this matters: "If you charge a premium fee for your image, particularly if it's going to be displayed in someone's house, you have to be able to guarantee that it won't age or fade within two years."
Another important factor - and one that photographers may not always take into account - is how much each print costs the printer, as this obviously impacts on his business model and the likelihood that he'll be able to stay in business. Broude states: "As the technology behind the inks and the printers becomes smarter, we're seeing the cost of both of these coming down. However, the printer has to do the necessary math to ensure that the printer is outputting sufficient work to warrant its space on the print room floor.
"All good large format printers should have an accounting tool that accurately enables the owner to check the exact cost of each print, allowing accurate forecasting of ink stock as well as enabling him to calculate the cost and selling price of an item."
Broude says: "Printing technology helps photographers bring emotion into their images, leaving a lasting legacy. The perfect picture is a labour of love, waiting for the light to be just right, framing the shot perfectly. Editing the picture also takes a great deal of time to ensure fidelity between real life and the photograph captured. All of this effort and work is lost if any of the components - ie, hardware, ink or media - used is poor quality and can't replicate the intensity of colour or depth of the finished photo. What all photographers want to do is to be able to preserve in a print all the emotion and atmosphere from the original photograph - to bring their prints to life. For this they need a piece of hardware that can replicate the intensity of their images, that prioritises quality above all else, and a tool that is flexible as well as being economic to run, so customers can maximise their ROI."