Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Little Observed Effects of Print Size


Most photographers would agree that the sort of camera you use has a strong influence on what photographic opportunities you 'see' and thus a direct effect on what things you photograph.

One thing that haven't seen discussed is the effect that the print size has on what photographs we make. In part, I suspect this is a result of that fact that, until inkjet printing came along, the equipment and techniques for making really large prints were expensive and thus most photographers made smallish prints (e.g. 8"x10" or smaller). But now, wide carriage inkjet printers are priced at a level where many photographers can afford printers that can easily make much larger than what they made when working in a wet darkroom.

Before I started doing my printing digitally on a wide carriage inkjet printer, I had for years made prints in exactly one size - 10"x13" on 11x14 paper. Picking one size meant I only stocked one size of paper, it meant I didn't spend time pondering what size to print an image, and I didn't spend much time fussing with making different size prints of the same image. 11x14 is a nice size; big enough to feel generously large, small enough to be easy to mount, mat, and frame. Making 11x14's in my darkroom was a snap, larger prints were harder.

But when I got an inkjet printer, I quickly realized that it was nearly as easy to make prints large as small, and it was a snap to make different sized prints of one image. So I experimented some, and before long I was routinely making prints ranging in size from about the size I used to all the way up to pretty darn big (30" on the short side is not unusual). If I were to pick one print size now it would be 16x22, quite a bit larger than the 10x13 image size I used on 11x14 paper. At the same time, I started making very small versions of the same images for web display (usually only 600 pixels on the long side, which works out to about 6" long on your monitor).

Rather to my surprise, I found that although many of my older images (made when everything was printed 10"x13") were easily downsized for web display, it was darn hard to get good looking web versions of some of my newer work. The reason, it turns out, is that in the newer work, where I knew that I'd be making a large print, I let the photo depend on some small feature, easily apprehended by the viewer in the large print, but nearly impossible to see in the small web version.

For example, the image at the top of this post, which seems fairly boring when sized for web display. The part that makes this photo work when printed large, though, is hard to see in the web version - it's that little cat, perched on the stairs. On the web, it's a dark little splotch, barely recognizable as a cat and easily overlooked In a 20x30" print, it's most definitely a cat, looking at the camera, and it's hard not to notice it.

It's not happening all the time in my newest work, but it's something I'm noticing more and more often. Clearly, my 'vision' is changing as I adjust to making images that exploit print size in a way I couldn't before.

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