There's nothing quite like holding a high-quality print of your own work in your hands. Except, maybe when it's something that you've printed yourself.
In the computer age, and more recently with the rise of social media, we're so used to looking at images on screens, sometimes the size of the palm of our hand, that the tactile experience of looking at a print up close is a rareity. When printed on good quality paper, there's a certain richness to an image that really can't be replicated by a screen. When I started to become more serious about photography I had printed hardly anything, just a few family photos. But, from reading articles and trawling through online forums, I found that getting physical copies of your work was one of the most common pieces of advice offered to beginners. Sound advice, for sure, but at the time I really didn't want to invest in a printer so I decided to use a professional printing service. But, of course, not all printing services are made equal, and it took me a while before I nailed down what I really should have been looking for. You see, on my first couple of tries, I went to maybe what would be considered to be a slightly more upmarket, high-volume printing service; and the results, while not terrible, were still not quite there for me. After a little more research, I realized that I was looking in the wrong areas. For the large fancy prints that I had envisioned, I needed to be using a Fine Art printing service.
What is Fine Art Printing?
Fine Art printing is the craft of printing images and art, usually on acid-free paper, using archival inks. The acid-free paper prevents the print from yellowing, as is so often seen with old photos, and in combination with high-quality archival inks, the print should last a lifetime before it starts to fade. In addition to these ingredients, there is a huge range of papers to choose from. Papers vary in texture, finish, and density and thus, depending on the color and style of your photograph, some papers will suit that particular shot more than others as the texture and finish of a paper effects different images in multiple ways and to various degrees; a topic that is worthy of an article all on its own.
But Why Invest in Your Own Printer?
A good Fine Art printer is an artisan. They are usually extremely knowledgeable and, especially for a beginner, their advice can be invaluable. I was very lucky to find two different quality printing services when I did. One, unfortunately, shut its doors last year but I quickly found the other one; however, he is based further afield. Nonetheless, like my first service, and being the sound business person that he is, he is so generous with his knowledge and advice that I feel that my images are safe in his hands. I'm always very happy with the results and since I started using a high-quality service like this, my post-processing has improved immensely. For those that don't know (yet), when you see a photograph printed to a decent size every little blemish shows up; every tiny sensor spot, crunchiness from over-sharpening, banding from pushing the colors to much, blacks that have been crushed so much that a huge part of your image has no detail, and the same for blown out highlights. The images might look good for the 0.6 seconds that they are viewed on Instagram, but whats the point in that? Nothing beats a high-quality print. You can hold it, smell it, feel it, sell it, frame it, stare at it, gift it. It's an object to be admired and to inspire, rather than a six-of-one, half-dozen of the other "like if you like sunsets," "swipe right for happy time," "would you like fries with that?" product of our throwaway culture of the modern era. I'm not saying I'm above all that. I'm guilty of it myself, but I feel that it's important to slow down and appreciate the work we create to look deeper.
While having a good relationship with an experienced printmaker is hugely beneficial, and I would encourage everyone who wants to improve their craft to find a service that suits them, sometimes the logistics just don't quite allow for a smooth operation. It takes time to get your print; there might be a backlog, It's 3 AM, or you (like me) live in the back end of nowhere. Also, if you want to start selling prints, you can't just wait for a client to purchase your work to get the first copy printed; you need to order at least one test print. If the first one turns out good, then woohoo, you can sell it, but oftentimes your image requires tweaking. What we see on the screen is quite different from the physical product. For one; your screen is back-lit so you might need to increase the brightness just for printing; and also, as I alluded to earlier, different papers have different effects on your image e.g. contrast often needs to be increased for certain image-paper combinations. With all these financial and logistical strains it becomes impossible to ignore the need to invest in your own printer.
It must be stated that there is a bit of a learning curve to setting up your own unit. It's far from a straightforward process and you will appreciate the work of your professional service even more. To start with, you need a monitor that is capable of being calibrated and a color calibrator like the one reviewed by Fstoppers here. Then, you will, of course, need a printer. Because I wanted to reproduce the type of prints that I was getting from the professional service that I used, I needed to buy an inkjet printer which could handle heavy fine art paper. Laser printers are great for high-volume, glossy, brochure-type products but can't reproduce the richness that can be achieved by an inkjet printer with heavy paper. Because I was on a tight budget I went with Epson's SureColor P600. Why this printer over any other within that price range? Well, it was on sale when I bought it, but also, for a printer that size, it was the only one that could print rolls; meaning that while I am limited by it's 13" wide format, I can print as long as I want. The next expense is the ink. Name brand ink is not cheap, with a full set of Epson inks for this machine coming in at just under $283. You can go with cheaper third-party ink but from what I read they can be hit-and-miss.
A Very Brief Note on Color Management
This is so important and is another topic that is worthy of an article (at least) all on its own. When everything is installed you then need to make sure that your color management system is correctly defined. You should also download the paper profiles from your paper supplier as this will ensure more accurate colors. To highlight how important printer and paper profiles are regarding color management, at the moment I'm using PermaJet Portrait Rag 285g, and even though I used PermaJet's paper profile for that particular paper, the color was still off. I contacted PermaJet and they told me to print off some test profiles on my printer and send them over to their UK lab so they could create a custom profile for my printer and that particular paper. You see, no matter how good your color management is, every printer is different. So, if your supplier offers custom profiles, then I recommend getting them because after I installed the custom profile the color was perfect.
It Feels Good
What all this won't prepare you for, though, is the feeling you have when you print your first image (successfully). I really wasn't expecting to feel so amazed or excited. It was my artwork which I created from start to finish, all on my own. Yes, there is a substantial investment at the start and there is quite a bit of ink wastage if you don't use it regularly, but nothing beats the anticipation you feel when hear the sound of the paper feed, smell the ink, and then, finally get to hold your work up to the window-light.
So did I convince you to invest in a printer? Please let me know in the comments below.