Why Is It So Important to Print Your Own Work?

Why Is It So Important to Print Your Own Work?

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.

Pinted on PermaJet's Portrait Rag 285g

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.

Printed on PermaJet's semi-gloss Oyster 271

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.  

Printed on PermaJet's Portrait Rag 285g

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. 

The pint on the top was my first attempt. You can see that the highlights have an orange tint, which is not what I was seeing on my screen. The print below was the result of using the custom profile, and matches almost exactly what I was seeing on my screen.

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.  

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Don Fadel's picture

I totally agree. It's expensive, but having control over the printing process not only results in a (printed) image that accurately reflects your vision, but it also provides a feedback loop as well into the capture process. Printing large I've found reveals a lot that you might otherwise miss in terms of details (and issues with the image, from retouching to color issues, etc.).

Eric Mazzone's picture

I've a Canon Pro-10 and LOVE it. All I use is Illford Smooth Cotton Rag.

Mike O'Leary's picture

I didn't mention it in the article but my favorite paper is Hahnemühle's Photo Rag 308g. It's what I get my printmaker to print on when I need bigger prints. Well worth a go!

Eric Mazzone's picture

Thank you!

Will Gavillan's picture

I also own a P600 and love the results. As you have said, it takes some work to get good results, but it's totally worth it. I edit on a BenQ SW2700PT that is calibrated with an X-Rite i1 Studio (i1display before that) every month. I also created custom icc profiles for the different papers I use, with the help of i1Studio. BTW, I use Precision Colors refills and have not been disappointed. Lastly, with these newer printers, matte black inks have made matte papers my go to for my work.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Thanks for the tip; I might try out Precision. In general, I much prefer the results from matte papers. There seems to be much more depth to them

Matt Nikkel's picture

On the subject of purchasing your own printer, I would generally agree with the advice here. With one caveat though. Only do it if you're prepared to print regularly (at least a small print weekly). Printers that sit idle develop clogs. And getting clogs out is pretty much always a massive headache, as well as a huge waste of ridiculously expensive ink.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Totally agree, Matt. Just to add; in general, the more you spend on the printer, the less ink wastage. The P600's big brother, the P800, tends to be much less wasteful. I can't really comment with any veracity regarding Canon's Pixma range, but from what I read, they are a bit more economical than Epson's SureColor lineup.

Oliver Saillard's picture

Agree with all of that. I have a P400; and even if it has been way more expensive and complicated than I had expected, it's such a joy to see your finished product, all done by yourself !

An important aspect you did not mention, on my opinion, is the framing/laminating/whatever else you could do: I used to frame it (in (ailored frames! 13x19" not being a standard format here in France). But I've just had my last prints laminated on Dibond and WOW, the difference is impressive.

Mike O'Leary's picture

I get a professional to frame my prints. At the moment, it's too much of an investment (of time and money) to frame my own stuff. I just pass on the cost to the client. Definitely something to consider, though!

Chris van Heerden's picture

Creating image from concept to print is very rewarding and standing in front of printer in anticipation of what is coming cannot be described. But on the flip side I don't print that regularly and it feels like more ink is used for cleaning cycles which sometimes dampens the experience of owning a printer especially if it takes 12 ink cartridges.

Oleh Brevus's picture

definetely amazing material in this article! I am lookin for nice not cheep and not too much expensive printer ...Canon Pro-1000 is a bit pricy and costs a lot to refill inks....maybe don't need such an expensive machine. Your P600 looks like do awesome job!!!

Deleted Account's picture

I have been using a Canon Pro-1000 for over a year now and am very happy with it. I started on a Pro 100 but could not get the results I was looking for. While the inks are quite expensive, the prints are magnificent -- my scans from 35mm negs look almost as good as my original analog prints. I print exclusively on Red River paper.

Digital quality is several levels of wow.

Primary advantage of Canon over Epson -- Canon print heads are replaceable. When an Epson printer breaks, you throw it away.

I show clients prints, not digital images when I represent myself.

Alex Armitage's picture

I bought into the deal that happens around once a year for the Canon Pixma Pro-100 when they practically are giving them away and I couldn't be happier. Honestly the prints look way better than I expected, especially for the price I paid (something like 70$ Total). I actually made money buying that printer and selling a few prints to friends.

That said, it was absolutely a great start to printing my own work myself. I've ordered prints, which feels great. But this was the next step. I wouldn't go investing in a printer to make money but I could certainly see doing it for happiness and reward for all the work you put into your photos.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Those deals are amazing and I feel that a lot of these printers are only limited by their size. The gradients and blacks on my prints a flawless.

Derrick Dean's picture

I was thinking about buying a Canon imagePROGRAF iPF670...Any thoughts, suggestions?

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Photo printers have 8 or more ink colors. It would be stepping a few years back in time to get less, its not for photo fine art prints.
I would suggest geting last generation 17 inch printer..
If 24 inch is a must a used 6400 would be better. Then used must know that printhead might need to be changed and look at how much ink left it shuld sell aprox same price as 670.

Jon Dize's picture

Not me! I printed my own C prints and Cibachromes for nearly 30 years of my 45 year career in photography..

Now, when not shooting, I spend time with family and let http://nevadaartprinters.com print my images.

They are experts, Masters of their Craft, far better equipment than I can afford or want to afford, since I don't imagine I am the ALL KNOWING, ALL DOING.

I elect to delegate to specialists when it comes to printing and framing these days.

At 64, I am done with the smell of stop bath on my fingers, dust spots and mounting adhesives.

But, for those who imagine they have to touch everything... God bless ya!

I still have 20/15 vision with an energized color reception, which my wife and my optometrist calls, "Kodachrome Eyes."

I see sharper than 20/20 and my color receptors are a tad hyper.

Which is why during the Kodachrome 64 days, I was nicknamed, The Kodachrome Kid... back when I had hair.

My colors were always more vibrant than most, because I shot a 1/4 under and printed with more saturated colors.

I blame it on what I call the "Tammy Faye Baker Syndrome."

An old woman with poor eyesight, puts her make up on in the mirror to her tastes, which is heavier, because she cannot see unless she cakes it on.

To her it looks normal, to everyone else it looks like Rainbow the Clown.

So, I let others far smarter and more talented than myself do the printing and mounting and it does not scar my ego whatsoever. Nevada Art Printers does an amazing job.



Mike O'Leary's picture

That's fine for you, Jon, and very sensible. But if you read my article again, you will notice that I explain that one of the reasons I felt I had to invest in a printer was so that I could see my prints straight away and make adjustments accordingly. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to wait for a printmaker to ship an image to them.

Do you work for these guys or something? It sounds like you work for them :)

Jon Dize's picture

My printer Nevada Art Printers is local, no shipping required. I just drive over there, perhaps two miles from my home and offer my guidance... or annoyance, depending on who you talk to.

Kirk Darling's picture

I rather liked the smell of stop bath on my fingers.

I don't attempt to print for my clients--I do use a professional house for that.

However, I still do some of my own small printing (I finally got fed up with Epson after they refused to update the drivers of a perfectly good printer for Windows 10 and jumped on that ridiculous Canon Pro-100 deal).

Despite color management, calibrated monitors, soft proofing, et cetera, before I send an image out for a 30x40 print, I still like to print it out and see it in my hand first. It always gives me a stronger feel of what I've actually created when I hold a version of it in my hands.

Gary Morris's picture

I started printing my work when I bought a digital rebel camera in 2003. It took me about 7 years to reach the point that I felt comfortable with the results… color more or less matched the screen and all the little errors in the image were properly taken care of (as you note, sensor dust spots, etc.).

The major breakthrough for me was investing in a RIP. I have been using Image Print since 2010. Their RIP functions as a printer driver and paper profile (paper profiles are supplied with the RIP). While the RIP was and remains expensive, they claim it reduces ink usage by 30% or so. Based on that, I figure the Epson ink I've saved over the years has somewhat offset the cost of the RIP.

A very good display that can be calibrated (not just profiled), the Image Print RIP and my 6 year old Epson 3880 have been very good tools for me. I've probably printed over 2000+ images since 2010 and feel printing ones work closes the loop in the digital photographic process.

Motti Bembaron's picture

After receiving my Canon Pro-100 I now print almost every week. Some are older photos some are from vacations but it's great to see your work hanging all over, very inspiring!

Chris Hutcheson's picture

Totally agree with you. Years ago when I had more $$ than brains I bought an Epson 9880. Love it. I used to do gallery shows and the run of art shows, and loved to print large. Not owning the printer and getting the work done elsewhere would've bankrupted me, particularly since I'm a serial proofer. Lately most of what I print is test sheets to keep the heads from clogging. I also have an Epson3880 which I bought to be able to print gloss/lustre without switching up cartridges in the 9880. Nice printer too! All that aside, there's nothing like seeing your work in print, just a whole different sensation from seeing it on a screen.