Musings on Photography

Print Size

Posted in aesthetics by Paul Butzi on January 31, 2007


Lately, in my online reading, I’ve noticed the ‘smaller prints are better’ meme.  It must be that time of year again.

The latest note is over at this post on Photostream, which in turn references this more lengthy post.

In the first linked post, Colin quotes someone as saying “its far easier and more realistic to hold a photo, be part of it, restore the moment in your memory- to touch/feel the emotion if you are holding/browsing than to have it cold on a wall, in the distance.”

Wow.  I’m sorry, but from where I sit, that’s bizarre.  When I’m out in the landscape, I look around.  The landscape fills my entire field of vision, and then some.  In general, I’m looking out parallel to the ground and orthogonal to the force of gravity, not down toward my feet (or, if I’m sitting, not down toward my lap).  Holding a photo in my hands is about as far from the direct experience as it’s possible to get and still see the print.

Everyone’s been going on and on about ‘immersive landscape’ and ‘intimate landscape’ and so on.  And what no one seems to recognize is that if you want an immersive cinema experience, you go to one of those humongous Omnimax places where the screen is four stories high, 60 feet wide, and fills your visual field entirely with high resolution image.  You don’t try to watch the movie on your video iPod.

The idea that a little 4×5, 5×7, or 8×10 print held in your lap is more realistic is just so counter to reason that I can’t express my surprise.  And, as for how ‘holding the photo” allows you to “be a part of it, restore the moment in your memory”, well, I’m certainly not sure I agree with that.  It’s possible, sure.  I was just given a collection of photos of me when I was very very young – little 3.5″x5″ prints of me in the places I have my first memories of.  And those photos are, indeed, powerful objects that evoke a strong emotional response from me.   But is this a function of the smallness of the prints (which I must put on my bifocal to even examine, and picking out fine detail is a job for a magnifying glass)?  Or, as I suspect, would I find an 11×14 of the same image to be an even more powerful reminder?

Here’s where small prints win: you can fit a bunch of them into a small volume.  So you can end up with a book that’s quite small that has evocative images, and there’s a sense of a lot of impact compressed into a very small volume – Michael Kenna’s Monique’s Kindergarten comes to mind.  This high emotional density is impressive, I agree.

But there are some things that can only be expressed in a larger print.  The image above, for instance, has a sign in it.  The sign is just barely visible in the web version.  Reading the sign is hopeless.  The words on the sign read “Private Property KEEP OUT”.  And, in a large print, you can see that what is just a green, iconic lawn in the small web version is actually newly sprouted, sparsley planted crops, with the soil visible through the sprouts and the dried stems from last year’s corn crop sticking up through.  Those details are significant, because they tell the viewer that this is not just an anti-social person protecting a pristine lawn, this is a farmer with a field full of fragile crops.  It makes a difference.  This is one lonely little sign, out in the middle, steadfastly protecting acres of little plants.  But you sure don’t get that reading from looking at a dinky little web version of this print, and you don’t get it from an 8×12, either.  The real effect starts to kick in when you make a 10×15, and hang it on the wall so someone can inspect it closely.  Make a 15×22 print, and the power of the image grows as it becomes more easily apprehended.

One thing I’ve learned from having a printer that can crank out prints up to 44″ wide – most of my notions about print size that I carried over from my gelatin silver printing days were utterly mistaken.  Some prints work well large.  Some prints work well small.  There’s room in the world for both.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the staunchest advocates of small prints have never printed big, don’t have the capability of printing big, have never experimented with what sort of photos you can make if you’re going to print big.  It just seems an awful lot like those people who have worked with silver, and think they know everything about how digital is hopelessly inferior even though they’ve never even given it a try.  Or, if you will, the unmarried people who lecture me on the subject of what marriage is all about, conveniently forgetting that since I’ve been married for nearly 25 years, I might actually know a bit more about it than they do.

That doesn’t make them wrong, of course.  But it is a good reason to view their opinion with some skepticism.  Several people for whom I’ve made large prints (Mike Johnston, for one) have discovered that much of what they thought about large prints (and how large a photo could be printed and look good) was wrong.

Big prints are now easy.  I make big prints for people, of course, but there are any number of online services which make getting big prints made both easy and inexpensive.  Give it a try.  You might learn something interesting.

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Gordon said, on January 31, 2007 at 11:50 am

    The image you’ve picked is a great example of this. I still struggle to compose well for larger scenes, having no experience of anything much beyond web usage.

    As an aside, you sure do manage to blog a whole lot more when you have other work to do 😉 How’s the show coming together ?

  2. Ed Richards said, on January 31, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    A sore point with me as well. I moved to 4×5 to make big prints. While I do not have a 44″ printer, I do have a 24″, and somewhere about 18×24 prints with a lot of detail really start to work. I am frustrated that the brave new world of the WWW and itty bitty magazines like Lenswork foster this notion that small prints are better prints. The DVD version of Lenswork is better, but images on the screen are not prints. I am still working through the difference between what looks on the screen and what looks good on paper, which I think is exacerbated in black and white.

    Do you find your digital shots limiting what you can do with larger prints?

  3. Martin Doonan said, on January 31, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Interresting that Ed finds digital limiting w.r.t large prints. I find it liberating.

    Big prints are what I live for, photographically speaking. Digital editing, especially the ability to stitch many shots together, has really expanded print possibilities for me. I never found anything much smaller than 6″x8″ adequate anyway, and preferred 12″ prints in general but they never really came out too well. Now I can fine tune the image for big printing. A good pro shop helps (I can’t really justify the expense of a large printer).

    Case in point: wide angle panorama I sent in for printing this week. At 6′ wide but only 10″ tall, it’s about a third the size I’d like. Now I’m limited by wall space rather than big size ambition.

    The drive for bigger prints is also moving me to consider addingmedium format to the arsenal.

  4. Colin Jago said, on January 31, 2007 at 1:41 pm


    I didn’t think you would agree!

    I spent last year printing on A3+ (which is approx 13 x 19 inch, if I recall). So maybe the ink area was a 12 x 18. There or thereabouts anyway.

    I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with prints that large. I can’t hold them. I can’t see them. I almost never look at the posters and prints we do have up on the walls.

    Each to their own.

    I may have a medium format for sale 🙂

  5. Ed Richards said, on January 31, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    > Interresting that Ed finds digital limiting w.r.t large prints. I find it liberating.

    I do not shoot digital, I shoot 4×5 film, so I have plenty of detail for large prints. What I am curious about is whether Paul found his recent move from 4×5 to digital to limit what he could do with large prints, since you start running out of detail much sooner than you do with 4×5. (Granted, you can do amazing things with digital stitching, but that is not Paul’s style.)

    >(I can’t really justify the expense of a large printer).

    The HP Design Jets are not bad, especially for color work. They are much cheaper to buy and run than the Epsons. Just depends on how many big prints you make and what your lab charges. As the prints get big, you do not have to buy many to pay for a printer. Of course, then you have to mess with the printer, and that can be a pain.

  6. tim atherton said, on February 3, 2007 at 10:37 am

    “Everyone’s been going on and on about ‘immersive landscape’ and ‘intimate landscape’ and so on”

    One of my projects is call “immersive landscapes” – the prints start working best @ 24″ wide – and many are better bigger (48″ or so)

    Part of the point is so that the photogrpah can start to fill the field of vision.

    itty bitty prints are for itty bitty concepts… 🙂

    (in reality, as you say, too many photographers continue to allow themselves to be constrained by technical barriers that are no longer their and make a fetish out of “real photos are small prints”)

    see also John Szarkowski:”In a bad photograph, a lot of the time, the frame isn’t altogether understood — there are big areas of unexplained chemicals. It’s especially difficult as the picture gets bigger. If it’s small, a little piece of black can look like a dark place, right? But as it gets bigger, eventually it just turns into a black shape. And you look at the surface of the picture and it reminds you of the chemical factories on Lake Erie, creating pollution problems by making synthetic materials out of soybeans and petroleum derivatives. And you don’t want that. The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It’s not like ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You’re not supposed to look at the thing, you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window. And everything behind it has got to be organized as a space full of stuff, even if it’s only air.”

  7. tim atherton said, on February 3, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    jeesh – okay, google spellcheck next time…

  8. Gordon said, on February 5, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    I’ve started printing some of my pictures at 8×10. For me, that’s getting big (!) It is interesting how my view on the pictures changes – these were bright, bold simple compositions. Printed at 8×10 that is less important but still works well. Larger than 8×10 it might just become boring and simple.

  9. Joe Reifer said, on February 6, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Paul,

    You might find this blog posting about the relationship between print size and marketing to be an interesting side note to this conversation.



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: