Musings on Photography

Monitors, Prints

Posted in paper, process by Paul Butzi on November 6, 2009

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This post provoked some interesting comments.

Ed Richards writes:

You were once a pretty strong proponent of looking at prints – are you changing your view on that? Are prints still your objective? I can certainly see why prints would not be as relevant if your concern is the process of taking pictures, rather than the ultimate presentation of them.

Tommy Williams writes:

I don’t know about replacing printed output–even work prints–with monitors. There’s something about having it printed out that causes me to see the picture differently and to notice things that I don’t see on the screen, even after lots of review.

Peter Szawlowski writes:

Yes, monitors are getting cheaper, but I feel they are no substitute for prints on paper, I still do proofs on letter size paper, (larger would be too expensive for me) – There is something about seeing an image printed on good paper, I am probably old-fashioned, I need to touch photographs, feel the paper, see the light reflecting off the page …

All of these comments are getting at the essential question, which is “Is Paul moving away from prints and toward online display?”

The answer is yes, I’m moving away from prints. And the answer is maybe, I’m using prints for some things and electronic display for others. And the answer is no, too, because I’m still making prints – and books.

The root of the shift is the time I’ve spent working on PDF portfolios, which taught me a lot about what makes photos display well on a screen and how that differs from what displays well on a sheet of paper. The two are not isomorphic display media, because prints reflect light, and monitors emit light. The upshot is that a print and a display have fundamentally different properties.

As you increase the amount of light on a print, it looks better and better. (at one time, I’d formulated Paul’s Method for adjusting lighting on prints: turn the lights up slowly until the prints start to smoke. Turn the lights down slowly until they stop smoking. Stop.) As you increase the ambient light on a monitor, the display looks worse and worse. And the other way ’round when you reduce light – the monitor looks better and the print looks worse. Sure, you can adjust the image some to compensate for lighting, but this general rule applies.

Prints and displays have different contrast ratios, too. A good print, one with a dMax of perhaps logD 2.1, has a range of seven stops between the darkest possible black and the brightest possible white – a contrast ratio of 128:1. Monitors with a 10 stop contrast ratio (1000:1) are commonplace. This difference in contrast ratios means that viewing a properly adjusted image on a monitor and viewing it on a properly lighted print are not even remotely the same experience. They’re just different – like slides and prints, in fact.

For now, prints have higher resolution than a monitor. I expect that soon, though, we’re going to see some significant advances in display resolution. I expect that eventually, displays will have similar resolution to paper, or at least effectively so.

And finally, prints have physical existence. They don’t need a monitor to be displayed, and when you’re not displaying them you either need to discard them or store them. Beyond that, every print I make costs money. I’m mostly indifferent to costs but not entirely, and between the cost of paper and ink and the hassles of storage, there’s a definite reluctance to make prints unless I know what I’m going to use them for. Books are a nice way to make prints – they’re all bound together and are nice and tidy, although so far the individual prints are pretty sorry looking. I’ve been doing some thinking about physical portfolios of loose prints to match my online PDF portfolios, and I expect this winter I’ll make some progress on that.

In the end, though, my days of making work prints to put on the wall, or to lay out on tables – those prints seem to be a thing of the past. I’ve apparently become adjusted to working on an array of monitors, and I don’t need to spread the prints out any more. I’m not clear on how or when or why that happened, but there it is.

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  1. Eric Jeschke said, on November 7, 2009 at 1:31 am

    I always felt that viewing slides had that sort of jewel-like experience. Properly done, they are dazzling, large and mesmerizing. I feel that on a largish monitor, viewing digital images (can) offer a similar experience.

    Viewing a well executed print under the right lighting is another mesmerizing experience, but very different. Not better, not worse, just different.

    Because both are good, but the monitor is infinitely more flexible, the world is shifting to electronic viewing. How long till we are even reading all our magazines and newspapers (with their assorted photos), on a Kindle 5? I’ve certainly made the transition to mostly monitor viewing. I’d like to make more prints, but I don’t have space for them all and it becomes just another thing to store.

  2. Andreas Manessinger said, on November 15, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Love this image.

    Regarding print vs monitor, I guess we should not forget OLED displays. They are not a factor at the moment, but they are catching up slowly, and they will make a very different experience wide-spread, an experience that is probably much more like that of traditional prints. I can imagine OLEDs on walls having a much greater potential for success than conventional LCDs. Well, we’ll see. In any case, the first screens intended as big picture frames are already on the market. They are not yet competitive, but this can’t take very long. In an age of all-digital cameras the demand is clearly there.


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