Printing at Home

This weekend, I had a couple of things on my to-do list: eBay some old tech and frame some recent images. eBay was a necessary evil, but I was looking forward to printing my work. I had the romantic vision of a slow Sunday proofing and perfecting my images, cup of tea in hand. However, in the end, my expectations were reversed. Listing items on eBay wasn’t as clunky as I remember it, but printing and framing were slow and frustrating.

It wasn’t all bad. The high key images came out well, and I made some distinctions about the float mounting, framing horizontal shots, and the colour and thickness of frames.

Printing is highly technical

As I said, most of the images I printed came out without issues. But then I came to this one from Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse:

As you can see, vertical streaks ruin the image. I couldn’t see the streaks on the computer screen, so I cleaned the nozzles of my printer, and replaced the ink. I also thought it was a tad dark, so I upped the exposure. The luminance was better, but I made no indent on the streaks.

My inability to identify the problem was frustrating. Most of my learning in photography has come from YouTube, Google and a handful of photobooks. In the past, it has never taken long to find the answer I need or to work out a solution myself. But it was hard to diagnose the issues I was having with printing; too many factors were involved: is my printer good enough? Is it the ink? Is the paper suitable for this type of image? Is my monitor calibrated correctly? Do I need to offset gamma when printing? Is the picture no good in the first place? The potential problems were too nebulous for me to easily solve on my own.

After an hour or so of exploring various avenues to resolve the problems—and getting nowhere—I was gently fuming. I decided to move on to another image.

Editing for a different medium

Earlier this month, I did my first Milky Way shoot of the year. It was very successful. Too often, I travel a long way in the middle of the night for astrophotography—and the next day is a write-off. This time around, I camped with a friend in a nearby forest. I set a 2 am alarm and took photos for a while before returning to bed for a short sleep before sunrise.

I’ve often thought that my night photography is too much about the sky; in the dark and in a rush, I don’t think through the foreground composition well enough. I’m not alone. Amongst landscape astrophotographers, unimaginative recycling of postcard scenes is standard, and it is common to see iconic places backed by the Milky Way—a strong compositional element which frequently seems incongruous to the scene. I’ve been guilty of the same thing. And, even now, whenever I visit a new landmark, I always check whether it would work for astrophotography. I’m pleased to say I managed to avoid this in the Brecon Beacons:

As well as being a more anonymous scene, this image does something I’ve wanted to bring to astrophotography for a while: a well-thought-out, graphical composition. Clean lines, coupled with the glow—Merthyr Tydfil on the horizon—lead your eye through the frame and the dust cloud of the Milky Way mirrors the curve of the shoreline below.

I had a good feeling about this photo, and I started editing soon after my trip. I’m never sure about colour balance on night images. You only really experience the night as blue in the hours after sunset or before sunrise, or when the moon is full. Yet I chose a blue tonality here. A few things directed my choice:

  1. When I edit milky way images, I usually like to bring out the reds and purples of the core, but here I couldn’t do this with the light pollution.
  2. It was minus four degrees centigrade during this shoot. The dew from the boggy ground frosted my camera gear and clothes while I worked. By the end of the shoot, my shoelaces were frozen solid. Cold blue tells this story.
  3. In our psyches, the nighttime is the inky blue of the unknown. Again, using blue is as much a narrative device as an accurate representation of the scene.

I was happy with this image, and I was eager to move on to it after my trouble with Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse. However, it caused me almost as much trouble: the foreground shadows were muddy when printed on paper, and I lost all the lovely detail in the grass. As with the shot of Burnham, I couldn’t diagnose the problem: my monitor is colour calibrated, and the brightness isn’t set too high. (At least this time there were no streaks!) For the prints from this file to look half decent, I had to up the black point, but doing this lost all the contrasty impact, and the scene became washed out.

In the end, I reedited the photo from start to finish, paying close attention to noise and shadow detail during the RAW processing. The prints aren’t the finished article, but—from this file—they are starting to look better:

There is an important takeaway for me: printing is a different display medium; you shouldn’t underestimate how much you will need to learn if you start printing after years of editing for screens. Before you can be sure how a print will look, you have to know how your paper and printer handle different tonal and luminance ranges. There is no shortcut here; learning to print is a slow, iterative—and expensive—process; and it requires close attention and patience—qualities you may not have nurtured if you are a photographer who cut their teeth on social media.

Printing makes you extra critical

The next day (after another marginally less frustrating morning framing prints) I met with a friend for a Sunday roast in a local pub. She is a talented artist and has lots of experience printing her work, so I was interested in her two cents. Her response wasn’t what I expected: she asked why I was trying to print at home, and she questioned whether perfecting that skill was worth the investment of my time. I initially felt defensive: “of course printing is worth my time—all the photographers I follow recommend printing your work.” But she has a point. With my moderately-priced photo printer, will I do my images justice? Wouldn’t it be better to seek professional advice? Perhaps. At the very least, I needed to ask myself some questions.

So why am I printing at home? What am I hoping to gain?

In a word, “perspective.” When you print an image, flaws that weren’t apparent on the screen become clear. This could mean tidying a few dust specks, or it could mean a complete re-edit. Trying to create a perfected aesthetic object makes me extra critical and deepens my understanding of an image. However, attempting to work up an image into something that I would hang on my wall can shift my opinion completely; occasionally, printing forces me to realise that an image doesn’t just need a re-edit—maybe the image just does not work.

Here, I think, we have the final reason printing is challenging: tecnical difficulties aside, printing your work forces you to be newly critical and objective. During my weekend, I had to come to terms with flaws in images I thought were the finished article—and that is a jagged pill to swallow.

I’ve drawn two conclusions from my experience. While I enjoy dabbling with printing and framing, they are highly-skilled and technical disciplines, and perhaps the effort-reward ratio is not stacked in my favour. I shouldn’t invest a lot of time here—at least not now. Instead, I should approach printmaking and framing with learning in mind. Doing some float frames at home is allowing me to experiment with proportions and positioning of a print in a frame. That way, when I come to use a professional framer, I will know what works and what I want. Likewise, printing large at home allows me to see all the flaws in my images. Perhaps I should see home printing as a proofing stage rather than striving to produce the finished article. All that being said, I do want to find a local mentor who can teach me the basics of printing so that I can hit the ground running when I have the time and money to immerse myself in printing.

As a footnote, I just entered UK Landscape Photographer of the Year. I’m not sure how I feel about these competitions; maybe they are just a distraction from taking photos. Still, I thought it would be interesting to see where I am in the eyes of some established photographers on the judging panel. The printing that I did this weekend—though at times frustrating—made me more confident and brought several images to the standard needed for a competition.