Photo printing is more important than ever in the digital age

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As a society, we are now producing more photographs than ever before, and the total number is becoming difficult to understand. This year, it is estimated that billions of humans armed with smartphones will take some 1.2 trillion photos. Many of them will be shared on social media, but many others will simply be forgotten. A few good selfies will flash before your eyes when you swipe left or right on them late on a Friday night. But almost none will make the transition to the physical world, bits becoming ink blots that coalesce into an image on a piece of paper, canvas, wood or metal – a print.

The reasons for this are rational, and there is no point in fighting against progress, but neither should we ignore the value of an impression. We may no longer print all photos by default, but this can actually be a good thing for printing. It’s now about quality over quantity, and the photos we choose to print deserve the best treatment. Honestly, there’s never been a better time to print than now, thanks to technological advancements in digital cameras and inkjet printers. If you haven’t tried your hand at photo printing yet, you owe it to yourself, even if you’re just a casual photographer.

Printing is not dead – it’s better than ever

It’s a common refrain in the digital age, and not just in reference to photography. Printing is dead, or at least dying, isn’t it? In truth, a certain type of print has certainly declined, but this is not a tragedy. Printouts were the only way we had to see our photos (unless filming slides and using a projector). We would drop off our film at the pharmacy and pick it up 24 hours later, not because it was a better system, but because it was all we had.

In 2017, billions of humans with smartphones will take some 1.2 trillion photos.

We tend to idealize print, but when print was the norm, many photos were still lost and forgotten (and some found). Most were for photo albums or shoeboxes that would sit and gather dust until moving day. If less has been forgotten, it is because less has been produced. Much less, in fact — in 2000, Kodak announced that 80 billion pictures had been taken that year.

Sure, that sounds like a lot (it was a new step back then), but for those who think of such large numbers as vague clouds of zeros, consider that 80 billion is still 1.12 trillion less than the 1.2 trillion photos of 2017. For the reluctant mathematicians, let’s put it another way: subtracting the total number of photos taken in the year 2000 from those taken in 2017 would have no effect on the number of shirtless mirror selfies posted by single men on Tinder.

neo classic instax photo print
Instax Mini 90 NEO Classic Digital trends

With so many photos taken, it’s no wonder so few are printed. Every print costs money, after all, so of course people won’t print 1.3 trillion photos (maybe they’ll print a tiny fraction, like, oh, 80 billion). Also, the purpose of the print (often the purpose of taking a photo in the first place) was to share your memory with someone else. Now that we no longer need prints to do that, it makes sense that people would choose not to spend money on them, especially when sharing images electronically is also proving much more convenient.

But people still love prints. Even the “low end” of print is alive and well, as instant photography has seen a huge resurgence in recent years. Polaroid Originals (formerly The Impossible Project) has built an entire brand around it, and Fujifilm Instax cameras and film packs made up six of the ten best-selling photography products on Amazon last season.

Digital and print are not enemies

Certainly, digital has indeed changed the way we print, and there is no turning back. The number of standard 4 x 6-inch photo impressions is expected to decline to 39 billion this year, from 47 billion in 2014, according to information provided to Digital Trends by Keypoint Intelligence. While this may be bad news for the drugstore’s photo lab, it doesn’t mean the end of the art of printing; in fact, you could say he raised it. (Keypoint Intelligence also expects the downward trend to slow and stabilize at around 36 billion impressions by 2021.)

Take independent publishing, which has grown in recent years largely due to digital technology and the internet, ironically. Despite what people perceive as a decline in print media, the number of magazines produced has remained constant since 2008, according to 99U. The circulation of a given publication may be smaller, but each is of higher quality and more targeted. From design to photography to paper selection, everything just got better.

Rather than lamenting the decline in quantity, let’s celebrate the chance to produce higher quality prints that digital technology affords us.

Rather than lamenting the decline in the quantity of printed photos, let’s celebrate the fact that digital has given us new technologies and new avenues to produce high quality prints. Today we have the tools to make better prints than ever before. With a $600 inkjet photo printer on your desk, you can produce a museum-quality 13 x 19-inch print at home that rivals what a professional lab can do. In the days of movies, you would have had to convert part of your house into a darkroom to do this. Of course, many professionals did just that, but such an endeavor was well beyond the reach of most amateurs or designated family documentarians. No one can deny that digital has made professional printing more accessible (not to mention reducing the amount of water and hazardous chemicals needed).

If you’re taking the plunge into the world of DIY photo printing, you might also discover an addictive new hobby. Like learning to cook or drive a stick shift, learning to print can be difficult at first (have you seen Office Space? It’s just a well-edited documentary). But with struggle comes understanding, appreciation, and ultimately, enjoyment for the craft. Did you feel these things when you dropped off your film at Walgreens?

photo print family

It doesn’t make sense for everyone to invest in a photo printer, we understand that. But whether you’re printing at home or sending a file to a lab, make an effort to select a photo and prepare it for printing. This process makes you a better editor and lets you focus on creating one or two great images, rather than a dozen good images that can quickly be uploaded to a Facebook album. Buy a sample pack of fine art papers to try out, or have the lab run test strips on the papers they offer. Create a physical album full of keepsake photos. Experiment, be creative, make mistakes and refine your approach.

Printing can be safer than just storing digital files

Even if you are running out of wall space, printing can still play an important role in archiving your images. The physics of how light bounces off a piece of paper and into your eyes isn’t going to change, but the way a computer reads an image file does. JPEG, long the standard for compressed images, is beginning to give way to the new HEIF format. Optical discs like DVDs used to be the gold standard for photo backup, but now they’ve all but disappeared. External hard drives have gone through several types of physical connection, from USB to FireWire to Thunderbolt – and several generations of each.

In short, there is no guarantee that the computer of tomorrow will be able to read the photos you take today, unless you constantly modernize your digital archives. Cloud services can certainly help with this, but the companies running them aren’t guaranteed to be around forever either.

An archival inkjet print can last over 100 years when stored properly (and yes, you can do this type of print at home). It’s no substitute for digital backups, but for your most important photos, a printout provides a very good form of redundancy, at the very least.

At the end of the day, it’s about your art

Printing for archival purposes is a logical thing to do, but the real reason you should start printing is emotional. When done correctly, seeing a high quality print of an image you’ve made can be mesmerizing. There’s just something about holding a finished print in your hands that’s infinitely more satisfying than seeing your photo on a screen, especially a pocket-sized one. It also serves as a tangible, permanent product of your work, a monument to the time and effort you put into creating it.

So take a trillion photos. Forget billions of them. But print one out and do it right. Mount it, frame it, display it. Be proud of it. Heck, print two.

Updated October 16, 2017 to include comments from Keypoint Intelligence.

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Elaine F. Brim