It’s Not A Photograph Until It’s A Print!

Photographer Scott Bourne

It’s not a photograph until it is a print…

That’s my opinion anyway. I am writing this post about making prints knowing full well that we live in the age of Instagram and most of what I say will fall on deaf ears, but I want to try – just in case I can motivate ONE person to print again.

Let’s start in the beginning…

I have been teaching about photography on the Internet for more than 20 years. My first post was on November 2, 1998. Unfortunately, as of the day I wrote this blog post, WayBack Machine only goes to Dec, 1998 but you can see the record of Photofocus being there just the same.

In those 20+ years, I have taken polls, almost yearly, asking people if they print the photographs they make.

20 years ago it was almost 90% yes. Today only about one in 10 in my audience prints – and that number may be high.

Instagram has become the new print. Showing someone a photo on a cell phone (or if you are lucky) on a tablet has become the new print. Rarely you might get to see a photo on a computer screen.

But paper prints? Physical prints? Not happening. More 3D printers were sold last year than professional photo printers.

People rely on the cloud or digital media to store their images and the Internet to share those images.

Photo Prints by Scott Bourne Hanging In China

But what happens when and if all that craps out?

Remember 3.5 and 5.25 inch floppy drives? How about Zip drives, Jaz drives or Bernoulli Boxes? What about MiniDiscs, UMD and even CD ROMs?

If you stored your photographs on any of these media – there’s a very good chance that you lost those images forever if you didn’t transfer them to newer storage methods.

What about those who rely solely on storing images in the cloud? What if the companies that run those clouds go out of business, or have technology or security failures, or get hacked, etc.? How safe will your images be then?

Photographers tell me all the time – well I am with XXX company and they are one of the largest computer-data companies in the world. So was Netscape. In the mid-1990s, it had 90% of the Internet business in the world. In 2006 it essentially went away – being morphed into other companies. By the way – Google’s headquarters are located in the spot where Netscape was headquartered. I remembered visiting Netscape on a business trip in the late 1990s and thinking “WOW – this is the center of the business universe now.” Oops!

You can quibble with my examples (and trust me somebody will) but moving to the real point – things change. Technology is advancing at a very rapid pace. I suspect that in 10 years, the digital world will have evolved to the point that we will recognize little of what we use today.

Do you want to know what has been around through all of the technology changes I have described, both past and future? The photo print. For nearly 180 years, the art of photographic printing has survived. Yes it too has changed, but the fundamental notion of using paper and some chemical or optical process using ink or some similar compound to make an image shot with a camera appear on paper has existed. And it will always exist.

Today’s print technologies are so good that I have no doubt that even inexpensive printers and photo-specific papers will last more than a lifetime. Wilhelm Imaging has rated many archival papers at 100 years plus. Given the fact that some of the old photo prints from the 1800s still exist even though those papers were rudimentary and the processes very basic, gives me great hope that current print technology will deliver prints lasting at least 200 years.

When I was growing up, shooting film and making prints in my own darkroom, we used to refer to the print as our “backup.” There were no computers or disk drives back then so the current concept of backup would have been completely foreign to us. But we knew that if we lost our negative, we couldn’t reproduce the image at a future date. We therefore made the prints as backup thinking we could always photograph the print (photo print copying was a common practice back then) and we’d at least have something.

If you want to gamble with current technology as the one place you save your most precious photographs, that is your business. But I hope you might start thinking about making some prints, at least of your favorite or most important images. As a backup if nothing else.

Photo Prints by Scott Bourne Hanging In New York at PPE


While this post covers the subject from the point of view of safety and backup, i.e., making sure your photographs are accessible to future generations, there are other reasons to print.

Seeing a print of one of my photographs on the wall makes it more accessible to me and those around me and gives me more chances to relive that memory. Seeing my prints in large format used in commercial applications (such as the nearly nine feet wide prints Olympus made of some of my eagle photos for exhibit at Photo Plus Expo in New York) or in museum/gallery shows such as the one my work toured in China recently at the Exhibition of Two Swans, well that is still a thrill to me even after more than four decades of making images.

And having something tangible – that you can hold in your hand – it brings a special value to an object. It is more precious and special when you take the time to print it. That special connection you feel when you make an image and then print it, well that is amazing to say the least.

Ansel Adams used to say “The negative is like a musical score and the print is like the performance.” This is where my personal belief that it’s not a photograph until it is a print comes from. Using Adams’ example…if you make an image but leave it on your hard drive and never print it – we don’t get to see the nuances and subtlety of the art you were setting out to create.

Make someone’s day – even if it’s your own – give them a print – on paper – not on Instagram.

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