Print Your Work Without Printing Your Work?

I have no idea how I got there, but I found myself on YouTube a few weeks ago watching mesmerizing videos of a carpenter making the most beautiful tables and desks. Cam (the carpenter) can be found at BlackTailStudio.com or on Instagram, and his videos (including one about the making of a $10,000 Myrtlewood desk) gave me a new appreciation for the idea of craftsmanship—and what craftsmanship means for me as a photographer.

Cam is meticulous. He is patient. He is thoughtful. And he clearly knows his tools and materials, always learning new ways to master them. It’s also very apparent from just the few videos I watched that he isn’t one for shortcuts or cutting corners just to get it done.

All of this got me thinking about my own craft as a photographer because as I was watching Cam’s YouTube videos, I was fighting with my printer. I hadn’t printed in months, the heads were clogged, the colours weren’t quite right, and Cam was making me feel like a hack for thinking I should be able to just open Lightroom, fire up the printer, and churn out 50 beautiful prints from my last trip without the same kind of patience and care a real craftsman would take with his process while still expecting beauty and excellence. I should have known better. I do know better. But I got lazy.

So you know what I did? I started to learn printing all over again. Just kidding. I didn’t. I hate printing, and it’s high time I admitted that.

When it’s all going well, I tolerate it, and my Epson P800 printer makes lovely prints. When it’s all going well. But I’m finally ready to admit to myself that it often doesn’t go well. I hate printing, and I’m tired of fighting it. It feels good just to confess that.

What I love—and believe deeply in—is seeing my work in print.

Seeing my work printed is one of the joys of photography, and I think it makes me a better photographer. But I’m not a craftsman where the actual printing is concerned, and I don’t want to be. And that’s OK. It’s one reason you’ve never seen me do a proper course on printing: I’m the last guy you want to learn that from. So I called my friend, Jason Bradley, who runs a print shop in Monterey, California, because he most certainly is a craftsman, and I gave him the job.

These are the prints I make when I come back from every trip: my best work on 8.5×11 paper, boxed and labelled. But now, I’m no longer doing it myself. The prints are better, they happen faster, and when I factor in the wasted ink and paper and replacing the printer every now and then, the marginal increase in cost is nothing compared to the benefits I gain.

Where the final print is concerned, Jason has an eye for detail, which I do not. He knows his craft in a way I never will. And while I’ll always remind you now and then to “print your damn work,” what I really mean is this: make sure the best of your work ends up in print, in the real world, and off your hard drives. It is probably less important who does it (unless you really love it, then that’s a different thing entirely).

Handing my printing over to someone who can do a much, much better job with it means I will have more time to engage with the parts of my craft that I do love.

It means going with my strengths rather than spending time working on weaknesses I haven’t really got the desire to fix while at the same time getting better quality prints of my work.

It means collaborating with someone who helps me see my blind spots where my camera work is concerned because, like you, I am always learning—and we all need someone who sees what we do not.

And it means I love my photographs even more.
I think you’ve got to love what you do and be clear about the best path to accomplish that. I believe so strongly in my photographs finding their final expression in print. Holding those prints (or my books) gives me great joy, but that doesn’t mean I need to be the one to make those prints. I certainly don’t feel the need to print and stitch my own coffee table books.

Collaborating with someone who can do some things better than I can is not an abdication of my craft but a way to honour it and get better results.

Watching Cam (the carpenter) made me wonder if the pressure to be a jack of all trades might be standing in the way of me taking greater care with fewer things and seeing higher standards of excellence in my work. And it made me wonder if there were others out there for whom the pressure to print their work themselves was holding them back from getting it printed at all.

Many of you have asked me over the years if it was OK not to buy a printer and deal with the inks and the whole learning curve that represents, and my advice has always been the same: do whatever it takes to get your work printed.

Come home from a trip, choose your 12, 30, or 100 best images and either print them yourself or send the files to a person or service that can do the work for you. You can also build them into a book using Blurb.com or the Book Module in Adobe Lightroom.

However you choose to print, this is my annual plea that you make your photographs tangible artifacts you can hold, even if you’re not doing the legwork.

The benefits are huge, and aside from the joy of doing so, I think printing your work (or having it printed) makes you better at the other areas of your craft, more aware of the flaws and the blind spots and the areas in which you might have become lazy, or where the “good enough for Instagram” mentality might have crept in.

Printing will make you less willing to compromise in your work.

If this idea appeals to you, here are a few resources to consider:

  • Bradley Print Services. If you want a more personal service, Jason and his team do great work. I sent him files five days ago, and a box of 8.5×11 prints just arrived. They look fantastic! Tell him I sent you.
  • Mpix. This is an online service that I’ve used in the past with great results. The system is easy to navigate, and I use Mpix for bigger orders of smaller prints, such as when I’m putting a book together and I want a couple hundred 4×6 prints to lay out on the floor and make sequences and selections. I’ve also used them for larger prints and have been happy with them.
  • PosterJack. Live in Canada and don’t want to pay the exorbitant shipping fees on larger prints? I recently used Posterjack for three huge canvases and some lovely monochrome prints, and they did a great job.
  • White House Custom Color. This is a referral more than a recommendation. I haven’t used WHCC, but people keep telling me they do good work.
  • Artifact Uprising. I love what these folks make: some nice books and print options if you want to do something with your images. if you like the aesthetic of Kinfolk magazine, you’ll like AU.

And of course, there are local labs all over the place that would be thrilled to get your business. Tell me: Do you get your work printed somewhere you love? Have you used someone that helps you get your work into the world of the tangible, or someone who helps your work become the best that it can be? I’d love to hear from you in the comments and for the comments you leave to become a resource for people looking for local help with their printing.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown

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