Updated: Jul 16, 2018
What do you do with your photographs?
That’s one question I’ve been grappling with for years, and one I hear many others asking themselves too.
I’ve been photographing the world around me since I was three, so I must have tens of thousands of photographs to my name by now. My first was a square format film camera when I was a toddler, with which I took photos of ducks, canals, and cuddly toys, mostly. After that came a very 2000s compact camera (4.1 mega pixels!) with which I mostly experimented with music photography in my teens. After that I went back to film with an array of 35mm cameras while I was studying photography at university. I have two lever-arch files full of negatives from those 35mm years, and I was also happily in the habit of spending full days in the dark room several times a month, developing my own photos.
Then came the advent of the DSLR. After graduating I didn’t have a limitless supply of subsidised film or paper stock, and no free access to a dark room, so film became prohibitively expensive. I started with a Canon 400D and I’ve been with Canon ever since.
No matter what you take your photographs with, the question remains: Do you print them, put them out into the world via something social like Instagram or Flickr (soon to be SmugMug), or do they fester on a hard drive?
My mum, a keen amateur photographer, posed this very question to me the other day. At the moment, she’s doing what most modern photographers do, and posting her favourite DSLR and iPhone photos to her Instagram account.
That’s fine, but it is limited, and I’ll tell you why.
1. Instagram (and other social sharing platforms) knock the quality down. Way down.
Anybody who has done their research about optimum image size on Instagram will have found that the maximum width is 1080px, matching the horizontal resolution of most phone screens. You can resize your images yourself, and make sure the quality is as high as can be, or Instagram can downscale for you. For photos with lots of detail, Instagram’s own in-app downscaling can have detrimental effects. That means that when you’re sharing your photographs with the world via this medium, you’re never showing the best version of your work.
Here's a side-by-side to show what Instagram's compression does to a relatively low detail image.
Let's take a closer look.
In the Instagram version look at the shadow just behind the top right of the holly berry and you'll see a muddle of cyan and magenta that isn't in the actual photo (you may need to turn up your screen brightness to notice), and a total loss of detail throughout. The edges of the leaf are pixelated and compression artefacts abound!
2. You’re only sharing with other Instagrammers.
This is obvious, and also one that affects you regardless of your social platform (Instagram, Flickr/SmugMug, 500px etc): you’re only ever sharing your photographs with other users of that platform, and that can be limiting.
3. You never get to see your photos come to life.
There’s something really special about seeing your photo in print, IRL. Seeing your photo printed optimally on beautiful paper is kind of like meeting your photo for the first time. Photography is an increasingly digital form, and often a photograph will never break through the barrier that separates digital from physical. If your end goal is posting to Instagram et al, then you never get to experience the joy and pride that goes with meeting your photos face to face.
4. Not putting your money where your mouth is.
There is nothing that focuses the mind more than printing, at least when it comes to photography. When you send something to print, there is of course a price tag. Digital is cheap, but printing requires materials and labour, and you get what you pay for. That price tag makes you think twice, forces you to make sure that photograph is something you love, something you’re proud of, and something that is worth the effort of print. Personally, I think that serves to raise your game. You’re more likely to spend the time editing to bring the best out in your photograph, and really get that image looking its best. Once that photo is printed and exists in the physical world, there’s no adjusting this or tweaking that. That’s kind of thrilling, isn’t it?!
All that being said, I probably sound pretty down on social photo-sharing platforms. I use Instagram myself, and before Instagram existed I used Flickr, so I do understand the appeal. It’s also most certainly better than allowing your images to never see the light of day and keeping them imprisoned on a hard drive!
When it comes down to it, you need to ask yourself why you take photographs. If it's for you to document your life and share with your friends and family, then social sharing might be fine for you.
If, like me, you grew up with walls lined with photo albums, and you're looking for a way to appreciate your photos outside of a digital space, then think about getting your photos printed in a bound photo book - this is the analogue for the albums of yesteryear. They're lovely to pull off the shelf and share with your Granny.
Alternatively, if you're after a more artistic end goal, then do consider getting your photographs printed. I'll be writing more on that in a future blog post, sharing all the useful tips I've found over the years for what makes a great fine art photographic print, how to prepare your photo to go to the printers, and who I trust to print my photos.
What about you? What do you do with your photographs to make the most of them?