What's the largest size you normally print? Is bigger always better? I ask because I've been thinking a bit recently about ordering some more darkroom paper and it's getting so expensive these days. I recently bought about 90 sheets of 10x8 Ilford MG FB Warmtone - maybe a little less, haven't counted yet - from a photographer on FADU. Obviously, I had to check to see if I was getting a deal. It turns out I got it for less than a quarter of the normal retail price of, get this, just over £100 including postage. £100!
For a large part of my early adult life, £100 was a not unreasonable weekly wage for a working class man. I haven't used much 10x8 in recent years preferring 9.5x12 or 11x14 and was shocked at what 10x8 costs today. Obviously, the larger paper is more expensive but I buy it in smaller quantities and have never contemplated spending anything like £100 on a box although it's true I'm paying more per sheet doing it my way. A quick check showed that 100 sheets of Warmtone 11x14 is pushing £200. I wouldn't mind but it's getting harder to remortgage these days…
When I was doing a lot of printing about 15 years ago and entering prints for international exhibitions, most of the photos that were accepted from the thousands of entries submitted from around the world tended to be on the large side. The one I entered most was the Scottish International Salon and it was always a treat seeing the big prints first hand at the exhibition venue. I began to associate large prints with quality and success whilst 10x8s were what were churned out by PR departments or when your wife asked for a nice photo of the dog.
Then digital came along and the prints started to change in character, first slowly as photographers learned the capabilities of Photoshop and then faster and faster until they've reached the position where I think it would be difficult to get a "straight" black and white or colour print accepted at all. Here are a few of the entries from this year's event. Accomplished, undoubtedly, probably large as well but photography? They're closer to being installations than photographs!
Thank God I left that world behind a long time ago - I can't stand these photographs! However, back to the topic at hand - small(er) prints. My favourite photographer is Bill Schwab and Michael Kenna isn't far behind. The thing is, both of these photographers produce quite small prints. This was a surprise to me at first, especially given how much they charge for them!
Bill uses a Hasselblad and his prints tend to be square, on 10x8 paper and selenium/sepia split toned. Check out this double print offer - 4.25 inch square prints on 10x8. Now that's small, perhaps even too small. But it could just be that a small print you can hold in your hand and study in close-up rather than at arms' length is a more rewarding and immersive experience. His normal prints are, if I remember correctly, about 7x7 inches on 10x8 paper. Here's what one of his offer prints would look like on 10x8:
Michael Kenna, too, doesn't like to waste trees if he can help it. His images are printed around 7-8 inches, probably on 10x8 as well. Below is one of my favourites which can be yours for £4,450. I have the same print hanging on my hall wall and if you don't tell anyone it was a tenner in an art shop then neither will I.
If my photographic heroes are content with small images on 10x8 paper, why shouldn't I be? There are some good reasons for printing smallish. There's the cost saving over larger paper sizes, the fact that you can buy the expensive paper you really want instead of paying the same amount for the larger size in a cheaper brand, easier handling, a potentially more intimate viewing experience and a useful saving in chemicals.
So I think I'm going to have to give this small prints thing a go. Of course, I've printed on 10x8 paper before but not with the intention of producing the best finished prints I can. I'd normally just print work prints as large as I could on the sheet. The trick will be working out how to display the square and 35mm format images on the paper. I like to see a wide border around a print, around two inches. That's not going to be possible on 10x8 paper unless I do a Schwab and expose just a teensy-weensy bit of paper to the negative.
This will need some thought and experimentation but Bill's 7x7 prints on 10x8 certainly seem feasible although two sides will have just a half inch border which isn't ideal. 6x6 inches on 10x8? A minimum border of an inch would look better but, again, the image is getting awful small. And what about the 35mm format? I never crop if I can help it so I'm looking at something like 7x4.6 inches for the actual image or maybe 8x5.3.
Whatever, this stream of consciousness doesn't actually tell me much about the layout issue. There's only one way to find out and that's to do a few prints and see if I like small images printed in a classy way (hopefully!) on 10x8 paper. And what about you? Is this an area where size really matters?