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Friday, May 30

On the Merits of Small Prints

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?


Herman Sheephouse said...

I try and get maximum image on the sheets these days Bruce, though I would say a handy exercise is to get a few scrap sheets of 8x10 (or copy paper made up to the right size) get a 2B pencil, place the sheets in your easel and start tracing the blade-mask shape onto the paper - it gives you an idea of what things will look like without wasting any paper at all!

mickld said...

I like printing 6x6 on 8x10. I position the square so that there is a 1" border left, right and top, with 3" border at the bottom.

The only square format camera I have is a holga, and not over-enlarging its negs makes for quite a satisfying print.

Andrea Ingram said...

Just come out of the darkish room where I was printing 2x3" prints and even 3.5x2.5" ones. On Art 300, Orwo FB and some Adox MMC. Am toning in green tea!

Dave Jenkins said...

I seem to remember that David Vestal's standard practice was to cut a sheet of 11x14 paper in half to make 7x11 prints from his 35mm negatives.

Rikard Niklasson said...

Great reading. For me size definitely matters. One single acceptable large size print can be ridiculous expensive, especially as I really like to play around with dodging, burning and what not. From now on I will mostly print on smaller paper, even on 6x6. Then I can enjoy the printing process much more without worrying to much about the cost.

Anonymous said...

I've not done any darkroom prints in a long time but when I inkjet print onto A4 paper (inkjet!) I print at 6" x 9". I like a border and hate full-bleed prints. the border serves to protect the print from contaminates that might affect the paper edges over time.

I also find very small prints really useful in judging composition.

The problem with A4 inkjet printers is that they don't allow you to use heavy fine-art paper - but you lot don't care about that, do you!


Anonymous said...

Make that contaminants.


Paul Glover said...

Most of my printing is on 8x10 paper with a half inch border around the image. The largest I print now is on 11x14 with the same half inch (my 2 blade easel is too finicky to keep changing the bordr on!) and that isn't often.

John Robison said...

I shoot a lot of 35mm half frame so small negatives, small prints. Even so 6X8 on 8X10 is an 8X linear magnification, about the limit for small negatives. I do not like to take full frame beyond 6X9 on 8X10.

Having a basic Durst F30 enlarger helps a lot since you cannot go much larger on the baseboard anyway and there is just no room for trays larger than those for 8X10 in a small 5X7 ft. apartment bathroom.

steve said...

I tend to do mostly 8x10 bit that's because my darkroom (read laundry) is so small. One of my all time favourite photographers Edward Weston printed predominantly on 8x10 but he was doing contact prints from a 8x10 view camera.

Doug H said...

I like detail and I use the camera to explore for that detail. With 5X7 and 8X10 contact prints, I've already seen much of the detail on the GG. But with MF I need to explore by enlarging. So I normally print MF at 11" square on 11X14. The size reads better for me.

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Interesting thoughts. When I was using only film I shot 8x10 and contact printed. With the Monochrome I lean towards small prints as well on an 8x12 sheet of paper. Allowing for margins makes the digital ink jet prints quite a bit smaller than the analog contact prints. I rarely pine for larger prints. However,once in a while I get the urge for a larger print and print the digital images on an 11x17 sheet and very uncommonly on a 13x19 sheet.

Funny that I never felt the smaller print was lacking in any way.


Oscar said...

Earlier I liked to print 30x40 cm (good with my IKEA frames) with 5 mm borders, but eventually I started liking smaller prints.

Nowadays I print 12x18 cm on a 18x24 cm paper (14x14 cm for squares) and I really, really like the results.

From a 35 mm negative:

From a 120 negative:

I recently tried printing a 35 mm negative on a 30x40 cm paper, and it was so big compared to my current habbits! Results were good, anyhow.

Antonio Aparicio said...

I have learnt two things about photography:

1. Photo competitions are for losers.

2. Its not how big it is but what you do with it that counts.

Blake said...

great read, good comments too. i am still re-learning the dark arts, have only worked up to 12x16in. however i do tend to pick the size of the paper based on the image i'm printing. some of my images look cramped, or need room to 'breathe', when i try to put them on small paper. others seem to want to fit tidly in a smaller box/frame. does that make sense?

Kevin Allan said...

I take a pragmatic approach and buy whatever size paper I can get a good deal on, often second-hand. Have just purchased some 8*10 paper from, I suspect, the same FADU member as yourself.

The largest I have is 9.5" * 12" and that is also the largest my print washer can accommodate. This was a short-term offer from Ilford.

Neil Pilkington said...

Think I may have gone too far??!!

Bruce Robbins said...

Cloning ravens over Whitby Abbey, Neil? Wish I could do that in the darkroom!