Print, or be damned

I started photography when we had to shoot film. There was no other choice, although we did have a good choice of films, including the legendary Kodachrome, possibly the only film stock to ever have a hit song written about it. We were always careful about archiving and taking care of our originals, whether negatives or transparencies. They were kept in archival sleeves or special boxes, or sometimes just the yellow Kodak boxes they came in. But we knew that if we took care of them, they would be good for at least 100 years, and maybe longer. Of course, that was provided we didn’t lose them or let them fall victim to fire, water or humidity. And we would print our best or favourite images as a matter of course. I spent many hours in darkrooms. Some were spacious, purpose-built affairs complete with temperature controls and drying cabinets, others were sweaty little adaptations of laundry rooms or the like. As long as there was a way to keep them lightproof and get some power and running water anything was fair game. I printed black and white and colour, using the also legendary Cibachrome for my slides.

That was then. Now we’re firmly entrenched in the digital age where online and social media are king. Yes, film is making a comeback in the same way that vinyl is. For the most part they’re romantic and expensive hipster pursuits that they can’t even call nostalgic as most of them were barely born or walking when film and vinyl were in their heyday. As the saying goes, “Dads were the original hipsters”. And yes, I am still shooting a bit of B&W film, but it’s more for the pleasure of using my old Olympus OM1 and OM2 cameras. And B&W film is rock ’n’ roll. While I can, and do, develop my own film at home, I don’t have the facilities or equipment for doing darkroom wet prints, even if I wanted to. Although being able to make contact prints of the freshly developed negs to see what is worth scanning would be handy. Whether using my Nikon film scanner or a rigged up digital camera, digitising film can be just as laborious as darkroom printing, just not as messy or toxic. But when it comes to shooting digital I’ve become almost as bad as everyone else and simply post everything online for it to be given a mere cursory scrolling glance and the occasional like, which, given the amount of time I put into shooting and editing the images can be a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting gigs with my digital cameras. They make the job so much easier, especially when it comes to colour (apart from when dealing with the cursed red LED lighting). Digital makes getting quality colour shots a doddle, and the latest cameras, with their high ISO ratings, eye autofocus and in-body stabilisation, and massive burst rates make getting sharp photos child’s play. However, they are taking away a lot of the craft and skill traditionally associated with photography.

Now, the biggest problem I’ve always had with digital has to do with the issue of archiving. You see, digital photos do not exist in the physical world. They are ones and zeroes on a magnetic medium that completely relies on electricity. If there is no electricity or, even worse, too much, as in a power surge, all those digital images, and everything else in our lives that we have stored away digitally, would disappear. And digital media is even more susceptible to destruction by water than analogue media. That awareness of digital fallibility and having been brought up in a pre-digital age means that I do like to print my work, but don’t do it nearly enough as I should. I’ve even converted some of them into slides. Let’s be honest here, most of the millions of images now shot every minute of the day are not worth retaining in any format, let alone printing. Yes, there is a certain historical/anthropological interest in keeping these images around, in case the latter 20th century onwards becomes seen as another Dark Ages by future generations, should we humans even survive that long. It’s certainly not looking good at the moment. But I’m optimistic that the cycles of change will continue and we will enter a new golden age, or what is known in ancient Indian Vedanta as Satya Yuga. I have recently been reading Graham Hancock’s book Magicians of the Gods and it does have archeological evidence to support a precedence for this. But I digress.

As I was saying, I do print my work. I had 25 images printed at A3 and framed for my first (and only) exhibition back in 2015 – I highly recommend The Printspace in Hoxton for any quality large prints from digital files. I have been making print-on-demand (PoD) magazines (or zines) for more than a decade. PoD was a low-risk way of having a niche magazine in print. If you can sell a magazine in quantity then more traditional off-set printing is much cheaper per copy, but you need to have the capital to pay for that printing, which usually comes from advertising, which you can’t get until you are selling in quantity. It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. PoD allows you to make your publication without relying on advertising or any external funding, which, in turn, gives you complete editorial freedom over your content. You can then try and sell your magazine to anyone interested in buying it. And there’s no wastage, so it’s better for the environment. Another advantage of print-on-demand is you can make a single issue for your own consumption, or as a portfolio. Portfolios can take the format of a magazine, or a book. 

Magazines

Let’s look at magazines first. They are relatively cheap to have printed, so you can even leave them with prospective clients, but there is a limited range of sizes. I’ve always used Magcloud for magazines. They offer different sizes, the most popular being a standard  210×275 mm, a square 200×200 mm, or a smaller 135×210 mm digest that can be landscape or portrait. These are 20¢ per page (16¢ for the digest) and include saddle stitching. If you want the better looking perfect binding that’s an extra $1 per copy. (Magcloud is US-based and all their prices are in $US.) There are volume discounts. However, they only offer one paper stock, but it is a decent weight. Find out more about Magcloud here.

Blurb (who are now Magcloud’s parent company) only offer one size of magazine, 220×280 mm, but they have two options – Economy and Premium. The Economy uses 104 gsm gloss paper with a 176 gsm semi-gloss cover, whereas the Premium uses 115 gsm matt paper with a 250 gsm semi-gloss cover. Their prices start at £2.99 for 20 pages and 10p for every additional page (bear in mind that magazines need to have multiples of four pages), whereas Premium starts at £3.99 for 20 pages and 20p a page after that. 

Both companies have their advantages and disadvantages. My preference has always been for Magcloud as I have been using them for such a long time and am familiar with their output. As Magcloud primarily only do magazines they can be a better place to sell them, should you want to. You simply add any mark up you want to include and they take care of the rest, including distribution. You can also sell a digital version of your publication if you want, or offer it for free with the print edition. All the mags are shipped out of the US, and you can opt for ordinary postage, which is pretty slow if you live outside of the US, especially at the moment, or by courier, which is expensive for single copies. Blurb have printers in Europe, which helps speed up the process but only ship through UPS, so a single copy will be very expensive to ship, but it is much faster and becomes a lot more economical as the number of copies increases. You can sell your zine through Blurb’s bookstore in much the same as with Magcloud, but they charge a one-off fee for making the digital version, and don’t offer the option of bundling a digital version with the print edition. 

One major advantage Blurb has is their free Bookwright software for creating your publication, complete with some great looking templates and the ability to directly upload the correct print-ready files. This is extremely handy if you are not an experienced designer, or don’t have access to page layout software such as Adobe InDesign, Quark XPress or Affinity Publisher. Blurb also have an InDesign plug-in to simplify the process with that program. With Magcloud you don’t have that option. That’s another reason I prefer them. As a longtime graphic designer I prefer the freedom of doing my own designs with complete control over the typography. For layouts I now use Affinity Publisher and its sister applications Photo and Designer, to free me up from the shackles of Adobe’s expensive subscription model. I’ll do a post about Publisher and other Adobe alternatives another time.

Books

While magazines are a fairly inexpensive option for showcasing your work, books look far more impressive. Books, depending on size, paper and cover type are quite a bit more expensive but they make more impact. The two big PoD players are Blurb and Lulu, but there are dozens of other options. Saal from Germany make some excellent products but are quite expensive. However, if you are looking for a really luxurious one-off volume to showcase your work then they are worth the cost. I’ve used Lulu a few times in the past, but have never really been satisfied with the quality, and even had some of them with pagination errors, although, to be fair, they did rectify the error and send new ones at no extra cost. 

At the beginning of this year I had every intention of making a bi-monthly zine of my best gig shots from the previous two months, and it started well, and then in March everything shut down. Not to be discouraged, and with an abundance of free time on my hands, I started putting together a portfolio book, which was something of a daunting task. I have shot thousands of bands, many in some less than photogenic venues, but I managed to narrow it down to 500 shots that I considered worth including, but I needed to cull it down to about a tenth of that, because a portfolio needs to not only be your best work, but also a relatively concise overview of your work. In the end I finished up with nearly 80 images. Probably a few too many for a portfolio, but a decent number for a book covering the local indie music scene over the last ten years. I opted to go with Blurb for a number of reasons. Primarily because they regularly have sales with discounts as high as 40% off, which, depending on how you choose to print it, can be close to what getting a comparable magazine printed costs. To start, I ordered a paper swatch from their website that includes all the papers they offer with the same examples of type, black and white and colour photos printed on them. Once I had that, I made myself a sample book utilising the papers I preferred as a way of comparing how my images would look on the different paper stocks. This was using the minimum number of pages for each book/paper type. Even using a calibrated monitor and Blurb’s ICC profile I was able to see and make allowances for any colour shifts before preparing the final image files and page designs.

The other thing to consider when putting together a book is the sequencing or running order of the images. Which ones will go over two pages. Which photo will follow which, and so on. Getting it right is a real art, and is usually better left to a highly experienced picture editor, or at least a third party who can be a bit more objective about what works in the book and what doesn’t. It’s so easy to let memories cloud your judgement.

Once the book is all done to your satisfaction, whether you are using Bookwright or a more traditional route, it’s just a matter of uploading it and ordering a proof copy for yourself before you offer it for sale or order bulk copies. It’s surprising what you can miss on screen that you can see in print. Get £25 off your first Blurb order over £60 using this link.

Prints

If making your own zines or books seems a little ambitious, or you feel that your photography isn’t quite at the level where you want it in such an elaborate form, then why not just make small photographic prints? You have two options here, using a high street lab, such as Snappy Snaps, or one of the many online places. Alternatively, buy your own printer. 

By far the cheapest option can be online. Sites such as Snapfish do 6×4 inch prints for 10p each, and if you download their app you can get 50 free 6×4 prints per month for a year. You just pay postage. Free Prints also have a similar offer. These are perfect for giving away or putting in an album. 

Making your own prints at home is a little more expensive with the initial costs of a printer, paper and inks but there is the satisfaction of doing it yourself. And there are plenty of little portable printers that connect to your phone, so you can print on the go. Sort of like having a Polaroid camera but with a digital original you can make multiple copies from. In fact, Polaroid make a portable wifi printer and Fujifilm make ones that uses their Instax film. They do come with a premium price though. While I haven’t tested any of these printers, as a Canon digital camera user, Canon’s SELPHY printer has a certain appeal. The paper and inks seem reasonably priced and if your camera has PictBridge you can print directly from the camera via USB, Bluetooth or wifi. They are a little larger than some of the other portable printers, and the battery is an optional extra but the image quality is superb, apparently.

So, there you go. There’s a whole lot of options for bringing your digital photos into the physical world. Trust me, people are far more impressed with a printed image than when seeing it on a screen, even an iPad one, especially if they can take one away with them. So start printing those digital images today.

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