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The Real Reason You Need to Print Your Photos

Each creative pursuit has its own fulfillment. It is that moment when we can stop and see that our finished creation. A play is written and performed – a score is composed and played by musicians – poems written and then read out loud. The fulfillment of our creative pursuit as photographers is a printed photograph.

When you print a photograph, it becomes physical. A print is the embodiment of the digital file. As a print, it becomes part of our daily physical existence. As a constant part of our life the print comes to play a role in our life, perhaps effecting us in ways we didn’t expect.

Making small prints

A few prints that I stumbled across from my childhood. Each time I come across these memories, I’m reminded of my place in my family as a son, a grandson, and now a father myself.

Coming to life

When something lives in the digital world, it is easily scrolled past, or swiped away and forgotten forever. Digital photos live a ghostly existence.

We experience digital photos like a dream. Just as a dream vanishes when we wake up, a digital photo vanishes as we scroll past it or close the file. But as a print, your photograph becomes part of the real world and a part of your life.

One day I saw one of my digital images – a headshot – on a huge billboard. I was so surprised I had to circle the block just to see it again! I had seen that same image on the internet many times, but to see it in the real world brought on emotions that had never arisen when viewing the photo online.

Yes, “an image is an image” whether it is digital or printed. But a printed image has a different existence – a bodily existence – and becomes part of your world as something physical rather than ghostly or dreamlike.

Printing photo books

Before setting out for the East Coast, I knew that I wanted to make a photo book after the trip. Part of the fun was anticipating the project, then living the adventure as we traveled. But the creative experience was not complete until I had finished the book. A lot of the fun was selecting the paper, the lay-flat style and the dimensions.

Daily life

Consider the difference in the way we normally experience digital and print photographs.

A print is displayed somewhere and might remain for a very long time. However, a digital photo is at your mercy – only viewed on your whim and dismissed almost immediately. If you do not wish to see them, they are gone. A digital photo is not ever-present as a print is. Digital photos count on you to come looking for them.

A digital photo is given a physical existence when printed. When it is displayed at home or in our studio, it becomes part of our daily life.

Display your prints

Most people are quite tactile – collecting books, rocks, and small keepsakes. Our family often brings home a jar of dirt from the new lands we visit.

Inspired and called

When printed, our photographs are ever-present reminders of what is important in life.

Unlike the fleeting excitement that digital photos bring as we scroll past them, the inspiration of a printed photograph is always there to view.

When you’re bored of the flow of digital photos, you shut them off. However, you don’t turn off a print; it is there whether or not you wish to see it at that moment. This is important because when we choose our prints carefully, they can be sources of encouragement when we need it most.

An ever-changing sea of digital images is part of your daily landscape. Images pound you like waves, only to disappear once they’ve made contact. They exhaust you as they hit all day long. You live in a chaotic world where you are most likely to forget what is important in life.

You should print photos that inspire you and call you to a good life. The portraits you hang can remind you of who is important in life. Even the landscape you print can calm and inspire you in tough moments.

Print and frame your digital photos

In my son’s room, there is a picture of him and my grandmother together. It has been there for years. It’s also on my computer. I can tell you the exact folder it’s in, but I haven’t seen the digital file since I made the print. I made the print for my grandmother and received it back when she died. It once reminded her of the joy of her great grandchildren and now it reminds me of the joy of my grandparents.

A stronger experience

While I can hardly recall any of the images I just scrolled through online, I can still remember some of the images in the photography magazines I read as a kid.

When I knew a new issue of Photo Life was due out, I’d check the mailbox every day until it came. I knew the feel of it when I reached into the mailbox. The cover photo would strike me first, then the smell of the brand new magazine. I suppose I did all but taste those photographs!

Imagine the life of those photos. The photographers would conceive their ideas and work away until they had their collection of images. The photographs were developed, culled, and selected by an editor. Once printed, the magazine was shipped around the world. Finally, it would get carried by post for photography lovers to grab from the mailbox or snatch from a newsstand. We’d carry them with us, reread them, and add them to our collection of back issues.

Print versus digital photos

You can close a photo book and put it away, much like swiping away a photo. But a book is placed on the shelf, while a digital photo is swiped away and obliterated into 1’s and 0’s.

The digital world is a gift

Digital photos are important – just as imagination, thoughts and dreams are. But dreams disappear, thoughts are forgotten, and imagination begs to come to life in the real world.

There are many gifts that the digital world has given us. Perhaps most of all the digital world gives us a place to play and experiment before we decide which photos to make real. We have transcended many of the limits of film (although many of those limits may have been healthy for our creativity).

Even though our creative activity is not complete until we have made a print, we don’t need to print all of our digital photos – only the ones that deserve to rise up and become worthy of embodiment.

Create something that becomes real

While there is joy in taking photos and viewing them digitally, our satisfaction is not properly realized until we have printed our photos. A photo that isn’t printed is like a script that is never performed, or a musical composition that is never played. There is still value in the digital photo, just as there is value in a script or musical composition. But the value is mainly the hope that one day the digital photo will be printed and share a bodily life with us – to inspire us, cheer us, and remind us.

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Mat Coker

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.