19 Dec 2011 Podcast 314 : The “Artisan” Photographer
With the digital age, photography has in many ways become incredibly “easy”. I’m not just talking about the direct act of photography, although that has become so much easier, with the ability to view our images on the LCD and correct our mistakes right there in the field. Today I wanted to muse a little about how fulfilling I find some of the crafts surrounding my photography, at a time when it seems there is an easy option to outsource pretty much every aspect of photography.
A few weeks ago, I was trimming some 8×10 and 5×7″ prints for my customers. The sun was flooding into my studio and Ben Harper was pouring his heart out of my speakers. The world was a beautiful place!
It wasn’t just because of the conditions on this one day that I was feeling happy though. Whenever I print, trim or mount photos, create gallery warps or do just about any photography related task, I feel totally at one with and fulfilled by my craft.
When a print order has come in over night for example, I feel a little flutter of excitement in my stomach as I go up to my studio put on my white cotton gloves to handle the paper, and the sound of my big printer firing up and the roll paper starting to feed as it’s sucked down onto the platen by the vacuums, make me smile.
As I lay some paper on my table to lay the prints on as they fully dry, I’ll walk back through to my storeroom, and stroke the front of my printer as I walk by.
I know that I might be a bit weird, and if that’s true, I don’t care, I love these aspects of my photography. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak too. Even when I shoot my photographs, I am a stickler for nailing the ideal exposure, according to how I want the image to feel, and I like to control the white balance, so that I can see any subtle differences that the difference colors might have on the RGB histogram.
As I want to control the entire process, the thought of sending my photos in to a lab to be printed makes me cringe. I know that they’d come back OK, or even really good depending on the service, especially after all the care I put into getting my exposure and color how I like it in the base image, but I enjoy the process of printing. It give me a lot of satisfaction, and so I simply don’t want to outsource it.
I know that many of you will be thinking that I’m crazy for messing around printing 5×7 and 8×10 prints for my clients, when you can get these done for just a few cents each by uploading your images to a print service, but the thought of this just leaves me cold. This is why take a portfolio of previous printed work to a client when we first meet about the possibility of doing a portrait session.
From the start, I want to impress on them that it’s not just about the photos in digital form. I want them to see the beauty in the final prints, and have started to sell more packages with a set amount already included for the customer to select a number of prints or canvas wraps from the offset. Luckily I’m managing to attract customers that are willing to pay a little extra for me to provide beautiful photos printed with care on top quality fine art papers. This really does rely on showing them images from previous shoots printed in the same way, but luckily for me, it’s working. I’m able to make more money from each shoot, and the customer has quality prints to show their friends and family, and this leads to more work with the print in mind.
As I’ve sent out prints from the shoot that we discussed in episode 310 recently, I’ve received touching mail from each family on how beautiful the prints are and how wonderful the day was. I was able to provide a quality experience from start to finish, and because of the quality proposition, the shoot doesn’t finish with me handing over a disk of full sized images, so that the client can create their own mediocre prints.
One thing I do though, especially at this time of year in Japan, is give the clients a DVD with selected images from the shoot resized to a size that allows the client to use the images up to the size of a postcard at 300ppi. Despite this, I was surprised recently when this latest shoot resulted in two of the families not only asking me to create large batches of New Year cards for them, printed on fine art paper, but they also asked me to include my logo, despite the fact that I priced the cards high enough for me to feel happy about the job. This is proof that they are proud of the fact that they had us shoot their images, and create these cards, to the point that they want me to brand the product, and that is huge in my mind. It shows that my quality proposition and how I’m positioning my business is working.
Honestly, although it would be easy to just hand over the full sized digital images, and have the clients print their own photos, I don’t want my clients to spend the coming years displaying and sharing photographs that I have no control over. If I’ve played no part in the creation of the prints, I have no way of knowing if they’re any good or not, and I really don’t want people to see such images thinking that they are looking at my work, when I had no part in that final part of the process, and this I think is the artisan or the craftsman in me wanting to ensure that I control every aspect. I also want to sign and stamp my work too, and I do not want to build this into the digital image, this has to be added by hand.
Now, I know that even if I use a third party to print the photographs and send them to me to inspect before I send them to my client, so I could do the quality assurance and even stamp and sign them, remaining in control to a degree, but that’s really not the point. It just doesn’t feel right. I only want to sign something that I created, not just ordered on line, and at the end of the day, I enjoy printing! And because I enjoy printing, it’s my choice to build this into my business so that the shoot is not the start and the end of the job. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to make a living doing something that I love, and being able to incorporate printing, another part of the photographic process that I love into that business model is a double blessing.
By all means, if you don’t enjoy printing, and the thought of spending time printing yourself, then trimming your photographs leaves you cold, then forget about this. I’m certainly not saying that everyone should do this, and wouldn’t dream of saying that you are any less a photographer if you don’t. Of course I also know that there are sometimes business reasons for outsourcing parts of your process because it makes financial sense to do so.
Unless you set out to make printing a part of your business model as I have, the fact is that most of the time you will make more money by shooting more and doing less of these tasks, but that’s your decision. It doesn’t stop at printing of course. I’ve heard of services where you simply dump all of your RAW images on a server and a third party handles all the post processing. You can have people design album creation and much, much more these days, and if you are happy with your decision to use these services, then good for you.
What would make me sad though, is if you are outsourcing many of your processes just because you can. The photographer has historically been a craftsman and a technician. Photography is a technical art, and for me, it’s probably the engineer in me that wants to hand craft things that makes me so happy to be able to do so.
It is very easy to just hand stuff like this off to an online service, and I do appreciate that some services provide a very high quality product, so it’s not always about quality, but you could be denying yourself a lot of fun, if you too found that you enjoy the process like I do. If you haven’t even tried, how do you know that you don’t also have a craftsman, an artisan inside of you waiting to revel in the sort of tasks that make me incredibly happy.
If you are reeling in your seat as you listen to or read this, because you already do lots of this sort of stuff yourself, then don’t worry. I know that there are a lot of photographers that do take on tasks like these themselves, which is great. I know that I’m not alone here. I also know that these tasks are not for everyone. For example I do not enjoy spending a lot of time messing around with my images in Photoshop, but some people really enjoy that aspect. That’s great too! I don’t necessarily think that it has to be an analog act. If you prefer moving pixels around and performing your craft inside the computer, then knock yourself out. The main point that I wanted to make today is that we can gain much more fun from photography than just the act of composing our images and making the exposures. This is and probably always will be the most important part of photography, but I think it can be so much more, so why stop there?
I’m starting to hear more and more people that have recently tried home printing for example. Some people bought the little Canon printer that we looked at in episode 292 and have found great pleasure in printing their own images and even framing them. Chris Blank comes to mind for example. Chris started printing and framing his beautiful work recently, and is finding the process very fulfilling.
My proposition to you is not that you necessarily start printing although that’s one of my favorite post capture activities. For example, I choose to create my own printer/paper combination profiles, using the X-Rite i1Pro calibration tools. I can download ICC profiles for my printer from Hahnemuhle and Breathing Color, but I chose to create these myself, because I want more than a generic profile. Each printer is slightly different and once the printer itself is calibrated the profiles created on another printer are never quite as accurate.
Sure, this is the control freak coming out in me again, but I enjoy this process. It gives me pleasure to go through the act of printing out the patch sets and reading them in to the computer, and I have the assurance that I’m creating my images with the best possible color for my printer. This part, I guess comes back to the craftsman aspect. The craftsman or artisan in me wants things to be as good as they can be and I’m prepared to do a little more to make that happen, and this is probably why I enjoy the process.
The photographer was traditionally an artisan, and had a lot of skill in the various crafts surrounding the act of capture and printing, and although that was a limiting factor for some, for those that enjoyed the craft, it was a major part of their success. I’d like to see more photographers get back to the artisan mentality, and enjoy the processes surrounding photography as much as I do.
So, as you progress through your photographic life, and you want to do things with your images, don’t just rely on the easy options. Just because you can download profiles for your printer/paper combinations, or you can get cheap prints online, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Think of ways that you could achieve the same thing at home or maybe even improve on quality if you put your heart into it, and if it makes sense financially, give it a try. You might find that you really enjoy your new process, and if like me, you end up stroking your printer as you walk past it, or find yourself smiling to yourself as you trim prints for a client, then this just extends the fun of photography past the capture and post processing, and that has to be a good thing.
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