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Thread: Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Baton Rouge, LA

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    I have been working on the scaling problem - what is the right size for prints and do you print differently as the print gets larger? I print digitally from scanned 4x5 negatives. Sharpening is clearly different for larger prints, and that is different from the wet world, but I suspect that issues of contrast and brightness and the like are the same for silver and ink. (As far as I remember, Ansel did not discuss scaling in this book on printing, although he did discuss how image choice would differ for a large image on something like a room divider. )

    What is your experience? Are some images better large? Do you print them differently? I have the prejudice that LF format prints should be large, otherwise why bother carrying the equipment around? (I think my problem with contact prints must be that my eyes are not good enough to appreciate their magic directly and I do not take my magnifier to photo shows. )

  2. #2
    Eric Biggerstaff
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Denver, Colorado

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?


    This is a good question.

    The "right" size for a print is totally up to you as the artist (you knew that was coming). For my work I don't like to print larger than 8x10 as that scale seems to be "right " for the type of images I like to make which are small details of the landscape. I have tried to print larger in the past but the image just doesn't feel correct, so I like small images. Also, I don't sell the images in different sizes, if someone wants a print then they get the size that I think is correct for the particular image.

    Of course, there a MANY photographers who like to print large and most will print in multiple sizes, it is a matter of choice and I don't think there is any one right way. I do think that some people print large because they think art has to be big to have impact, and often I feel the image may of had more impact smaller, but again it is an artistic choice.

    I do on occasion make contact prints of my 4x5 images if I feel that size will help me communicate my vision of the scene to an audience (whomever that may be). I use a large format camera as it provides me greater control over the image, more options in terms of printing, a more contemplative approach to the work, etc. My camera is just a tool, it does not lock me into any single way of printing or creating, but I use LF as it allows me to capture what I want better , in my opinion, than smaller formats.

    On the occasion that I make "larger" prints ( say 16X20) I approach the printing the same as I would a small print. I tend not to make a distinction between large and small, I am going after the same qualities in the prints no matter the size. So my approach and mindset are the same no matter what size I am printing.

    Hope this helps.
    Eric Biggerstaff

  3. #3

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    Print size is a very personal thing. Every print seems to have an optimum size. Some look good large and some look good small. It's hard to predict what the best size will just gotta look (at least I do).

    I did a small show a while back and several people commented that the print should have been bigger. I disagreed.

    There's a local photographer who prints nearly everything the same size. He uses the same frames and the same mats for everything, and you know what, most of it looks pretty good! Just goes to show it works different for everyone.

    I tend to use more contrast as I make the print bigger, but that isn't universal.

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    San Francisco

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    I don't contact print my 4x5's because, generally speaking, they are not good enough. For me, 11x14 is the smallest size that has any impact.

    I see fabulous pix in magazines all the time, roughly 8x10 (not just photo magazines; fashion, New Yorker, whatever). If I were as good as those guys, I wouldn't have to enlarge so big.

    Enlarging is kind of like playing the music louder...

  5. #5

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    I guess it does come down to the subject matter. I like my landscape work at 16x20 or 16x24. Street photos I like at 8x10 or 11x14 (11x17), and much of my portrait work for clients is 8x10, 11x14 and in the case of group shots, 16x24 & 20x30.

    For me the subject is the deciding factor. I wouldn't want an intimate street shot printed at 24x30 for example.

    That's just me though.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Dec 1999
    Forest Grove, Ore.

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    I think there's a relationship between print size and content. Some images are more intimate and need to be printed smaller. Others scream to be big, although like another responder, I tend to print small.

    Take Ansel Adams Moonrise. That image wouldn't have made the same statement if he had made a postcard out of it. It would have made a nice postcard, and that's about it. On the other hand, his photograph of the milk bottle, hard boiled egg and egg cutter would seem to work better as a smaller 8x10, versus a 16x20.

    Part of it probably has to do with subject matter size. Yosemite is huge, and prints better as large photographs. Small still-lifes probably print better as smaller photographs.

    I don't know if it's the same with others, but when I print smaller digital proof prints, I often miss details that cause me to change the larger print that I want to make. For example, too much white in an area that stands out in a negative fashion in the larger print, but which didn't look objectionable in the smaller print.

    Sometimes people print a small print, like a 2.5x4, and mount it on a 16x20 matt board. Cute, but I don't like it. That's a case where I think a print is too small.

    Very interesting question. As I mentioned, I tend to print on 8x10. Perhaps it's partly the size of my darkroom, the cost involved, or my choice of content. But thinking about this tempts me to print larger.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Dec 1997
    Baraboo, Wisconsin

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    It's a little cynical perhaps but I've always thought there was a lot of truth in the old saying: "If you can't make it good make it big. If you can't make it big make it red."
    Brian Ellis
    Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you do criticize them you'll be
    a mile away and you'll have their shoes.

  8. #8

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    Big prints are well worth doing. From a 5x4 neg a 40" wide print is a real treat. I regularly make prints that size from 5x4 FP4 devd in ID-11 1+2 and assuming the focus is good the prints reveal an amazing amount of detail, tonally smooth, sharp as hell, and still invisible grain. I'm a real fan of big prints - they seem to seperate the image contents better, ie: rocks are 'rockier', textures seem more important and livelier and an increase in scale increases the 'presence' of an image. I also like making 40" prints from my little Olympus Pen negs and with 400 speed film the grain pretty incredible but again the tones are opened up. The worst aspect of printing big is the paper - fibre based stuff is a pig to handle. Character building stuff though.

  9. #9

    Join Date
    Apr 2004

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    You have pointed to an important point that moves beyond the usual "proper viewing distance" issue because very large prints are influenced by their environment, and visa-versa. For example, a picture that includes a person enlarged to larger-than-life interacts profoundly with the things around the picture, even in a plain, white-walled gallery. Nothing in the area is left untouched by the interaction; the environment becomes part of the image experience.

    And when viewed from less than "proper viewing distance" (like you can't step back far enough without leaving the room), then the viewer's eyes scan over the print seeking a place to rest or to wonder, so the subject matter becomes something other than the whole - it becomes a matter of experiencing parts.

    So you can see that arbitrarily selecting pictures to make very large is (imho) not a good idea. Choose subjects that fit the final print size, environment.

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Sep 2003

    Are big prints just little prints made bigger?

    There is an optical/mathematical rule about subject impact which always escapes me. Something to do with the apex of the angle your eye makes from the top to the bottom of the print at the distance at which you are viewing the print. Compare this angle to the one originally made by the camera lens toward the subject.

    For example, everyone has an area around his face which when violated makes him uncomfortable.

    Next time you are talking face to face with someone at the office, slowly drift into this space with your face and watch that person become uncomfortable and begin to back up. You will know when you are there because you will feel it, too.

    This phenomenon is used with telephoto lenses to optically extend the comfort zone. Best place to see this is the big heads on the cover of Vogue. Note how much more impact they have, even at a ten-foot viewing distance from the checkout line at the supermarket checkout.

    This formula seems to state that all things being equal, the longer the lens used the smaller the print necessary or the farther away it can be displayed with the same viewer impact.

    Two much simpler rules on how large to print (besides the cost of paper) have to do with wall size and viewing distance.

    I cannot make out an 8x10 print hanging on the wall behind the couch from my chair across the living room. If I plan to surround myself with recognizable images around the room, they must be at least 11x14. Actually 16x20 or 20x24 would be better. Any more than that and the place begins to look like a travel agency.

    The other simple rule has to do with small prints hanging side by side. Some people artistically call this an assemblage or collage. In my simpler thinking, I find these images fight with each other and cancel each other out, impact-wise. Covering the walls with fewer, larger prints works better for me. Easier to concentrate on one image at a time.

    Besides, sometimes I just get a delightful little zing from showing people prints in sizes they can't get at the drug store!

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