Why Do We Print?

I was going to write a piece on monochrome printing with the new HP Photosmart Pro B9180, when I sort of suddenly realised that I’ve never thought about why we keep printing non-textual content. The question is not without importance. We live in an age where saving your photos is as easy as clicking an Upload button at Flickr! Even if you’re a professional or semi-professional photographer, there are plenty of remote and local means of saving your photos to a digital medium.

Printing content seems like useless unless it has a textual component to it. A local Bang & Olufsen dealer recently tried to sell me one of B&O’s Home Cinema systems arguing: “These days, people don’t print photos anymore; they can see them bigger than life on their TV set.” Why do companies like Epson, HP, and Canon, are investing so much in printing devices then?

The answer is not straightforward and will differ depending on the person asked and the purpose of what it is that you print. Factors playing a role are definitely:

  • longevity and archival quality
  • the tactile experience
  • the ability to see the printed object without the need to first start up a device
  • and the high quality of the print itself.

There may be other reasons, but I’ll stick to these for now. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that most people think of printed matter as something that will stand the test of time. Books on parchment and paper have survived up to our modern times, and with the technological advances, we can even bring back to life decayed documents from hundreds of years back.

No wonder then that vendors of photo printers are always looking to improve a print’s longevity. Unfortunately, some vendors are not entirely honest. They claim a 100 years archival period, but fail to mention how (or by whom) tests were conducted. Wilhelm Research is a reference in this area.

Interesting information on the competition between HP and Epson can be found in the Wilhelm Research PDF paper “A 15-year History of Digital Printing Technology and Print Permanence in the Evolution of Digital Fine art Photography”. There is a chronological table in this paper, which holds the permanence achievement of various players in the market. It struck me that HP was the first to have a print permanence of over 200 years, with two of their high-end DesignJet printers in 1998. It took Epson another two years to get there.

Today, HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180 (many different characteristics have been reviewed on IT-Enquirer — take a look in the Printers section) can produce prints that will last — under the conditions explained by Wilhelm Research — for well over 200 years. The paper further explains that both artist photographers and the ‘plain’ wedding photographer really want this kind of archival quality. We all seem to like the idea that the photo of our wedding will remain in good condition for a couple of generations to come.

You might argue that digital storage can offer longevity and archival quality too. Optical discs have been used by librarians for years in order to archive content. However,even Magneto-Optical discs have a life span of maximum 30 years. Then there’s also the matter of digital media and technology becoming obsolete over time. Which equipment is going to be able to read those MOs in 30 years time?

Some universities are building a sort of digital technologies museum for the sole purpose of being capable of reading digital media when the original equipment will not be manufactured (nor supported) anymore.
Feel My PhotoA print can be kept in good condition for several generations. You can also feel what it is like. The ‘feel’ of a print will perhaps not matter much when dealing with a common ‘glossy’ paper, but there’s more than glossy print media. Paper mills like Museo and Hahnemüehle make papers that have a distinct tactile feel to them.

Hahnemüehle won awards with their Fine Art papers. Take HP Hahnemüehle Smooth Fine Art paper, or HP Hahnemüehle Watercolor paper: they’re both art media which feel pleasant to touch. Tactile experience is one aspect of the ‘feel’ of a paper. The visual ‘feel’ is another.

Museo Silver Rag is a very pleasing paper to look at. It has a distinct visual quality that is unique to this paper. HP Hahnemüehle Smooth Fine Art — an award winning paper — also has a visual uniqueness about it. The disadvantage of such visually unique papers is that you can’t use them for all sorts of photography. But when you’re creating art with your photos, such paper types can and will strengthen the visual appeal of your art.

You can of course display photos in a digital frame — I remember Sony at some point making such a frame, using a small LCD screen to display pictures stored on a Memory Stick in a sort of slideshow. My gut feeling tells me these digital frames won’t really make it for displaying art like I explained earlier. In the future, an LCD screen may perhaps be capable of mimicking the rough surface of water colour paper, but it will remain a cheap ‘counterfeit’.

The real thing will probably survive all the fashion fads we’re yet to experience.

Printed matter doesn’t require you to power up a processor. It doesn’t require you to charge a battery that will only last for n hours or days before a recharge is needed. Printed matter is just there. It exists in the real world.

Printed photos and art are also environmentally friendly — at least, when care is taken to replace the natural resources that were harvested to make the media in the first place. Batteries and electrical power in general require extra energy that we cannot all generate using environmentally friendly sources.

The best thing about paper and printed matter is that we can take it with us wherever we go. Granted, an A2 photograph will hang on our wall, not be folded and taken with us in our wallet. But a small photo can easily be packed in our wallet. In fact, given the high resolution today’s inkjets are capable of — typically 1200 dpi; if we’re printing on a Heidelberg or MAN Roland, we’ll easily go for 4800 dpi — we can use magnifiers to see who’s on the

Try magnifying a photo displayed on an LCD, and you will see pixels, not details. The quality of digital displays just isn’t up to what we are capable of discerning with our eyes. Of course, LCD technology has not yet reached its fullest potential, and perhaps we will see high resolution LCD screens in the future, but will we ever see displays capable of 1200 dpi, 2400 dpi or 4800 dpi?

I don’t think so, unless you will be prepared to spend a small fortune on your monitor. With resolutions today being close to 300 dpi we’re slowly getting there, but even with high resolutions, there still is the issue of colour.

A monitor will always be more limited in its capacity to display colours, simply because it’s based on the RGB colour space model and because it emits light instead of absorbing it. Today’s inkjet photo printers have colour gamuts that go way beyond what even the best monitor is capable of. And even printing presses can be equipped with ‘High Fidelity” colour add-ons. Printing presses with 8 colours are no exception.

All this results in a simple fact: we continue to like prints and most of us like prints better than what we see on screen or on gadgetry.

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