Prints vs. digital files

My mom has several tupperware bins full of pictures of me and my brother as kids, and often when I visit my parents, I end up sorting through them. With the exception of when I was an infant and that one time with me and my brother around age 11 (hellooooo, white turtlenecks and khakis), we never really had professional photos made. They’re mostly just snapshots, many of them prominently featuring the blurred outline of my mother’s finger in the corner- needless to say I did not inherent the photography thing from her. Regardless, they’re probably my favorite thing about my parents’ house, and sorting through them is comforting in a way. We’ve even agreed how, in the event of a house fire, those bins would be the first thing my mother would save.

I’ve seen the vast majority of the pictures in these boxes, with some exceptions: in addition to the multitude of glossy 4x6s and Polaroids, there’s also plenty of envelopes of film that’s yet to be developed. None of us have any idea what they contain, and when I asked about them as a little girl, the response I got was always the same: “I’ll get them printed someday.” Years later, this still hasn’t happened, and it probably never will. Photography now is very different than what it was when those photos were taken, so printing them would be a difficult and time consuming endeavor.

So how does that anecdote pertain to photography today? After all, most of us don’t use film anymore- everything has gone digital. Digital files are suddenly of huge interest to people investing in professional photography, and a lot of my clients ask which investment they should make: purchase the digital files or order prints? My answer is always the same- spring for the prints. Why? When you purchase digital files, they often end up stored away on a hard drive or disc. You say you’ll print them one day, but right now things are just SO hectic, so instead they’re just going to stay on your computer. That’s okay, though- you can keep them there as long as you need because you’ve backed them up, and they’re not going anywhere, right? Well, here’s the thing: like I said, technology evolves pretty quickly, especially in photography world. The way we take pictures has changed so much in the past 15 years, and there’s no way of knowing what’s coming next. If you’re not yet convinced, find a kid, show them a floppy disc, and observe the look of sheer confusion that’s bound to follow. CDs and flash drives will probably go the way of the floppy disc one of these days. What on earth would you do with a floppy disc full of precious memories? Even JPEGs, the standard image format, will likely be slowly replaced by some file type that stores more information or is superior in some yet-to-be-thought-of way. In 10 or so years, computers might not be able to read CDs or JPEG files. Since you won’t be able to view your pictures on your fancy future computer, you’ll have to go through someone who can convert old, outdated technology to whatever the new standard might be, which will probably be annoying and costly. In short, give it time and your digital files may become as useful to you as those envelopes of undeveloped film.

Even then, I think that undeveloped film has the advantage over pixels. Unless you somehow manage to scratch it or God forbid your house burns down, it’s not going anywhere. It can’t be corrupted or contract a virus, you can’t accidentally send it to the trash bin, and it doesn’t crash for no good reason. You can back up your computer, but not everyone thinks to do that until it’s too late, and even backups aren’t foolproof. Of course both film and CDs can be lost or scratched. However, it’s unlikely you’ll wind up misplacing that canvas print or framed 11×14 in the back of your closet.

Considering I don’t put as much worth into digital images, it’s reasonable to wonder why I charge so much for them. I always include web-sized digital files with every session, but you can also buy the full resolution digital files from me. It’s pricier… and there’s a reason for that. Here’s another BIG reason why I always encourage buying prints over digital files: not all prints are equal. In fact, they’re far from it. Consumers cannot buy the kinds of prints you’ll get from a pro photographer; you have to have an EIN and an established business to use professional labs. There’s several differences between your standard print and the professional quality, the most obvious being that the color is truer to what was intended in professional quality prints. Printing accurate color is tricky, and there are very few consumer labs that get it right (although if you do want to purchase the digital files and print yourself, I can point you towards the ones that do). Don’t believe me? You can find some really good comparisons of pro and consumer labs out there with a quick Google (for starters, there are two really good blogs on that here and here– for the record, my lab of choice is Miller’s). Secondly, the prints you get from your local Target are going to fade and discolor over time. Nothing is immune from aging, but professional prints will last you MUCH longer. Let’s face it: you’ve just invested a good amount of money in professional photography, and you’ll likely end up looking at the prints and canvases you buy every day… making sure they look absolutely amazing on your wall for years and years to come is a top priority for me.

So once you’ve gotten your proofs, here’s my advice on what to do with them: print them. Print them now while it’s on your mind, and get them printed right. Technology is always growing and changing, but paper is paper- it’s not going to become obsolete any time soon. I completely understand that digital files are important, which is why I do include web-sized ones in the session price- you can put them on Facebook and even print them up to a 5×7. But when you get down to it, you’re investing in more than a new album for your Facebook timeline. You’re investing in something that your family is going to hold dear for generations, and I guarantee they’re going to end up treasuring the tangible product instead of a bunch of pixels. Pictures are so important; after all, they tell your family’s story. Make it so you can look back on the important pieces of that story 10, 20, 50 years from now, because these memories are only going to become more precious as time goes on.

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