Why does most digital photography look so bad when it's printed? It's not your thousand-dollar digital SLR camera, if you're serious enough to have one. It can't be your eye, keener than Stieglitz's. That leaves the printer, right?
No snap judgments, please.
Companies like Shutterfly.com and Snapfish.com use something called an HP Indigo Printer, says Mike Ferrari, president of the consultancy Ferrari Innovation Solutions. "I know that technology well, and it is absolutely a perfect machine," says Ferrari, formerly the associate director of Procter & Gamble's Global Printing and Decoration R&D division. "It can print deep richness and have a perfect vignette or shadow area."
It's a million-dollar machine, and uses a completely different process from a regular inkjet printer. "All of the layers of the print, when wet, are accumulated on a roll," Ferrari explains. "What happens is that all of those layers are thermally set, so that the image is actually the thinnest piece of film. It's no longer a liquid -- it's a plastic. And then that thin film is bonded to the paper." The image is reproduced in high definition, and, unlike with an injket, "there are no nozzles involved," Ferrari says.
Which brings us back to the original question: What happened to the vision you saw in your camera's viewfinder?
It got resized.
On your computer, in the conversion process from a raw file to the JPEG typically used for printing, about two-thirds of the exposure information is discarded, says George Delgado, a professional photographer and student adviser at the New York Institute of Photography. "When you throw away a lot of information, you're going to lose some things in the image," he says. Printers don't require JPEGs. People just can't or don't want to store thousands of enormous, super-high-quality images on their PCs.
What you actually lose in the conversion from raw to JPEG is debatable. "There's the thought that the human eye can only resolve at x, and that there's a large fudge factor," says Delgado, "but the human eye can perceive some very subtle differences in color and texture."
So, when your photos look terrible, it probably isn't the camera, and as long as you're using a good lab, it probably isn't the printer. It's you, saving space on your computer. You just might not be aware that you're doing it.
If you're going to print a photo, do yourself a favor: Upload the image as a raw file and send it to the printer in as high a resolution as possible. If the image still looks bad, maybe it's time to take up painting.
James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.