Picture by _lulu
There's no getting around it: when you have a digital original for a photograph, then it's hard to feel like the results of printing it matter too much. After all, it's pretty easy to produce a second copy if you need one -- and for many of us, our PC monitors and the Internet are the main places where we experience photos anyway.
Despite that, the old habit of printing an image dies hard. One study by the Photo Imaging Council of Australia suggests 65% of camera owners regularly print photos at home. Whether it's for public display or to keep non-PC-equipped relatives happy, photo print outs are still a pretty regular occurrence for most keen photographers.
While ink costs have become cheaper, printing is still a costly enough exercise to make it worthwhile to spend a little time ensuring you're getting the results you need. Here's some techniques to ensure you get photos with a reasonable lifespan without spending a fortune.
Match the print quality to the purpose. If you just want to print photos to carry in your wallet (not everyone uses their phone for this), long-term image quality may not be a concern and you could be happy with cheaper cartridges and plain paper -- after all, you'll be changing the pictures soon enough. For display prints and albums, however, material selection can be a much bigger deal. Shop around to help reduce costs, but don't be tempted by ultra-cheap inks and papers -- the results aren't likely to last as long.
Invest in decent media, printing materials and storage. All of these elements matter. Printer companies have a vested interest in promoting their "original" inks and photo papers, but their claims aren't entirely without foundation. Buy the right materials and your prints will enjoy a long life, without needing to involve professionals. Studies by Wilhelm Imaging Research suggest printouts from a home inkjet printer on specialist photography paper will last at least as long as prints produced in a specialist photo store. Indeed, inkjet produces better results than many of the expensive printing systems used by professional outfits, especially for older photos dating from the 1970s and 1980s.
What you do with the photos matters just as much as how you produce them. Something whacked up on the corridor wall with thumb tacks isn't going to last. Minimal light exposure and a constant temperature will provide a better environment for your photos. For pictures on display, framing will minimise dust exposure and reduce light damage.
Make sure your originals are safe. Make regular backups of your photos and keep them somewhere safe. Online storage makes sense -- uploading to Flickr or any digital backup service is straightforward and will keep your digital photos safe in the event of natural disaster, making it easy to reproduce physical copies if necessary.
Think twice about sticking photos on the fridge. Between high light levels, ozone output, cooking mess and easy access for passing toddlers, fridges represent one of the least stable photo zones. If you do set one up, don't expect it to last more than a year.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?