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The Fallacy Of Printing For Paper Sizes

A recent discussion in the CreativePath Community forum centered on the issue of trying to figure out the best aspect ratios for printing an image on standard paper sizes. This also happens to be a common question in my printing workshops.

I suppose the question stems from the desire to maximize the use of paper so as not to waste any unnecessarily. For example, printing an image from an M4/3 camera onto an 11” x 17” paper (A3) with 1” borders on one dimension leaves 2.5” borders on the other. In an attempt to use more of the paper, you might be tempted to crop the image to fit the paper.

I vehemently disagree with this idea—here’s why. Composition is the most important aspect of any photograph, so why compromise that simply for an arbitrary paper size? I know fine art paper is expensive, but why are you printing your images if not to share your very best with the world?

Is your investment in paper more important than your creative vision?

My approach is to capture the best possible composition I’m capable of in the field. I rarely crop—not because of any ideology, but because I don’t want to lose any resolution that might compromise print sizes. Of course if it strengthens the image, then I’d be foolish not to crop. I’ve also found that this approach actually compels me to look and see more carefully in the field, which is the most important thing you can invest in.

Once I have a composition I am happy with, it gets printed that way regardless of the paper size. If the borders are uneven, I happily trim the paper. That may not use the paper most efficiently, but a viewer could care less about how efficiently you used the paper—only that the composition is as strong as possible to convey whatever it is you want to convey.

The only exception to this situation I can think of is in portraiture where the subject is centrally located and the background is often a fade of some dark color. In this case, cropping is much more forgiving and doesn’t change the composition much at all.

But when there are elements that go to the edge of the frame and beyond, they cannot be ignored simply because they may seem less important. Every part of the rectangle plays an important role in composition, whether it’s positive or negative space.

Don’t compromise your vision because of some standard that doesn’t help the message in any way.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Robert,

    I agree that the image is first and foremost. Too often people print not only to fit a paper, but a frame as well. I prefer to use sectional frames for that reason so the frame fits the image and the mat, rahter than trying to force the image into a “standard dimension.” The only thing you really need to do is to order glass or plexiglass to be cut to size or cut it yourself.

  2. Totally agree. I’ve had a few disagreements with interior designers who want to purchase one of my prints for their clients walls. ” I need you to crop the photo to fit over this couch” is a common request. Can you imagine telling the great Edward Hopper that with one of his paintings!

  3. As someone new to print making I am very interested in this discussion. I recently purchased a Canon Pixma Pro 1000. And I also shoot Olympus micro 4/3.
    If I am understanding this line of logic, Following this path then says I can print a max image of 15 x 20 “ on this printer. Whereas if I crop to a 2×3 I could print a 16×24, but with more upscaling, so quality may be somewhat degraded. Am I understanding this correctly?
    This size also is not “a standard or common size” for matting and framing. From what I see an image size of 11×14 and 16×20 would be more readily available for clients. I guess if you do your own custom matting this would be less of an issue.

    1. Hi Thomas, thanks for the feedback – I think you are missing my main point, which is that if you crop for any other reason than to improve the composition of the image, then you are compromising your image. Cropping for the sole purpose of maximizing print size is a mistake in my opinion because what matters most is that your print is as good as it can be, not as big as it can be.

      Unfortunately, the micro 4/3 format is not optimized for current paper sizes…but that’s just something we have to deal with if the aesthetic integrity of your image is what matters most – and to me it most definitely should. Hope that clarifies things a bit.

  4. I could’t agree more Robert. And this extra margin gives a valuable space for your picture to breath, works like matting, so in many cases it can stand on its own. I realized it in action when i had to print using poster media feeder, for my A4 fine art paper, that created a big margin around the printed image. When i saw it i was a little pissed off for all this empty space. But then i compared the same image with one borderless print and one normal small margin and it looked way much better.

    And what Robert simply wants to say is that if you like an image as you see it on your screen just before going to print module, it would be a pitty to change this only to “save” some paper. I am not against cropping at all, neither Robert is as he explained, if i need to crop i will crop to make my image look as i saw it in the field or as i like it better. But i won’t crop again to have some more paper area printed.

    Robert i really like your example pic on top of this article, it pushes your point to the limits, when i saw it i immediately started calculating the “wasted” dollars here 🙂

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