Big photographs are impressive. From 1950 to 1990, New York’s Grand Central Terminal had a changing display of 60×18 feet (18×5.5 m) backlit transparencies. This display was a Kodak advert – the iconic Colorama series, described as “the world’s largest photographs”.
In 2006, six photographers converted an aircraft hangar into a pinhole camera, creating an even bigger photograph – 111 feet (34 m) wide and 32 feet (9.8 m) high.
I do like big prints… sometimes. This post, however, is about small prints.
Large prints can attract attention – even awe. You can immerse yourself in the detail, or marvel at the craftsmanship and technology that went into the making of the print. But small prints have their own charm. They have an understated, intimate, precious quality. They draw you in.
What is small?
Size, of course, is relative. A print which looks big in a book may look small on a gallery wall. My dad shot 35mm colour film in the ’90s, and labs would give us “postcard-size” prints. They were quite small – 6×4″ (15×10 cm) – made to be stuck in family albums or passed around from hand to hand. For purposes of this post, I’m arbitrarily defining “small print” as even smaller than that – any print smaller than 6″ (15 cm) on the long edge.
Three kinds of small prints
I think I always liked small prints, but we don’t always have a conscious awareness of our likes and dislikes; sometimes it takes a chance incident to bring them to the fore. I was organising my grandmother’s albums when I came across these photos of my aunt and uncle.
My grandfather made these pictures sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s. He did a lot of photography and darkroom printing for work (he was an aerial reconnaissance photographer with the Indian Air Force), but he never owned an enlarger or even a camera. So these are contact prints from 6×6 negatives made with a borrowed camera. They’re family photos, so I’m obviously biased, but they opened my eyes to just how beautiful small prints can be.
The same day that I took these photos-of-photos, I went to an exhibition of photographs by Debalina Mazumder and Manobina Roy, twin sisters born in India in 1919. Most of the exhibited photos were obviously enlargements, but there was also a display of the sisters’ Rolleicord and Rolleiflex cameras, and some lovely 6×6 contact prints.
Instant photos are similar to contact prints, in that the print is the same size as the film format. And who doesn’t love instant photos? One of my favourite photos of myself is an Instax taken by my partner, of me playing with her niece. I don’t think this would work as well at a larger size.
Enlargements can qualify as small prints too, as long as they are – by my arbitrary definition – less than 6″ (15 cm) on the long edge. Nearly all digital prints are technically enlargements, i.e. larger than the sensor. Phone sensors are especially tiny. The photo below was taken with my Google Pixel 2 (12.2 MP, 5.68×4.54 mm sensor) and printed by a lab. A large print would show up the limitations of a phone sensor, but at small sizes, you don’t really notice.
The same goes for small-sensor digital cameras. For several years, my only camera was a Canon PowerShot (12 MP, 6.17×4.55 mm sensor). Again, small prints look quite nice.
In 2013, I replaced the PowerShot with a DSLR – a Nikon D5200 which I still use. It has an APS-C sensor (24 MP, 25.1×16.7 mm) which is far more capable than the PowerShot or my phone. But just because I can print large doesn’t mean I have to. Sometimes, a small print befits the subject. This photo was taken with my DSLR and a macro lens:
Which brings us to the question…
How big should a print be?
Some photos look better as large prints, while some look better at smaller sizes. I can’t always look at a photo and predict if it will work better as a small or large print (with time and experience, I hope to get better at it). One thing I’ve noticed is that small prints don’t seem to work so well if the photo has no prominent subject, or if it relies for its impact on fine details. Sometimes, as with this photo of a fern leaf, I just print at different sizes and see what works.
In this case, I prefer the smaller print. What do you think?
For some photos, the deciding factor is not so much the content, but technical aspects like resolution and grain. Print labs often have guidance on pixel-count and maximum recommended print-size, but of course, these are just rules of thumb. An image with lots of pixels may still suffer at large print-sizes due to grain, lens aberrations, missed focus or sundry other factors. Unless you want to emphasise the imperfections, in which case, all bets are off.
The traditional advice is to let the viewing distance dictate the size – print large if a photo will be viewed from a distance; small if it will be viewed up close. This is one reason why photos on billboards are bigger than those in family albums. But the causal link works both ways: the print-size also influences the viewing distance. Print big if you want viewers to stand back and admire. Hang a small print on a wall, and people will subconsciously go closer to inspect it. To quote a comment I once read on a photo forum, “A big print will grab your attention in a room and turn your head. A small print that that catches your eye will move your feet.”
Presentation matters for all kinds of prints, not just small ones. But small prints generally seem to benefit from clean presentation and negative space. Remember the fern-leaf prints I showed earlier? The smaller of the two is displayed in this walnut frame which my friend Tommy made for me.
Another way to present prints is in a book. Des oiseaux (On Birds), a photobook by Pentti Sammallahti, has several photos which fit my definition of small prints (it also has a minimalist layout with lots of negative space).
Small prints also have some practical advantages. They are cheaper (less paper, less ink), take up less space whether on display or in storage, and mistakes such as missed focus and dust spots on the negative are not as noticeable. But I like small prints for purely aesthetic reasons too, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. Do you make, own or like small prints – and if so, what do you like about them?
Thanks for reading. For more of my work – including prints both small and not-so-small – please feel free to check out my Instagram.