Philosophy & Reflections

The Joy of Small Prints – by Sroyon

April 12, 2022

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.

The Great Picture in its pinhole camera hangar. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Douglas McCulloh. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

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

Contact 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

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.

Small enlargements

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?

Image content

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?

Technical considerations

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.

Viewing distance

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

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).

I don’t think I have a photobook which is smaller than 6″ on the long edge, but I do have a zine: Vue by Angèle Fourteau. It’s a simple concept and an unassuming size, but I really like it.

Final thoughts

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.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-Free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you’ll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial)
Subscribe here

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

28 Comments

  • Reply
    Martin Siegel
    April 12, 2022 at 11:10 am

    We found contact prints by my wife’s grandmother made in the 1930ies or so. Sizes from 6×9 down to 4.5X6. Great to see!

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 12, 2022 at 3:45 pm

      Medium format contacts are so beautiful. I love the tones, even at that size they usually look different to 35mm prints 🙂

  • Reply
    Felix Troiszéro
    April 12, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for the article. I wonder whether the presentation of our work on Instagram counts for you similar as a small print, isn’t it rarely larger than 6 cm. My experience is, that the observations you made, can also be done with Instagram posts, e. g. the better effect of single present objects instead of many details.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 12, 2022 at 6:44 pm

      Yes I do think small prints and Instagram posts share that particular feature! But in general, I find that looking at prints is a quite different experience from seeing them onscreen. I sometimes wonder if Instagram is subtly changing the type of pictures we take/share, in favour of photos which look good or grab our attention when viewed at thumbnail size while scrolling rapidly, as opposed to photos where the beauty is in the detail, or which reward longer inspection.

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    April 12, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    Well put! I only display/frame small prints (even Instax Mini) or large-ish (11×14, 16×20) these days.
    I hoarded and refrigerated a lot of Fuji packfilm- and use some of it in my Hassy and Kowa.- I inevitably get some angry feed back for ‘wasting’ film ( not using the full frame.) Little prints demand your attention-as do big ones-just in different ways

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 12, 2022 at 3:52 pm

      People will get angry about anything 😅 Do you share your packfilm photos online? I’m interested to see.

  • Reply
    Jasper T Kauth
    April 12, 2022 at 6:14 pm

    These are fabulous. I love your grandfather’s small prints – I have a few contact prints and small enlargements of my family from that time as well. I wonder if the effect of the leaf prints comes down to the size of the white border. The smaller print feels much more prominent because the subject is properly isolated from the background. The frame is just as stunning as the photo, and the combination really works.
    I like to give away small prints as little tokens and gifts. They’re really great for that, especially because they can also work without frames (same goes for instant photos). I would not necessarily put a 10×8 print on my desk without a frame – but a postcard or smaller-sized one? Absolutely! It’s nice to think that so much effort and personal dedication went into such a small thing.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 12, 2022 at 6:48 pm

      Yes, and I am fortunate to have one of your small prints! When I move into my new flat I will display it on my desk ☺️

  • Reply
    Philip Ahlquist
    April 12, 2022 at 7:56 pm

    What a great article! What I really like is that this is completely accessible inspiration, and really carefully put together. It’s easy to read excellent pieces here and think “I need to travel to…” or “maybe I should buy a…” Maybe I should buy a Leica… But small prints are accessible for almost everyone, whatever medium they work with and whatever equipment they have.
    I’ve been struggling with how to make purely analogue images – not the theory, but just how I can make it happen. I don’t have a darkroom and I’m not really in a position to embark on setting one up. I’ve been working with cyanotypes and have been seriously considering tackling a cyanotype enlarger to make prints that have never been near a computer. Hardly an easy task! But now I have the answer – cyanotype contact prints from my medium formats are now the plan. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 13, 2022 at 5:44 am

      Thanks, ‘accessible inspiration ‘ – I like that term! Cyanotype contact prints sound great, and if you use sunlight, it should be faster than using an enlarger. I’m not sure what kind of density and contrast is best for cyanotypes, might be different to what is optimal for traditional printing or scanning. Another fun area to explore!

  • Reply
    jason gold
    April 12, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    I love small prints! 6×9″ was my big prints..
    We hold small cameras or phones with small screens..
    wh had space for murals?

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 13, 2022 at 5:45 am

      Yesss #smallprintgang

  • Reply
    Gary
    April 13, 2022 at 7:45 am

    I remember a friend’s 4×5 polaroids of landscape scenes. They were little gems. After reading this article, I’m motivated to unbox the Fujifiim Instax whatever and give it a try. (I’ve hesitated only because from what I’ve seen, the image quality of the new instant film is lacking, and of course a Fuji Instax lens can’t compare to those used on a 4×5 camera.)

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:22 pm

      Wow, I’d love to see what a 4×5 Polaroid looks like. I believe people hack LF cameras to make pictures on instant film, but I know little or nothing about this area of photography…

  • Reply
    Fiki
    April 14, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Great article. I too like small prints. They are exesible, easy to store and view.. After all we have limited number of walls where we can hang our “art”. 🙂
    Samll prints are more intimate and do not demand perfect photograph, just a piec6 of memory…
    For that purpose I print on 13x9cm darkroom paper and for digital I use Canon Selphy. I would strongly suggest buying Selphy for easy and fast printing. Cheers!

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:24 pm

      Thank you, ooh the Selphy looks great!

  • Reply
    DaveG
    April 14, 2022 at 11:52 pm

    A few years ago I went to Photo London, there was a Guy Bourdin exhibition there of his early personal works, a lot were simple polaroids or small contact prints and small format prints, to me they sang more than 90% of the large prints on display at the fair. Just because you can print large doesn’t mean you should, a nice small print mounted with a lot of space around it brings focus to the image and somehow makes it more special

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:26 pm

      Ahh that exhibition sounds amazing. Likewise artists’ sketches and doodles sometimes appeal to me more than their larger and more elaborate paintings (Picasso being a case in point).

  • Reply
    Merle
    April 15, 2022 at 9:55 am

    So, I’m curious. Are the “6×6 negatives” taken by the camera your grandfather borrowed measured in centimeters?

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:28 pm

      Well I haven’t measured them but presumably they are 56 ×56mm or whatever the “real” measure is of so-called 6×6 negatives.

  • Reply
    Lili Elrod
    April 15, 2022 at 3:55 pm

    Lovely, I love the exquisite small prints elegantly presented.
    Contact prints especially…

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you very much 🙂

  • Reply
    Jerome
    April 15, 2022 at 6:24 pm

    Another insightful article! I really enjoyed this, and like the inclusion of photo books, because these are from photographers with whom I am not familiar. I wish I could make contact prints again.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:30 pm

      Thank you! I’ve been wanting to write an article or two about my (very modest) photobook collection, so it is good to know that people – well, at least one person – is interested!

  • Reply
    Michael J
    April 16, 2022 at 9:17 pm

    Ah, Sroyon, thank you for another excellent post- you speak truth again! I’ve been mucking about (rather slowly over a couple of years) with 4×5″ photos, taken with an cheap and tatty MPP Mk. 7. Of course I don’t have either the space or the means to enlarge the totally glorious negs without hiring a professional darkroom so I’ve only been making contact prints and when they aren’t crap they make beautiful little jewel-boxes of contact prints, especially if you do them on fibre-based paper and tone them. Of course it’s a lot easier if you use a (smaller) enlarger as a light source as you control lamp height aperture and time but it’s a real thrill to print them ‘cowboy-style’ with a Mag-lite and counting elephants.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:32 pm

      Oof I have been tempted so many times to try 4×5, comments like these are not helping… 😅

  • Reply
    Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne
    April 20, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    Small images can be powerfully evocative. there is something mysterious, even ethereal about tiny images.

    In the 1950s, ’60s and even well into the ’70s, standard 3×3″ square or 4×6″ rectangular prints were the go in Canada. All my childhood snaps were printed square on 3×3 Kodak Velox paper. Earlier photos (I was born in 1947) were printed on contact Velox paper, mostly by our local chemist who had a small darkroom at the back of his pharmacy (drug store in North America). Most of these are now light brown but have lasted well. Unlike color prints from the late ’60s and ’70s which are mostly faded, but by then I was photographing mostly my (now divorced) partner and our cats, all of which are no longer part of my life. A few prints have survived – also a 1953 studio image of me as a six-year old, printed on Ektacolor paper. I’ve kept it stored in the dark in an acid-free envelope for many years, which may explain its long survival. Other color prints and early color slides (mostly Anscochrome which seems to have been all that was available by way of slide film in New Brunswick, Canada, 70 years ago) are now long gone. So it goes…

    In my own home darkroom (which I’ve had in one form or another since 1961) I still print small. Most of my 35mm b&w images are printed as 4×5″ as I tend to cut down 8×10″ sheets of enlarging paper into four pieces. My Rolleiflex shots are printed as 4.5×4.5″ squares on 5×8″ paper (half 8×10″ cut down). For many years I printed on fibre base paper and toned, but now in my old age time is more precious and I use RC paper for speed and convenience.

    These small images are also easier to store, but I have several tens of thousands of them, now kept mostly in storage cartons in our (temperature controlled) ‘granny flat’ behind the house, which we use as a spare bedroom and a cat play room.

    Time passes, things change. Our images endure. Small is good.

    From Dann in Melbourne

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      April 22, 2022 at 4:37 pm

      Wow, thank you for your wonderful comment! I think you could easily write an article about your own relationship with small prints, I for one would love to read/hear more 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-Free Experience -Click here to find out more
+