The internet has been a real boon to photographers. These days it’s easy to setup an online photo gallery and put your work out for the world to see. There are also all sorts of web based photo competitions and critique sites, and these can be excellent places to hone one’s photographic skill.
While there is a tremendous upside to the internet as a means of presenting photographs, there is also a downside. After all, the images on any website are so tiny that all but the most obvious aspects of the composition are diminished or lost. (The photos on this website are no exception.)
Most web images seldom exceed 600 to 700 pixels in size along the longest axis. Many are even smaller. If they were printed at the customary 300 dpi resolution, most web images are the equivalent of a two inch or smaller paper print.
The inevitable result is that a lot of information is lost, and more importantly, only certain kinds of compositions are effective at this size.
A few years ago I was fortunate to view a huge original print Ansel Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” in an art museum. As I recall, the print was in the neighborhood of 6 x 4 feet in size. The lush detail was stunning, and the impact of the image was incredible.
I just hopped over to Google Images and pulled up some web shots of the same photograph. A lot of the fine detail that makes the shot is lost in low-res, web versions. Someone unfamiliar with this image, seeing it for the first time at internet size, may not be able to discern the cemetery and other key elements in the shot. In fact, at web size, the image really just breaks down into a few compositional elements – the moon, the band of clouds, the horizon, and the horizontal line formed by the town. The real essence of the image is gone.
Maybe it’s an example of the old adage that the medium is the message, but the more one relies on the internet as a means of presenting and viewing photographs, the greater the temptation to produce photos that work at internet size. That means taking photos with simple and uncomplicated compositions, and relying on that simplicity instead of on nuance, detail, and texture, to achieve the desired effect.
Compounding this tendency is that we are all confronted with hundreds of photos every day, and most of them are pitched at us with the intent of selling something. Advertising photos are most effective when they are simple and high impact. With advertising, the viewer might only see the image for a few seconds on a TV screen, bill board, or flipping through a magazine. Obviously, a simple, high impact shot has a greater chance of succeeding – getting the viewers attention – than does a more complex, subtle, or nuanced image.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with simplicity or impact. But photographers who allow those characteristics to become the primary measure of an image’s worth, are short changing themselves and their craft. Some subjects cannot be adequately explored with that approach, some messages cannot be conveyed in that language. And ultimately, that means that some images just won’t work when presented on the internet.
To me, this only emphasizes the importance of the physical print and the presentation of work as prints. One the most basic and fundamental decisions the photographer has to make when preparing a print is the simple question of how big (or small) to make the print. There are no rules, and bigger is not better. But I like to think that every image has its ideal size, and more often than not, that ideal print size will be significantly larger, and present more detail, than a web-sized image.