Print Size and Subject Matter : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

What is the relationship between print size and subject matter? This is a large format question because I am thinking of contact prints. Does anyone carry an 8x10 camera, for example, and use a 5x7 reducing back for a shot because a final 5x7 print feels right for the subject matter? (I am not talking about using a reducing back to save money or use a particular film.) Is a bigger negative/print always better? Can a large format negative ever be too large?

-- William Marderness (, May 12, 2002


I can't speak to the reducing back to get 5x7 question. But in terms of print size I have some images that I very much like printed small. Some subjects work very well that way. Particularly if it's a subtle and/or delicate photograph. I have one that comes to mind that is on my wall of my daughther when she was small it's printed very small (3 x 41/2") mounted on a 8x10 mat that works very well. I think small prints draw the viewer in as much as large prints. It makes them get off their butts and go look at it.

-- Ed Candland (, May 12, 2002.

I would answer your question by saying that each photograph is a representation (that is, an interpretation) of its subject matter. So one cannot make general rules concerning print-size in relationship to subject. Artistic decisions, such as print-size, need to be made by a photographer in accordance with the aesthetic demands of the specific image under consideration. Some photographers only make contact prints from one size of negative. This certainly simplifies the universe of what they have under consideration. Sometimes this kind of simplification leads to a life's work of great art and sometimes it hobbles a photographer. Bigger prints are certainly not always better, and large-format negatives can be too large. But all these questions will be answered through work and the artist's reflective response to work. Conversation with friends (and with strangers) can help, but satisfying answers to your questions are ultimately solitary in nature.

-- Michael Alpert (, May 12, 2002.

It seems like you have become aware of the fact that different pictures are at their best at different sizes. This really matters if you want the perspective to be correct, and if you can do something about it, i.e. if you have a selection of lenses and if there is space to move about the subject matter.
There is indeed a "rule" about this, but don't pay too much attention to it, as it could be somewhat inhibitive to your photography. But another axiom says: "You got to know the rule before you break it". (Or something like that.)
So, the rule I'm refering to says:
The finished print should be comparable to the ratio in between the viewing distance and the distance to the subject matter.
Now, this is more easily explained with an example. Say you shoot an interior with an extreme wide-angle lens. (E.g. a 110 lens for 5X7" film or 65mm for 4X5".) In order to get the correct perspective you need to view a 16X20" print from a 10" distance! The "recent" popularity of superwide lenses, like the Schneider 47XL lens for 4X5 photography, makes this "rule" come alive. If shooting a picture with such a lens for an exhibition, the photographer ought to take precautions to inhibit the intended audience to be able to back off to far from the large print. When a viewer comes into the correct viewing distance the picture suddenly becomes "alive", as the perspective gets correct. (My wife once said that one particular, very nice and calm picture, almost made her "feel sick" when the perspective "hit her" as I prompted her to move in close. Eh, she hates merry-go-rounds as well.) To simplify the "rule" I'd say that the lens covering angle (as prjected on the film size) should be about the same as the viewing angle.
To convert this to 8X10" contact prints, you should in general rule out wide angle shots, and especially the extreme wide angle ones. You could, on the other hand, use quite long focal lengths without having to worry about the final print being to "big". It would probably take a 1000 - 1200 mm lens before really needing to use a smaller film size.
Finally, these rules are useful to know about, but don't let them become a burdon to you.

-- Björn Nilsson (, May 12, 2002.

Björn hrmmmmm. I guess I can sort of see that. But then the angle of view is fixed, a photo being 2d and all it's not really going to change by viewing distance. I think of print size and viewing distance more a function of what works best with a particular image and then at what viewing distance the print will look sharp and in most cases gainless as possable. I'm new to LF but with 35 I usally print rather small (5x7ish) because I have the bad habbit of sticking my nose right up to the print (well not really that close but you get the idea).

-- Ed Candland (, May 12, 2002.

yeah, yeah - the theory behind this is elusive at best, and you can certainly find people who will argue that there is a place for small prints, but from my experience in the art world, big prints ALWAYS win. i have seen some excellent exhibitions of 4x5 platinum and palladium prints that were gorgeously printed, and matted and framed to perfection that are literally skipped over by visitors to the museum, while totaly mediocre images that were printed at 48x70" or so, are gawked at like they were just incredible. as with any endeavor, we have to, to a certain extent, understand and cater to our audience, and from what i can tell, they like large art much more than small when it comes right down to what they are willing to pay for something. (personal images of meaningful scenes mentioned above, there is indeed an appropriate size for any given image, which you can see evident in the work of ealry 20th century photographers such as steiglitz.)

-- jnorman (, May 12, 2002.

Yes jnorman I would totally agree in a socity where bigger houses, bigger cars and bigger breasts are thought of as always better. I'm sure bigger art is too. I was just thinking in terms of what works visally. kind of sad really.

-- Ed Candland (, May 12, 2002.

My wife, Paula Chamlee, uses an 8x10 camera. We have both 5x7 and 4x5 reducing backs and she makes from 10-25% of her negatives in either of those sizes. Everything is printed as a contact print. Most collectors love the small contact prints--there is an intimacy about them that draws people right in. There are even a few collectors who positively prefer the small contact prints and who pretty much buy only them. I've made a few 4x5s, too--to be seen as 4x5 contact prints only--never enlarged.

A bigger negative is not always better. Can a large format negative be too big. Yes, if it becomes too hard to handle easily. I work 18x22 sometimes and that is my limit.

But your first question, "What is the relationship between print size and subject matter?" is the most interesting. Paula and I can answer it, but it would require too much time here, time I do not have. Often huge landscapes work wonderfully compressed into a 4x5 and sometimes details can work at 18x22--and vice-versa. Every photograph you make is a different situation. there are no rules about this. If you aspire to be an artist with your camera, do whatever feels right to you and ignore everyone else.

Michael A. SMith

-- Michael A. Smith (, May 12, 2002.

Such insight...

For me the decision to use 8x10 versus 5x7 is determined by the ASPECT RATIO of the format, not by the SIZE. Sometimes 8x10 is just too square; sometimes 5x7 is just too rectangular. My personal rule is to print the negative - the entire negative - no cropping, no enlarging, so the choice of format is important.

-- Chad Jarvis (cjarvis@nas.edi), May 13, 2002.

To answer your original question, there is a relationship between the subject matter and print size. Some subject matter can look quite gross in big prints, especially head shots of people and some small objects. Some subjects seem to demand large prints. On the other hand, we seem to become bound by the negative size or paper size furnished by the manufacturer, printing everything 4x5,5x7, 8x10, etc. Sometimes a 3x10 or 4x7, etc., can work best. I can not agree with the "full negative, don't crop" idea. Unless you are photographing only perfect subjects or are willing to settle for a less than ideal viewpoint, cropping is an essential part of making a good print.


-- Doug Paramore (, May 13, 2002.

...which is why it is a personal rule.

-- Chad Jarvis (, May 13, 2002.

Some subject matter can look quite gross in big prints, especially head shots of people.
Doug, you apparently haven't seen Tracy Storer's 20x24 Polaroid head shots. They are truly spectacular.

-- Stewart Ethier (, May 13, 2002.

William, Paul Caponigro (a pretty-good photographer!) says that each print/image should have its own "voice" i.e. size, interpretation,color, etc. I would add that the image MUST lead the process and not vice-versa. Don't get suckered into that bigger-is- better mentality. Think big but don't necessarily print big. Alfred Steiglitz said it best when he reviewed the work of Paul Strand. "The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam, trickery, and of any attmept to mystify and ignorant public, including photograhers themselves." Steiglitz made some pretty good 4 x 5 contact prints himself! Tell those who advocate Big for Big sake to get educated or go back to watching Pro-Wrestling . . . Take care, Peter Bosco

-- peter bosco (, May 14, 2002.

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