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Photo Printing Through the Years

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Printing Origins

The term photographic printing refers to the process of transferring a photograph onto paper using specialized paper. The whole process began around the mid-1800s with the invention of the camera. Soon after, photographers began finding ways to use combinations of chemicals and metals to transfer these photographs. Sir John Herschel, for instance, was trying to find a way to easily create copies of blueprints for construction when he discovered a way to print photos on cyanotype. 

Moving to the 1900s, a man named Eastman Kodak invented a camera with its own roll of film. The photographs were stored on the film in the camera (which back then was not available to the actual user of the camera). Once the user had taken the allotted amount of photos, they would mail the whole camera back to the Kodak company who would develop and send back prints of the photos. This process made the larger cameras using glass plate technology rather obsolete, left for only professional photographers.

Black & White Paper

One popular way to print photos was also printing on black and white paper. This whole process involves four steps, all of which take place in a darkroom used by professional photographers to create prints. These types of rooms are often featured in movies and television shows, but few people understand the full process and the work it takes to make these prints look their best. 

To begin with, the image is exposed onto sensitized paper with some sort of enlarger or printing press before a chemical process ensues. The latent image is then processed in a chemical reaction. This process involves developing the exposed image in silver halide and then diluting the chemicals to stop development at just the right moment. That's the part in the movie where you see the photographer dip the image into the pan of water. This also removes the processing chemicals so that the final print will not fade or deteriorate further beyond its fully developed state. 

Printing From Negative Images

Along with black and white, negative images can be used for printing photos in color as well. This process is typically referred to as chromogenic printing, silver halide printing, or dye coupler printing. These types of prints are basically photos created from a color negative, a transparency, or a digital print. These digital prints include 3 layers that help the development process. These layers are made up of gelatin, which contains silver halide to create light sensitivity. The gelatin also includes a dye coupler that pairs together the proper colors to create the desired print on the final canvas. 

Today, this process still remains and is used by Kodak Endura and Fujifilm to print high-quality photos, especially for marketing and advertising. An abbreviated form of this process takes place in at-home color printers when using special photo paper composed of a similar combination of gelatin layers and dye coupler technology. Using these kinds of printers at home allows for non-professional photographers to have high-quality photo printing for their phone, computer, or digital camera. 

Polaroid Cameras

As the process of printing photos in color was heading toward today's technology, a shortcut in the process led to a pop culture icon that we still see today. The Polaroid camera, or instant camera, has its own film that develops itself and prints the photograph in a matter of minutes. The late 20th century was the golden age of Polaroids, which were an incredibly popular way to commemorate special moments. The obvious benefit was not having to wait to get the film developed to have the picture. The user simply pointed the camera, clicked the button to capture the image, and then waited for the camera to print the photo. 

However, the largest downside was simply slightly lower quality than regular photographs from film that had to be developed by a professional. These would take days or weeks at a time, so most people were happy to trade instant photos for slightly lower quality. These Polaroid cameras are still around today at reasonable prices and are a popular throwback style of photograph alternative to smartphone photographs. 

Photo Print Uses

Whether the photo printing takes place in an instant process as with the Polaroid camera, a home printer, or professional photo printing, people print photos for a variety of different reasons. Many people will use their Polaroid camera photos to create mini photo journals to commemorate a trip or special occasion while people can print 8x10 inch photos from their phones on their at-home printers. These photos can be put in frames around the house, mailed to loved ones as gifts, or used for work projects. 

If photographers want to print out larger photos, they'll typically have them done by a printing service like FedEx, Walgreens, or CVS Photo for posters, pamphlets, or advertising stickers. Few people still use the classic Kodak style cameras that force users to send the film away for development. Smartphones made this technology obsolete because people prefer to see the image instantly on their phones. This also gives the user the option to take as many photos as they want rather than only using a few shots on film for each particular moment. 

As photo printing advanced through the years, the major changes all led to greater convenience for the user and greater accessibility to professional level photographs. 


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