Portrait of Groucho Marx by Richard Avedon examined up close
I recently read an article where a photographer said — about photo exhibitions — that he can always identify the photographers in the crowd because they examine the prints very close to the glass.
I’m guilty of this. I should know better.
For example, I recently had an opportunity to view a showing of photographs by several of the world’s greatest photographers, including this large and stunning portrait of the late actor/comedian Groucho Marx photographed by Richard Avedon in 1972.
As you might expect, it’s a gorgeous print. My clumsy gallery photos don’t come close to capturing the beauty of the print. But look close at my second photo, which was made only a few inches from the glass, and you can see that the image isn’t truly sharp at this size and distance.
I’ve also looked closely at prints by other luminaries, like Steve McCurry, who exhibited some prints so grainy that it was almost distracting. However, with a few steps back, his photographs were as gorgeous as you’d imagine. What I’m talking about here is proper viewing distance for photographs.
Proper viewing distance for photographs
All photographs have a “proper” or normal viewing distance. For family snapshots, that viewing distance may be less than arm’s length. For an 8 x 10 in. print, it might be a few feet. But for very large prints, it’s obviously farther back from the wall. Establishing an exact formula for proper viewing distance is not easy — there are many theories about this online. The most commonly cited formula indicates a viewing distance equal to 1-1/2 – 2 times the diagonal length of the photograph. In other words, if the diagonal corner-to-corner measurement of a photo is 57 in., the ideal viewing distance would be between 85.5 in. and 114 in., or between 7 feet and 9-1/2 feet away.
As a photographer, I’ve thought a lot about this. While I understand that a large photograph isn’t intended to be viewed up close, it’s hard to explain the concept of proper viewing dstance to a client who has purchased a photograph online (based on a low-resolution JPEG on my website), and is seeing her new print for the first time as she unwraps it from the shipping container. It’s important that she has a good first impression, so I insist on sharpness in my prints, even if they could be less sharp, based on normal viewing distance.
Read more about the life and work of Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004 (Amazon)