How to Brand Your Prints

the back of a photo, annotated with laser printing

Photos in print are much harder to brand than photos on your website. If your printing in any great quantity, the tedious process of writing out your name, website, and other pertinent information on the flip side becomes insurmountable. Secondly, most photographic papers have a resin-coated backing, which stubbornly refuses any water-based inks. My methods in this article are aimed toward unframed 4*6 prints, as that’s what I deal with myself, but they can be easily applied to other formats. In fact, the fundamentals of permanence at the end are essential to any print medium.

Whether your printing photos for your friends, family, art, or business, it is doubtless that any copies floating about can make convincing advertisements. Your very livelihood is at stake; what can you do to make sure that everyone knows that you are the creator of those photographic masterpieces? Luckily, you do have options.

1. Put your name right on the front of the print, straight from the digital source files. This is an easy way to demarcate your work; you don’t have to deal with any hand writing or messy backprinting. Unfortunately, it’s a bit distracting, and anything more than the title and your name is pushing it; include your website and the text will get more attention than the photo. Plus, if you’re going to put the info anywhere, it’ll have to be at the edge of the print, perhaps in a border surrounding the image. You’re going to have to deal with the bleed edge, and it’s a pain because what looks fine on the screen will often get cut off in a borderless print. This becomes especially important if you’re out-sourcing to a lab, as they often crop tightly, and you have less control than with home printing. Nonetheless, as long as you use a big enough border, this is effective, especially if you’re drop-shipping your prints and can’t intercept them to label the backs elegantly. I’m using this very technique for The Freedom Project, my free print offering; the image area is 5×3.34 instead of 6×4, and the extra space is used for a border, with the title and my name at the bottom.

2. Label the back of the print by hand. This is fine in low volume, and provides a connection to your audience. There are downsides though: it’s slow and eats away at your time, your handwriting won’t be as readable as printed type, and getting the ink to stay without damaging the print is a challenge. Don’t even think of using a ballpoint pen; the point will leave a noticeable impression on the front side, and if the ink is water-based, it’s not going to adhere anyway. Your best choice is a pigment-based permanent marker; a Sharpie or equivalent. Ultra fine point is good, as long as you don’t press down too hard.

3. Rely on your lab to label your prints. Usually, they print a tiny dot-matrix label, including the file name or custom text. Winkflash prints the file name, and SmugMug offers custom text, for example. Both are limited to about forty characters—hardly enough space for your name and website. This post by dogwood at the Digital Grin forum sums it up:

Just my two cents, the backprinting option is a GREAT idea… though in reality, it does look pretty poor. The printing is tiny, there are frequent errors, you can’t use symbols (including the copyright symbol), and it looks like one of those 1980’s dot matrix printers is used to create the text.

The provided backprinting is a step up from nothing, though.

4. Label the back of the print with a rubber stamp. You’ll run into the same problem as above: dye or water based inks will never dry. Your only choice is pigment-based or permanent ink, which are less common and more expensive. It’s hard to clean either off your stamps, and the former has the con of not being permanent. Read more here: Ink Pad Basics. Look into alcohol based inks if you pick this route, as they will stick to even plastic.

5. Label the back of the print with an ink-jet printer. This won’t work at all. Trust me, I’ve tried it. It’ll come out looking fine, but as soon as you touch the ink, it smears all over the place, even if it’s sat out for two weeks. It’s fine if you’re using double-sided paper, but if you are, you don’t need to read this anyway.

6. Label the back of the print with a laser printer. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is what I do for all my 4*6 prints using a Lexmark E450dn; the opening image is an example. This won’t work with many printers, and has some problems. For starters, many laser printers get too hot and will damage the finish or curl your prints permanently. Don’t expect any specs on this from the manufacturer. You run the risk that the plastic in the print will melt and get caught up on the rollers, immobilizing your expensive machine. This happens more often with inkjet photo paper, which isn’t designed to stand up to heat. And many printers don’t like to label 4*6’s; you’ll have trouble setting up the tray, and getting the print to be centered. The upside is if it works, you have a cheap and fast way to batch label prints, even with lengthy annotations that fill up the whole back side, like in my example image. The “ink” will always stick, because it’s in fact toner, ground up particles of plastic, which are burned to the paper with a fuser as hot as 400 degrees (Fahrenheit). I lose about one in two-hundred prints, because the printer messes up and crinkles them. But I can run a stack of seventy-five through in eight minutes, usually with no intervention, provided their all the same photo.

7. Use water-based ink, but cover it with a piece of scotch tape. The ink smears a bit under the tape, but remains legible. This looks really ugly. It works, but leaves a bad impression, so I don’t recommend it. Another downside is that the tape may peel with time or under wear.

8. Use printer labels. Get a pack of 2000 clear inkjet labels (just over a cent each), then print on them with your inkjet printer. The ink will absorb into the label, and then you can just stick the label on your print. This is a good method because it overcomes the problems of the prints’ non-absorbent surface, but applying the labels is more time consuming than printing directly as in method five, stick-on labels don’t look as good, and they’re expensive. Plus, they can be easily peeled off.

9. Give up and do nothing. No, no, you can’t do this. Moving on . . .

Now that you know how to do it, the next question is what to do. By do, I mean write. Pick facts to stand the test of time. Your name is a good start, but unless it’s terribly unique (like mine), you’ll want a bit more information so people can track you down—not to stalk you, but so they can buy more of your work and commission you to take photos of their children and pets. Put your website on the back, but be wary that a URI like doesn’t inspire much confidence. It isn’t good for you either—what if Flickr bans you for some unjust reason, or you get tired of the limitations and want to move out on your own? All the photos you’ve labeled and distributed are going to be out of date. Fortunately, you can have the best of both worlds; register your permanent domain for about $10 a year, then set it up to forward to your Flickr account (or SmugMug, or deviantART, or whatever). Any good registrar will offer forwarding, and then if you change photo services or start using your own domain, you can change the settings. All your photos and t-shirts you’ve printed will never go out-of-date, because they’ll be forwarded to the right place as you so smartly set up.

Regarding permanence of information, the same applies to phone numbers. While your number may be better relegated to a business card than to the backprinting on a print, either way, get one you can stick with. You can’t count on your parents or roommates to forever take your calls, but a good solution, if you don’t mind a new number, is GrandCentral, a free proxy phone service with voice mail, multicast forwarding, and other perks. I use this for the 510-936-2417 phone number I bandy about on my contact page and elsewhere, yet it forwards to both my secret home and cell phone numbers, simultaneously. When I change numbers, I just update the record at the website, and start receiving calls at the new number, even though I’m still using 510-936-2417. Since Google has acquired the service, it should remain free and reliable for a long time. You have to sign up for a waiting list, but when I did it, I was chosen in about a day.

So now that you have your shiny, permanent web address and phone number, what else do your fans have to know about their beloved artist? It’s debated, but I feel that every great photo deserves an equally wonderful title, and if there’s anything your print viewers should know, it’s the title of the gem which has entered their collection. Flaunt it proudly on the label. It’s the first thing on mine. An index number is a good idea, so if you’re called for reprints, you can look up the photo by number right away. If each of your photos has a unique title like with mine, I suggest skipping it, however.

Now, what not to write. Unless it’s photo-journalism, don’t write the date. Photos like my Raindrops are timeless, but if I announce that it is from two years ago, people will think it’s old and not valuable, especially when I want to pass it off, implicitly, as recent work. Put the name of your photography studio if you run it, but not if you’re an employee, unless your employer requires it. I have an aversion to “copyright” and “all rights reserved” for backprinting. It’s a waste of ink, your work is copyrighted regardless in the U.S.A., and it won’t deter any thieves. Going with this theme, don’t watermark prints, ever. Even if you’re giving them out. It’s bad karma. Besides, a scanned print won’t be near the quality of your master files.

Do write some notes, if you’re labeling with an efficient laser printer. I do this on a lot of my pieces now, and my friends enjoy reading of the method behind my creative madness. Sign a few prints with a blue Sharpie, so it’s not mistaken for a facsimile signature; they might be collectors’ items someday. Put your website down, but don’t think of detailing your pricing or photography services; people can contact you if they’re interested, and that information is perishable anyway. Whatever you print, make sure it’s big and readable. I use Arial, size 14 for my branding, size permitting, so even blurry-visioned folks can read the title without glasses.

I do hope I’ve helped you in tackling this issue. Marking your prints is a major step toward developing your personal photographic brand, and the virtues of the printed format continue to complement Internet publication. May your followers never wonder who you are, and may your contributions shine through the photography community.