How Joel Santos uses print to tell stories

The travel photographer reveals how he uses prints to refine his storytelling, attract new clients and help make him a better photographer.
 Hands hold up a mounted print, signed by the photographer, of a fisherman standing in a lake and holding up his net from the water.

"When you print an image, all the experiences you have while making it are materialised on a piece of paper you can touch and give," says travel photographer Joel Santos, who makes prints of his images for gifting, exhibitions and selling via his website. "That gives it a lot of value, much more than the apparent value of paper and ink." © Magali Tarouca

"Although our lives are increasingly digital, at heart we are still analogue beings," says Canon Ambassador Joel Santos. "More and more, we connect with people and exchange images on social media and instant messaging, but we still prefer material things. For photos, I believe nothing beats printing, and whenever I feel a picture is special, I like to print it."

Joel, based in Portugal, is a travel photographer and documentary filmmaker. His work focuses mainly on people living in traditional ways in remote locations around the world including China, Mongolia, India and Ethiopia. Printing his stories is an important aspect of his photography, whether for exhibitions and print sales or for gifting. "When you gift something you can physically own, hold, touch and smell, people value it more," he says.

Joel believes that printing has undoubtedly had commercial benefits for his business too. "Selling prints is not my main source of income, but I do have plenty of requests from businesses and from individuals who like my photos and want a print to hang on their wall," he says.

Here, Joel offers advice for storytelling with print and discusses the benefits of the Canon PIXMA PRO-200.

A salt miner and a line of dromedary camels are reflected in a large but shallow pool of water in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia.

In his work as a travel photographer, Joel has visited some of the world's most remote regions including the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, where he took this photograph of a salt miner with a caravan of dromedary camels. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM) at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Joel Santos

A man sits at a desk editing a photograph on a computer monitor. Gift boxes, festive lights and mounted prints are on the desk beside him.

For professional photographers such as Joel, printed imagery can have a direct effect on business streams. "Many times, when people have been to one of my exhibitions, they have ended up being a future client, because they have finally understood my capabilities as a photographer and the true nature of my work," he explains. © Magali Tarouca

Shoot for the story, not your audience

When shooting images, Joel doesn't think about their final purpose – whether that's being made into a framed print or gracing a magazine cover. Instead, he always aims to tell his own individual story and avoids simply trying to please his audience. "What happens with social media is that people often shoot what they know others will like, rather than what they really want to shoot," he says. "It fulfils a commercial purpose to some extent, but it makes you more like any other photographer.

"When I'm shooting, I always try to do it instinctively, reacting to the things I see and the people I meet, because I want to tell unique stories, not stories that anyone else could tell."

The process of compiling the story happens when Joel starts printing and although that story requires multiple images, he stresses that every image should also work individually. That's equally true whether you're photographing special family celebrations such as Christmas or birthdays, or a story about indigenous people in a remote area.

"If you don't have good ingredients, you don't have a good photo," he says. "That means having excellent lighting and composition. An image has a finite space to work with and everything in the image must have a purpose. For me, composition is not about all the things you can put in an image, but what you can take out in order to make the story as striking as possible."

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Six young members of the Mundari tribe sit close together amid a herd of longhorn cows in South Sudan.

Joel photographed these young members of the Mundari tribe in South Sudan in 2020. When shooting a story, he aims to cover all angles in order to tell a complete narrative of a particular place and its people. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Joel Santos

Aim for spontaneity rather than staged shots

When telling a story, Joel aims to shoot candid moments. "These moments are natural, not staged like most people do for Instagram or album photos," he says. "To escape any 'staged' feeling, it's best to avoid using flash as it ruins moments and draws attention to the photographer."

Joel recommends using a bright and inconspicuous lens such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM or the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM. The great low-light performance of EOS R System cameras makes it possible to shoot in low light at a wide aperture without needing very high ISO settings, and also gives great separation between subject and background.

Joel's technique results in sharp, clear, low-noise prints that capture spontaneous moments and are very different from posed, flash-lit celebration pictures.

"If there isn't fluorescent or LED lighting, use the electronic shutter," Joel advises. "It will allow you to use a faster drive mode without making any sound, which will help you nail the perfect moment. With an EOS R System camera, it's also a good idea to enable Eye AF in Servo mode, since it will help you to be focused on composition rather than changing focus points."

A man and a young elephant stand together up to their waists in water. The elephant has its trunk curled gently around the man's neck.

Joel photographed this orphan elephant and its caretaker in Kerala, India, in 2016. "People often like to have prints of a particular place because of their personal connection to it, or because it's a place they've dreamed about or inspires them," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 7D Mark II) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 IS USM lens at 100mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Joel Santos

A print of a man and an elephant is held against a Canon printer, with red packages of Canon printer paper on top.

When building a story with a set of images, Joel says it's important to take out any that aren't contributing to the story or aren't of the same standard. "You have to be ruthless in taking out images that don't work. You can have nine amazing photos but it only takes one bad photo to ruin the whole story," he says. © Magali Tarouca

Selecting images for printing

Just as when you're shooting images, the same process of judging what's essential applies when choosing the best images to tell a story. Joel can start off with thousands of images on a particular subject, before gradually narrowing them down to the 10 or even five images that encapsulate what he wants to say.

"You have to get picky about what you print," he says. "When you do that, you start picturing in your mind what you really need to tell a story – how many pictures do you really need, are there any aspects that are missing, any gaps in the story you need to fill? A story needs rhythm, variety, different angles.

"The more you print, the more you improve as a photographer," Joel adds, because this process hones both your image-making and your storytelling skills for the next time you shoot. "It's better to understand what you need while you're in the field, rather than when you're back at home."

A print of two images is held up to a computer monitor showing those same two images in Canon's Professional Print & Layout software.

Joel ensures that his prints match what he sees on his computer display by partnering his Canon PIXMA PRO-200 printer with Canon's Professional Print & Layout software. "The way the software and printer work together makes the whole process seamless," he says. © Magali Tarouca

Editing and post-production

While post-production is a key part of the process, for Joel it's important to get the best possible image in-camera. "You should never see the editing process as a problem-solving step where you can correct your mistakes, but as one where you un-tap all the potential that a picture already contains," he says.

Joel uses Canon's Professional Print & Layout (PPL) software, which functions seamlessly as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, where he edits his images. The software enables Joel to get optimal results when printing, with built-in ICC output profiles for imagePROGRAF and PIXMA PRO printers in combination with various inks and media types. He also uses PPL's soft proofing feature to give an accurate on-screen simulation of the print that will result from the settings chosen.

"The sophistication of the software means you don't often have to customise the settings for accurate colour reproduction, which I need for reportage or documentary work," says Joel. "However, occasionally I adjust colour settings because there are times when colour is about taste – it's about what you personally like or want."

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A hand holds the underside of an A4 print as its emerges from a Canon printer.

Joel loves to see his prints at A3 size, but says that can be too big when making prints as gifts. "Sometimes it's too imposing, like having a bigger piece of furniture than you need in a room," he says. "I believe A4 strikes a good balance and is the perfect print size for gifting." © Magali Tarouca

Printing with the Canon PIXMA PRO-200

Joel has been using the Canon PIXMA PRO-200 printer since the beginning of 2021. The ideal choice for photo enthusiasts and aspiring photographers, the PIXMA PRO-200 offers an eight-colour dye-based ink system and wireless connectivity in a compact and lightweight body.

"Printing at home used to be a cumbersome process and the colour mismatch between what you saw on the screen and in your prints was a nightmare," says Joel. "I used to have my prints made by my favourite retailer, but now, with this printer, I get professional results that I'm very happy with.

"The way the software communicates with the printer is seamless," he continues. "It prints up to A3+, which for archiving and gifting is more than enough. For me, it fits the bill in every way possible, both for business and personal printing."

Joel has often gained new clients after they have seen prints of his images in exhibitions. "When people see a big print, where they can really appreciate what's in there, your perceived value as a photographer is actually enhanced," he says.

A person cuts out a print of a young girl sitting on the back of a reindeer. The same image can be seen on the computer screen in the background.

Among the indigenous peoples Joel has photographed are the Tsaatan – a nomadic group of reindeer herders who live in the remote forests of Northern Mongolia. Joel printed this image of a young Tsaatan girl on Canon's Pro Platinum photo paper, a favourite among pro photographers for its outstanding quality and fade resistance. © Magali Tarouca

A framed picture of a girl on a reindeer sits in a brown gift box, scattered with metallic confetti and surrounded by festive lights.

Striking prints make great seasonal gifts for family, friends or business contacts, especially if the photograph is one you've taken yourself. © Magali Tarouca

Paper choice and size

One of the main reasons Joel prints is for archiving purposes – so he has a permanent, high-quality record of his best images. "I print on the best possible papers so they are long-lasting," he says. "I also like to print big, preferably A3 size, so I can see all the wonderful, subtle details my camera can capture, because that's what I'm passionate about. It doesn't make sense to shoot on a Canon EOS R5 and then view the photos on a phone screen."

Joel's personal preference is for premium printing papers such as Canon's Pro Platinum, Pro Luster and Pro Premium Matte paper. "Pro Platinum is usually my choice for gifting, and I use the others for exhibitions or archiving," he says. "Canon produces excellent papers and pigments, so you get all the colour rendition and light gradation you see in the image on the screen."

For prints made as gifts for family and friends, Joel recommends printing at A4 size. "Although I love A3, most people don't have enough space on their walls to have framed prints of this size."

Both Joel and his wife Magali Tarouca (a fellow photographer) often give prints as gifts, not only to relatives and close friends but also for business contacts. "When you give just one photo, it's like a diamond, something that's unique and rare. It really is more personal and it shows that you care."

Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

David Clark

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