Choosing a Print Technology

Kali Climber
Kali Climber, Buttermilks, Eastern Sierra, California

I’ve been thinking recently about digital printing technologies, and pondering possible changes in how I print my own images.

Most photographic printing today is done digitally. Digital printing excited me as a young photographer, promising a lot more control over the color of my prints, along with repeatability–promises that have been largely, if not entirely, honored over the years. Most digital printing today takes one of two forms. In inkjet (you may see the word “giclée”) printing, dyes or pigments are sprayed through nozzles onto paper or other surfaces. In what I often call “digital enlargement”, traditional light-sensitive “chromogenic” photographic papers (by traditional, I mean the papers and chemistry used in darkroom printing) are processed traditionally after having been exposed via digitally-controlled lasers or LEDs, rather than via projecting light through a slide or negative onto the paper.

I came to use the latter technology in the 1990s. At that point, the reasons for doing so were clear, inkjet technology was still in it’s infancy, and suffered from severe problems with longevity, making serious inkjet prints was out of the question. Early attempts to solve this ran into embarrassing ozone sensitivity and later metamerism.  Those troubles left me gun-shy; the chemistry, and therefore the longevity, of photographs using traditional chemistry was not perfect but was well-understood. Nothing wrong with sticking with something that works.

But over the years, much progress has been made. Epson and other vendors are now producing inkjet paper and ink combinations which are much better understood in terms of longevity. Moreover, most of the better inkjet processes avoid a longevity problem traditional photographic papers face–fading in the face of ultraviolet light from the sun or from florescent light bulbs. (When I frame prints I use ultraviolet-blocking glass, but not all framers will do this by default.) The increasing pressure to move to compact florescent bulbs represents a threat to the longevity of the photographs I sell, and is part of what has led me to look at inkjets. Additionally, chromogenic prints are somewhat acidic, and are best matted using mat board that isn’t chemically buffered, but such mat boards are less common.

Inkjets offer other advantages too, a greater variety of surfaces on which to print (I’ve seen beautiful inkjet prints made directly onto aluminum and canvas, not to mention fine art papers). It’s also possible to own and maintain one’s own inkjet printer, that just isn’t an option in the digital enlargement process.

There are differences in the gamuts of the two types of technologies (and big differences in the gamuts of specific inkjet technologies, too.) My signature image “Kali Climber” has printed on the Lightjet with a cyan shift in the saturated midtone sapphire blue of the upper sky. The chemistry simply does not support a midtone blue as the blue which that slide contains, because the (printed) image is produced with a mix of cyan, magenta, yellow and black dyes. Inkjet printing technologies that start with different color “primaries” have different strengths and weaknesses in the gamut (range) of colors they can reproduce.

Of course, it needn’t be “one or the other”–and in fact, I’m pretty sure that no matter how I end up working in general there will be times when a different technology,  or at least a different paper, will be precisely the right tool for a job. I recently tried a print of one of my waterfall images on Fuji Pearl, which has a metallic appearance, and the print took on a whole new life as a result, it’s already given me ideas for a new project. But for the bulk of my images? I have yet to decide.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on this.  What printing technologies are you using right now?  Why did you choose that method? Are you happy with the decision?  Drop me a comment, I’m curious…

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Crikey, the climber in the (fantastic) photo above looks a bit like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings! No offence meant to the climber though, he’s a braver man than me!

  2. Tom, thanks! Yeah, the silhouetted climber is pretty evocative. He’s also scary-good, it’s hard to describe the ease with which he ascends rock. Just amazing. Here’s a link to a wp page on his accomplishments as a rock climber, they are … astonishing.

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