A brief history of photographic printing in the modern era and my journey through it.
I have boxes and boxes of prints of my images and I print dozens of prints every month to gradually fill even more boxes. Not because I love looking at my own work (I do), but because I’m constantly testing various images on every type of paper that I can get my hands on. On the one hand, I do this so I can choose the paper that best suites a particular image. On the other hand, I have learned painful lessons about printing in the three decades I’ve been a photographer and I test (and research) because I need to be able to trust the printer, ink and paper I’m using.
My first job after graduating from college was working at a camera store in Chapel Hill, NC called Foister’s Camera. It was there where I learned how to develop my own film and print my own photographs. (This was in the late 1980’s when digital photography was just an experiment in some lab somewhere).
When I later went to photography school at the famous Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, I learned a great deal more about the art of darkroom printing and I will admit that I got pretty good at it. At least, I was good at making black and white prints. Color printing I will admit to having more difficulty with, and it was my early experience in my many failures in color printing that drives me to test as much as I can using today’s digital printing technology.
In ye olden days, there were two color printing technologies available to mere mortals like myself: c-prints from color negatives (the kind of print you would get from a conventional photo lab), and Cibachrome (later known as Ilfochrome), which was a method for printing directly from slide film. (There was a third color printing process that only exalted gods of photography would dare attempt to try, much less master, and that was Dye Transfer printing. Click this link if you’d like to learn about this now extinct printing process from one of its masters.)
I was attracted to Cibachrome printing for three primary reasons:
- the fact that you were making a print from a positive original (the slide) meant that you had an original to compare the color of the print against (couldn’t do that with a negative!)
- the sharpness and color of a Cibachrome print was outstanding
- Ciba Geigy, the owner of the technology, swore the process resulted in prints that would last a lifetime.
The way I phrased that last point might give you a clue as to what I learned then that influences my printing now. In the early 2000’s, I discovered that Cibachrome prints I had made just 5 years earlier were beginning to shift in color or fade drastically. I attributed this to mistakes I had made in the creation of the prints until I came across a publication from Henry Wilhelm who had found through accelerated aging tests that Cibachrome prints framed under glass would last, at best, 29 years if kept in a relatively dark room. Apparently my rooms were somewhat more than relatively dark as I don’t think I had a single print last much more than 10 years.
For many who have become interested in photography in the modern era of digital images and social media, the act of taking the picture and immediately sharing it online is the goal and sole purpose of photography. My goal is the creation of the print. If my intention is to offer those prints to the buying public, I cannot bring myself to offer a product that is anything but the absolute best it can be. A print that’s going to shift in color and fade in just a few years is not something that I can, in clear conscience, offer.
Early digital printing technologies were just as bad as my Cibachrome experience, if not worse. My first inkjet printer, an Epson Stylus 800, was a desktop wonder. It could produce a color print in just a few minutes that look astounding! It was like something out of science fiction. And the prints turned to mush in less than 5 years. However, Epson learned from their early efforts and realized that dye ink would never provide the longevity that artists were longing for and took a lesson from painters: pigments were the way to go instead of dyes.
Epson introduced the Stylus Pro 2000p in, you guessed it, the year 2000. It was their first desktop printer making use of pigmented inks, and I bought one of the first ones available. Able to produce a print up to 13 inches wide and, with roll paper, up to 50 feet long (or however long software of the time would allow). Epson claimed that prints would last 200 years or more. Naturally, independent testing of the prints made with this printer and the pigment inks showed that while the prints would, indeed, last far longer than those from the earlier dye ink printers, you really weren’t going to see them last two centuries. There were also two major problems with these early pigment prints that didn’t require a time machine to notice: gloss differential and metamerism.
Gloss differential resulted from the fact that the pigment inks of the time were unable to produce very light tones and colors and the printer wouldn’t put any ink on the paper where there were bright highlights in the image. You could see this on glossy or luster paper (the most common inkjet papers of the time) when light would hit it at an angle. The difference in the gloss of the pigment ink versus the gloss of the paper itself was very apparent.
Metamerism was, in my mind, a bigger problem than gloss differential. Metamerism is a color shift in inks when seen under different lighting conditions. If you viewed your prints in a room illuminated with tungsten lights (conventional lightbulbs), then viewed the prints in sunlight or under florescent lights, they’d look different! As it was impossible to know under what lighting conditions a print would be viewed if I sold it, I couldn’t sell them.
Then, a few years later, when Epson seemed to have finally come up with a pigment ink formulation that offered not just longevity but also solved their previous color problems, suddenly shortcomings of the papers themselves started to make themselves known.
I guess when the ink was the primary culprit of problems, no one focused much attention on the paper, but once the ink issues were solved, prints started to last long enough that the paper issues became apparent. Among the issues being discovered were acids in the paper substrates that would eventually break down the print, optical brightening agents (OBAs) which would degrade and turn paper a yellowish brown, papers that were effected by ozone, papers that apparently took offense if you looked at them cross eyed, the list just seemed to go on and on! And it wasn’t just Epson experiencing these issues; every printer and paper manufacturer had their issues.
But finally, in what seems like just the last 5 to 10 years or so, the industry seems to have headed in a direction where some real progress has been made. Henry Wilhelm is still testing inks and papers and there are a small number of other private groups out there testing as well. I actually support one of these private organizations with monthly donations as I think they are doing a wonderful job in continuing to test the archival qualities of digital prints and I hope they continue to do so for years to come. Check out Aardenburg Imaging and Archives if you’d like to learn more.
So if there are groups out there who are doing scientific testing of papers and inks, why do I print so many tests? Well, for a number of reasons, actually. All the experiences I outlined above have ingrained in me a healthy skepticism and I have developed a need to continually make sure that my prints are coming out the way I need them to. There have been instances in the last few years where paper manufacturers will change the formula of their inkjet coatings without telling anyone and sometimes these have had negative effects on the quality of the print.
The large format printer I have, an Epson 7890, really doesn’t like to sit unused for long and I worry that the print heads will clog solid with ink if I don’t make some prints every week. There are new papers coming out all the time, or papers I’ve never tried that come to my attention, so I’ll buy a sample pack and see if I can determine if that paper would add anything beneficial to any of my images.
We’ve all noticed how the pace of change is increasing as time moves on and digital printing is certainly no exception. I would suggest to all artists to test your printing as frequently as practical, whether you are producing your prints yourself or making use of any of the countless printing companies around the world. You never know when an unexpected change or discovery is going to take place in something totally outside your control that will force you to re-evaluate the way you will produce your prints.