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Let me start by saying that, in writing this post, I'm someone who is coming late to this party, not early. I'm emphatically not an early, optimistic adopter when it comes to issues of making the best possible fine art prints -- if you want to convince me that a new technique or technology is better, I need to understand it in every detail.
My first involvement with digital printing began in the mid-1990s, at that time, I was making images onto color slide and B&W negative film, and working with an excellent lab that would scan them and make prints using the Fujix Pictorgraphy and/or Lightjet printers. The Lightjet is the great grandaddy of a whole generation of printers that worked by essentially using traditional color photographic papers and chemistry, and applying carefully controlled temperatures, reagents, and digitally controlled light sources (lasers or, more recently, LEDs) to produce repeatable, quality photographs from digital sources. An amazing technology. The prints were quite reprroducable (I was impressed!), and because the chemistry was so traditional, I knew it was relativley well-understood in terms of lightfastness, in terms of its archival needs, and so on. I knew those prints were a quality product.
And early inkjet (the fancy term is "giclée") prints were not. Early materials had poor color gamuts and there were some surprising disasters, such as the Epson 1270 ozone debacle and the metamereism "green shift" of early pigment printers. Combine that with a variety of cost and reliability issues, and it's easy to see why I avoided these printers early in my career.
I had a lot of opportunity to revisit that recently, having watched for some time the success of more affordable professional color inkjets like the Epson Stylus Pro 3880, which have been in production for several years and whose results are now, at least to some extent, born out by experience as well as by accelerated aging tests at Wilheim Research. The closing of my former Lighthet print provider, plus the implementation of new hurdles to using another high-end vendor, got me thinking about inkjets again. And after some testing and research, I'm sold.
So, why am I so excited?
- First and foremost, the better inkjet solutions are now produce high-quality archival results. Wilheim Research's tests, which have in the past decades dropped their estimate of chromogenic traditional prints onto archival paper to the 40-year range, llist the 3880 print's longevity as twice that or more.
- The increasing use of ultraviolet-heavy lightings sources such as compact florescents has a greater deliterious effect on traditional color prints than it does on the 3880's pigment-based prints. So the quality difference will become bigger, not smaller, over the next several years--many customers don't spring for ultraviolet-resisntant glass when they frame my images themselves.
- Chromogenic prints, well, there's some argument about the best materials to mat them with, but some of the materials that I believe have the best archival properties with respect to traditional C-prints (unbuffered, acid-free mats) are increasingly hard to find, increasing the chances of premature aging in customer prints.
- The prints look better. This astonished me, when I had last looked, one could make a fairly strong argument for each technology that it had a better range of colors it could produce, depending on what colors were particularly important to you. My classic image "Kali Climber" was always poorly served by the Lightjet becase of it's inability to hit highly saturated sapphire blues. But the use of larger number of inks and more refined inks has raised the bar to the point where most images, at least the vast majority of my images, are clearly better served by the newer technology. I had expected this effect to be small, but it was apparent, and directly so, in every one of the test prints I did, most clearly in the test prints I did of "Puffin IV", where the translucent sense of light one gets from the puffin's beak is claarly rendered in the inkjet print, but lost in the Chromira. These results are with stock manufacturer papers, inks and profiles--they can no doubt be improved on with custom profiling and materials selection, but that work isn't necessary to get very good results.
- The papers are easier to use. Fuji Crystal Archive is a tremendous achievement as a paper, but it creases if you look at it funny from a distance of 75 yards. A fairly mundane paper like Epson's Ultra Premium Luster resists being damage more effectively.
- Having a printer at home affords the photographer a lot more flexibility, from being able to print at the last minute to being able to experiment and refine results with different materials.
- Finally, improvements in technology have mitigated a few of the other drawbacks of inkjets, in particular, newer technologies (not brand new, but recent generations) suffer from substantially fewer instances of nozzle clogs.
There are hurdles in adopting any new technology, but I finally have come ot the opinion that the benefits of switching to inkjet-based technologies far outweigh any remaining risks and inertia. I'm joining the world of giclée printing. You might want to consider joining me.