I've just finished printing up a bunch of "art quality" 11 x 14 prints for my Contributors, and I'm so frustrated I feel like tearing my hair out. (Yes, I have plenty to spare. What's your point?) The amount of time and money I waste because of shoddy inkjet paper manufacturing practices is appalling.
This is not about aesthetic qualities like tone and color rendition or D-max. I'm talking about genuine manufacturing defects: fibers embedded in the emulsion (figure 1), bubbles and pinholes, inclusions that penetrate the surface (figure 2), and highly visible scuff and scratch marks straight from the factory.
Figure 1. This kind of manufacturing defect is very easy to find (ruler markings in mm). Unfortunately, it's the least common. The flaw would stand out in a light or dark area, because there is damage to the surface relief, as you can see in the grazing-light photograph on the right.
Figure 2. This is by far the most common kind of manufacturing defect. It is almost invisible (it's between the arrowhead and the ruler) but if printed upon will produce an obvious flaw. It takes a lot of time going over blank paper to catch these defects and I'm only partly successful.
This isn't a big problem with "RC" papers. It's when you move into the world of fiber papers that you start to endure a world of pain. I've yet to try a fiber-based paper where I don't get a couple of bad sheets per box. The standards of some of the paper manufacturers are astoundingly low. The Harman FB Al glossy paper, which I love for its appearance, is atrocious; I typically reject a quarter of the sheets in a box of 11 x 17" sheets. The larger the size of the paper, the more rejects. For 17 x 25 sheets, far fewer than half are good.
Traditional light-sensitive photographic paper manufacturers dealt with exactly the same issues. It takes more attention to quality control and cleanliness, and more critical standards for your raw materials to make a good fiber-based paper than an RC paper. Coating the base with plastic eliminates a multitude of manufacturing problems. Wonder of wonders, they figured out how to do that; it is not, in fact, rocket science. We expected high quality paper, and we were entitled to do so. It's no fun going to the trouble of making a darkroom print, getting the finished print on the viewing table, and discovering some gross physical flaw that makes it unusable. When we did, we screamed bloody murder, and most of the time paper manufacturers responded appropriately.
It's not about "getting what you pay for" (or any other supplier-centric apology). Fiber inkjet papers are not cheap; in constant dollars, they are frequently more expensive than silver gelatin B&W darkroom papers were. We're paying premium prices; we're getting substandard goods.
Although I wouldn't be any happier if the stuff were dirt cheap. Lousy paper costs me, even if the paper were free. If I make a print on a defective piece of paper, I've wasted a couple of dollars of ink as well as the time it took the computer and printer to create the work. The printing costs and time are avoidable...if I successfully weed out the defective sheets before I print. That time and trouble is considerable. A minority of paper defects are so horrendous that they'll just jump out at you at a casual glance (figure 1). Most of them, though, are small white-on-white defects that are nearly invisible in an unprinted sheet of paper (figure 2) although, once you lay a bunch of dark ink on them, they will catch the light and they will stand out like blemishes on an adolescent's forehead. I have to check unprinted sheets closely at just the right angle, under the right mix of diffuse and specular light, to catch those flaws.
Some photographs are fairly forgiving of paper flaws; they are light enough and busy enough that I can get away with using slightly defective sheets. A photo like the Weathered Sulfur Vents (figure 3) will survive slightly-less-than-perfect sheets; I know the viewer is never going to see a very slight flaw. Unfortunately, that's not many of my photographs. A photograph like Floodlit Colombia (figure 4) is utter hell. Even after weeding out 30% of the sheets, there's still a 25%–30% chance that I've missed some defect that will be glaringly obvious after I've printed out the photograph.
There is no excuse for this. Simply none. The paper manufacturers are getting away with using incompetent manufacturing techniques and expertise and selling us garbage. And, unfortunately, the vast majority of nouveau digital printers have not a clue that the paper manufacturers can do much, much better if their feet were held to the fire, and they do not understand that they should expect better.
Unlike so many of the technical problems I face in fine printing, shoddy paper is one I have no fix for. Damn and double-damn.All photographs copyright 2010 by Ctein
Ctein's regular weekly column appears every Thursday morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Miserere: "Your struggle felt familiar, and I just realised why: This problem is reminiscent of when my sister used to play the clarinet. For those that don't know, you need to place a wooden reed on the mouthpiece which, when vibrated as you blow, produces the instrument's sound. All woodwind instruments have them as far as I know (and saxophones too).
"Well, they sell these reeds in packs, and they're not cheap. My sister would buy packs of ten, open them, then spend an hour testing the reeds individually. I don't remember exact numbers, but it went something like this: 3–4 reeds would be unusable and get thrown out, 5–6 would be fine to practice with, 1 would be superlative and she would mark it and save it for performances and exams. If you bought the more expensive reeds, you simply increased your odds of getting more usable ones, but we did the math and it was more cost-effective to buy the cheap packs and throw 3–4 away than buy the more expensive ones and throw 2–3 away. I remember saying to her once 'but surely there must be some brand that sells boxes with 10 good reeds, or maybe a box of 3 guaranteed excellent reeds!' She insisted there wasn't."
Mike adds: And try buying vinyl records. Ironically I have 50-year-old records that have numerous flaws and defects that I find perfectly satisfying to listen to, but it's really annoying to spend $50 on a current two-disk, 45 RPM deluxe superdisk and find it comes out of the shrinkwrap with multiple flaws baked in. Vinyl is only about 10% of my listening, and I just do it for fun—I don't really need to mess with it at all—but it's still amazing how elusive good QC can be. I recently bought three copies of Dexter Gordon's "One Flight Up" on Cisco and just had to give up.
In general, Ctein's point is just further evidence of one of my pet theories: that digital inkjet printing is actually the opposite of "all you have to do is push a button." Q&D lowbrow digital printing is easy as pie, but really top-level digital printing might actually be harder than darkroom printing of a similar level, unless you do a lot of it and do all the work to keep everything tuned and humming.
Featured Comment by John Custodio: "That's why I never print on roll paper. I examine each sheet before I print on it, which I can't do if it's in a roll. I've had lots of problems with Museo Silver Rag with specks and junk in the coating, also similar problems with Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Baryta. Recent batches of these two papers are fine, however. Seems like they've solved the problems, at least for now.
"In my opinion, the weakest step and what causes me the most lost time in the entire digital process (shooting, Photoshop, printing) is printing. And the weakest link in the printing process (color management, ink, paper) is the paper!"
Featured Comment by Michael W: "Funny story about fibers in photographic paper. Back when I was going to college in the late '80s my father worked for a paper mill, and they had a summer work program for college students if their parents worked at the mill. The last summer I was there I was assigned to one of the slow but high-quality machines. We had a run of dense bleached coated stock that was as I was told for a large American photo company. The QC on this run was much much higher, so much so that the QC department set up a station at the end of the line. One day at the start of the shift I was asked by one of the lowest hands on that machine to help him drop some powdered additives for the coating into a hot mixing vat about halfway down the line. I was helping him pour the powder out of 50 lbs. brown bags. One of them got a away, and a piece of the bag about 8 x 12 inches wound up in the vat. Talk about some upset people. the mill manager came down, the QC guys came down, everyone came down and waited. Finally about ten minutes later, small brown fibers started showing up in the 12x12 samples pulled off by QC...well, the run as it came off the rollers went right back into the process at the start of the line to be rebleached and remilled...long story short, when I came back the next day, 24 hours later, QC was still rejecting the run. It wound up taking nearly four shifts to get all of the brown fibers from that 8x12 piece of bag out of the system. Needless to say I was not asked to help with pouring again...."
Featured Comment by Matthew C.: "I'm ready for the end of paper myself....
"I have 100+ fine art nature prints from some of the top landscape photographers sitting at home piled in a closet. And they are beautiful, and I love them and bring them out every month or two just to savor the beautiful images. But I'd enjoy them even more if I could just bring them up on a 20x30 luminescent 300 DPI screen hanging on the wall, maybe switching between them every 20–30 minutes or so.
"Thirty seconds after picking up an iPad, I knew the paperless future has finally arrived. We'll see the end of routine printing in the next 10 years. It's a technology whose time has passed. Honestly I get more visceral joy from looking at and handling 4x5 trannies than prints...."
Featured Comment by George Kraniotis: "I feel the pain...every day...this image is an insect trapped underneath the coating of a sheet of Hahmemuhle Bright White. I kept it in order to send it to my supplier. And what about scuffing after printing? Big issue as well. Some papers scuff just by looking at them. Pretty sure the manufacturers can do something about this as well."
Featured Comment by ed nazarko: "I sell a lot of very large panoramas—12x144 inches, 18x180 inches—and my biggest cost and time waste comes from flaws in the paper. I usually print on smooth fine art, which hides flaws very well, better than fiber or semi-gloss papers, and I'd guess that I have to print an image at least twice to get one yielded. If I'm lucky, the flaw shows up early in the print and I can kill the job and only lose that little bit of paper. (Yes, I sit there monitoring...a hateful process, but the savings in paper costs are huge.) There have been a few papers where I couldn't get a single clean print done (I don't print them smaller than 12x144). I tried fiber or semi-gloss coated papers last year, and the yield was so bad I'm sticking with smooth fine art. I love the extra color and punch of the fiber papers, but couldn't get my head around how many failed prints I'd have to accept."