No cabbages and Kings, I'm afraid. That would be Off Topic. And besides, I am not The Walrus. Still, the question remains...what's the better printing medium for photographs, dye transfer or digital inkjet?
Many would think that putting digital prints and dye transfers into the same conversation (not to mention the same sentence) would be worse than comparing apples and oranges. More like comparing apples and sea anemones. I would disagree.
I wouldn't be alone in that. Talk to folks like Joe Holmes and Charlie Cramer, who gave up the most exalted of darkroom skills to take up digital printing. I'm on the same path; I just haven't quite gotten away from the darkroom entirely yet. If I wasn't still making money off of my dye transfer chops, I would've folded up that tent long ago.
Here's the thing: while dye transfer prints have an undeniable cachet, and so command exalted prices, they are not, artistically and aesthetically, obviously superior to digital inkjet prints (marketability and artistic superiority have at best a tenuous connection). There are distinct differences, and that's the subject of this column, but it doesn't denote clear superiority, any more than oil paintings are superior to watercolors.
I noodled around casually with digital printing for a long time (um, 30 years?) before I took it up seriously in the middle of the last decade. The first real challenge I gave myself was to duplicate my Scotland dye transfer portfolio (one of the photographs from which is being offered in the current sale) as digital prints. I was surprised—in about half the cases, I liked the digital prints as much as I liked the dye transfers. They didn't necessarily look exactly the same, but they made me equally happy. In about a third of the cases, the dye transfer prints were clearly superior. In the remaining one sixth, the digital prints were clearly superior. Understand, that's an entirely subjective judgment, made by yours truly. You might not feel the same way. But it's my art were talking about, so it is unlikely that anyone else is better qualified to decide.
The broad equivalency in quality surprised me, given my decades of serious experience with dye transfer printing, versus a handful of years with digital printing. The explanation, though, is pretty straightforward. When it comes to inherent qualities of the medium, such as density range and color gamut, there's little out there that can beat dye transfer. It can render up to a 3.0 density unit range in a print, with a correspondingly huge color space. It's got richness. What gives digital its edge is technique. It can't render as long a tonal range or as large a color space as dye transfer, but, within the range that it can portray, the skilled printer has much, much more control over the precise and exact rendering of tones and colors than is possible in the darkroom. Dye transfer gives the printer immensely more control over the appearance of the print that any other darkroom process, but it's positively crude next to Photoshop.
On average, it's a wash. What about when it's not? That's where the medium matters. That one third of my photographs that I thought looked distinctly better as dye transfer prints were ones that depended upon rich shadow detail with an exquisite rendering of dark tone and color. As an example, my Jewels of Kilauea series (starting here) has so far mostly resisted successful interpretation as digital prints. Too many of the photographs depend on shadow detail that goes on forever to give them a feeling of depth and three-dimensionality. I simply haven't yet figured out a way to work around that, artistically, in any other medium than dye transfer. I may eventually get there, but it's a tough nut to crack.
Conversely, photographs that depend on precise control of characteristic curve shapes, especially in the highlights, work better as digital prints. The reason is that it is extremely hard to control the shape of the toe and the shoulder in the characteristic curves of darkroom materials, although it's pretty easy to mess with the midrange. In particular, getting a clean, linear rendition of tone and color in highlights is nearly impossible. Consequently a photograph like this one looks much better as a digital print than a dye transfer and comes much closer to the look I hoped for in the photograph.
It's not just about obvious highlights, either. In color printing, any hue close to a primary has a "highlight" in one or more of the color channels. This photograph may lack an obvious white, but those delicate verdant greens have almost no magenta in them; we're up on the highlight portion of that channel's curve. It's the very slight differences in magenta tones that make a difference in the shades of green. The delicacy and accuracy of color separation I saw in the original scene is far better portrayed in a digital print than a dye transfer, as lovely as the dye transfer may be.
Painting this question in broad strokes, if I have a photograph where really rich separation in the deepest shadows is important, dye transfer is going to produce a better print. If I have a photograph where precise control and high accuracy in the highlights or very near the primary colors is most important, digital is going to produce a better print. Sometimes I can get them surprisingly close. Otherwise, they will be equally good, artistically, although not necessarily the same.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on Wednesdays on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.