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Wednesday, 08 January 2014


As an occasional printer, digital printing (inkjets) has been a blessing to me. I had been using rental darkrooms which caused me to hurry and limit the number of prints made because of the cost of time+prints. Now I probably spend more money on inks and paper but I can limit the number of prints made because I can do all the corrections in Photoshop or Lightroom. The result is much more satisfying. The digital prints are all much better than anything I produced in the darkroom.

I can also make a print at my leisure and not be dependent upon a rental darkroom being available.

Well, you pretty much described me when you talked about most human printers. I worked as a photographer for thirty years and got to be competent in the black and white darkroom, but no more. I could make a very good print, given enough time and paper, but was not efficient.

Since digital and the long learning curve, my prints are better and the process is much more linear and predictable. I was about to say that the machines were improperly maligned when my five year old, trouble free Epson 3800 clogged it's photo black head so badly that I can't seem to clear it. Luckily 90% of my prints are on matte paper. Digital has freed a lot of time for both shooting and printing for me.

I love digital printing. I enjoyed working in the darkroom, but printing to a pigment inkjet from a digital file (whether scanned or originating as digital) turned out to be much more creative and rewarding.

The only part of the whole process that I ever found senselessly, infuriatingly frustrating was figuring out the arcane settings in Photoshop's print dialog -- in fact it took months for me to figure out what settings were just to be set correctly and left alone and what settings to experiment with and tweak to my taste. Now that was far too finicky.

But my Epson 3880 (and the 3800 before it) worked really well right out of the box. Even at $1200, the Epsons were cheaper than setting up a darkroom (especially when you consider they don't require their own room), and none of them were finicky (except in that dialog box arena).

Ctein -

The most memorable and unusual line in this article (at least for me) is when you refer to yourself as "being one of the best printers alive." You don't hear statements like that much unless the writer is writing about someone else.

It's probably a true statement, though. I have one of your prints.

I admire your confidence and your straight forward, no-nonsense prose.


I would argue that despite the setup time, the cost and keeping abilities of black and white paper and chemistry makes it far more cost effective to make prints than a dedicated printer(machine), especially if it's only once or twice a year you're printing. Monthly, digital wins, as you don;t need to worry as much about !@%$#^#$#$& clogged heads

Wow. I've tried really hard to nit-pick and find something in here I disagree with. Can't do it. Well written as usual, but this time I'm in complete agreement.

So of course I think this was a great post.


(Though my printing skills are not in anywhere close to yours, my experiences and observations are broadly the same)

Single-use photo inkjet printer sales--which is what most pros and enthusiasts would use to print their photos--have been steadily declining for the past few years. (http://tinyurl.com/my6vdgr) One obvious reason that fewer people are printing photos these days is because it's so much easier and less expensive (as in "free") to share and display photos via digital displays. In the film days we had to print most photos to share them. Now we don't.

I suspect but can't prove that another reason for the decline in inkjet printer sales is that there are a lot of people like me, who know how to produce high-quality inkjet prints but can't or won't justify the expense. As Ctein points out, supplies (ink and papers) can be quite expensive for photographers who aren't buying in bulk and aren't regularly selling their prints to customers. Inkjet printing is even more expensive for those who are inefficient or simply don't know what they're doing.

Of course, a decline in inkjet printer sales doesn't necessarily mean a decline in the number of prints being made. It could simply mean that enthusiasts (meaning non-pro printers like Ctein) are using easier, more affordable alternatives such as drugstores, online print labs, and online photo book companies. That's what I've been doing. Anyone else?

"Calumny, vile calumny I say."

Infamy! Infamy! Infamy! They've all go it in for me!


At least the British TOP readers will know the quote :-)

It's interesting that unlike "computer" there is still an useful ambiguity between the person and the machine in the word "printer" but perhaps its trending in the same direction.

Printers are "...expensive, difficult to use and unreliable..."

That much is most definitely true (not getting into the second half of his statement). Printers remain the weakest link (by far) in the entire digital process, particularly if one does not use them on a very regular basis. That said, it is a god send (at the very least) to take your edited file to an accomplished printing service, have them make a small test strip, tweak , and then resubmit for an exhibition quality print at a small fraction of the price that one would have paid for a (B&W) darkroom print with half the quality. And that is progress- particularly for a person who would have spent eons, not to mention felled an entire old growth forest's worth or trees to get one exhibition quality, darkroom print.

I greatly enjoy inkjet printing. I once had a friend show Ctein a print which I made for him (the friend), and Ctein said it was pretty good, which just about made my week.

Here's a picture of a printer:


Let me try that again.

I greatly enjoy inkjet printing. I once had a friend show Ctein a print which I made for him (the friend), and Ctein said it was pretty good, which just about made my week.

Here's a picture of a printer:

Darkroom printing was also a constant uphill struggle -- even when you got really, really good, you could screw up pretty badly, which was the reason that high-end printing magazines had such a long run. But digital printing has gotten easier and easier. Years ago, I sent off for one of Jon Cone's piezography kits, which weren't cheap, and think I made about four really good prints out of the whole run of the kit. My attitude was, "If this is really what digital printing is going to be like, I'll keep my darkroom." But that's not what it's been like -- it's gotten easier and easier, and you can now get a snapshot-decent (not art-decent) print from a Canon printer's default settings...and they don't even clog up much anymore.

By the way, I'd like to point out that you're really, really old, though not as old as I am. Emily Litella's last appearance on SNL was well over 30 years ago. I suspect half of TOP readers weren't even born yet, when she went off the air, and if they aren't YouTube addicts, might have no idea about the reference...

As a completely digital photographer wanting to start printing some of my work, I recently bought film cameras and set up a darkroom. I couldn't face paying x thousand for a printer and x hundred for paper and ink on an ongoing basis. Now, are my darkroom prints mediocre? No question. But it is fun and satisfying as hell to make something with chemicals, light and my own hands. My son makes photograms and we made a pinhole camera out of a nappy box that uses 8x10 paper negatives. The missus joins me in the darkroom and helps evaluate prints, and now she wants a film camera too. I find all of this much more fulfilling than if I was spending even more hours a day at my pc to print digitally.

If one pokes around on the internets long enough, they might get the impression that it's easier to build your own helicopter than produce a decent 8x10 in your own home. In addition to the technical horror stories, the companies who produce most of the printers, inks and papers seem to have a (deserved?) reputation for making the process as costly as possible. Overpriced inks, obfuscation of technical data and intentionally complicated technical issues such as printers that won't work without a trip to an approved service center once an "alarm" goes off for something like an overflow reservoir being full all make the entire process seem less than warm and fuzzy. I was content to have online printers do the dirty work for me until this past year.

Online printing wasn't working out. Calibration issues meant prints arrived in my mailbox looking quite different than on my screen. Re-prints took days to receive and cost more in shipping than the prints themselves. Local printers were either extremely expensive or of unreliable quality. I was taking thousands of photos and almost none of them made it onto paper, and I wasn't satisfied. I sucked it up and bought an Epson R3000 about seven months ago.

This has been a great step for my photography. In learning about printer maintenance and avoiding dreaded clogged heads, an instructor advised me to at least print something - anything - once a week, and I've stuck to that. It's got me to print a few of my favorite photos every week for a half a year now, and I have a nice folder of prints to show for it. I've also made some bigger prints and actually hung stuff on not only my walls, but those of my friends and family. The technical hurdles haven't been too great, and an afternoon spent filling my own ink cartridges quickly got me off of OEM inks. I can spit out a 13x19 print on high quality paper for about two bucks now. It's wonderful.

My point in writing all this is to encourage those of you who are avoiding dealing with the hassles of home printing to put your concerns aside and take the plunge. It's very rewarding to follow a photograph through to the very end.

In my somewhat limited experience, the occasionalness causes the main problem. I had no problem when I started to decorate my home with my prints. I printed almost every week for a year or two. But once the house and portfolio was full, the printing frequency dropped and problems started to come up. Add to that a few computer changes that caused their own set of problems. Inkjet printers dry up if they are not used at least every month, and weekly would be better. Epson seems to be pretty fast at drying. Canon has a print engine that needs to be changed at surprisingly quick intervals. And the cost is such that Canon offered a new printer at a discount instead of repair. As I said, this is from my limited experience so I am sure there are many different opinions to the contrary, but I can only talk from own experience over past ten or so years owning a total of seven different printers. Now I mainly use a small dyesub for Christmas cards and small prints I give away. That works every time with no surprises. Maybe I should get an 8x10 model and stick with that.

Dear Ed,

Heh heh. As I frequently point out, I strive for accuracy, not modesty. It was pertinent to this week's column because, amazingly enough (and I am certainly amazed), my name is not a household name at the forefront of every photographer's mind, so it was important to emphasize that my experiences as a printer were NOT likely to be typical ones.

The origin of that assessment, not so by the way, is Kodak. Back when they had people who knew a fine print from a hole in the ground, they said I was the best color printer around. I took exception to that: I knew at least one who was unquestionably better than me. I could have just quoted Kodak on the subject, but I feel it's more accurate to scale it back and say I'm “one of the best.”

I prefer accuracy over self-aggrandizement, too.

I know, I know, they're going to take away my artiste license over that. Well, they'll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers!

But at least they'll no longer be chemically-stained fingers.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Rob,

Well, if you're only printing once or twice a year, I'm not sure there is ANY economical way to print! An interesting problem…

Of course, that kind of puts you as far off of the norm as me, just in the other direction. Neither of our experiences are especially relevant to the status or health of printing and photography, on the whole.

pax / Ctein

Quite frankly, if you want prints, what is the alternative? I've tried sending prints to online services, to my local drug store, to friends, you name it. The prints are inevitably all over the place. The only way I can get anything even remotely decent is to create about 20 different versions of a file, send them to a local print shop, pay for all 20, and then hope that one of the twenty gets close to what I was looking for.

Moreover, we're not choosing between darkroom and inkjet. Last I checked, you can't develop a memory card in a darkroom. So if you were really choosing, you would be choosing between film cameras AND darkroom prints, or digital cameras AND inkjet prints. I love my film cameras, and I have no plans to sell them. But I have no doubt at all that I get better pictures from my digital cameras.

That's a long-winded way of saying, "I agree".


"I can also make a print at my leisure and not be dependent upon a rental darkroom being available." -Oldsweng

This one hurts. I owned a rental darkroom, a big one. Two private tray rooms, eight Chromega D5XLs, a Durst CS 2000 10x10 horizontal / vertical enlarger, Wing-Lynch film machine, a B&W and RA-4 roller transport machines.

Had to shut it all down at the end or 2001. Saw the writing on the wall. When I first saw the Epson Photo Stylus 700 I knew my business was in trouble.

Hard work and was not making much money in the end, but good times.

-Human Printer ;-)

I'm sure I must be among the greatest living people at something or other. I'd be disinclined to brag about it though,as I find that level of self-regard unseemly.

The only fly in the ointment for the casual printer (I participate in one show a year and usually print about 50 prints to get ready for the show), is the flakiness of my printers. I've got an old Epson R1800 for very occasional matte prints and an Epson 4880 for my main work (I still like Ilford Galerie Gold Silk). I've spent many hours futzing about trying to get the R1800 to feed properly (the dust from the matte paper clogs up the mechanism) and an equal amount of time unclogging the heads of the 4880. The 4880 is probably designed for heavy use and doesn't like to sit for long periods of inactivity.

If someone could make a printer with Epson print quality and total reliability, I'd be all over it.

Prints coming off my Epson 3880 are far far better than anything I could do in the darkroom. Especially when talking about color prints. My experiments with cibachrome were not very successful. Still, there was a definite pleasure in spending time in the darkroom, futzing with the entire process and watching the image develop in the tray. They are such different processes that it's hard to compare them, except in the final print.

Digital printing (and workflow) is just incredible. I have two prints side by side in my corridor -- one being a traditional wet silver halide print, the other being from my Epson R3000. When framed, I can't tell the difference. My friends can't tell the difference. And I wasn't technically good enough as a film processor / printer to even be capable of producing a decent wet print (compared with digital).

When you consider a printer being unreliable, clogged heads, test prints, etc. I always consider the alternatives. Riding down to my local photo store, picking up chemistry and papers. Prepare and organise the darkroom. Prepare chemistry. Clean and mount negative. Focus enlarger and set aperture. Test print. Make masks (if necessary). Test print again. Make print. Wash print. Dry print. Clean trays. Clean darkroom. Store chemistry.

All this versus: Turn on printer. Load paper. Press print. (And every now and then, change cartridge, and order replacement from Amazon).

No contest, digital wins. Even if the printer breaks, the time and money I've saved on my printer has paid for it many times over.

It also passes the significant other test. When I had to return my digital Leica for repairs, I switched back to film for a couple of weeks. My girlfriend who hasn't seen me shoot / process film wasn't used to all the additional time it took. She was certainly very glad when I moved back to digital.


I'be been wondering about big digital picture frames for years. The cost is going to be pretty high for a while yet I think, and we don't really want them in the aspect ratio that pretty much all LCD panels are currently being made in. And I'd need a minimum of half a dozen, and that wouldn't replace all the big prints currently on my walls (arguably, I'm an outlier in that; but people willing to buy big digital displays for art are going to be weird outliers of their own type, too).

While I love the idea of the digital picture frames, and own one (old, small, currently out of service), I've never seen one in the wild. Stores stock them though, so somebody must have them at home.

I thought the original one I saw was very clever -- it checked into a central server each night (via modem!) and you loaded content from there, so you could give one to the grandparents, and update the photos each week.

Yeah, $1200 is low for setting up a top-grade color darkroom that can make 16x20 prints. But the equipment for the darkroom lasts a LONG time, and B&W is a lot cheaper, whereas an inkjet printer that's 5 years old but still fully functional is a remarkable beast.

I found the setup / cleanup issue to be really a game-changer. I could work on photos a lot more days of the week when I went to inkjet printing. In the darkroom it really wasn't worth setting up if I didn't have three hours or so available.

OK, what did I miss? I looked through the article and the previous article about the source for printing of images actually being on the increase and can’t see it. Perhaps impossible to document, everything I’ve read over the past decade has been contradictory to this, but then again those could be pundits who mistakenly assume that since 90% of all images are no longer printed it must declining, when in fact perhaps it’s 10% of 1000% more images being taken meaning more actual prints.

Did I miss it? What are the actual numbers? just curious. nothing against the article, as usual very enjoyable and well done.

After doing the preliminary work with Photoshop, I have the prints made at Costco. The quality is quite adequate, and you can't beat the price.

Dear Wayne,

Oh, sorry! I reread what I wrote, and it gives the impression I'm pointing you towards a primary source. That's my bad.

Unfortunately, I can't, the data comes from the internal photofinishing industry studies and surveys they do every year. It's not secret, but it is proprietary; I don't even have permission to reproduce it (well, not without paying them a lot of money).

They're believable numbers, because it's not for promotional or PR purposes, it's what the businesses use for trying to guess how they should be spending their money and making business investments in the future. It's self-reporting from the individual companies, but they have no incentive to falsely inflate these numbers. They're not trying to pat each other (or themselves) on the back; they're trying to figure out how to be running their future business.

Anyway, the number of photofinishing business and the number of employees in the photofinishing business has plummeted over the last decade. There is a massive implosion growing on. It's not a business I would recommend getting into today unless you're prepared to compete in that kind of market. But the total volume of work that they're doing, the number of “square feet” they're churning out, has been, as I said, going up steadily. At least up to the point where my data runs out.

And, yes, I still find this almost unbelievable. My preconceptions would all say it was otherwise. Data trumps theory, that's what I have to go with.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I have moved to making Blurb books. The quality may not be as good as an inkjet, but I love the extra creativity that it takes, and the results look pretty good. Many people have asked me where I bought the book, only to be surprised when I told them I made it myself.

"I found the setup / cleanup issue to be really a game-changer. I could work on photos a lot more days of the week when I went to inkjet printing. In the darkroom it really wasn't worth setting up if I didn't have three hours or so available."

This. Even longer if you were silly enough to make fiber prints. I sort of miss how fiber prints feel. But it's not really worth it to me to set up a darkroom to get that back.

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