I was having a conversation with a representative of Canson yesterday, and the subject turned to something I still consider a significant mystery. Why, when "Archival Pigment Prints" (read, inkjet done right) is by a comfortable margin the best color printing method in the history of photography, does inkjet printing continue to suffer from the persistent stigma of such low prestige?
Some Canson materials (along with a number of other selected papers you might be familiar with), are among the most beautiful materials ever made for color photographic printmaking. Surface, thickness, feel, flatness. The printing process is almost infinitely flexible and controllable, and the results quite easily possess the best archival life expectancy of any readily available, practical printmaking method. Yet inkjet is still the poor stepchild of print types.
I can think of ten ways to explain this. And yet none of them really make sense. Is it purely a matter of status and availability? Sometimes I think that if the finest inkjet methods had a distinctive name and a proprietary workflow, and an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 or a Canon Pixma Pro-1 cost $100,000 insteand of $1,000, people would be falling over themselves in their praise and covetousness.
It's just a very curious state of affairs, and one I wouldn't have thought would survive this long.
P.S. Canson sells an "Infinity Discovery Pack" that contains samples of 12 of its papers, so you can see and feel them for yourself.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Bryan Geyer: "Gosh—I'd guess that the reason is because inkjet prints were all so crummy, and faded so readily, for so many years. Yes, that was before the pigment ink era, but it was inkjet, and the stigma sticks."
Richard: "Some people still feel manual stick cars are better than automatic. [Wait—you mean they aren't? —Ed.] Some like records more than CDs or MPG files or any digital file. Some still much prefer film even though digital is also 'better' in so many ways. And some people much prefer classic lenses to 'BETTER' modern lenses that are sharper, more contrasty and less prone to flare (this is a bugaboo with me: cannot stand it when someone says a lens is better simply because it's sharper—I guess, if you're trying to shoot Air Force Test Charts). Mostly in this case though I think it's because inkjet printing is seen as simply press-the-button and walk away and easily duplicated over and over vs. a hand-crafted analog print."
Geoff Wittig: "I suspect it's the result of a misconception of what's actually involved in high quality inkjet printing. Most folks have clicked the 'print' button on their laptop and 12 seconds later gotten a mediocre print on Staples™ generic paper out of their inkjet, so how hard can it be?
"Pretty darn challenging, actually. It's true that once you have your workflow nailed down, you can reliably produce beautiful prints of uniform quality. But getting to that point requires painstaking experimentation with lots of trial and error, and endless proofing. Your raw file processing and Photoshop work (including color management, contrast 'budgeting' and sharpening routines) have to dovetail perfectly with the surface quality and warm/cool white of your chosen paper. Certain images really call for specific papers to bring out their best qualities, so you actually need a range of choices at your fingertips.
"The almost limitless permutations of digital processing/inkset/profiles/papers provides a huge toolkit allows you to squeeze out that last iota of image quality. But this is also why it's so challenging. My wife laughs at me for being so persnickety, but when I put a near-miss print next to a really good one, it's screamingly obvious."
Jack Luke: "I've been lucky enough to be printing on a 7900 and Hanuman 300 gsm fibre gloss stock for the past year in uni and it matches the quality of the C-types we have coming out of the RA-4 in most regards. I will say that one thing inkjet printing can't match is the feeling of depth you get from a high, high gloss C-type. Without waxing lyrical too much, the image seems to sit inside a C-type print as opposed to on the surface with an inkjet."
Kenneth Tanaka: "The pathology of this particular disorder starts with dealers. Dealers have infected collectors and museums with this prejudice against inkjet prints in an attempt to maintain preciousness, and prices, of chemical prints and photos. Of course art students pick this up and, not wanting to grow up as inferior artists, assume the same position. It's all very absurd and more than a little nauseating.
"But I'm happy to report that the fever seems to be breaking. I'm seeing more inkjet prints in the Art world, and fewer nonsense names for the method. Mercifully I think 'giclée,' the poster child for 'nonsense name,' is finally disappearing. 'Pigment print' seems to be the descriptive title being commonly adopted by major museums. Meanwhile, I've been experimenting with digital C-printing and have been finding it a very interesting printing technique. But that's a subject for another article."
Judith Wallerius: "I think the root of that low prestige lies in the impression of familiarity. The process of inkjet-printing is not different enough to commandeer the kind of respect the other photo processing procedures do. And it's difficult to truly appreciate archival vs. not archival quality unless you are years or even decades down the road and of one print is only a faded greenish impression left, while the other is still as vibrant as on the first day.
"People look at darkrooms full of chemicals and enlargers and it's an alien thing to most, full of steps in a process they don't comprehend. And they know that. They used to send off little metal containers that they knew they weren't to open themselves lest they'd destroy the content irretrieveably, and after a mysterious interlude they would receive envelopes with finished prints. There was a mystery to it, and an artist who was able to create and put to use all that themselves was a bit of a magician.
"That the quality of the modern inkjet printers is comparable to or can even surpass those processes doesn't matter so much when the printer looks just like a bigger version of the thing that's plodding along in the office or that they swear at when it gives mysterious error codes instead of printing. And even the size of the printer doesn't matter much, we've all seen huge printers or plotters in copy-shops for years. They look like the same thing that's now putting out those archival prints; there simply is nothing to be in awe of. With an inkjet-printer instead of darkroom work, the difference to the thing they already know has been reduced to a matter of degrees instead of being something completely other. That those degrees still make all the difference doesn't matter. It's not different enough to feel 'special,' and I don't see that changing anytime soon (or maybe even ever). I also doubt that a higher price point or proprietary work flow would change that, since people would still know what the process is—and even their office printer uses proprietary cartridges, so there's nothing impressive there.
"A distinctive name would help (hence the 'giclée print' cop-out that masks the archival inkjet print's true identity), but the process would still need to be sufficiently removed from being seen as inkjet-printing to eventually garner the same kind of respect / awe that traditional printing methods receive.
"Silly as it is, human nature demands something to have at least a bit of an air of 'I can't do that' for it to be seen as truly impressive (and, in turn, very simple things can impress people when they just think they're special and out of their range of ability or reach). Inkjet printing just doesn't fit that bill—no mystery, no magic to be found."
David Miller: "I can think of a couple of factors that are at play here. First, you cannot easily see the hand of the master in an inkjet print. Someone with a lot of digital processing and printing experience may appreciate the work that went into a superb print, but for most people it will be devalued by the conviction that 'anybody could do that.' What makes an Ansel Adams print more valued than one made by a highly skilled assistant? We intuit the hand of the master in the final product. (I've seen a number of stringed instruments built by Stradavari and other Italian masters of his time. There are elements in the workmanship that seem crude compared to a first-class factory-built 'replica.' But as a former luthier myself, I can see exactly how the maker held his knife, how he shaped a soundhole with a single powerful cut where a lesser mortal would have used five. The beauty and humanity of those old instruments is breathtaking.) Secondly, an inkjet print is devalued for the collector by the knowledge that it could be reproduced exactly by the pressing of a button—hence the inflated price for a 'limited edition' print. (As Mark Twain said, 'Buy land; they're not making it any more.')"
Rodger Kingston: "I printed Cibachromes for myself and clients for nearly 30 years, and I agree, by any comparison inkjet printing is an absolute breeze, and well-made inkjet prints can be as beautiful and permanent as any process, including my long-lost and oh-so-permanent Cibachromes. I suspect that the Rodney Dangerfield problem here may be that inkjet printing, itself, requires no hand work by the photographer or printer. All the work is done beforehand, in Photoshop or whatever, and when the image is 'ready,' all one has to do is to push the Print button of the ink jet printer. No artistry or craftsmanship involved; could that be why they don't get no respect?"
Ed: "You are working from a flawed premise. Inkjet prints are simply not the best color printing method in the history of photography. Any pure optical analog process eclipses them: dye transfer, Ciba, RA-4, etc."
Mike replies: I think they are, with the exception that most past techniques had distinctive "looks" that specific individuals might have liked and preferred. In terms of controllability, color purity, sharpness, lightfastness, enlargeability, and permanence, the best 2014 inkjet technology surpasses any and all "readily available, practical" traditional color techniques. I'm not sure about color gamut, and surfaces are a matter of taste. But even if you prefer the specific look of RA-4 prints, say, I can't see how you can make a defensible case that they are technically superior. They really just aren't.
Tech. Ed. Ctein adds: Speaking to the point that Mike didn't—color gamut—inkjet printing is vastly superior to any chromogenic or dye-bleach process. This isn't debatable.
Dye transfer is something of a red herring, as it isn't accessable to 99.9% of the photographers out there. But if it must be discussed, one must consider the substantial number of consummate dye transfer printers who chose* to switch to a digital printer. Any assertion that dye transfer prints are objectively superior has to be questioned closely.
As Mike said, we're talking about broadly objective qualities, here, not what someone personally likes or doesn't.
(*Yeah, it was a choice—dye transfer supplies are still available to the very few that are dedicated to the process.)