What process and papers should you make your prints on? Most prints you’ll order from a photo lab are made on darkroom paper that is exposed with light and processed in chemistry called RA-4. It’s a fast and cost effective way to make a good print, but it’s no longer the best way. The latest technology inkjet prints offer many advantage over darkroom prints.
Here’s the top 5 ways inkjet printing bests RA-4 lab prints.
Inkjet prints look sharper and appear to resolve more detail. This is a result of how they are produced, with millions of nearly microscopic dots of ink.
2. More Colorful
Using up to 12 inks, current inkjet printers offer a much wider color gamut than darkroom papers. You’ll see this in more saturated colors as well as being able to produce colors more accurately thanks to dedicated red, green, and blue inks on some printers.
Darkroom lab prints are currently rated for a life of 40 years. The best inkjet prints double or triple that, and may even last longer if properly cared for. While all prints can fade with exposure to light, RA-4 darkroom prints will develop a amber stain even if stored in the dark. But there is good reason to believe that inkjet prints made on cotton papers and stored in the dark can last hundreds of years.
4. Paper options
Because inkjet prints don’t need to be processed through high temperature chemistry, you can print on a variety of papers and finishes. These include hot and cold press artist’s papers made from 100% cotton, baryta papers (my personal favorite), delicate Japanese papers, canvas, as well as traditional matte, gloss, and luster papers.
5. Black & White
Most professional inkjet prints have multiple shades of gray ink they use when printing in B&W. RA-4 darkroom prints make up the image from Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow dyes in the paper. It is very difficult to adjust these CMY dyes to make a neutral gray, which often adds unpleasing tints to black & white photographs. (Traditional black & white prints made with silver gelatin papers still offer the ultimate in quality when used by master photographers and printmakers, but are a very speciality product.)
What do I base this on?
I’ve printed somewhere around 200,000 prints for over 20,000 clients on Fuji RA-4 papers over the years. I’ve also owned two $100,000 Chromira printers as I’ve chased the best in printing for photographers who sell their work in galleries. And I've produced tens of thousands of inkjet prints on several generations of printers.
Inkjet printing has now advanced to the point that it more clearly expresses my vision and gives me a more beautiful print. At it’s best, it produces qualities I’ve never seen in color printing, and makes me more excited about printing than ever.
What is an RA-4 print?
Digitally exposed RA-4 prints were the first technology able to mass produce fine art quality photographic prints, and for over twenty years has been a primary way of printing digital photographs.
RA-4 refers to the chemistry used to process light sensitive color photograph papers. This is the same kind of paper used to print snapshots on since about 1990, and most of your family memories are probably printed on it.
For digital printing, RA-4 papers are exposed to light in a digital enlarger, then processed in high temperature chemistry. Fuji and Kodak are the most well known producers of RA-4 papers, and prints on RA-4 are often referred to by names such a LightJet, Chromira, Lambda, RA-4, Digital-C, Chromogenic, or E-surface prints.
Rich Seiling is a pioneer of Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.