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.
Some recent tests on my Canon PRO-4000 printer revealed that I get prints with finer detail, blacker backs (better D-Max) and richer color on Canon Photo Paper Pro Luster than I do with Epson Premium Luster Photo Paper.
I made this discovery when profiling my new Canon PRO-4000. When I profile a paper, I make test prints to confirm the profile is working correctly. Since I had some Canon Luster on hand, I decided to profile that and compare it to the Epson Luster, and honestly I was a bit shocked to see that there was a difference in detail and sharpness. The Epson luster looked slightly out of focus compared to the Canon paper. The Epson print was still acceptable, but why not get the sharpest print i can? And as I further examined the prints, I found that the Canon paper was better in every area.
I already knew that the Canon Pro-4000 inks produces the blackest blacks I’ve seen. But the different between two luster papers was surprising. It was obvious to the naked eye that the Canon luster paper produced a blacker black that Epson luster. This is important to print quality, because the darker your black, the wider the dynamic range, which makes a print more brilliant and more dimensional.
This deeper black has a impact on even the color areas of the photograph. Most subjects contain a multitude of small shadow areas. When these small shadow areas print darker, they create local contrast which makes the colors next to them look richer and deeper, which creates a better print. This isn’t something you can create in a editing program, it is wholly dependent on the printer/paper/ink combination.
Color performance was a little harder to discern. There were some areas of saturated color where it appeared better on the Canon paper, some areas where the local contrast from darker blacks made the colors appear richer, and the image sharpness also made the Canon paper appear better. Regardless, the final overall effect was a richer print on Canon luster. .
What I saw convinced me to make Canon Photo Paper Pro Luster my luster paper of choice for my personal work and for customers. It’s a clear winner when compared side by side in carefully controlled tests with images I am very familiar with.
This test made me curious to see how other brand luster surfaces papers perform, so I plan on doing more testing as time allows.
I also compared these prints to Fuji Luster RA-4 paper exposed with a Chromira. RA-4 papers are a light sensitive paper and one of the most commonly used papers by photo labs. The results were interesting enough to deserve their own article at a later date.
Questions or comments? Use the comments section below, and I’d love to hear your experiences.
Great article from The Guardian on how photography is driving overwhelming visitation to #instagramworth spots. For me, the National parks and wilderness have always been about solitude, finding places where I can hear that still, small voice. Its the individual experiences I have in those moments that spur me to photograph. Kinda hard to do standing shoulder to shoulder with 5,000 people at the same spot.
Your photos are the perfect gift to give this Christmas...something actually made by you, that can be appreciated and loved. Maybe it’s an amazing landscape photo you made this fall, or a portrait of the kids for Grandma. Whatever it is, your print is something your friends and family will truly treasure.
The time to order is now, so you aren’t rushing at the last minute. I’m going to make it easier by offering an Early Bird special of 30% off 16x20 prints on any of my papers. All you have to do is mention this sale when you place your order.
You don’t have to be an expert to make a beautiful print...just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it happen. You can find information on all my printing options at http://www.richseiling.com/prints.html, including easy online ordering. Sale ends Nov 25.
To me, bespoke printing means I craft your prints, making a product that is far beyond “upload and print.”
When I make your print, I’m seeking to use the materials to the limit of the process. Instead of doing things the fast way for more efficient production, I can do things the slow way that provides the utmost in quality.
You can customize your print to meet your unique needs and specifications, and you can talk directly to me about your order to answer any questions you may have.
You are printing on papers that I’ve personally approved and ensured the accuracy of; papers I’ve picked for their unique qualities.
I can print your file as-is, or I can do all the image editing for you to make a true museum-quality piece.
You don’t have to be a professional to use my services, you just have to have an appreciation beautiful, well-made things. Everyone has a unique story to tell, and my goal is to help you share that story the best you can.
Will your prints match the next time you print them? Can you take the same file and obtain the same results using a different printer, ink, and paper? I can, and so can you.
For twenty years, I’ve been printing client photos, and my own, over and over again with a very exact match, using different printers including LightJet, Chromira, multiple generations of Epson printers, Canon Printers, and even Metal...and on dozens of different papers. It is still a little mind-blowing for me to realize that this is even possible; That I’ve been printmaking for that long, and with so many different processes.
Accuracy, control, and repeatability are what first made digital printing interesting to film photographers, long before there were viable DSLRs. For a photographer who sells prints, having the print they deliver match the one the client saw on the wall, regardless of size, was (and still is) a huge deal. With darkroom printing using an enlarger, this kind of matching was virtually impossible and caused many frustrations. My earliest clients were mostly photographers with galleries who needed to be able to deliver prints that matched on demand, at any time, and at any size. They moved to digital to make that a reality.
That requirement, to match the original print at any point in the future, makes how I set up my printer the most important step in my workflow. I absolutely need to print the file as accurately as possible so it will match the previous print. My pro clients can see the smallest differences in color, density, and contrast. They know their subjects, and their photos, inside and out. They immediately see if something is off. Some of them can even explain the scientific process that produces a certain shade of color in an animal’s feathers; or a geologic feature; or the ocean in a certain part of the world. Achieving this exacting level of color matching is one of the reasons they keep working with me, and drives every step of my process.
The key to this is color management; using ICC profiles to characterize a paper/printer/ink combination. With an accurate ICC profile, if you do all of the printing steps the same, you will enjoy the same result, time after time, even if you change printers or papers.
That’s why I take profiling very seriously. Every profile I use has been carefully tested by printing a test image, and comparing it to my library of previous test prints to see if they match. These test prints let me evaluate accuracy, but they also let me evaluate differences between printers, inks, and papers. Obviously, not all printers, papers, and inks can produce the same aesthetic feel, and the definition of “match” needs to include these factors. It also lets me see improvements to the printing process. When a manufacturer makes a blacker black ink, you can see it in the test prints, and see how it affects the image.
Matching also means that what I see on my printer looks like what I see on my $1,000 reference-grade monitor. Being able to make a very good screen-to-print match on the first print not only makes me efficient when working on client files, but it also lets me work more intuitively on my own photos, which I believe lets me bring more out of the process. It allows me to be more expressive because I’m not fighting the file, but can work with it fluently and easily.
How accurate do you need to be?
That’s something only you can answer. While very high accuracy is a vital part of my personal expression, and of my business printing for other photographers, a photographer printing for themselves has more leeway to say “good enough.” The public-at-large viewing your photographs are not trained to see the small differences in color and density that a photographer is. They don’t know what you saw in your mind’s eye when you clicked the shutter. They only know what they see on the print, and whether they like it or not.
Even if you don’t have the world’s best profile, you can make prints that “match” themselves as long as you use the exact same file, printer, paper, and settings. Of course, if you change any of those factors, then your prints will no longer match. When (not if) that happens, your only solution is to decide that the difference between how it printed before, and how it prints now, is acceptable...or go back and make new adjustments to make a better match.
My personal expectations, and those of my clients, don’t give me this kind of leeway. But when you are the one doing the printing, you set the expectation for how well your prints will match the next time you print them. Your bar is going to be set by your needs, expectations, and how well your eye is trained. When getting the prints you want becomes frustrating; when you’ve spend hours working on a photo in image processing software to make it look exactly the way you want it, only to have it print differently; then it’s time to learn to become more accurate.
But I encourage you to seek that high bar of accuracy even before you need it. The ability to see, and control, small differences in color and density will help you make better decisions when processing your photos, and make you a better photographer. (Plus, your prints will look the same 20 years from now!)
Will you give a vote for my friend Tony Wu? This amazing photo of a Humpback Whale is up for a People’s Choice award for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest.
Tony makes amazing pictures of these majestic creatures, and spends significant amounts of time at sea observing them. His photographs capture unique glimpses of these creatures and their behavior. I’ve printed Tony’s photos for many years, and what is always striking is the amazing blue water and immense detail he captures. There is a blue color in some of the nutrient poor areas of the oceans that is unlike anything I have seen anywhere else in nature. It’s depth, transparency, luminosity, and complexity is breathtaking. The first time I saw it off Maui, it left me speechless. Making sure this amazing color and the fine detail of Tony’s photos come through in his prints is always a rewarding challenge.
Please take a second to vote, then check out Tony's blog for more amazing photos and the stories behind them.
I’m honored to be featured on the Visionary Wild website as as their recommended printmaker. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many of their instructors over the years, so I know the level of mastery and professionalism they bring to every workshop. Their instructors are simply the best, and a workshop with them should be on every photographer’s bucket list. They will grow you more than you thought possible. And they visit some pretty amazing locations too ;)
Photographer, educator, and fine art printmaker Rich Seiling works to push the limits of printing technology to create beautiful Museum quality photographic prints for his clients and himself.