Recently I’ve been working on the Large Format Photo Negatives project for HP. This involves creating large digital negatives on the HP Designjet Z3200 photo printer, then using those negatives to create contact prints in the darkroom. We just finished our first set of fiber-based darkroom prints, and shipped them off to be framed for exhibition in the HP booth at the PhotoPlus Expo, October 27-29 in New York.
This project has raised a number of questions about darkroom versus inkjet prints and I've selected a few of these for review.
Why consider silver gelatin (sometimes referred to as silver halide) prints, as opposed to inkjet? Is the quality comparable?
Unless you are continuing to print an existing edition, I believe that choosing to make a silver-gelatin or inkjet print is largely a matter of personal preference. But you should also consider which type of print best fits the market you are trying to reach. Each type of print has its own look and feel, and its own set of visual strengths and weaknesses.
Note there is a world of difference between machine-made "darkroom" prints, and their hand-crafted silver gelatin counterparts. Consumer-level machine-made prints can be very nice, but I rarely see one that can't be improved by the hands of a master printmaker in the darkroom.
Overall, I feel that inkjet prints offer greater consistency and reproducibility, and in many cases, render better detail throughout the print.
Comparing my recently made darkroom prints to their inkjet counterparts, I notice that in some cases the hand-crafted silver gelatin prints have a feeling of depth and luminescence that can't be seen in the inkjet prints. One darkroom printmaker I've been working with attributes this to the presence of silver in the print substrate, because silver reflects light more readily. Whatever the reason, in the right circumstances the handcrafted silver-gelatin print has an edge in terms of depth and luminescence.
Which is more expensive? Silver-gelatin printing or inkjet printing?
Excluding the cost of hardware, in most cases the inkjet prints will cost a bit less in terms of dollars per square inch. This is particularly true for large-format prints.
A sheet of ADOX 20x24 fiber-based variable contrast paper for darkroom printing costs nearly $7.00 per sheet here in Los Angeles. A fiber-based inkjet paper created to replicate the look and feel of darkroom prints is less expensive, particularly if you buy rolls of paper instead of sheets. The cost of printing the digital negative is less than $1 per square foot.
Comparing the cost of inks and developer chemicals is difficult, because a lot depends on your workflow. Darkroom chemicals can often be used to create a number of prints before they become exhausted. The cost of inks used for inkjet prints multiplies if you need to make several test or proof prints before you are satisfied with the results.
Does it take more time to make a top-notch darkroom print or an inkjet print?
This is a pretty tough question to answer. It depends partly on how long it takes you to prepare your inkjet print in Photoshop and whether you plan to make silver-gelatin prints with normal chemistry. For example, prepping an inkjet print might involve complex adjustments in Photoshop. On the silver gelatin side, one might spend more time doing things such as dialing in enlarger exposure, toning, and the like.
Based on my recent experience creating large-format digital negatives, making silver-gelatin prints in the darkroom takes about the same amount of time as creating high-quality black-and-white inkjet prints on the HP Designjet Z3200.
Will one last longer than the other?
A properly made silver gelatin print, washed and dried correctly, has been proven to have a very long life. Based on very sophisticated accelerated testing processes, a properly displayed inkjet print made with HP Vivera pigment inks and top-quality HP inkjet photo papers, canvas, and fine-art media have been projected to last at least 275 years. At this stage, I feel that print life is not an issue in either case.
Which type of print is more marketable? Which type of print will sell more readily?
That's a good question! Some collectors or galleries may still insist on darkroom-based prints, and reject inkjet prints altogether. Others consider only the quality of the image, how well the print fits with their current collection, and the reputation of the photographer.
Why consider including prints from HP Large Format Photo Negatives in your portfolio?
There are at least two reasons:
A high-quality digital negative can be made from scanned 35mm film, and the resulting contact print will almost always be sharper and better defined than a print made in the enlarger from the same film negative. And in fact, this often holds true for film sizes up to at least 4x5.
Second, the visual appeal of a true fiber-based silver gelatin print cannot be denied. They have a different feel, and effect on the viewer, than their inkjet counterparts. Are they better? Only if you, or your customer, believe so. They are quite different.
At minimum, they offer photographers a great opportunity to broaden their product offerings and expand their artistic expression.
You can see some of the prints I made with the HP Large Format Photo Negatives solution in the HP booth at the PDN PhotoPlus International Conference and Expo, October 27 to 29 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.
In my next post, I describe the real-life process of making large-format photo negatives, along with some tips and tricks for success.