|Notre Dame Cathedral|
There was a brief but interesting exchange in the comments last week at the end of this post about the merits of darkroom and digital printing. It was sparked by reader, Mike, asking whether inkjet prints or silver gelatin prints would be the best guarantee of an image lasting well into the future.
Mike's view was that inkjet prints delivered more resolution and were easier to produce so there was probably more likelihood that he'd get round to making them. He said, "Silver halide prints from the darkroom have a proven track record of longevity - provided they have been fixed and washed correctly - but they are time consuming to make, which probably limits the number of photographs taken that make it to the printing stage.
"Many a masterpiece will probably languish on the contact print. So how long do inkjet prints last nowadays if made on high quality fiber-based paper? Any idea?"
Phil Rogers, my pal in neighbouring Dundee, advised Mike to "go silver". His take is that, "Ink Jet prints are squirted by machine; proper, beautiful silver prints are produced by your blood, sweat and tears - they are as intrinsic a part of the photographic process as loading film in a camera, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
"Plus, when your survivors look at all this crap you've produced after your demise, I would say they might be more likely to keep something that was a product of your labours from beginning to end, rather than a bunch of squirts!
"Sorry, just my grumpy old, backed-into-a-corner-printer twopenneth - I've had enough of being regarded as an anachronism/antique."
Button PushingInkjet v darkroom prints was a subject that obsessed me ten years or so ago when I decided to switch to digital. Having enjoyed darkroom work but with a young family demanding more of my time, I thought it would be easier to sit in front of a computer in the evening, hit a few buttons and produce an inkjet print rather than slaving away in the dark.
And it was - up to a point. The process of producing an inkjet print is, of course, just another link in the pixel/computer chain and dead easy in itself. Trying to produce really good quality on a consistent basis was, back then, quite difficult. I understand it's considerably easier now but I'm out of touch with that side of things.
I went through three expensive printers (actually still have two of them gathering dust), loads of paper and ink and have hardly anything to show for it. There were two prints that I thought were outstanding in terms of print quality and which I framed and have hanging on the wall.
Thanks to the capabilities of Photoshop, they are better than anything I could have produced in the darkroom - at least, one of them certainly is. There was a lot of local tweaking that went on to get the files just right - stuff I couldn't do under an enlarger - and, for once, my HP 9180B printer behaved itself and spat out two colour-cast free prints on matt art paper that are exquisite in their own way.
They've lasted well on the wall as well and I photographed them with the D700 in their frames to show you what they're like. You'll need to take my word for it how nice they are as the jpegs on this page were just quick, hand-held shots at 3200 ISO, reflections and all. The jpegs are large and it's worth clicking them for a closer look. In case you're wondering, they were taken with a Pentax K10D.
So even back then, maybe six years ago, it was possible to produce tremendous digital prints at home, albeit it was something I could never seem to repeat on a regular basis. But it's much easier now and improvements in the archival qualities of ink since then will no doubt mean that inkjet prints can be expected to more or less match silver gelatin for longevity. That, I think, answers Mike's questions.
SatisfactionBut I have to agree with Phil that it all boils down to the processes involved. Even producing a cracking inkjet print didn't give me any feeling of satisfaction. No more so than uploading it to an online print shop and receiving a print back in the post would have done. My problem with inkjet printing is the same one I have with digital photography as a whole: it's all just button pushing, all just chasing pixels around a screen and all just, basically, farting about with software. A variation on a computer-based theme, as I like to say.
How much richer the world of film photography and darkroom work is. At the end of the day, darkroom prints may be marginally better. They may be the same or even slightly inferior in some cases. But that's not the issue. It's about the satisfaction you derive from your photography. If you like using a DSLR and are happy to produce an inkjet print then why would you bother with film?
But if you feel that there's just something missing, then film and darkroom work may well be the answer. Yes, it's much harder and can be a longer slog until you master it but the effort is all worthwhile when you can hold up a framed print - the culmination of a variety of artistic and craft-based skills - that you can say with certainty is all your own work. Yes, I'm very happy with how the framed prints I've shown here look but a "sense of satisfaction"? Nah.
So my advice to Mike and anyone else who does some inkjet printing but wonders about the merits of darkroom prints would be to forget about the image quality or archival properties. Unless you're famous, your kids will probably bin your best work anyway after you're gone and long before light and the atmosphere start to degrade the prints. Don't worry about dots per inch or maximum density or metamarism or any other factors. Instead, ask yourself whether you're getting the satisfaction you'd like from your hobby or passion. Less head and more heart, I suppose.