Surpass the Darkroom?

create prints that rival – and perhaps surpass – the darkroom

By Mark Dubovoy Back to

Dubovoy_JF_2007_1

I believe that this is the beginning of a new era in inkjet printing, one in which print quality is finally equaling, if not surpassing, that of traditional prints. Part of this increase in print quality is due to a recent generation of printers with corresponding new ink sets. Equally responsible, however, is the latest generation of fine-art papers offering unprecedented levels of Dmax and dynamic range. While you need to buy an updated printer to benefit from their increased quality, you can probably use the new papers with your existing printer, so I’m going to focus on the new papers in this article.

I finally replaced my old workhorse Epson 9600 printer with the newer 9800. I found that the improvement with the 9800 and its K3 inks was significant—so much so that I thought Epson made a big mistake by not giving the 9800 a totally different name to emphasize that it was an important, as opposed to an evolutionary, improvement in print quality. The other major printer manufacturers also have recently introduced updated machines and new ink sets with considerable improvements in quality.

In my usual search for the best possible print quality, I decided to test my 9800 with a variety of papers. Around that time, I learned of totally new types of fine-art paper that Crane and Hahnemühle were introducing. Innova and others were also working on similar papers. I received preproduction samples from Crane and Hahnemühle; the other manufacturers did not have paper samples available yet.

What really excited me, when I heard about Crane’s new Museo Silver Rag paper, was Crane’s claim that, for the first time, a fine-art paper could use photo-black ink and deliver a maximum black (Dmax) and color gamut as good as or better than the best resin-coated papers. This new paper consists of a 100% acid-free cotton rag base, with a proprietary coating that allows the paper to accept standard photo-black ink. Hahnemühle’s new Fine Art Pearl paper also accepts photo-black ink, but uses an alpha-cellulose base rather than a 100% cotton rag base (cotton is considered more archival than alpha cellulose).

The new generation—technical data
The following technical data on each of these papers will give you an idea of what they are like, as well as how they are different.

Crane Museo Silver Rag is a 100% acid-free cotton rag paper made in the United States. The pH of this paper, which is buffered with calcium carbonate, is specified to be between 7.9 and 8.5 (the first production run had a pH of 8.0 at the time of shipping). The paper weighs 300 gsm, has a thickness of 380 microns, and a brightness index of 90. It contains no brighteners. The surface coating is a closely guarded secret.

Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl has a 100% acid-free and lignin-free alpha- cellulose base. Like the Silver Rag, its pH is specified to be between 7.9 and 8.5. The paper is internally buffered, with a weight of 285 gsm and a brightness index of 105. There is no specification for thickness; my micrometer measured 400 microns for the samples I received. This paper does contain optical brighteners, and its coating is also a closely guarded secret.

At first look (and touch), the surface of both papers looks like a traditional fiber-based, black-and-white silver gelatin paper. The Hahnemühle reminds me of the old Kodak “N” surface, with a smooth pearl finish. The Crane reminds me more of an air-dried Kodak “F” surface, and is glossier than the Hahnemühle paper. The surface texture is extremely fine in both products.

Fine Art Pearl is visibly whiter and brighter than Silver Rag. This is clearly a consequence of using an alpha-cellulose base with brighteners, as opposed to a cotton rag base with no optical brighteners. A Hahnemühle spokes- person told me that, with proper storage and handling, the brighteners should last 50–60 years before they stop fluorescing—extremely impressive numbers for optical brighteners. At that point, the paper will revert to the color of the alpha-cellulose base. On the other hand, Silver Rag is not expected to change color or brightness much over time.

Both papers feel very substantial; I would describe the tactile feel as twice the thickness and strength of a double- weight sheet of the finest traditional black-and-white fiber paper. The Silver Rag feels stiffer, closer to card- board; the Hahnemühle has a softer feel.

Paper tests

After all the preliminaries, let’s get on to what you have probably been waiting for: How do these new-generation papers perform? I decided to make some comparisons with two well- known papers, one fine art and the other resin-coated. I picked Epson Ultrasmooth Fine Art and Epson Premium Luster as the benchmarks for comparison because:

• Both materials are obviously compatible and recommended for Epson printers.

• Ultrasmooth Fine Art is a good example of this class of material.

• Premium Luster produces, in my experience, some of the best image- quality possible today, particularly with the K3 inks.

• Both papers are well known by many photographers.

Using Imatest (www.imatest.com) software, in particular the latest version of Gamutvision, I performed quantitative analysis on these papers and printed a set of test prints from a variety of images. (Norm Koren, CEO of Imatest, was extremely kind in helping me calculate and verify the results, and I highly recommend his software.) Densitometry measurements were determined using a freshly calibrated Macbeth TD 1224 transmission/ reflection densitometer.

Since gamut diagrams are usually three-dimensional, it is somewhat difficult to study them without being able to rotate them in space as one can do on a computer screen. For this reason, I decided that it would be best to pres- ent the results as lines in two dimensions, where each line represents a different level of saturation (the third axis, if you will).

Figure 2 shows the color gamut of Epson Ultrasmooth Fine Art with K3 inks using the factory-recommended printer settings. The Dmax is 1.5 (using matte black ink, of course). Utilizing different printer settings, the Dmax

increases slightly to about 1.6, and the color gamut stays about the same.

Figure 3 shows the color gamut for Epson Premium Luster, also using the recommended Epson Profile and printer settings. The Dmax is 2.42. Utilizing different settings, as described in the sidebar, the Dmax increases to 2.48. It is immediately obvious that Premium Luster has a much wider color gamut and a much higher Dmax than Ultrasmooth Fine Art paper. This is typical, and it represents quantitative proof of the higher image-quality possible (before this new generation) with resin-coated papers than with fine-art papers.

By the way, the Dmax of Premium Luster is extraordinary. It is much higher than any traditional black-and- white silver gelatin paper can achieve. Also, the color gamut is much wider than any wet darkroom color paper can achieve. (I have examined the data sheets for most well-known black- and-white as well as color papers, and not found any that exceed 2.1 under real-world conditions.) Finally, it also should be noted that because fine-art papers have greater ink absorption and pigments therefore settle lower into the surface, they tend to be less sharp than resin-coated papers.

Figure 4 shows the color gamut of Crane Silver Rag. Notice that it has an outstanding color gamut that is even wider than Epson Premium Luster. This is quite an accomplishment! The Dmax of this paper is also quite an achievement for a fine-art paper. I measured it at 2.38 with the standard printer settings, and as high as 2.43 with custom settings.

As a final technical note, the folks at Crane indicate Dmax readings of 2.52 for Premium Luster and 2.50 for Silver Rag, using an X-Rite 938 densitometer. These readings are somewhat higher and closer to each other than mine. Sometimes this happens when using different instruments with different apertures. The GretagMacbeth densitometer seems to be more sensitive to random surface reflections.

Suffice it to say that visually, there really is no detectable difference in Dmax, and both papers produce the darkest blacks I have ever seen in any photographic materials. Both papers also produce the most linear gray scale I have ever seen in any photographic materials.

Figure 5 shows the color gamut of Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl. Again, we have an outstanding color gamut that is very close to Premium Luster and Silver Rag. The Dmax however, is weaker, measuring 2.00 with standard printer settings. Unfortunately, I did not receive enough sheets of Fine Art Pearl to be able to add a full set of tests using various printer settings. All prints with the Hahnemühle paper were made using the recommended factory settings and factory profile.

While the Dmax patch is visibly weaker than the other two papers, the Hahnemühle paper looks brighter than any other paper I have ever used. The words “shockingly bright” kept coming to mind. The whites are also the purest whites I have ever seen in a paper of any kind.

The prints

In the end, what really matters are the prints. To get a sense of how they look on the various papers, I started with a black-and-white image that contains a wide range of tonalities from very bright and subtle highlights to very deep shadows (figure 1). This is a photograph of Daisy Geyser in Yellow- stone National Park taken at –55oF some years ago. The original is a 4×5 Tri-X negative that I had printed many times on Oriental Seagull, Brilliant, and Ilford Gallerie silver gelatin papers.

I scanned the original with an Imacon scanner, made some appropriate adjustments in Photoshop, and then printed it on all three inkjet papers using the standard K3 inks and the advanced black-and-white settings in the Epson printer driver. Looking at the inkjet prints and comparing them to my fiber-based silver gelatin prints, I can, with total confidence, make the bold statement that for the first time there is no technical reason to work in a conventional darkroom for black- and-white prints. The inkjet prints are technically better in all respects: sharpness, linearity, subtle tonal rendition, highlight detail, shadow detail, and general impact. Furthermore, the surfaces of Silver Rag and Fine Art Pearl look so close to conventional silver gelatin papers that I think the objection to the different look of inkjet papers can no longer be made. I showed the prints to several photogra- phers who make beautiful traditional silver and platinum black-and-white prints. They were shocked when they found out that my prints were inkjets.

My second set of test prints consisted of three prints of the Gretag- Macbeth Color Checker. The prints from the three papers are all excellent and extremely close to each other. The differences are small enough that I felt like I was splitting hairs when trying to distinguish any differences.

The Fine Art Pearl print looks brighter and purer in the light gray patches. The Silver Rag print shows the slightest bit of warmth in these light gray patches. The Premium Luster is in the middle in brightness, as well as in the purity of the neutral grays. Premium Luster’s rendition of greens is slightly more accurate than

the others, while the rendition of blues and yellows is better in the Silver Rag. The biggest difference is in the reds, where the Silver Rag is clearly stronger than the other two. Figure 6 is a landscape that illustrates the difference in the reds.

Finally, I made another dozen or so prints with all three papers and a variety of subjects, including portraits, landscapes, and still lives. I also com- pared my new prints with prints of the same images on Hahnemühle Royal Renaissance paper, which is one of my favorite fine-art papers.

The images on the new fine-art papers and Premium Luster look better than the images on Royal Renaissance. An example of this is seen in figure 7, where the larger color gamut and better blacks clearly come through.

Printer Settings

I have learned after years of printing that the recommended settings for a particular paper are not necessarily the optimal settings for maximum image quality. My assumption is that the recommended settings are determined by optimizing a combination of speed, quality, and ink consumption, as opposed to purely image quality. I encourage readers to use different settings and experiment to see how they can improve image quality.

Personally, I try to put as much ink on the paper as the paper can absorb. I do this by using the printer media settings that spray the most ink that the paper can take without running or dripping. I also increase the ink density settings. In order to prevent the ink from dripping on the next head pass, sometimes it is also necessary to increase the drying time between passes.

The end result is that I get a much better print. True, sometimes it takes longer to make the print, and it is more expensive because of the higher ink usage. On the other hand, I find that the color purity, the saturation, and the D-Max improve noticeably. Also, the higher ink content should, in principle, increase the longevity of the print.

For example, a good starting point for an Epson 7800/9800 is to try the various Fine Art papers at the “media” setting, increase the color density by +5 or +10, and increase the drying time if necessary (sometimes by as much as +30). Changing the printer settings in this manner necessitates a custom profile, which is a good idea anyway.

Longevity

Unfortunately, it is too early for results on expected longevity for prints on these new papers. They are in the process of being tested by Wilhelm Research. Knowing the reputation and experience of Crane and Hahnemühle in making fine-art archival materials, I do not expect any unpleasant surprises. Crane says the paper is “manufactured to archival standards,” and that “its coating is designed to capture pigmented inks.”

I anticipate that Wilhelm Research will rate these papers very favorably, but we won’t know for sure until the tests are finished.

Conclusions

Never before have we had a fine-art paper with a color gamut comparable to a top-quality resin-coated paper. Now we have at least two, and it is hoped that more are coming down the pike. We also now have at least one fine-art inkjet paper that achieves a Dmax higher than any traditional silver-based paper. I find this very exciting!

After evaluating all my tests, as well as a number of prints, I prefer the image quality of Crane Silver Rag to the other two papers. The better rendition of blues, yellows, and reds is important for the type of work I do. I also find the skin tones to be slightly better with Silver Rag. Epson Premium Luster has a minute advan- tage in sharpness, but it is so small that it is almost imperceptible even upon close examination; you almost need a magnifier to notice it. At any reasonable viewing distance, there is no perceptible difference in sharp- ness between Premium Luster and Silver Rag.

Both the Hahnemühle and the Epson papers have optical brighteners in them. I would rather use printing materials without them.

On top of superior image quality and the absence of optical brighteners, what also tilts the balance for me in favor of Silver Rag is the fact that it is a 100% cotton rag base, made to archival standards. We have many examples in museums around the world of 100% cotton rag papers lasting for centuries, while the history of resin-coated papers is not that good. In recent years, and with the new generation of inks, the longevity of prints on some resin-coated papers has increased significantly. Perhaps cur- rent resin-coated papers will prove to be very durable, but I personally prefer not to take that risk.

I believe that this latest generation of fine-art papers, printers, and inks elevates inkjet printing to a completely new level. The quality of black-and- white inkjet prints on these recent papers is stunning. The quality of color prints on these materials is so good that I think I will find it hard to justify making four-layer carbon pigment prints by hand in the future. In my opinion, we have finally crossed the threshold to where inkjet prints are better than wet darkroom or other traditional prints, both in black-and- white and in color.

I realize that the choice of paper is a personal one that depends not just on technical measurements and image quality, but also on aesthetics, the kind of image to be placed on the paper, and the final use of the print. If I were a commercial photographer making a print for a client who needed it for a few years or even several decades, and I would like to knock their socks off with an incredibly brilliant print, I would probably choose Fine Art Pearl. Likewise, if I needed to make a print where the characteristics of Premium Luster or any other paper were an ideal match, I would not hesitate to use that material. I can even conceive of wanting a smaller color gamut, less sharpness, a specific texture, or a matte or ultra-glossy surface for some reason.

The good news for all of us is that we have such a huge number of paper choices available today that practically any need or any idea can be fulfilled.


About the Author

Mark Dubovoy
MDubovoy
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of photography and printing technology. He is a regular writer of technical articles for The Luminous Landscape and photo technique magazine and is a lecturer at various workshops. His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao, Japan. He is a partner and Board Member of The Luminous Landscape, Inc., and holds MS and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.