Consumer inkjet printers have become consistently acceptable for photographic colour proofs, but their lack of simultaneous performance in tonal purity, permanence, bronzing, compatibility with gloss paper surfaces, and metermerism is significant enough to deter the discerning monochrome worker. These factors, together with a desire to have complete control over the reproduction process, have prompted many to consider using consumer inkjet technology on translucent media to produce large contact negatives. The limitations of inkjet technology are of little consequence, when their output is used as an intermediate step, on the way to a photographic print.
Comparing Digital Negative Processes
It is interesting to look back on two distinct methods to create a silver-gelatin print from a digital file. In the case of the halftone negative, we have a very repeatable, robust method, which resists later manipulation and requires available imagesetter facilities. The process requires planning and careful execution to ensure the final has the required size and tonality.
The other is the inkjet negative. Following in the footsteps of Dan Burkholder and others, I evaluated the application of full-size inkjet negatives for contact printing, to create a fine art silver-gelatin print from a digital file. In common with other respected photographers, I was unable to consistently make convincing silver-gelatin prints from an inkjet negative. Unlike alternative print processes, on coated matt paper, silver-gelatin paper has a very high resolution and shows the smallest negative detail. During this research, several clear and white plastic substrates were tried and ultimately rejected as a suitable material for inkjet negatives:
1) Contact prints from clear film, and to some extent, white film, show evidence of their mechanistic origin, revealing regular inkjet dot and mild banding (fig. 1), which can be clearly seen in the final print.
2) White film’s diffusing properties disguise the inkjet dot pattern, but unless the face down negative is in perfect contact with the printing paper, the print resolution degrades to less than acceptable levels (fig. 2).
3) Plastic inkjet films work best with dye-based printers, which limit the maximum transmission density and require a high-contrast enlarger setting, further accentuating the inkjet-negative limitations.
4) It is difficult to make prints from inkjet negatives with smooth tonality in highlight regions. Digital imaging systems are optimised for positive images. They have about 5x more tonal resolution in highlight than in shadow areas, to match our eye’s ability to discriminate print tones. When one considers an inkjet negative, the opposite is required, to ensure fine tonal gradation in high-density areas.