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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

'Just How Good Can Inkjet Prints Be?'

George Barr, Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Park Alberta. Three images from a Canon 1Ds Mk. II and 17-40mm lens stictched together for a full size image of 6967X4898 pixels. The distant mountainside is in full sun, the canyon in deep shade. Lower left, small detail of the tree from upper left (100% when you click on it); lower right, a similar detail from the right hillside.

by George Barr
Mike, Carl and Paul have expressed concerns about the quality of inkjet black-and-white, feeling that while color may well have caught up to wet chemistry, B&W hasn't. They went on to discusss the possibility that this is due to the highlight clipping that is inherent in photographing with digital cameras.

I'd like to respond to their concerns. I have been a photographer for more than 40 years. I shot large-format B&W landscape for years and was a pretty good printer in my time. I now shoot digitally and print likewise, photographing in both B&W and color, both landscapes and industrial semi-abstracts. I have been published in Lenswork and Black & White Photography on the basis of my inkjet print quality.

The issue for the moment is "just how good can inkjet prints be?" I say that behind glass (i.e., framed and hanging on the wall and well lit), inkjet prints look every bit as good as silver—not the same, but definitely as good. Without covering glass, inkjets often, though not always, look as good or better.

While highlight clipping can be a problem, it's not usually difficult to overcome and frankly doesn't explain the frustration people are having with B&W inkjet.

I suspect that many if not all of the inkjet prints that people are seeing suffer from one or more of the following problems: Print too big; too much sharpening; not using a dedicated B&W print driver; upressing; poor exposure; poor quality lenses; hand-holding; no mirror-lock; no cable release; too much manipulation of the image with burning and dodging; relying on printer profiles to get you a good print instead of making lots of prints till you get it right; poor understanding of the translation of highlights and shadows into the print; and most importantly, not knowing what a really good print looks like and no experience in the wet darkroom producing good prints.

Inherent in inkjet prints though, are some strengths and weaknesses independent of the camera, computer or user. Strengths of inkjet include:

• Image color: no yellowed highlights and purple shadows of the selenium toned silver print, or even worse the green untoned silver print;
• Viewability: the complete lack of reflection from matte inkjet paper makes for a much more viewable image than glossy dried matte which still suffers from reflections;
• Control over highlights and shadows (assuming you recorded them in the first place);
• Sharpness: while the risk of overdoing it is great, done well there is a sharpness of inkjet prints which shows subtle detail better than any silver prints except contact prints.

Where inkjet is weak includes:

• The lack of a good equivalent of the glossy dried matte (though this may be about to change);
The depth of shadows: it may be that the difference between density 1.6 and 2.2 isn't that much to the eye, but its not negligible, either, and for some images, silver still looks better.

My own experience is that every single image I have printed both ways has looked better as an inkjet print. Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork and an exhibited photographer) has commented that when he has offered a silver print, a Lenswork edition silver print (from a digital internegative), or an inkjet print, people uniformly picked the inkjet print as the best of the three.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to prove my argument over the internet—you need access to really good prints. I will never forget looking at Edward Weston prints, in my hand, no glass, no sleeve, just the bare print…so that's what a good print looked like! There are now a limited number of photographers who were skilled wet darkroom workers and who have moved to the digital realm, either for printing or for shooting and printing, and who are producing inkjet prints of wonderful quality. I can only hope you can get to see their work soon.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen Steve Johnson's ( inkjet prints hanging in his gallery in Eureka, California. These range in size from "smaller" to giant 40" x 50" or super large panoramic ones, and mostly shot using his Better Light scanning back digital camera (that he claims gives him 120MP equivalent resolution).

These prints are as jaw dropping as the best I have seen from Ansel Adams hanging in museums.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Ted Kostek said...

Was the issue highlight clipping in the camera? I thought the issue Mike J raised was mostly about the tonal gradation in the highlight area in the print. That's related to capture, but not identical.

I only have experience with low end inkjets, but I have noticed the highlight areas are problematic. In one of my prints a key feature is the repeated texture in the clouds and building. On the screen it looks great. Printed on my HP1100 (2000 technology), there's nothing, just paper white. Printed on my HP9600 (2004 technology), there's a dramatic improvement, but it's still not as good as the screen. In the midtone region the differences between the printers is quite small, but at the high and low end the difference is bigger.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like I said earlier in Paul's blog, "good technique ..." Outstanding image, George. I guess there is hope and excellence in a filmless world.

Now, I must study your list of "don'ts" and get back to work.

Al Benas

9:51 PM  
Blogger mbb said...

While I agree with most of the points made here about what it takes to get a good inkjet print, I have to take issue with the following four "problems" that are said to be at the root of bad prints:

"poor quality lenses; hand-holding; no mirror-lock; no cable release"

While these things can certainly ruin a shot, the way they are presented suggests that it is impossible to take a decent photograph without the perfect lens, set at the optimal aperture, attached to a camera on top of a 4000lb tripod with the mirror locked up and the shutter tripped by a cable. This is an attitude that seems to be widespread throughout the internet (see endless posts on discussion forums for asking "what is the best aperture for lens x"). I think this attitude has been promoted by the "fine art" (whatever that means) landscape photographers, who frankly probably need to meet all these criteria to have a successful image. Is is important to remember, however, that plenty of excellent, moving prints have been made from handheld cameras using cheap lenses shot wide open. An image does not have to be completely "tack sharp" (to use another internet forum phrase) from front to back to be successful.

I just post this because I don't want to see TOP turn into every other photography site where good photos seem to be defined by a formula. I don't think the author of the post is promoting such a view, but I think it is important to understand that there is more than one way to take an excellent photo.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so where can I learn all these grand techniques?

10:42 AM  

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