Black and White Digital Printing
An Overview of The Current State Of The Art
Part One of a Series
Revised March 22 2008
Copyright © 2002 - 2008 Clayton Jones
All Rights Reserved
the past few years as the technology has improved and become affordable,
more and more fine art black and white photographers have switched from
traditional "wet darkroom" enlarger printing to digital inkjet printing.
Many of those who have switched continue to take pictures with film and
then scan the negatives, although the newer digital cameras are getting to
the quality and price range where many are switching to digital image
capture as well. Either way, the resulting images are prepared for
printing with software, Adobe
Photoshop being the most popular program. So many photographers have
switched that is is generally agreed that we are past the point of critical
mass. Digital capture is fast becoming the dominant mode.
As can be expected whenever a new technology emerges, a great debate has sprung up between the adherents of the old and the new, with various technical and aesthetic issues being applied to the question
of whether inkjet prints should receive the same status as an art form as do traditional photographic prints.
Some have argued that inkjet prints are not truly photographs because they are created with ink instead of photo-sensitive emulsion. This doesn't get very far, however, as other ink-based photo printing methods
have enjoyed fine art status for many years. The photogravure process is primarily an ink process, and another old technique enjoying renewed popularity, Bromoil, is a process whereby a temporary silver image is replaced by an ink image.
Longevity and Aesthetics
of the most important issues is the "archival" question, whether inkjet
prints will last as long as properly processed emulsion prints. This
is becoming less of an issue, however, as every year sees improvements in
the inks and papers and the technology is evolving rapidly. As of
this writing the best ink/paper combinations are being rated at over 200
years under normal display conditions (framed under glass) and over 400
years in dark storage such
as albums using acid-free materials (it is also interesting that at the same time, conservationists are
discovering that traditional photographs are not lasting as long as had been
anticipated. Many of the oldest preserved images, well over the 100
year mark, are fading or deteriorating, even in the best storage conditions).
Most of the other issues are aesthetic. Upon close examination, inkjet prints have a unique look and feel because they are created by placing millions of tiny ink droplets, or "dots" on the paper, and therefore must simulate the continuous tone of emulsion prints. However, given well done prints, at normal viewing distances it is hard to tell them apart, especially with the newest papers that emulate the look and feel of traditional darkroom fiber based glossy papers. With matte papers there is still a difference which experienced viewers can see, and it is important to note that digital printers do not negate the beauty of a finely crafted silver or platinum print. Their point is that the new prints have their own unique beauty and should be accepted as an equally valid art form.
A Valid Art Form
spite of ever widening popularity, some
art galleries still won't consider ink prints, while others accept or even encourage
them. There probably always will be people who
consider emulsion prints to be superior. Nevertheless, most photographers who try digital printing don't go back to
the traditional methods. The general consensus is that it is only a
matter of time, and they continue to move
ahead in their explorations of the new technology. Digital printing
is simply another way of printing photographs, and the debate is becoming
as pointless as if oil and watercolor painters were to argue which medium
is the most valid.
Skill and Hard Work
Just as in traditional darkroom printing, a
considerable amount of skill and hard
work is required to produce a fine art quality ink print. Much of this
involves learning to use Photoshop, an extremely complex program.
Experienced fine art photographers who have switched to digital printing
report that they can make better prints than they ever could with an
enlarger. The reason is that with a digital image it is possible to apply contrast and tone adjustments to precisely selected areas with a
degree of precision and control not possible using traditional methods.
An important point here is that we are talking about experienced photographers who bring to their digital printing artistic judgments formed by years of experience in the darkroom. They know what a good
print looks like, and they experience an exhilarating freedom in being able to do things they could previously only dream of. There is a good reason why they don't look back.
popular myth persists that digital printing is easier, and that little
skill is needed. Nothing is further from the truth. Anyone can
learn to expose a negative onto paper, put it in the chemicals and make a
print, but experienced darkroom practitioners know that many long hours
can be spent making a good print, and exacting skills must be learned and
mastered. What sets the good printers apart is often their
willingness to persevere to a high standard and not accept mediocrity.
It is the same with digital printing. My own experience is that I
spend more hours working up an image in Photoshop than I ever did with an
enlarger. But the results are worth it and are what inspire me to do
it. An entirely new set of skills on the computer must be mastered.
It is a lot of work and it is not easy.
Once all the image work is done, however, there is an advantage when it comes to the actual production of the prints. Gone are the hours spent toning, washing and drying prints, what Ansel Adams called the "donkey work". Gone also are the breathing of toxic fumes and an aching back. The creative aspect has been expanded, and the drudgery has been reduced.
switching to digital printing is not necessarily an easy undertaking.
While it is no longer as
difficult and frustrating as it used to be, there are still some important
decisions to make and it can be daunting without some knowledge of the
Part 2 of this series will provide an overview of the various
considerations, and will hopefully make it easier to choose an appropriate
© 2002 - 2008 Clayton Jones
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