Musings on Photography

The Silver Standard, reprise

Posted in digital printing by Paul Butzi on July 16, 2008

 Imgs 990901-10A-600
Some longish time ago, when I first started doing B&W printing via inkjet, I stumbled around trying to replicate the look of gelatin silver based B&W papers. The inkjet materials available then were nowhere as good as what’s available now, and in frustration, I turned to matte surface papers – particularly to Epson Ultrasmooth. When I switched to an HP z3100, I switched papers again, to (primarily) Crane Museo Portfolio, which I still think is one of the most beautiful printing papers available.

At the time I switched to matte papers, I thought that because the current crop of glossy papers (things like Epson Premium Luster) were so nasty, and had such icky appearance, that it was the way to go. And, in the end, switching to matte papers freed me from a lot of misconceptions about printing. I wrote about that in an article on my static website titled (going off) The Silver Standard, in which I argued that matching silver prints was not the way to digital printing nirvana.

These past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of printing on Harman Gloss FB Al, and on Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, two beautiful papers of the new baryta surface sort. I’ve been doing quite a lot of print evaluations, and I’ve printed multiple variations of the same image on different papers and with different printers, so I’ve really gotten to know my test images (one of which is above).

As a result, I’ve become more and more impressed with those two particular papers. The surface finish of both is just incredibly good. The ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the prints is excellent. I’m sure that in the future, there will be papers which are better, but let me tell you right now that any paper which beats these two is going to be so good you get short of breath and your heart races when you look at the prints.

Anyway, out of curiosity, I finally dug through the cabinet and pulled out a box of gelatin silver prints, and compared them head to head against the inkjet prints I’ve made over the past few weeks. I’m a big fan of the control you get with digital printing, and I pretty much expected that the digital prints would make the silver prints look sad and shabby. What I didn’t expect, and what I found, is that the digital prints REALLY make the silver prints look sorry. I won’t claim I was the best silver printer on the planet, but I did have some idea of what I was up to and what controls were available. I’ve written (and gotten published in magazines) articles on using VC papers. So I like to think that I have something of a clue.

And there’s just no comparison. The digital prints win on expressiveness, they win on tonal range, they win on rendering of subtle tonal stuff. They win on overall appearance, they win on every metric you might apply. They’re so much better than the gelatin silver prints (and than the inkjet prints I was making just a few years ago) that I think that in some way, all this adds up and they’re different in kind, not just in quality.

It was not so very long ago that I got email from people telling me that I was delusional, that inkjet printing would never rival gelatin silver or platinum, that inkjet prints would always look ‘fake’, that inkjet prints were real but were instead ‘fauxtographs’.

But inkjet printing was pretty good then, and it’s come a long way since, and although all those criticisms linger on in the world of the internet, where they’re destined to float around in the Google cache forever, I just don’t think there’s any longer even a comparison to be made.

11 Responses

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  2. Les Richardson said, on July 16, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    That would be the “HP” z3100, right? (grin).

  3. Paul Butzi said, on July 16, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    That would be the “HP” z3100, right? (grin).

    Yes, thanks. Fixed it.

  4. Jeremy said, on July 17, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Would you care to say a word about the inks you used too?

  5. Hugh Alison said, on July 17, 2008 at 5:58 am

    “Going off the silver standard” was a very helpful article for me when you wrote it – it clarified a lot of my own impressions at the time.

    I still occasionally get the urge to use a darkroom – but it’s really due to the pleasure of the process, not the end result (like making sandcastles on the beach).

  6. Peter De Smidt said, on July 17, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    It would be interesting to compare one of the inkjet prints to a print made from having a negative made from the same file and printed on Ilford MG fiber paper. That way one would really be comparing papers without giving the inkjet paper an edge due to digital editing.

  7. Oren Grad said, on July 17, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    >> It would be interesting to compare one of the inkjet prints to a print made from having a negative made from the same file and printed on Ilford MG fiber paper. <<

    It’s now possible to have prints made directly from a digital file to the new Harman/Ilford Galerie FB Digital. See, for example:

    It’s pricey, but now at least there is the opportunity to do a comparative test in which the ability to manipulate the tonal scale freely is a completely independent variable from whether the output medium is silver or ink.

  8. Oren Grad said, on July 17, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    And here’s the data sheet for the Galerie FB Digital paper, with technical details:

  9. Chris Klug said, on July 21, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Also, what printer are you using?

  10. Jordan said, on July 26, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Count me among the people who were influenced by your original “Silver Standard” article.

    For me there is a psychological element to the silver vs. inkjet “debate” too — I find myself almost embarrassed at how much easier it is for me to get good results in PS + inkjet relative to darkroom printing (which now just leaves me frustrated and tired whenever I attempt it) — even though I use a cheapo setup (black-only B&W on a $100 Epson C88+ printer, usually on EEM or PremierArt paper).

    I’ll have to try the papers you mention but don’t hold out much hope that I’ll be able to find them locally.

  11. Mark Muse said, on July 29, 2008 at 9:45 am

    I am surprised this argument still occurs. Digital printing is clearly a different animal from photochemical printing (as is digital capture very different from film). The effort to make inkjet materials more like photopaper has been useful in that is has pressured the manufacturers to improve their products. But in the end the object in front of the viewer will have either exploited the unique characteristics of its medium or not, regardless of what that medium is.

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