The Everlasting Power of Print
February 11, 2016
As WPPI gears up to unveil its Power of Print program next month, we present insight on longevity, framing options, paper selection and working with a master printer.
It may not feel like it, but we’re living in something of a golden age of photo print technology, says Henry Wilhelm. In the span of the last few months, Epson rolled out the most fundamental revision of its ink chemistry in a decade and Canon unveiled its own new ink set that will trickle its way into a brand new line of large-format inkjet printers.
Smartphones, Snapchat and Instagram may be habituating the general public to thinking of photography as a disposable medium, but advances in photo-printing technology are radically reshaping expectations for what you can print on and how long those prints can last.
“We tell our customers that they can expect a print to last at least until their grandkids grow up,” says Jonathan Penney, master printmaker and owner of Jonathan Penney, Inc. in Center Moriches, New York.
It may not feel like it, but we’re living in something of a golden age of photo print technology, adds Henry Wilhelm, print permanence expert and founder of Wilhelm Imaging Research in Grinnell, Iowa. In the span of the last few months, Epson rolled out the most fundamental revision of its ink chemistry in a decade and Canon unveiled its own new ink set that will trickle its way into a brand new line of large-format inkjet printers. And printing technologies, such as metallic heat transfers and UV-curable inks that were initially developed for other industries, have hit the photo market in force, opening the doors to exotic materials like metal and glass.
From Pixels To Lasting Art
According to Wilhelm, it’s useful to think of output longevity, or how long a given print will resist fading, along a continuum. Before we rank them, however, keep the following in mind: First, says Wilhelm, these lifespans are only obtained if you or your lab is using the most up-to-date inks and media. Second, these idealized lifespans are for prints that are stored in moderate environments and not subjected to prolonged high humidity, high heat or exposure to direct sunlight—all elements that accelerate fading and other forms of deterioration.
The least stable prints Wilhelm has ever tested were printed with third-party dye-based inks, with some having WIR Display Permanence Ratings of less than three months. Third-party dye inks also typically have very poor ozone resistance. For these reasons, Wilhelm advises that third-party inks be strictly avoided.
Modern silver-halide prints made from Kodak Endura, Kodak Edge and Fujifilm Crystal Archive papers have very good dark storage stability and ozone resistance, but when exposed to light on display, their stability is poor. The WIR Display Permanence Ratings for Kodak Endura papers are generally less than 20 years. Framing the prints under UV-absorbing glass or acrylic offers relatively little protection for silver-halide color prints.
ChromaLuxe “metal prints” made with the newest versions of Sawgrass 8-color and Epson F-Series 4-color sublimation inks have achieved WIR Display Permanence Ratings on the order of 50 years—more than twice that of Kodak and Fuji silver-halide color prints, says Wilhelm. ChromaLuxe prints are also extremely abrasion-resistant and are generally displayed with neither glass nor acrylic glazing.
But not all metal prints are created equally, Wilhelm cautions. To be sure you’re getting one that will live up to its longevity potential, he advises you make sure your lab is using genuine ChromaLuxe panels.
All In The Ink
Pigment inkjet prints using the newest UltraChrome HD and HDX ink sets from Epson have WIR Display Permanence Ratings of up to 200 years, depending on the paper used. Wilhelm rates black-and-white prints for Epson’s UltraChrome HD and HDX inks and select Epson papers at up to 400 years (or, with some papers, significantly beyond that). With these pigment inkjet prints—both black-and-white and color—framing under UV-absorbing glass or acrylic can greatly extend the life of displayed prints. (Wilhelm hasn’t finished tests on Canon’s Lucia Pro inks.)
Wilhelm tells us that prints made with the newest UV-curable inks also have the potential for producing very long-lasting images. Just how long depends upon both the particular inkset and the materials they are printed on. UV-curable printing traces its lineage to, of all things, the paint used on roadways to demarcate lanes and parking spaces. UV-curable technology was built from the ground up to absorb the worst punishment nature can dish out but it’s only recently been refined for the more demanding color needs of the photography and fine-art market. UV prints can be made directly on a wide range of material, including glass, metal and acrylic. (UV-curable output can resist tough environmental conditions better than many competing processes.)
Henry Wilhelm says that printer models from swissQprint, such as the Nyala 2 pictured above, deliver some of the best image quality on the market.
As with ChromaLuxe metal prints, not all UV printers can deliver the highest quality and longevity—many are intended for commercial signage applications. Wilhelm says that while there are over 60 different models of UV printers (with multiple ink systems available) in circulation, only a small subset of these can actually deliver top quality photo output. He says that models from swissQprint, for instance, deliver some of the best image quality on the market. However, he cautions, much more testing will be required to sort out the best, longest-lasting systems, inks and the very wide range of substrates that can be used.
Of course, creating a long-lasting print is no guarantee it will last. “We always advise our customers to treat their print as they would a work of art," Penney says.