Print your Fibre: The Evolution of Gallery Quality Photographic Inkjet Printing | LexJet Blog
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Print your Fibre: The Evolution of Gallery Quality Photographic Inkjet Printing

When photo printing first began moving toward inkjet, the only gloss or satin products available were RC (resin coated) photo papers. These papers were by far the biggest selling traditional photo papers and were typically used for portraits and consumer-oriented photographic output. But high-end professional photographers never used RC papers for gallery output and did not accept RC papers as a viable alternative to their coveted fibre papers.

Gallery quality work by Clyde Butcher on a Sunset Fibre paper for the launch of his book, America the Beautiful: The Monumental Landscape.

What’s an RC Paper?
Paper, being porous and susceptible to absorbing moisture, does not provide a stable surface for the “wet” processing of silver halide photo emulsions. For over 100 years papers have been treated with materials to seal the surface and create a stable platform for silver halide.

In the 1970s, the process of sandwiching a paper base between layers of extruded resin was perfected and RC papers were born. This combination of materials provided an excellent base for a photo emulsion that was super-smooth and very economical to produce. The industry soon shifted away from baryta-based fibre papers, choosing to standardize on less expensive RC papers.

What’s a Baryta Paper?
Baryta is an industry term that applies to base papers that are coated with barium sulfate, which provided a stable base for photo emulsions, made the paper whiter, and created a very smooth surface.

These materials were available in a range of color tones and surfaces, providing the artist with a wide assortment of choices. Everyone learned to print “air dried” fibre papers in photo schools and could vary the finished surface from a semi-matte to a high gloss depending on the process they used in the darkroom.

What’s so Bad about RC Paper?
The quick answer is nothing, but the pro photographer who shoots for gallery and exhibition prints has a problem with the “plastic” feel and look of the material itself. It lacks character and is only available in a limited number of color tones and surfaces… gloss, satin and pearl.

The original fibre papers were available in a wide range of surfaces and color tones. There was an art associated with printing this way and it was greatly appreciated as highest standard for photo output.

While most photo companies concentrated on reducing costs and increasing efficiencies, the “gallery” output stayed with the fibre-based papers and darkroom processing.

What’s up with Inkjet?
When inkjet printing entered the photo field, the printer OEMs looked at the photo market and studied the consumer market. All consumer prints were made using RC papers, so they quickly developed RC inkjet papers using the exact same base materials as Kodak, Ilford, Agfa, and other manufacturers.

While these papers addressed the consumer and graphic arts markets, the gallery-quality photographers stayed away because they did not consider RC output “gallery quality”.

Ahead of inkjet photo printing, fine art was being printed on inkjet technology by a small but growing segment of the market. Inkjet was replacing various traditional printing methods for limited edition prints.

At first, the printers used traditional art materials. Soon, the specialty paper companies started coating the traditional art papers to optimize the materials for inkjet printing.

As the inkjet printer quality improved to photo quality, gallery photographers looked for a “non-plastic” photo paper to replace baryta base papers. With nothing available, they turned to the only other option available: high-quality cotton and art papers with matte coatings. Photographers that never made matte prints in their lives were now hooked on the look and feel of art papers.

LexJet, printer OEMs, and paper manufacturers convinced gallery photographers that matte art papers were the only inkjet solution to their problem. As they adapted to the digital capture technology and workflow, they also gravitated to inkjet printing because they had more control and flexibility with their work. Printing on matte art papers was part of this evolution.

After years of convincing photographers to use matte art papers, the air dried gloss and satin products finally became available a few years ago. Photographers can now achieve better print quality at a lower cost than using the traditional materials and processing.

To test the theory at a trade show, we had a 20 in. x 30 in. silver print made on Ilford Multigrade. The file was sent to a New York lab on a rush basis. Total cost for the print was $475.

A comparable print on Sunset Fibre Elite had a paper cost of approximately $8, with ink costing an equal amount. The total material cost was $16, and the print was available within an hour. Given this, if you make one print per month the ROI for a new printer is less than six months, and something tells me you’ll make more than one print per month.

When placed side by side with LexJet’s Sunset Fibre Elite, professional photographers at the trade show could only tell the difference because the shadow detail and Dmax were better on the inkjet print. The pros knew they could never get that level of detail in the darkroom.

The question then to ask yourself is, “Do I really love the matte papers or did I just become accustomed to printing with them?” As tastes and styles change over the years, trends toward different print techniques and looks will come and go. The classic look and feel of fibre-based papers will withstand the test of time.

The LexJet Sunset series of fibre papers provides a wide variety of surfaces, taking photographers back to the choices they had in the darkroom days. This is much more than simple nostalgia as both photographers who grew up in a darkroom with fibre-based paper and photographers who have only seen a darkroom in a museum will both benefit from the stunning look and feel that cannot be replicated by an amateur. It simply elevates the value of your work.

Sunset Fibre Elite is a second generation fibre-based gloss inkjet printable material that is ultra smooth and ultra glossy. The Elite surface was developed in response to requests from photographers for a smoother, glossier surface than that of the Sunset Fibre Gloss. Here’s a quick synopsis of the basic qualities of the Sunset Fibre line:

Alex Ried is LexJet’s product manager, with nine years of experience researching and developing inkjet media for use in the photography, fine art, in-house corporate and large format inkjet markets.

0 Comments

  1. Marion Brown

    Having studied under Ansel Adams and used his Zone System camera, film and darkroom methods for years, I want a digital paper that is like “Ilford Multigrade Fibergrade IV FB Fiber”.

    Which of your papers matches this closely?

    And, which paper is best for color prints, preferring the non high gloss paper?

  2. Marion,

    Thanks for your inquiry about LexJet’s Sunset Fibre based papers. We have five surfaces of Fibre papers…

    • – Fibre Elite is a uniform high-gloss surface which is probably closest to the Ilford Multigrade.
    • – Fibre Gloss is also high-gloss, but has a more subtle texture compared the Fibre Elite.
    • – Fibre Gloss Natural is a natural toned version of Fibre Gloss.
    • – Fibre Satin has the same subtle texture as the Fibre Gloss (and Natural), but has a lower sheen.
    • – We also have a Fibre Matte, which is bright white and flat matte with a smooth surface.

    I haven’t seen that exact Ilford paper you speak of, but if you would like to see our entire selection of products in that area we have a Portfolio Pack with two unprinted 13×19 sheets of each texture that will show you the different options we have for the Air Dried Darkroom replica papers we offer.

    All of these paper options will do extremely well with both color and black and white and there are no high gloss papers in this group.

    I hope this answers your question. Please feel free to give me a call if you have any more questions or need help with anything (800-453-9538).

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