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:

Clearcoating Inkjet Photo and Art Prints

CleacoatPrintFor more than 15 years, LexJet has been helping creators of inkjet prints choose the most cost-effective way to protect valuable prints from damage due to scratching and exposure to UV light, humidity, and airborne pollutants.  Photographic and art prints can be protected with traditional framing systems, laminating films, clearcoats, or protective sprays.

Protective sprays may be fine if you occasionally make a few smaller prints, but liquid clearcoats are the most popular option for studios that use wide-format pro-model inkjet printers to produce multiple, large photographic and art prints.

LexJet recently introduced Sunset Gloss and Sunset Satin liquid coatings that provide great protection, while taking some of the hassle out of the application process. The coatings are ready to apply straight from the can, without any dilution or mixing. This is important, because every time you add water to a liquid coating, you’re adding an uncontrolled variable that can diminish the level of protection the coating was engineered to provide.  The finish of Sunset Gloss and Sunset Satin Coating is tough and flexible, contains UV inhibitors for maximum protection from the elements, and is non-yellowing. The coatings were designed for use with LexJet’s Sunset canvases, but also work well with other canvas products as well as  certain photo and fine-art papers.

If you have any questions about using a clearcoat, please contact a LexJet Account Specialist at 888-873-7553 or submit your questions in the comments section of this blog. Below are answers to a few questions we’ve received:

Why do you recommend a liquid coating instead of an aerosol spray?

Aerosol sprays and liquid coatings essentially serve the same purpose—to protect the image.  But with aerosol coatings, it’s very difficult to get the correct amount of solids to produce a good protective film.  It typically requires more coats to accomplish the same desired result.  Liquids are more cost effective, and can either by applied with high-density foam rollers or sprayed on through systems that can be purchased at home-improvement stores.  While LexJet sells protective sprays from Hahnemuhle and Clearstar, we currently don’t offer Sunset Gloss or Satin Coatings in spray form.

What’s the best way to apply a  liquid coating?

ClearcoatSprayBoothIf I were building a printmaking studio from the ground up, I would include an enclosed, well-ventilated dust-free area in which I could use an industrial HVLP (high-volume, low pressure) spray-gun.  An HVLP spray gun wastes less coating in overspray than other types of sprayers. It also provides control over the application process. But since most photographers don’t have room in their studios for spraying (and can’t justify buying specialized coating systems), Sunset liquid coating has been formulated to work equally well when applied either with a spray gun, brush, or foam roller.

Developing the right technique with a roller can take some practice, and a lot will depend on the temperature and humidity of your work environment. In LexJet’s In Focus newsletter, you can read some helpful tips about rolling on a clearcoat.

ClearcoatRollingTopWhat are the most common causes of errors?

The three most common errors are using incompatible materials, coating the print before it is fully dry, and applying the coating unevenly.

Incompatible materials: LexJet Sunset Coating is a water-based coating. If you apply a water-based clearcoat to inks and papers that aren’t water-resistant, you can easily ruin the print. LexJet sells a wide selection of photo papers, art papers, and canvases that can be protected with LexJet Sunset Coating.  A LexJet account specialist can tell you if the combination of ink and materials to use for your prints will work with the LexJet Sunset Coating.

Not waiting long enough for the print to dry before coating it: Different inks dry at different rates, especially if you’re working in an area of the country that experiences wide variations in temperature and humidity. Even when your print feels dry to the touch, it may not be ready to clearcoat. You need to make sure your print has properly “outgassed” before you apply a liquid coating.

Outgassing is the process in which the glycols used as wetting agents in the inks are evaporated. If the glycols haven’t completely outgassed before you apply the coating, your finished print could look cloudy.

To test whether a print has outgassed, some fine-printmakers suggest this technique: Lay each print on a flat surface, then cover the print with inexpensive butcher paper. The evaporating glycols will cause ripples to appear in the butcher paper. Periodically replace the wavy butcher paper with a fresh sheet of paper.  If no waves appear in the fresh sheet of paper after a few hours, the print has probably finished outgassing and will be dry enough to clearcoat.

Applying the coating unevenly: If some areas of the print have a different sheen than others, you most likely applied the coating unevenly.

What are the advantages of clearcoating?

A properly formulated clearcoat can add years to the life your fine photo print or art canvas by protecting it from everyday hazards, such as fingerprints and scratches or exposure to sunlight, humidity, and airborne pollutants.

A glossy clearcoat can enhance the density of the blacks and the vibrancy of the colors in your print. But if you don’t want your finished print to look glossy, try applying a layer of Sunset Gloss, finished with a layer of Sunset Satin. The sheen of the finished print is determined by the sheen of the final coat.

The key to getting the best results is to experiment in your own environment. The self-leveling properties in LexJet Sunset Coating can help you achieve optimal results, but the best techniques for applying Sunset coatings will depend on the specific conditions within your work environment.

If you have any questions or coating techniques you’d like to share, we would welcome your comments!