from the eMusings Archive...

Volume 4 • Number 2 • December, 2011

Avens Prairie Smoke, 1994

No Substitutions, Please!


No Substitutions, Please!

by Huntington Witherill

I'm always surprised when I stop to consider just how often I'm asked the following question: How can I get my inkjet prints to more closely match my silver gelatin prints?

If you are a photographer working with digital processes, and you are working toward the goal of producing inkjet prints that will match your silver gelatin prints, I'm afraid you will continue to be faced with an uphill battle.

Here's the crux of the problem: Anyone who has more than a rudimentary understanding of the photographic process can easily discern (upon close inspection) the difference between an inkjet print and a silver gelatin print. Current digital technology is simply not capable of producing an exact match for these two entirely different processes. And, this will be the case regardless of how accomplished your skills with digital processes might be. It's also been my experience that if your audience even suspects that you are somehow trying to pass off an inkjet print as being a silver gelatin print (whether intentional or not) they will have a tendency to summarily dismiss your work as being a form of deception that runs counter to their own innate sensibilities. Human nature dictates that we simply do not like to be fooled.

Curiously, it's a given that a platinum print will never exactly match a silver gelatin print. Therefore it seems reasonable to presume that an inkjet print cannot be coerced to match a silver gelatin, or platinum print. Why do so many photographers seem so desperate to match their silver gelatin prints when it comes to the inkjet prints that they produce?

In my opinion, each printing process (whether conventional or digital) has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. And more important, each process possesses a unique and admirable array of aesthetic qualities that are inextricably cemented to that specific process. Regardless of whether you personally prefer one process over another, the inherent qualities in each remain immutable. So, why would anyone then want to cause one process to somehow become visibly indistinguishable from another?

I can't tell you how many times the following lament has been brought to my attention by photographers who (quite often) are in the early stages of working with digital processes. It goes something like this: My inkjet prints don't match my silver gelatin prints. Can you tell me how I can get them to better match? I can't seem to get the same depth that I was able to get with my silver prints. As an aside, I've received four such similar e-mail inquiries over just the past two weeks (which probably explains the reason for my own lamenting, herein.)

Most often I respond to this type of inquiry by acknowledging that I personally have never felt the need to produce an inkjet print that, in any way, attempts to match a silver gelatin print. Actually, in a conscious effort to help short-circuit some of the lingering negative perceptions about digital photography (particularly with respect to the unintended deception problem I alluded to above) I've always endeavored to produce inkjet prints that feature the best inherent qualities that the inkjet printing process has to offer. I pay no attention to the idea of trying to get my prints to match any other specific photographic process. Why do I do this? It's because I firmly believe that digital printing processes (when carried out with appropriate skill and finesse) are quite capable of displaying every aspect of the aesthetic and creative potential of any photographic vision. As such, inkjet prints are deserving of no apology and/or excuse.

Are inkjet prints different than silver gelatin prints? Absolutely! Inkjet prints are as different from silver prints as silver prints are from platinum prints. And that is precisely why it makes little sense to try to match any one process using another. A horse that tries to be a zebra... is neither!

Now, if you continue to find that you are unable to achieve a level of "depth" in your inkjet prints – that you were able to achieve with your silver gelatin prints – it may well be that you are simply using a printing paper that is incapable of producing the intense black you desire. In terms of Dmax, inkjet printing papers vary widely (just as Dmax varies with silver gelatin papers). If the "blackest black" (the highest Dmax) is your primary objective in making photographic prints, inkjet prints can be made using certain glossy papers (Harman Glossy Baryta Paper, by Hahnemuhle, is a good example) that are capable of producing blacks with a Dmax of 2.3. Most silver gelatin prints pale by comparison with a Dmax of 2.1. (Don't forget that Dmax figures are calculated logarithmically, just like the Richter Scale is when used for measuring earthquake intensity.) Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that inkjet prints are actually capable of blacker blacks, than are silver gelatin prints. Nevertheless, this "blackest black" dilemma has also remained a non-issue for me, personally. I've never felt that having the blackest possible black was necessarily the ultimate benchmark by which to measure the success or failure of a photograph.

I personally use matte papers for both my black and white, and color work. (Currently I am using Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, bright white, 309 gsm.) By the way, the Dmax of Hahnemuhle Photo Rag is considerably less than 2.1, at around 1.7-1.8. However, with the extensive control available when using image editing software, localized contrast in both the shadows and highlights can be increased so that the appearance of a print's overall contrast range is visually enhanced, while simultaneously producing a perceptible increase in the amount of detail in both the shadows and highlights. This is, essentially, a good part of what George DeWolfe eloquently details within his book: Creating the Digital Master Print. (Lark Publishing, 2009).

Suffice it to say, successful photographs are a function of many factors that venture well beyond the basic reflective density measurements found in the print. And frankly, I've yet to hear of any photograph that was ever judged to be successful based solely upon the fact that the print itself was visibly indistinguishable from some other entirely different printing process. It's always been my contention that, ultimately, the success (or failure) of any photograph has very little to do with the specific tools, materials and methods that were used in the production of the photograph, itself.

Are inkjet prints somehow better than silver gelatin prints? Of course not! They're simply different.