I'm often get asked how I am able to print photographs up to 2 metres (>6ft) wide/high using old fashioned dark room technologies even though my images were captured using digital sensors, not on film.
While the photographic reproduction & enlargement world seems to have switched entirely to digital inkjet technologies, some commercial labs continue to offer Type-C (chromogenic) enlargements, developed using a traditional wet chemical process.
Durst LambdaThis is what one used to get from Durst in exchange for about $1/4 million
Type-C prints are produced on fabulously expensive, wide format (up to 62 inch) machines like the Durst Lambda, Océ Lightjet & ZBE Chromira.
Sadly, Durst Phototechnik from Brixen in Italy no longer makes Lambda machines & while a glance at their website reveals a broad range of available large format printers, all are based on inkjet technologies. ZBE on the other hand, still offer machines up to 50 inch wide formats.
Lambda, Lightjet & Chromira develop latent images on real photographic light sensitive papers using the RA4 photochemical process. To get the digital image from the camera & onto the paper, they use LEDs (red, green & blue) to project the image onto the emulsion which is on either a photo paper product, plasticised film or a transparency.
The emulsion is basically unexposed silver halide (AgX) crystals which, once exposed to the light, is then chemically developed, fixed & cut to length just like an old fashioned, dark room print.
Some people call these types of prints, Lambda prints, Lightjet prints or Chromira prints. Whichever term is used, they all mean basically the same thing; a silver halide, Type-C (chromogenic) print developed using Kodak's RA4 photochemical process that was invented by them back in the 1940's.
You may also be surprised to learn that Kodak still makes these chromogenic papers which they call Endura, a resin coated paper that offers extraordinarily rich colours with great flesh tones, as well as the most intense blacks. In Japan, Fuji make a fabulous paper called Crystal Archive. Each company also produces metallic/pearl versions which contain their own secret blend of micas & other exotic ingredients to enhance colour vibrancy & densities.
The combined quality then from using these 'old fashioned' digital enlargers & professional grade, silver halide papers is the main reason why I still use this process.
Loch ath Chrathaidh
Customers Know Best
In my opinion, the sharpness, colour gamut, dynamic range, stability & sheer wow factor still beats anything that can printed by an inkjet machine. But in the end, it is the customer who decides what is best for them. So when I'm advised to offer inkjet images instead, then that's what I shall do.
By now, you're probably thinking that I've never printed anything using inkjet technologies. But it's not true because despite everything I said above, inkjet technology can produce exceptionally good results. But it is conditional.
There are basically two types of ink, dye & pigment
Baile a' Bhàird
based. Dye based inks are relatively cheap but have a poor shelf life which means that after a number of years, they will start to fade. And their water based formula means that they cannot tolerate any contact with water, even sweaty hands. Moisture will cause the inks to blur & run, ruining the image.
Pigment based inks on the other hand are much more durable but like everything else in this world, you only get what you pay for. Using cheap, 3rd party pigment based inks might save money at the front end but the prints still might fade prematurely.
The choice of paper is also critical. Consumer grade papers are made typically using alpha cellulose (wood pulp). But over time, the pH changes & the acidity cause the lignen in the paper fibres to yellow & eventually break down. In extreme cases, the print is so fragile, it can no longer be handled without falling apart.
The best quality papers are made from pH neutral cotton fibres, sometimes called 'rag'. When high quality pigment based inks are used to print an image on cotton paper, you can create an extremely high quality, archival print.
Giclée is just a fancy name, made up for marketing reasons in the 1990's & is commonly attributed to an inkjet print that is supposedly of high quality. Often, that is true. But not necessarily.
Something For Nothing
Artists & galleries like to use this term because it confers some sort of 'extra value'. The problem is that there is no standard anywhere that defines a Giclée print. And in France, it is the slang word for male ejaculation. I'm not kidding.
Thus, it is a term which is easily & frequently abused. The only way to be sure that a Giclée print meets the archival standard is to confirm that the paper is made from pH neutral cotton, not alpha cellulose (wood) fibre & that the inks are formulated using high quality pigments, not dyes.
Nevertheless, since the term Giclée seems to have been adopted by almost every commercial printer, who am I to champion its demise? The only caveat I would offer is that Giclée prints or indeed any inkjet print are extremely fragile because the layer of ink sitting on the substrate (cotton, paper etc.) is microscopically thin. It is therefore very easy to scratch so always handle your Giclée prints with extreme care.