Making sharp, richly toned inkjet prints from digital image files couldn’t be easier, even with the simplest digital cameras and printers. According to everything you’ve read online about all those terrific desktop printers, your prints should last well into the lifetimes of your children’s grandchildren.
But that’s assuming you’ll be storing them in deep, dark, flat drawers, wrapped individually in acid-free sleeves, with dehumidifiers running 24/7 and the air conditioning set to perpetual cool. Hang the same photograph in the sun room at your beach house and all bets are off.
Just as excessive levels of ultraviolet light, heat and humidity greatly decrease the life expectancy of conventional black and white and dye-based color prints, the same goes for inkjet prints.
Because inkjet imagery consists of tiny dots of pigment residing on the paper surface, it is far more susceptible to physical and environmental damage.
The life expectancy of inkjet prints is, for the most part, predetermined by your printer’s proprietary ink set and your choice of print media. In the early days of dye-based inks, the longevity of prints, depending on whether you showcased unframed near an open window or behind glass and away from bright, high-UV light sources, could be measured in terms of weeks to a few years at best.
Note: Most authorities on print permanence define the term “print life” as the time it takes before noticeable color fading starts to occur. How quickly the print finally becomes a “ghost” of its formal self depends greatly on the characteristics of the ink set and print media, with some combinations fading quickly, and others in gradual increments.
With the introduction of advanced dye/pigment and all pigment ink sets, the yardstick for measuring print life for inkjet prints went from years to decades and in the case of premium pigment inks applied to acid-free fine art inkjet media, a century or more for color and 200 years-plus for monochrome (black-and-white) prints. But even when printing with the most stable inks and papers, there are several pragmatic aspects that must be addressed.
Heat: When it comes to colder temperatures, your prints can never get enough of the stuff. Heat is another matter. As the ambient temperature levels rise, down goes the life expectancy of your photographs. Always try to store or display inkjet prints in cooler environments, i.e., 68° or less. (The same goes for traditional photographic prints.)
Light: Light, specifically light sources containing high levels of UV (ultraviolet) radiation, which includes sunlight and fluorescent lights, is the “evil twin” of heat as it affects print longevity. Just as high levels of heat accelerate the degree of image degradation of inkjet prints, ditto high-UV light sources. For this reason it’s always a good idea to frame display prints behind glass (and preferably glass with anti-UV coatings) and hung out of reachof direct sunlight or fluorescent light sources. Incandescent lamps are measurably safer for lighting your prints than fluorescent lamps, but here too, avoid excessive exposure to higher-wattage lamps.
Humidity: If light and heat are evil twins, humidity turns the group into the evil triplets. Just as excessive heat and light greatly diminish the life expectancy of inkjet prints, the same goes for excessive levels of humidity. As indicated in the opening paragraph, the last place you want to hang a precious photographic print is at your beachside bungalow.
Air Contaminants: A few years ago, during a long summer hot spell that was accompanied by high levels of humidity and daily ozone alerts, a number of photographers began reporting a strange phenomenon that affected glossy Epson prints they had made, some only days earlier. Specifically, the surface layers of the prints that were left lying about began crinkling and curling away in tiny flecks. The villain, it was later determined, was the high levels of ozone wafting through open windows. Epson responsibly pulled all remaining packages of their glossy surfaced paper off dealer’s shelves, followed three months later by a reformulated version of their popular paper surface.
While the ozone issue is well behind us, it’s still important to keep prints away from anything that can possibly emit noxious fumes including almost all non-archival, plastic-based packing and storage materials, which in a “perfect storm” can compromise the life expectancy of your prints.
Display Conditions: As you can well surmise, based on all of the above, where and how you display or store your prints greatly affects their life expectancy. Though it’s hard to derive satisfaction from prints locked away in a hermetically sealed vault, by employing a few protective measures and a bit of common sense, i.e., acid-free framing materials and a display space out of range of direct UV light sources, you can have your cake and view it, too.
Media Surfaces, pH Levels, and Brighteners: If you’re serious abouthigh-mileage printing, stick to acid-free (pH neutral) fine-art paper surfaces. If the paper of your choice is available in a choice of “natural” or “bright white,” choose the natural, warmer-toned version. By nature, paper isn’t bright white, and in order to get whiter whites manufacturers add phosphorus to the mix, which does a fine job of replicating snow scenes, but significantly shortens the life expectancy of the paper surface.
Protective Measures: Protective measures you can take to ensure a long, stable lifespan for your images include the following.
Always use pH-neutral ink sets and paper surfaces.
Whenever possible, store your prints in a dark, cool and dry storage area.
All storage boxes and framing materials should be acid free.
Display prints should be (acid free) matted, behind glass with anti-UV coatings and if freshly printed, allowed to dry at least 24 hours before framing.
When framing prints, place a sheet of aluminum foil behind the print as a vapor shield against any moisture that may build up in the mat backing.
Hang prints out of range of direct sunlight and fluorescent fixtures. It’s also a good idea to occasionally check how the sun tracks across the room as its position changes through the seasons.
When possible, take the time to make duplicate prints as back-up prints, should something happen to the original. Back-up prints kept in dark storage also serve as good reference points when determining fade levels for long-term display prints. Some collectors rotate duplicate prints every few years as a method of further reducing the long-term effects of exposure to the elements.