Print Longevity: A History


Insuring the longevity of a print is essential to an image-maker’s responsibility to the customer. Anything less can cause damage to a studio’s reputation. This is especially true of photographers who cover special events in people’s lives. It would be a sad situation if the wedding photos, which were expected to be handed down from generation to generation, begin to fade after just a few years.

This is also true for fine art photographers and illustrators selling exhibit pieces. The owner has every expectation that these works will last for at least 100 years. It was not until print longevity could be assured that color photography became a viable attraction to fine art dealers and collectors.

The History of Silver Halide Prints

For many years photographers sold prints of these special occasions and fine artworks in black and white. They lasted for decades. There were no issues with fading.

By the late 1950s, color photographs entered the marketplace. Just like color magazines and color televisions, color photography was a hallmark with most of the second half of the previous century. It changed how we saw the world and how we preserved history. For those of us who did not live before then, it seems as if all of history took place in a colorless world. We have no reason to believe that trees, flowers, and even our grandparents' skin wasn’t gray. And, because those lasting black and white photos live on, we had every reason to believe that the first color photos would live the same long life. Little did we know how wrong we were.

The first dye-based photographic prints proved how little permanence they had by the 1970s and 1980s. People’s precious memories not only showed their fading, some of them just about completely disappeared, much like a few scenes from the movie, “Back to the Future.”

Over the years there have been improvements. Yet, to this day silver-halide based photographic paper still has a limited life-span. It’s lab-tested by placing it under glass and exposing the print to 450 lux cool white fluorescent lights for twelve hours per day. The results are a twenty-year to forty-year lifespan. If the same photos are kept in total darkness in a temperature and humidity controlled environment the lifespan increases to between fifty-years and one hundred years.

The Ink Jet Difference

In recent years a new kid moved into the image printing block. Ink jet printing can change the life span equation if done properly.

To fully understand the technology, we need to comprehend how the ink jet print is created. It’s a sea of tiny ink droplets deposited in paper. These droplets are measured in picoliters. A picoliter works out to one trillionth of a liter.

Therefore, before we consider the environmental factors, the longevity of ink jet prints comes down to two things: the archival quality of the ink and it’s receiver, the media it is printed upon.

Dye-Based vs. Pigment-Based Inks

Dye-based inks bring much of the same bad blood to the table as do dye-based color photo papers. The first ink jet printers used dye-based inks. That’s because they offered a larger color gamut. The ability to print more colors was extremely desirable to both professional and consumer photographers. It added all the more excitement to the newly emerging digital environment. No longer did we need to run to the photo lab to drop off film. And now we could skip the photo lab for making prints, as well. The amazing digital darkroom had arrived. It just brought with it many of the same issues which were rooted in the 1950s. There was a new ground-swell of interest in making images just as there was when color film bound upon the scene.

Today, pigment-based inks rule much of the ink jet printing roost. We can obtain the greatest color gamut plus the most lightfastness when we print with a pigment-based ink set that has a pigment particle which is encapsulated with resin.

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