Inkjet vs Lab Photo Prints

It’s amazing how the quality of inkjet has changed and improved over the past few years. The other day I was browsing one of my favorite digital photography web sites and reading a discussion in which someone had asked about the quality of their inkjet prints versus a print at their local photo lab. Many of the responses were about how the traditional lab print was far superior to an inkjet print. There seemed to be no dissenters so my initial reaction was one of surprise. I was thinking based upon how many fine art photographers I know which primarily print inkjet, surly these forum discussion people have not been keeping up with the advances in inkjet photo printing. Then I realized I was reading a discussion dated back in 2003. My relief was short-lived because I soon came across a similar discussion dated only about a year ago. Thankfully some of the posters set the original misconception straight about inkjet. Unfortunately even today inkjet get’s a bad rap but I think in some circles the advantages have not truly been communicated. I am not going to be one to say inkjet versus a lab print is superior. Instead I want to look at the differences in the two and offer some pros and cons for each.

As I said earlier, inkjet has shown some remarkable improvement. In my opinion, the most important aspect has been both the color accuracy and the achievability. When it comes it the ink longevity only in this past 10 years or so is it something we can be confident in.  Pretty much any name brand photo printer which usually includes Canon, Epson or HP is going provide archival grade inks. The papers you can purchase have also improved quite a bit to help withstand the years ahead. When I look at one of the first inkjet prints I did of some artwork in the 90s, it shows visible signs of fading. Actually it started showing those within a year or less of it being printed. In comparison, I have quite a few inkjet prints hanging on the wall of my office, some close to 10 years old. They were printed on an old HP plotter using a archival grade ink (one of the firsts) produced by HP. The prints still look as good as the day they came off the printer.

Today prints produced by inkjet are seen in galleries, museums and have made it possible for artists and photographers to make their own prints. With the inkjet process, the ink is sprayed onto the surface of the paper. The spray pattern eventually forms an image. It’s not the fastest process but the colors and tonal range are incredible. Now days even professional color labs have adopted inkjet printing as an integral part of their product offering. Inkjet prints offer a wide color gamut, meaning they can display a range of colors never possible before in a print. When it comes to overall accuracy, artists are able to match the colors of their original artwork to a greater extent and photographers are able to get an incredible amount of depth in their tones without the need to spend hours in the darkroom tweaking and retrying until they get it right. Overall, inkjet has become an big part of the professional art and photo printing industry.

But I also recognize that there are many traditionalists with either a dislike or prejudice against inkjet. This can be common with any sort of newer technology. Some of this is founded by personal preferences while I have met many photographers that seem to simply disdain it similar to the way the fine art world used think about giclee prints (which are inkjet reproductions of artwork) compared to lithograph prints. No matter if you are an advocate or not of the technology, inkjet is still not perfect. The biggest drawback is the time it takes to produce a print and the overall production cost. Even with some of the faster inkjet printers, an 8×10 may take up to a minute or more to print. From business perspective, not only is it slow but the paper can be pricey and unless you are spitting out tons of prints a day, you will find it cheaper to go with a professional color lab for your inkjet prints. Finally because the ink is sprayed onto the surface of the paper it is more susceptible to moisture and must be handled more carefully. While I do not completely agree, some photographers feel (and notice I say “feel”) there is a certain element of depth not possible with inkjet in which you can get from a lab print. I know many photographers with a lot of dark room experience will say differently but I have seen photographers begin to doubt themselves on this when they have picked up some of their prints from our San Antonio facility in person.

So the question sometimes asked how do a digital lab print and an inkjet print differ.  When I refer to a lab print I am talking about a print on photo paper (Kodak or Fuji being the most popular) which has been printed utilizing some of the same principals film photographers have used for decades in the darkroom. There are many different variations  of this but I am more concerned about the digital lab prints which are the most popular form. This simply means  a computer is to tell a specially engineered photo printer how to use the combination of chemicals and a projected light source to bring out the colors on the paper to match a digital image. This is sometimes loosely referred to as a wet process or wet print. No ink is involved. Instead software controls the exposure to light and chemicals necessary to create the reaction needed for the image to appear from within the paper. Yet unlike a true darkroom print, the printing process happens in seconds and the print is ready almost immediately. Below is an illustration which shows how the two processes differ.

There are some advantages to a lab print over an inkjet. Speed is a major advantage, especially for a high production environment.  It allows labs like that found in our Atlanta facility to produce thousands of prints a day per printer. In addition these prints don’t smudge or easily scratch. They are usually less likely to be damaged by moisture or general handling. For instance, with the larger prints we always wipe them down with a dry cloth to remove dust particles before packaging. With the lab prints we can do this right away but the inkjet print must have some time to dry and cure.  The last great advantage for a business like FinerWorks is the overall production cost. Most of the cost to produce a lab print is wrapped up in the rolls of paper used. While the chemicals also have to be replaced the overall cost per print when you combine the two is a fraction of the cost of an inkjet print. This is why a print on our Sunset Metallic paper is more expensive than our Kodak Endura Metallic. And archivalness becomes a non-issue for any professional photo lab offering digital lab prints because they are usually offering either Kodak Endura or Fuji Crystal Archive papers. One last word on archivability: there are a lot of tests and claims of archivability but keep in mind these are always done based on theories and simulated conditions. No one has yet seen a 200 year old lab print (or inkjet print for that matter).

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of lab prints is the lack of improvement in color accuracy. It seems this area is moving at a snails pace compared to inkjet as the manufacturers focus on speed and productivity. No matter what we do and how hard we try we simply cannot get the same depth and detail in the lab prints that our inkjet printers produce. For instance we have our inkjet Satin Luster Paper which is very popular with artists and produced out of our San Antonio facility. We also have the Kodak Endura Lustre paper. Both papers look very similar with the e-surface luster look. The Kodak paper has a little more pop but the amount of details in the darks still show up better on the Sunset Satin Luster paper.

In conclusion, both types of processes have their advantages. Me personally and as a business man, I favor the speed and productivity value of the lab prints. If someone is looking to produce some prints for the family or simply to decorate their home, the lab prints offer value and quality. But when someone comes to me and they say they want to get the best photo print possible for their next show or competition I steer them toward our inkjet product line.

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