In Praise of the Darkroom: Why I Love Silver Gelatin (for black and white prints) Photographers these days talk a lot about the respective advantages and disadvantages of shooting with film versus shooting with a digital camera. Such arguments tend to boil down most frequently to things like exposure latitude, resolution, and both short-term and long-term equipment costs. We don't often have significant and informed discussions of printing. In fact, we don't often have them at all. Like it or not, this is mostly the fault of your average consumer to pro-sumer level digital photographer. While printing plays an integral and almost necessary role in negative film processes, its role tends to be far less important in the digital community. This is due first and foremost to the fact that printing is never a necessary part of viewing a digital photograph. But also, the vast majority of digital photographers either print at home using an inkjket or dye-sublimation printer, send their photos to a web-based printing service, or take them to a local consumer-grade lab to be printed. For your average consumer or pro-sumer, this is perfectly acceptable. (I should note here that this is also sometimes the case with film shooters who scan negatives). But what if you are a pro? More specifically, what if you care about print quality? This greatly changes your printing requirements. Many of the following arguments I will make I believe apply to making professional grade color prints as well. It should be obvious which ones they are. I should take a moment here to qualify my competency to write this essay. I have both a solid level of experience with traditional chemical photographic processes and extensive experience with some of the best software, printers, and paper in the professional inkjet industry. What Does it Take to Make a Professional Quality Black and White Inkjet Print? Let's talk printers. Actually, let's talk Epson. It is the industry standard. It is not possible to make a professional quality black and white print with a 2200 or below using stock inks. End of story. For some printers, there are black-only ink sets available from companies like Piezography. They do work well. They also take away your ability to digitally tone beyond what tones a given paper exhibits, without buying another tone ink set. You will need an Epson 4800 or better. That will cost you $2000. At least. You will also need a RIP. ColorBurst (Epson's stock RIP) will not do. QuadTone seems appealing, since it's free and it's made specifically for black and white prints. It does not handle K3 (CCMMYKK+K) stock inks as well as you might think. You'll need something like Bowhaus OPM, which weighs in at an affordable $250. Okay so $2250+ and you're off to the races, right? Wrong. Let's talk profiling. You'll need a spectrocolorimeter and accompanying software. Something like Pantone ColorVision's PrintFix Pro will do for a modest $500 or the X-Rite i1 Design for $1000. So grab a sheet of your favorite paper and make a profile. Great! Now grab 100 more sheets and spend the next two weeks tweaking the profile. You can give up in frustration. That's okay. Just call someone to come calibrate it for you. It'll only set you back a few grand minimum. Let's talk paper. Okay so at this point, you've got your printer, your profile, and your paper. What if you decide you want to print on a paper with a different surface? Go back to the profiling step and start over. Repeat this process until you have profiles for all the papers you wish to use. Let's talk recurring costs. First you'll need ink. Lots of it. Don't worry, it's only $60 a cartridge. Times 8 cartridges is $480. Times how often you go through them over the course of a year is a lot of money. Did I mention you'll have to buy a new printer every couple years? You know what that means! Start over at step 1! Isn't this so easy and fun? As you can see, the process of making a professional black and white print is both costly and time-consuming. What I've described above is not exceptional. It is the norm. The prices I've quoted for equipment and ink are average. The prices for profiling are actually on the conservative side, especially if you hire someone to do it for you. Why Can't I Print With a Normal Printer? Normal printers (Epson 2200 and below, Canon mid and small-format) have several distinct disadvantages. With stock inks, they are never able to escape problems of metamerism (the quality of prints changing color due to the temperature of the light they are viewed under). They are also unable to accommodate heavy weight papers and have less flexible ink systems. You could go with a Piezo system, which will run you between $400 and $700, plus the cost of their refill inks. On top of all that, you still have to go through all the paper profiling steps described above and purchase all the necessary equipment. You save some money on the printer, but everything else is the same. Additionally, using a black-only ink set will of course bar you from using the same printer to make color prints. You'll need to buy a second printer. Why Would I Do All That When I Can Just Send My Prints To a Printer? There are several good reasons to print at home instead of sending your prints off. Most importantly, you have an unparalleled level of control over tone and paper choice. Large web-based printing houses and local professional labs alike have very limited paper choices beyond your standard gloss, semi-gloss, and matte. Anyone who has been in the industry during film's heyday will recall using the phase "Print it again" at the local pro-lab too often. You can use it as much as you like. Your black and whites will never look the way you want. Even if you aren't a complete control freak, you will still have to send them off to a specialty lab (most likely somewhere else in the country unless you live in NYC or LA). There is no such thing as "good enough" if you are serious about your work. How I Escape These Problems in the Darkroom I'll refrain here from going into the details of the equipment and chemical costs of a darkroom, except to say that most of the necessary equipment is literally being given away, and that many chemical stocks are very long-lasting. The fact of the matter is that for anyone with enough time to make prints in a darkroom, you have an amazing measure of control over paper surfaces and toning at a cost that is less than printing yourself or sending off your work for custom prints. There exist an enormous variety of papers in a multitude of surfaces that all print the same image in the same chemicals, and respond in similar ways to toning. As a black and white film shooter, that is the end of the story for me. What If I Shoot Digital? Hybrid Approaches There are three hybrid approaches that make traditional darkroom printing possible for the digital photographer, two of which are little-known. The first is having a negative made from a digital image. Easy, low cost. Second, are digital enlargers, which are traditional negative enlargers fitted with heads that project digital images onto paper. High cost. Third is making the negative yourself using a film recorder. Though some companies still manufacture them, the most common, affordable, and widely available film recorder is called the Pro Palette or Digital Palette, which was manufactured by Polaroid until recently. It interfaces with your computer, usually via SCSI, and will print digital images onto film from 35mm all the way up to 4x5. On a normal day on eBay, a clean, functioning unit will set you back between $0.99 and $75.