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Thread: RA-4/color darkroom printing in 2021

  1. #11
    Drew Wiley
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    SF Bay area, CA

    Re: RA-4/color darkroom printing in 2021

    It's like any other relatively basic darkroom process, including regular silver-gelatin printing black and white printing. You can make it either as simple or challenging as you wish. It takes a bit of time to get on first base, correctly matching your colorhead setting to a standardized reference negative and specific batch of paper - perhaps a few days at first, but now for me, just minutes. You therefore need a reliable colorhead, a means to keep the chemicals at constant temperature like a water jacket or tempering box, reasonably fresh RA4 chemistry itself, plus some basic means of processing like simple drums.

    It takes some experience actually shooting color neg film specifically for sake of darkroom printing, and jockeying that back and forth with your results themselves, to understand the best film and paper combination for your personal needs. A lot has to do with contrast and hue saturation. You can't just fool around with grades like in VC black and white printing. You do have available a modest selection of softer or more contrasty papers, and less or more saturated color films to choose from. That's often sufficient for many people and nearly all commercial purposes. Going past that into more serious control options does involve either digital curve tweaks or supplementary black and white film masking, a whole topic unto itself, which I often use. Very high levels of color quality reproduction are possible with sufficient experience. Anyone who still has old punch and register gear for past Ciba or dye transfer applications can repurpose it for chromogenic printing, though with some distinct modifications in the mask exposure and development protocol, which I won't outline here.

    Permanence is a very complex and controversial topic. But there is consensus that chromogenic papers have dramatically improved in recent years, especially the Fuji Crystal Archive series. Exactly how much I dare not say because I probably won't live long enough to find out. I continue to both pamper my archived prints, and to deliberately torture other samples to see how they hold up over time. I've watched how Ciba prints behave under certain storage and display condition for over 40 years now, know what older C prints didn't do over that same time, but likely don't have another 40 years left on me to see how present chromogenic results hold up.

    I did recently reclaim a large installation of earlier large Crystal Archive Super C prints displayed under far less than ideal commercial display conditions - 18 hrs per day somewhat UV-rich artificial lighting, plus a fair amount of overhead skylight exposure. Fifteen years and they show just a tiny bit of fading, and zero yellowing yet. In fact, knowing in advance that the owners wanted to retire and sell that big building right around now, which they did, I deliberately overprinted them a bit so that they'd look ideal right around now. So if still left under similarly not ideal display conditions, that would equate to maybe 30 years of display life. But now rescued under far better circumstances, they might look nice to me a lot longer. Take the UV out of the equation, and factor in continuing improvements in the paper dyes themselves, and the scenario looks pretty optimistic.

    Comparing this to how inkjet colorants perform over time is a crap shoot. Those are complex cocktails of all kinds of DIFFERENTIALLY behaving colorants - dyes, dyed inert particles (lakes), and very finely ground pigments. It's misleading when labs and galleries market those as "pigment prints". They're not. If you want real pigment prints, they can't be done inkjet, but only by layered "assembly" processes like Bob uses. Of course, those more involved hand processes have their own kinds of inherent looks, and are not ideal for replicating the look of chromogenic prints if that is what you're after. I have seen some of Bob's commercial inkjet work, and it's very well done; he's a real pro at it. Still hope to see his color gum printing work someday. Every medium takes dedication and a lot of experience to really master. And I personally prefer what can be achieved in a color darkroom without any intervening digital steps at all.

  2. #12

    Join Date
    Jan 2019

    Re: RA-4/color darkroom printing in 2021

    I print these days with an inkjet but that isn't because I think it is better. I just don't have the gear to do color. I did it in tubes way back in the 90s and it was fun but I never liked the smell of the chems. I have been printing with inkjets since 1997 or so. Lightjet prints to me are kinds meh too. I keep a few color enlargements around just to remind myself how good they can be. Where you really notice it is in the sharpness. And I don't mean to say that inkjets can't be sharp, but it is different since the sharpness is artificial. You need good negs though if you want "traditionally" good prints, but if you have the inclination to do it, go for it.

  3. #13

    Join Date
    Aug 2011
    Los Angeles

    Re: RA-4/color darkroom printing in 2021

    Maybe one reason to try RA4 printing now is because you can. Years ago I enjoyed shooting Kodachrome and making reversal prints in my darkroom- but that is of course no longer possible. I find printing RA4 enjoyable. I am not interested in spending more time in front of a screen than I already do! If you’re already doing B&W it is inexpensive to buy a few drums and some chemistry to try it out.

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