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Thread: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Aug 2000
    Brookings OR

    Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    OK. I have been shooting color neg and making some pretty good display prints from 4x5 for 40 years +. IOW, I know how to make a very good C-print using the best pro equipment.

    My question is, can someone tell me what difference(s) to expect when I switch to do-it-myself scanning (ie, 4990 or 750- not drum or Imacon) --still from color neg-- and Epson 7800 printing to 20x24. I know, most of you are way beyond this basic question and I'm late to the party, but really, when you literally put the prints side-by-side, what differences are there?

  2. #2
    Jack Flesher's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Los Altos, CA

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    My .02 only...

    The easy part: When you learn to properly run the 7800, you will get excellent print results -- assuming you have a good digital file to print from. The operative word here is "when," so plan on spending the time to learn how to print properly. The prints will look different than what you will be used to though -- not bad, just different.

    The hard(er) part: Getting a good scan from color neg on any scanner is a challenge, so it also takes time to learn how to do it well and thus adds to the qualifying sentence above, "good digital file."

    Last edited by Jack Flesher; 26-May-2006 at 16:21.
    Jack Flesher

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    New York City

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    Your question is basic in the sense that it is an important question. Have a neg scanned and have an Epson print made and compare it to one of your c-prints. There must be someone here on this forum that can recommend you to a place that can do that for you, considering that you don't want and Imacon or drum scan. It will cost you something but it will settle the matter in your mind which is worth a lot. Maybe the dealer that you will buy the scanner and printer from will do it for you gratis.

    Well, good luck and please tell us what you think the answer to your question is when you see the results for yourself. Considering the experience you have as a printer I for one would love to hear your opinion.

  4. #4

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    Side by side, an inkjet print to a C print, you will notice differences. While the resolution might be similar, an inkjet only mimics continuous tone. Get close enough to any inkjet, and the dot patterning will be apparant. This is similar to commercial offset printing, though since all inkjet systems have a higher dot gain than offset, the dots do blend together slightly; this is what I mean by mimics continuous tone.

    So basically, you might be happy with the printed resolution, and even the colour saturation of an inkjet print. Unfortunately, only a chemical print will be continuous tone, and show the colour tonality you are use to seeing in your C prints.


    Gordon Moat

    P.S. - This is not to state that inkjet prints are bad, just to point out that they are different.

  5. #5
    Michael E. Gordon
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Southern California

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    Al: I'm not sure what your goals or desires are, but if you dislike the dot pattern of inkjet printing (really only visible at nose distance or with a loupe), you can always prepare your digital files, proof on an inkjet, and output your final prints via one of the many, many labs that prints digitally. You can print via Lightjet or Chromira and get continous tone prints on Kodak or Fuji papers.

  6. #6
    Abuser of God's Sunlight
    Join Date
    Aug 2004
    brooklyn, nyc

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    With the best printers today I don't think visible dots are an issue. I'm one of those compulsive squinters, and I was surprised looking at the last generation of Epson prints to find no hint of dots.

    The prints still look different, though. I haven't studied enough good color ink prints to put the difference into words, but they have a different vibe. And if you're printing on matte artist's papers--which some would argue is the ink print's native territory and greatest strength--they have a completely different feel.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Aug 1999

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    I've made color prints "C" and Ilfochromes since 1967. I've also run offset presses professionally, and have hand printed fine art lithographs professionally. I have a full color darkroom with a roller transport processor. I've been printing for the past 5 years with inkjet printers, 1200 series, 9600, and 9800. Just to give you my background.

    I scan using an Imacon - and frankly, if you think you'll get adequate results with an Epson flatbed at 20x24 print size - you're fooling yourself. I own a flatbed in addition to the Imacon - there is NO contest, the flatbed just doesn't get the job done. My advice is to rethink your approach if you want to print that large.

    Ink on paper looks totally different than dyes with a gelatin overcoat. If you want to match the look of a C print as closely as possible, then you need to use one of the HP dye printers with HP paper. The print longevity will be equal to the Epson IF you use the professional HP printers AND the HP papers. Don't take my word for it check Wilhelm for the 5500 series HP printers.

    The first thing you need to do is quantify how you want the prints to look. Do you want to print on a gloss, semi-gloss, lustre, or matte paper? The choice of paper will drive a lot of what you do with a printer. If you want to print on semi-gloss or lustre, then you really need to use the photo black ink in an Epson printer and not the matte black. The downside is you lose D-max compared with the matte black ink.

    You can get some of the D-max back if you coat the print with a UV inhibiting spray. I currently use Clearshield on my prints and you can see the blacks, and dark colors deepen as the are wetted by the spray.

    You can spend an inordinate amount of time testing papers. I've probably tested 30 different papers, and have more on order trying to get the best look for my work.

    On that subject, you really need to profile papers if you want to get the best results out of them. To that end, I also have an X-Rite profiling system. It's the only way I can try all of the different papers as the inking has to be controlled, and that's part of what the profile does. Another way to do this is to buy a raster image processor (RIP). The RIP software company will usually have environments available for most of the popular papers.

    But, there's another thing you have to look at. If you want to use a RIP and it does not have an environment for the paper you want to use - what good is the RIP? The answer is to get a RIP that will allow you to use a spectrophotometer to read in a test chart to build the new environment for a paper.

    But, to your original question, how can you quantify the difference? You really can't inkjet prints look like ink on paper especially if you're using a matte or art paper. They look more "art print like" and less "photo print like." They have a completely different character than a wet darkroom print. Let's say more like a carbon print or a cross between a carbon print and a lithographic print (fine art, hand printed - not mass produced offset press type).

    But, you can also control the final look by how you overspray the print or laminate it - and ALL inkjet prints should be sprayed or laminated. I use a mixture of gloss and matte coatings that I custom mix - 1 part gloss to 3 parts matte. It gives a satin sheen to the print, and deepens the ink colors while protecting the print.

    If you've used an HP printer with glossy paper and put the print behind glass, you honestly couldn't tell the difference between that print and a C print. If you use a smooth matte paper, and overspray with a gloss spray, and put the print behind glass, you'd probably have to stick your nose on the glass to try and determine if it was an inkjet or C print.

    If you care to use the inkjet process for its own intrinsic look - well, then you're into a whole different area as you can give the print it's own unique character with the type of paper chosen and how glossy or matte the spray is.

    Just don't go into this thinking all you have to do is push the button and the computer will do the rest. There is as much or more to learn about how to get an inkjet print to look good as there is in learning how to print in a wet darkroom.

    And, if you choose to print digitally - the sooner you quit thinking "this is how I did it in a wet darkroom" - and learn the correct digital workflows, the better your prints will become.

    As to the "continuous tone" on wet darkroom prints versus "dots" on inkjet prints. The people who think wet darkroom prints are continous tone are fooling themselves since the prints are made up of dye clouds OF CYAN, MAGENTA, AND YELLOW dyes - that's NOT continuous tone in any way, shape, or form. The dye clouds and inks are doing the exact same thing - mixing the proper ratios of the colors available to make the color needed.

    If you think you can see the inkjet dots at "nose distance" - you've never looked at a print from an inkjet printer at 2880 dpi - you cannot see the dots without at least a 4x loupe on the print. I can see individual dye clouds with a 4x loupe too - so there's really not much difference in granularity.

    The prints from an inkjet printer are NOT like offset press prints in any way either. The person who made that statement knows nothing about offset press printing, and apparently little about inkjet printing.

    Offset press printing uses screened CMYK plates that provide a DISCRETE dot pattern of the 4 colors. The inks are NOT MIXED and you can see dot pattern and the 4 individual colors with a loupe. The eye is fooled by metamerism into thinking it's seeing different colors, when in fact only 4 exist.

    While an inkjet printer puts down discrete dots, it is also MIXING the colors on the paper's surface to create the color needed - it does not put down a discrete screened pattern of dots for each color. In other words, you're actually creating the color needed by mixing the inks in the correct proportions. That is totally unlike offset printing.
    Last edited by steve_782; 26-May-2006 at 21:18.

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Pasadena, CA

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    Another 2 cents ...

    Al, could it be that you are in part asking the difference between a pure analog process, such as using neg film to make your C print vs. a digital of any sort but especially an inkjet?

    If so, I can't give you any scientific data on the differences, however some things that seem to come up are that digital prints often appear more sharp and consistent between more than one print from the same photo. Digital prints can also lack dust or other small defects. For me personally, I find that images that have been scaned by just about any kind of scanner can have the appearance of more grain and general coarseness than pure analog prints. Inkjet prints do offer the most flat and glossless surface, which could be good in some cases as well as textured paper if you like that. Most people these days prefer a Lightjet from a digital scan to a C print, in part because of the digital adjustments that are possible. Frequently, inkjets are described by labs as something to do when one wants a different and more delicate palette. For some types of subjects, I prefer an analog Ilfochrome from a slide to any Lightjet or Inkjet, but you didn't ask that. In terms of gloss, even glossy inkjet has a different look to it than a C print - so you may or may not like the inkjet if you normally like very glossy photos.

    The others who mention that it is tricky to scan color negatives are right. Slides are much easier to deal with when one is doing digital output, for me at least.

    Most of the big labs offer C prints as well as drum scanning and output to Lightjet, Chromira and Inkjets, even the exact inkjet you are contemplating. The prices for inkjets can be high, however the Lightjet and Chromira prints are inexpensive enough. You could take a sample shot and have one of each done to compare for yourself without breaking the bank too much.

  9. #9

    Join Date
    Dec 1997
    Baraboo, Wisconsin

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    I've primarily worked with black and white rather than color for the last twelve years. However, I used to print some color in the darkroom, now I print color with an Epson 2200 and scan with an Epson 4990. I don't think there's any comparison between the two. In the darkroom using my Beseler 45A it took maybe two tries to get the exposure and color balance right. After that I might be able to do a very little dodging and burning and that was about it. I didn't learn to mask, I'm sure that would have made a difference but what a pain. Between the 45A and my roller transport processor I could crank out a whole bunch of nice looking color prints in a single session, not that my goal was to make a whole bunch of prints, just that it didn't take much time to make a print because there was so little of a creative nature that could be done to it.

    With digital printing I can do anything I want with the print. I don't mean things like moving parts of one image into another though I do that occasionally with skies just as the 19th century photographers did - I mean extensive tonal and contast adjustments, changing tones or colors of various parts of the image while leaving others the same or making different changes to them, blurring, sharpening, correcting shapes and perspectives - the list could go on and on. I don't think I ever spent more than an hour on a single color print in the darkroom and even that much time was unusual. With digital I often spend several hours working on a print and it's all creative time, I'm not standing around waiting for the print to roll out of the processor, I'm not cleaning the rollers on the processer every three prints, I'm not setting the darkroom up or taking it down. To me it's the difference between using a word processor instead of a typewriter.

    My 4990 and 2200 do fine with my maximum print size of about 11x14. With Silverfast Ai software I don't have any particular trouble scanning color negatives. But if you're talking about 20x24 prints I think you'd need to get something better to scan or have the scan made by a lab and you'd need a larger printer.

  10. #10

    Re: Digi-vs-analog color prints: Can you quantify the difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by Al Seyle
    I know how to make a very good C-print using the best pro equipment.
    If you want to compare apples and apples on this, you have to compare pro analogue and pro digi equipment. That starts with a pro-level scan. Imacon, drum (the best) or similar. An epson flatbed really won't do it - it is like sticking a holga lens on a devere 504 (well, almost), without a top notch scan everything else fails - resolution, tonality etc etc. If you then want to match your c print, output to normal colour paper on a chromira - try this first, it will give you a bench mark. A high level pro scan and output by people who know what they are doing. If you want to try inkjet, you get a different kind of print, and this depends a large amount on your paper choice

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