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I'd like to print my photos, but I'd also like to see prints' colours stand time. What good options do I have?

I've considered the following:

  • Inkjet printers with good inks. For example:
  • Dye-sublimation printers e.g. Canon Selphy -line
  • Decent inkjet... and:
    • laminating the result
    • process the print with chemicals (what kind?)
  • Other, what?

Models and brands are just examples, especially with inkjets and inks. I'm more interested do the inks actually perform like they're marketed? Gloss optimizer or similar overlay "ink" makes sense, but can same durability be obtained without it, like in the ChromaLife's case?

Most important is colour reproduction and durability. I'm intending to store the images part-time in an album and part-time on a display (framed under a glass). Black & white handling is a huge plus.


Good questions somewhat related:

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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

When you say stand in the face of time...exactly how long are you talking? Properly stored, a pigment based ink jet print should last some 150-200 years (according to independent high-intensity lab tests anyway) in great condition, without any extra special care or handling. Now, that does require proper storage, which means kept protected from light and chemicals, both liquid and aerosol, at the right temperature and humidity. Without proper storage, an ink jet print should still last for 200 years or so, however it will fade, possibly bleed, colors may shift...the regular boat that you see with any old photographs from the last 100 years.

When you mount a print for viewing, at the very least, it will be subject to light. Mounting behind glass will protect it from the majority of damaging radiation, however the ink will fade eventually, and well before the 150-200 year lifetime regularly quoted by printer manufacturers. Lamination is pretty similar to mounting behind glass, however I can't say exactly what kind of chemical interactions may occur over the long term between the inks and laminate in the presence of light, particularly UV light. It is probably not the best option for longevity. There are some specially formulated print sprays from paper manufacturers like Hahnemuhle that are supposedly designed to improve the longevity of a print. Such things haven't even been around for 50 years, let alone 100 or 200, so how well they perform over the long term can only be simulated or guesstimated at best.

When it comes to material and ink types, the variations are huge. If you want to maximize the lifetime of your prints, you will want to make sure you use acid free papers. Acids, like moisture and light, are one of the enemies of longevity. The best archival papers will usually be the natural substrate papers that don't include any optical brighteners or ink jet coatings. For inks, modern pigment based inks will provide the highest longevity, as they are explicitly and specially formulated to maintain their color over long periods. Dye inks will not fare quite so well, and will probably top out at around 100 years at best, but depending on the specific formulation, they may not last more than 25 years. Dye sublimation inks are pretty on par with dye inks, although they are a bit more durable. I've heard 105 years a fair bit when it comes to dye sublimation longevity. The problem with dye sublimation is there tend to be a limited number of paper types and sizes available for such prints. I am not sure if the paper requires special chemical traits to support proper bonding to the inks or not, however whenever chemicals are involved, longevity is going to be compromised.

To keep things simple, I would do the following for true archival storage:

  • Always use acid-free, natural fiber papers
    • Photo Rag, Bamboo, Natural Cellulose, etc.
  • Avoid optical brighteners in paper
    • They can fade much faster than the inks and produce odd color shifts
  • Use pigment inks rather than dye based inks
    • Ultrachrome K3+
    • Lucia/Lucia II
  • Keep your archival prints properly stored
    • Right humidity for both ink and paper
    • Keep the temperature consistent and cool
    • Low humidity
    • No light
    • Avoid air-born chemicals

The above should net you near maximum lifetime with good color and low fading. If you want your prints to be admired, it can be much simpler, however you will have to accept a much shorter print lifetime:

  • Mount behind glass
    • Most glass will block around 80% of UV light or so
    • "Conservation" glass specifically filters almost all UV light
    • "Museum" glass is multi-coated (low glare) and also filters almost all UV light
  • Keep some air space between print and glass
    • Inks will, and often do, bond to glass if they touch
  • Mount out of direct sunlight
    • This will improve longevity, but reduce vibrancy when viewed
  • Avoid chemicals and high humidity

Unless you are sure that a print spray or laminate will truly protect a print without incurring any kind of chemical bonding with the underlying ink, I would avoid them. They can introduce additional viewing artifacts such as glare, bronzing, or even gloss differentials. Outside of laminating a print onto an art block, lamination really doesn't improve the print in any way, and will often degrade it if bubbles form. Uneven surface textures from papers or the mount base will also often show much more readily when a print is laminated.

Finally, the last tip, and one that is not always so obvious (but critical to proper color rendition and longevity):

  • Let your prints properly dry before mounting/framing/storing them
    • This can take up to a day, and proper color rendition may not fully take hold until drying is complete.
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Personally I'm thinking about a window of 50/60-100 years; but your generic answer to my rather generic question probably helps the community more than a specific answer to a certain situation. –  koiyu Jan 7 '11 at 0:56
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If you use a pigment based ink, 60 years should be easy, and 100 years should certainly be achievable. If you want to mount for viewing, and have the money, museum glass in a sealed box mount will probably produce the longest life for your specific situation. You can also buy special wall mount lamps that you then mount the framed picture on, and the lamp can nicely illuminate the print with "benign" wavelengths, for viewing at night or in an area that is not lit by direct sunlight. –  jrista Jan 7 '11 at 1:04
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Well, one answer is "don't worry about it"; bits don't change provided they're copied to new media periodically. You could just make new prints 20 or 30 years down the road, when printing technology may be significantly improved.

Properly cared-for bits are going to last much longer than any physical object, and common image file formats (even raw files from major vendors) are well-known enough that they'll always be interpretable unless something pretty apocalyptic happens. You do, of course, have to care for the bits properly, but the same goes for a print.

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The downside of bits is that if you lose some of your bits, you've generally lost the whole thing. Prints can stand quite a bit of abuse before they're totally worthless. –  Evan Krall May 6 '11 at 6:42
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The signage printing industry face this problem as their signs must be fade resistant in the outdoors, when exposed to the elements. They claim a fade resistance of five years when mounted outdoors in direct light. Additionally the print is waterproof and abrasion resistant.
I have no way of knowing this for sure, but my guess is that when properly mounted indoors you will get a very long life.
My panoramas are printed by a signage print company, see this link and I get excellent results. They print on self adhesive vinyl sheet and not on paper. And it costs less than my normal photographic printer.

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