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I want to print photographs that I've taken over the last ten years or so - a few hundred photographs - and put them into albums (mostly) or boxes so they can be looked at easily.

Mostly they are personal and family photographs. Quite a lot of them are photo stories of trips or events.

I want them to be around for a hundred years or more.

Some are digital photographs, others are scanned negatives. Most are colour, but a lot recently are B&W - but I think I could print those myself in the darkroom, if other B&W printing options are not of sufficiently high quality.

I rarely take digital photographs any more, and my pictures now are almost all on 35mm film and negatives that I've scanned (and sometimes developed) myself.

I'd appreciate some advice - not so much about particular brands, models or commercial services, but about what approach to pursue. I think it is probably of more general use to talk about different technologies and systems than particular devices or services - but if you think any are worth mentioning, please do.

What I want

My requirements:

  • high image quality
  • consistent, reliable results
  • print longevity
  • small format (I'll very rarely want anything larger than 7x5 or 6x4)
  • control over the output (format, borders etc)

In a printer specifically, I don't have any need for built-in scanners, general printing functionality, direct printing from cameras, etc. I don't even care about speed. Simply: I want the highest-possible quality output.

I don't mind spending money to get the results, but I am very tired of spending money and time and not getting the results I wanted.

Previous results

In the past I've had disappointing results with both printing services and printing at home:

  • Snapfish prints that mercilessly and without warning cropped all my photos to their format, and made all human flesh look like vaguely beige plastic
  • Apple photobooks in which people looked like raw meat
  • a Canon Pixma MP970 (a six-ink device) that deeply resented any period of disuse; after an initial success, I was never able to clean the heads to a point that I could not see visible banding and lines, however faint, in the output

So far, it feels that I wasted a lot of effort and money (not to mention ink and paper while trying to clean printing heads) with little to show for it.

These results have been so disappointing that they put me off getting photographs printed for several years.

My skills and experience

My digital photographs come from a variety of cameras. My negatives have been scanned in professionally when I've had them developed, or scanned at home by me with VueScan and a Nikon CoolScan slide scanner (in both cases with mixed results).

I've never been able to find a workflow that is satisfactory, reproducible and comprehensible for scanning and printing (scanning in particular seems to involve working the controls of a badly-explained black box).

I understand quite a lot of the theory of image quality and colour management, but turning that into practical skills that allow me to operate all the machinery and materials with confidence and satisfactory results has eluded me.

At the same time, it's very obvious and irritating to me when something is wrong with an image (colour fidelity, banding, lack of definition, printer artefacts) that other people often seem not to see - but finding the connection between a problem and the way I am using the equipment is another matter.

In other words, so far there's a gap between the skills I have been able to develop, and the standards I want to achieve when doing the work myself.

My options

I can see a number of options.

Buy a photo printer

1. High quality inkjet photo printer

If there were a small format printer of the quality of say Epson's SureColor P600, I would be tempted to invest in that (I even considered buying a P600 with some friends to share the cost - but the thing is huge).

I'd hope that a dedicated photo printer like that would help avoid the issues I've encountered previously, as described above.

However, nearly all smaller inkjet printers nowadays seem to be all-purpose devices, and not aimed at the need to reproduce photos in very high quality. I feat the risk that I'd just be back to where I was with my Canon MP970, fighting with inkjet nozzles and printhead artefacts and mysteriously inconsistent results.

2. Buy some other dedicated photo printer

As well as inkjet printers, there are dye-sublimation printers such as Canon's Selphy devices.

I've never been able to get my hands on one, so I don't know what the quality is really like, and whether it can match the output of a good inkjet printer on good paper.

I also don't know how well these photos last.

Use a printing service

I'm in UK/Netherlands, if that makes a difference.

3. Buy individual prints made from my files

Aside from one extremely disappointing result, I don't have much experience with the services that are available.

I also don't have much faith in them - I have seen the kind of rubbish that people consider to be acceptable results (it's amazing to me that in 2018 the average standard for ordinary printed snaps seems to be lower than the quality you'd get from your local photo shop more than 30 years ago).

I don't really know where I'd start trying to find a suitable service, given what I want.

4. Buy printed photo books

Photo books have an advantage that they take up less space, but at the same time a disadvantage that you can't remove a photo from the album for a closer look. Many of my photos are as I mentioned in self-contained photo stories, so perhaps this doesn't matter too much.

However, I've never seen any that were better than "just about OK" in quality. Experimenting to find a service that I like could be a very expensive business...

Questions

Have I missed any obvious options from the list above to meet my needs?

Am I approaching this question in the right way? Are there other things I need to consider?

I think the main question is whether to find a way to improve my skills and results at home, or to find a service that works for me.

I'm willing to put an investment of time and money into the former, if the results I want are obtainable - and I'm sure they must be.

I'm equally willing to pay for the latter, again if I can get the results I need.

Either way, I'd like to find something that works well for me, and stick to it.

I'm hoping for advice on the best approach; and after that I can work out what particular equipment or service to buy or use.

  • How important is speed to you? For example, I'm very satisfied with my wet scans on an Epson V850 and decently happy with prints from a Canon Pro10 - but the use of either is neither cheap nor expedient. I like mpix or any lab using the same tech for fast, quality prints. Also - where are you at on the darkroom vs scan&print choice? – Hueco Aug 27 '18 at 18:07
  • Speed's unimportant to me. I won't be doing any colour printing in the darkroom. – Daniele Procida Aug 27 '18 at 18:35
  • This question has too many different issues and questions embedded into it. – xiota Sep 7 '18 at 23:14
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There are so many ways to go about this! But, let's start with labs.

In the US, I prefer using mpix, which is the consumer subdivision of Miller's. They use chromogenic prints, which I've found to have great quality and archive well. I've also sent them a file that measured 12x18 in total, but which only contained a 6x18 image. In the whitespace, I added text to say, "Please trim me." They did, in fact, trim the print and at no extra cost to me.

That level of service is the bar by which I judge every other lab. If you can find a lab in your area that does chromogenic printing and offers that level of service, you will like using them. (This is not to detract from high quality ink-based labs. They do exist; I just haven't used one as I do ink printing at home)

If you decide to print yourself...

First you need to decide if you want dye or pigment based inks. There's pros and cons to both. Then, you need to decide on the printer and number of inks that you want. Unfortunately, size comes with quality in this arena - the printers sporting more inks will, generally, also support large print sizes.

Then, you need to decide on paper - and there are an overwhelming amount of papers. I've run the gamut on Hahnemuhle sample packs and can say that yes, there are both subtle and striking differences between paper type used.

Then, you need to calibrate your monitor and get to know your printer. On my printer, for example, I need to lighten shadows by ~3 stops to avoid shadow detail being lost to pure black. That's even after using the correct printer profile for the paper being used. Printing is absolutely a labor of love, because if you don't love it, you will end up junking the printer and using a lab.

And finally, if you have to add scanning into this equation, that too, is a labor of love.

There's a lot to consider in trying to print your own photos, far too many little questions to answer inside this one, big question. I think that, as far as high quality and consistent, easy workflow...your answer is to find a lab that works well for you.

But, if you decide to open the can of worms that is printing at home...well, I look forward to your many more questions!

  • Perhaps you can hang a c-print and inkjet print (on good paper) next to each other by a sunny window to see how they fare over time? You can monitor their progress by periodically taking pictures of them. – xiota Sep 7 '18 at 23:30
  • I often see that claim, but I haven't seen any reports of actual side-by-side comparisons. A real-world exposure test to sunlight through a window, such as what might be expected from ordinary home display, would be useful. – xiota Sep 8 '18 at 0:08
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Color Calibration and Color Profiles

The poor results you note are likely the result of not using a color calibrated workflow. To obtain consistent results, you should color calibrate your output devices at home and use a print service for which color correction profiles are available. Dry Creek Photo maintains a database of ICC profiles for print services located around the world. 

Chromogenic Prints

Photographic paper technologies date back to the 1800s with color, chromogenic prints (c-prints), being developed in the 1940s.

  • Services that provide c-prints usually indicate the use of a recognizable photographic paper, such as Fujifilm Crystal Archive.

  • Some people feel that c-prints, which embed color dyes in layers of gelatin, are not as vibrant as competing technologies (particularly inkjet) that place dyes or pigments on the surface of the paper.

  • The archival properties of c-prints vs competing technologies is controversial. However, because the technology is over seven-decades old, it has been time tested to provide good results lasting many decades in appropriate storage conditions. (By examining prints produced at different times, you can see how the technology has improved.)

Inkjet

Basic inkjet technology dates back to the 1950s. However, it was not viable for general use until the late 1980s.

  • Up through until at least the mid-2000s, when I last used the technology, inkjet prints were notorious for their poor archival properties. Color shifts and fading, which would take decades on c-prints, occurred within a year, in the same storage conditions.

  • While the technology does continue to be developed and improved, any truly new developments (since the mid-2000s) have had only about a decade of real-world testing. I am generally skeptical of claims regarding the archival properties of inkjet prints. Such claims are not new and did not previously stop inkjet prints from degrading quickly.

  • Archival quality requires the use of special inks and papers. With c-prints, all of the required archival materials are packaged together at the time of manufacturing.

  • Services that produce inkjet prints are often vague about the specific inks and materials they use, so archival quality often cannot be determined ahead of time.

  • Inkjet printers are sold to people who hope to make DIY prints at home with lower cost and higher quality than bona fide photo papers. While it is possible, in principle, for inkjet prints to have the same archival quality as c-prints (by using inks and papers of similar quality), doing so typically costs more than simply obtaining a c-print from a lab.

Dye-Sublimation

Although, I have not personally used dye-sub printers, I do have a few dye-sub prints from Christmas. So far they seem to be doing better than inkjet prints from a decade ago would have. I suppose I should hang several prints produced with different technologies by a window to see how they fare.

Apparently, dye-sublimation printers do have a better reputation for resistance to fading and color shifts. Some dye-sub printers finish with a clear coat that improves the longevity of the print. (See Quora: Is dye sublimation printing archival?)

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