I can't seem to find any good information about the differences between the lambda printing process (on RA-4 paper, also known as a C-prints or chromogenic color prints) and inkjet printing (also known as giclees).

I'm looking for information on this because I know that in the artworld C-Prints are usually thought of as somehow 'better' than inkjet, and I don't understand why this is. Because from what I can gather the lambda printing process (when done on RA-4 color paper) isn't better than a good color inkjet print. In fact, from what my printer told me, inkjet prints are even slightly better in their color saturation (and I've seen this and can confirm it).

Can anyone explain why C-Prints are regarded as better (quality wise) in the art world when compared to inkjet prints? Is this based on a real-world difference? What are the possible differences with inkjet?


3 Answers 3


I think photographic prints, like digital C-prints from a Lambda printer, have a certain aesthetic appeal that many photographers who are used to photographic prints from the film age enjoy. There is something to be said about the aesthetic of a photographic print...the luster, the color, and the tonality. From that standpoint, "better" is really a matter of personal preference.

From a technological standpoint, I am not sure that photographic prints are really better than pigment-based ink jet prints. In past research of my own, from a longevity standpoint, photographic prints (such as Digital C-Print from a Lambda) falls in the 75-150 year range assuming proper storage. Photographic prints only use cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes, so gamut is intrinsically limited, and the dyes last about as long as dye-based ink jet prints.

In contrast to Digital C-Print with a 150 year longevity, with most acid-free natural-fiber papers, longevity is in the 125-200+ year range. Modern pigments used in ink jet inks are emulsions that contain very fine pigment particles, as well as a shell that improves the inks stability, reduces bronzing and metamerism, and supports better reflective index (thus supporting a broader gamut). Modern ink jet printers also use more than just the CMY dyes that photographic printers use. In the case of Canon, you have pure red and green, as well as photographic cyan and magentas, gray inks, etc. Epson also provides gray inks, on top of a deep magenta and orange inks. This expands the gamut into areas where basic blending of the core CMY colors cannot reach. The use of gray inks, often in multiple shades, also allows ink jet printers to produce very fine, smooth tonality in pure B&W prints (which, BTW, look fantastic from both the latest couple generations of Canon and Epson printers.) You can see the gamut comparison of a Digital C-Print from a variety of printer types (including Lambda) vs. an Epson pigment ink jet printer here. The white wireframe represents the Epson gamut, which is larger than the C-Print gamuts from Lambda, Chromira, and Lightjet.

In terms of tonality, yes, ink jets lay down matrices if tiny dots...however their density these days is extremely high. Human eyesight is limited to about 500dpi at a comfortable viewing distance of 10" for an 8x10" print. Canon printers lay down 4800x2400dpi, while Epson printers lay down as much as 5760x1440. Both are well beyond the resolving power of the human eye, even for a 4x6" print held six inches away. Tonality (which affects gradient smoothness) is EXCELLENT in modern ink jet printers. Even the basic rasterizers from Canon and Epson (as well as HP, although HP's inks are not as advanced) perform advanced dithering to produce high quality output that does not suffer from posterization banding or aliasing.

So, technologically speaking, pigment-based ink jet printers definitely have the edge over classic photographic printers. Whether they produce "better prints" is again a matter of personal preference...however the range of options for ink jet prints is extremely broad thanks to a very robust and extensive paper market. You can print on anything from high gloss papers to purely natural fiber papers, using fiber bases from cellulose, bamboo, cotton, and a number of other exotic sources. Modern ink jet luster papers range from glossy to semi-matte, and include a very broad range of baryta-type papers that offer prints that look nearly identical to classic photographic prints that people so loved from the film age. The range of baryta offerings has increased over the last five years or so, and the quality of these papers is extremely high, with papers offering high d-max with optical brighteners as well as purely natural fiber, acid-free base that offers a richer, warmer gamut at the slight cost of density.

When you factor in paper types, the diversity and capability of ink jet has a LOT to offer over classic photographic prints. The key benefit of digital C-Print, that classic aesthetic appeal, is waning as baryta paper offerings in the ink jet world strengthen. You may not be able to get a print 100% identical to one from a Lambda, but you can get extremely close, and who knows...you may like the baryta from an ink jet better! Technologically, modern ink jet pigments last for as long or longer in proper storage as a photographic print, and produce wider gamuts.


Continuous tone color is the key. Inkjets work by applying droplets of fixed color ink to a page and require dithering (the eye blurring groupings of dots) to form complex colors. Continuous tone color on the other hand can develop variable levels of color directly. In a photo based process like C-prints, the amount of light used to expose the paper results in a variable level of color. This direct scaling allows for smoother color tones and gradients.

Additionally, ink jet printing can run in to issues with ink saturation, particularly in dark areas where a large amount of ink has to be applied. Finally, ink jet pigments generally have significantly shorter fade times and are thus less archival quality than good quality C-Prints.

Please read the comments below, as some questions have been raised that more recent advances in high end pigment ink-jets may have compensated or even surpassed some of these characteristics.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious how a 200-year pigment longevity on acid-free papers can be considered a "short" fade time. I've yet to hear of a chromogenic process that specifies a longevity beyond the 75-150 year span, however numerous papers for both Canon and Epson printers have been rated to survive for 200 years when either brand's pigment inks are used, and the prints are adequately protected. Framed and hung in sunlight, neither chromogenic nor ink jet will last much more than 20-25 years at best. Stored in the dark with proper humidity and airflow, I'd give pigment ink jet the win for longevity. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ When it comes to tonality and gradient smoothness, from what I hear the lambda print process suffers GREATLY on the gamut front. It is a basic CMY process, so blacks cannot get as deep, and the breadth of color at it's greatest extend is much less than that of modern multi-color pigment ink jet processes. If your concern is color quality and tonality, modern ink jet will kick the crap out of C-print, digital or otherwise. As for continuous tone, I've NEVER ONCE had a problem with banding or aliasing with an ink jet print unless the problem existed in the original image file. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer is significantly biased towards photographic prints, and is based on very old, outdated information regarding the quality of ink jet printers, the quality and gamut of their inks, or the longevity possible when using proper acid-free papers and appropriate storage. A pigment ink jet will produce extremely high quality prints with wide gamut and smooth tonality without banding, posterization, or other scaling or transformation artifacts like aliasing or moire. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 18:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jrista, What I don understand is the part about dithering. Because lambda prints as far as I know use an RGB laser for exposing the paper, which is also reliant on a kind of dithering in the final image. So there would be dithering with either kind of print as far as I know (even if you print in the dark room the negative will consist of dots of exposed light-sensitive chemical of different colors and intensities). \$\endgroup\$
    – user9879
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 19:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Giclee is both a type of printing, as well as a specific kind of print from an Iris printer. A classic Giclee print is probably limited to only "256 colors per square inch". I believe that statistic is fundamentally wrong for modern 10-12 color pigment ink jet printers. I wrote up an answer a while back where I calculated that ink jet printers can produce thousands of tones/colors per "pixel" (which is comprised of many dots), which would mean the are at least capable of 16 million colors per inch. I've written an answer of my own...hope it helps. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 19:33

I am the owner of a photo lab and use both processes. Both printers make beautiful prints and as far as longevity, storage is the key.

What I love and prefer about a photographic print is that the image is in the emulsion of the paper. This is why a backlit inkjet or a metallic inkjet can't come close to a photographic duration or metallic print. "Continuous tone" is what a print provides over an inkjet. The color space of a print has the colors of the rainbow. We are unable to get neon colors, for instance, in a print. If you have neon colors that you want to print, print an inkjet.

In my opinion, I think that a cprint is more beautiful and looks more natural then an inkjet. I mostly prefer them because the image is in the emulsion of he paper and not on the surface. It's photographic and the paper is light sensitive and that's photography. On the other hand I would never recommend a print for reproducing a painting or a drawing. An inkjet reproduction will look more authentic. I also like B&W prints on inkjet though they also look great as prints. Again I guess I like that image is in the emulsion and was created by exposing silver halide crystals but the inkjet prints can be printed on a fiber paper which makes them look closer to a darkroom print. In my opinion a classic darkroom print or a digital B&W print done on B&W Photographic Paper is the winner!

If you are choosing between and inkjet and print to reproduce your photography I will almost always recommend a print except for these reasons:

  • You're printing B&W (depending on the image and what you want to do with it: tone, paper, effect (some people love metallic B&W prints which gives a special effect).

  • You are reproducing neon colors or colors that are not in the photographic spectrum.

  • You want to create a special effect; for instance, if you want your photograph to look like a painting. There are greater selections of papers and substrates used in inkjet printing while your choices for cprints are limited.

Choose a cprint when:

  • Printing on a backlit material.

  • Printing on Metallic (Kodak) or Pearl (Fuji) Papers.

  • When choosing between printing an inkjet or cprint on photographic paper, almost always choose a print.


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