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Printed images can be obtained on chemical photo paper (either with a digital illuminator/projector or from a film after enlargment), or from file using printers and modern inks (pigments or dyes).

In the hypothesis of having the same negative film source, and assuming no retouching on the digital path, would I obtain an higher quality result (see below) with chemical print with an enlarger, or by scanning it at a high enough (effective) resolution and printing the digital file with modern techniques?

The three aspects included in the definition of "better" are resolution, color gamut, density (dynamic range), longevity. In summary, I refer not to personal likings but to the attainable specifications (wider gamut, higher dynamic range, higher resolution).

Regarding the types of prints from digital file, I have in mind chemical photo paper with digital illuminator (as high end labs do), but also special photo papers with pigments or dyes.

I think that chemical print from film would be equivalent to chemical print with digital illuminator (or better, given the lack of intermediate steps and assuming same chemical paper). However, I don't know how pigments and dyes compare.

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    This is going to vary depending on the ink and paper combination used. It seems a very broad question to me and even comparing the source material (i.e. a film frame and a digital data file) there are huge variations depending on the specifics, so I feel this is far too vague and broad a question. – StephenG May 23 '17 at 17:22
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    @StephenG I try to rewrite from scratch. – FarO May 23 '17 at 17:39
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    Good job on the rewrite! Great question. – scottbb May 23 '17 at 20:27
  • It all depends on what you mean by "better." It also depends on whether you are comparing 'typical' examples of each or the absolute cutting edge of each that can be considerably more costly for very incremental improvements. Longevity is also usually a consideration when comparing physical print mediums. What looks best 'hot off the press' today might not be the same process that looks best in 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100 years. – Michael C May 23 '17 at 21:58
  • @MichaelClark I edited to specify that I refer to technical specifications (attainable results), to make it less opinion based. – FarO May 23 '17 at 22:58
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Mostly, any answer will be purely subjective. In other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No matter what I say here, some deleterious remarks will be posted.

The chemical based photo print has lots of disturbances that were never overcome. Digital prints, both inkjet and dye sublimation suffer from some of the same woes. Both are viewed by reflected light from a nearby lamp. This light is both reflected from the print’s surface, however a large percentage penetrates, running the gauntlet of the transparent dyes. This light is then reflected from the subtrum and runs the gauntlet again back though and then to our eyes. Because the light makes two transits, the dyes on print paper are about ½ the concentration found in film. This is true for black & white images; film contains more silver than the corresponding print.

The maximum tonal range achieved for the print is about 60 to 1. Compare that to a film image; its range is about 256 to 1. The 60 to 1 is possible when the paper is glossy, for matte paper, the range drops considerably.

Chemical based color prints consist of cyan, magenta and yellow dye only. The yellow dye is first rate, the magenta dye is OK, the cyan dye stinks. Pure white is the absence of dye at that location on the print paper. Black is the presence of a heavy concentration of all three. Because we never got the dyes right, a jet black has never been achieved. The digital print has the same problem, but this overcome by the addition of a black dye. This jet black is needed to key off the color tones. This is done in both digital and lithography (book printing with ink). This is known as CMYK. The K is the black, a nickname for Key tone.

So what I am going to tell you is: Regardless of all the rebuffs, digital prints on paper are the clear winner. If you don’t think so, just fasten your seatbelt. It’s a moving target and digital has the horsepower. Chemical-based prints must rest on their laurels. No one is investing any money in chemical-based paper print research (that is over).

Bye the way, the best prints on paper I have ever seen are Dye Transfer. This was a color print process that peaked about 1960. Color dye was transferred to a receiver paper by squeezing film with the dye imbedded in the emulsion. This was done three times. One for each of the three subtractive primaries. You should go to a museum and view a dye transfer print: they are outstanding.

  • Good answer. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I was asking implicitly about attainable quality/technical specifications (as you pointed out citing tonal range). – FarO May 23 '17 at 21:46
  • @Alan Marcus - "... a jet black has never been achieved." Are you referencing only color printing papers? Or also monochrome/B&W chemical photo papers? – Michael C May 23 '17 at 21:53
  • @ OlafM - The tonal range of chemical color paper is 256:1 achieved only if everything is done to specifications. This only happens with due diligence. Digital prints on paper can and often exceed. @ Michel Clark - I was talking about prints that are comprised of dye. The max black of photo film is about 4.00 density units except X-ray that is coated both sides. The Max black of chemical silver based prints is about 2.50 density. This will look like jet black but it is not void of light. – Alan Marcus May 23 '17 at 23:17
  • @AlanMarcus Not much in the universe that is this side of a black hole's event horizon is totally void of light. – Michael C May 24 '17 at 0:00
  • @ Michael Clark - The space between my ears is likely jet black. I should have used the term Dmax for both paper and film. The CMY dyes should overlap to make a neutral deep black. They don't mainly due to the cyan and magenta being off color. Inks and pigments can and do improve add the key color black and you get a good Dmax. – Alan Marcus May 24 '17 at 0:28
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If you restrict your digital image manipulation ("no retouching on the digital path") and allow full scale of darkroom manipulation on the analog path you will get a better result from enlarger.

But this is nitpicking; in the analog era it was generally accepted that the best color image quality came from combination of Kodachrome slides and Cibachrome papers. The fact that both these products were killed due to lack of demand when digital became mainstream feels like a verdict.

  • "Better" has to be intended as "better achievable specifications", therefore I'm talking about capabilities of the bare darkroom chemical print process and that means mostly chemical paper specifications, since it's the limiting factor. But I see your point. – FarO May 24 '17 at 9:10
  • Yup, the message was that digital has killed Cibachrome QED :) – Jindra Lacko May 24 '17 at 9:41
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All other things being equal, in terms of pure generations of loss, there will generally be more loss in detail doing a scan and then printing vs using a high quality photographic reproduction, all other things being equal. You'll have two generations of loss because the image is being transferred twice with the scan then print approach vs one with the direct photographic transfer.

That said, all other things are rarely ever equal. Depending on the techniques, equipment and materials used, there can be an extremely high degree of variation in the quality of result that is produced. A cheap enlarger and grainy photo paper is pretty much always going to produce a lower quality result, where as high quality, well operated and highly precise enlarging equipment with archival photo papers will produce very near to the exact detail of the original negative as a 1:1 copy with no modification and will last an exceptionally long time if properly handled and cared for.

Similarly, a cheap scanner and ink based inkjet printer will produce a low quality image that can bleed and doesn't have good longevity, however a high quality scanner will be able to exceed the level of detail captured by the film negative itself, so minimal quality loss will occur and high end pigment printers and archival paper are able to achieve very high detail levels with prints that will hold their image for hundreds of years cared for properly and won't bleed after they dry.

There is certainly a degree of more difficulty in the digital process though if accuracy to the original image is the primary concern. You'll have to deal with both any noise introduced in the scan as well as making sure that the colors are captured faithfully in the scan. You will then also have to do the same for the print to make sure that the print matches the color accurately if you are looking for a high degree of accuracy to the original negative.

For a photo-paper, it basically consists of following the instructions correctly for development, but for the digital process, there is a fair degree more variability and in most cases, if you don't do some kind of post processing, the result is likely to be far lower. In fact, most consumer and even many professional scanners by default apply a lot of adjustments to film scans automatically to make them appear more correct since the default scan settings often do not produce an ideal image.

There is one other factor worth considering though, and that is the digital longevity of scans. Once a negative is digitized, it can be archived with no additional generations of loss as it is digital then. A high quality digital negative can be moved between hard drives and, to an extent, formats without losing additional detail. This is the ultimate in long term durability as long as the files are maintained in an accessible archival format and stored redundantly. (Prints will last longer than many individual storage mediums, but it's far easier to keep digital on current storage and move it to newer storage, thus giving it an advantage when well maintained.)

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