Can photographs really last a lifetime?
Printed photographs are memories captured in time, which should last a lifetime, if not forever.
With this in mind, one would be forgiven if they were disappointed if their wedding photo was printed three years ago started to discolour and fade because it spent a small portion of its everyday life in direct or even indirect sunlight at home.
Light (particularly the sun) and other environmental elements can have devastating effects on photographs. So how long should a photographic print last? The truth is there is no simple answer.
But by having a better understanding about what goes into developing inks and printing media, one has a better idea about how to ensure that prints last as long as possible.
Epson commissioned research and published a white paper , which highlights industry-accepted comparative print permanence testing that can guide consumers and photographers, who print their own images to make the best decisions when buying a printer.
Until inkjet printers became superior lab-quality printing devices capable of producing crisp, clear, and colourful photographs, photography-enthusiasts still had to rely on the conventional printing techniques that used chemicals, glass plates, disposable film and negatives – all of which were best left to photographic studios. Professionals who could conjure the magic formula of light, silver halide, dye-based colourants and patience needed to produce prints.
At best, silver-halide colour prints lasted a maximum of 19 to 40 years, under controlled and ideal conditions. While you could argue that this is a long time, photos generally didn’t survive more than about two generations before the colour started fading and the images started to disappear. Certainly, reprints could be made – but caring for (and not losing!) negatives is a whole other area of discussion.
Printing times change
However, as printing technologies improved through the years and, most notably with the advent of Dye Diffusion Thermal Transfer Prints, photos were printed with a protective plastic coating over the image and the expected print permanence of photographs started to reach the 50 – 100 year mark, as long as images were kept in a dry, dark place. Yet this is still far from ideal, mostly because photos are printed to be put on display, not to be hidden in a drawer somewhere.
Now, however, nearly anyone with a half-decent inkjet printer can produce quality prints of their photographs with very little effort. But the question has remained front of mind: how long will those photos last?
The relative difficulty of producing photos has reduced quite substantially, the actual process still involves a complicated balance of the right ink, the right paper, and the right printing mechanism to ensure that photos look good – and that they will stay looking perfect for more than a few decades when exposed to any form of light.
Inkjet manufacturers either use dye-based inks that are similar in some respect to those used in traditional photographic prints, or they use pigment-based inks like the colorants used in automotive paints.
Previously, the majority of inkjet printers used dye-based inks, which at the time had a significantly wider colour palette than pigment-based inks. This wider colour range produced excellent quality prints with more vivid colours. At the same time, pigment-based inks, which have excellent longevity characteristics, were primarily used in conjunction with one or two specialty papers or media for specific non-photo applications, such as outdoor signage, because of the limited colour palette.
Over the last few years, Epson has developed a unique microencapsulated technology for pigment-based inks in which each pigment particle is coated in resin, yielding an increased colour palette while retaining the excellent longevity characteristics of pigment inks.
This technology introduced UltraChrome K3 ink to the market, which has become the de-facto standard for the most discerning professional photographers who seek the highest image quality combined with the greatest print permanence. Epson also markets a similar micro-encapsulated pigment ink set for consumers called DuraBrite Ultra ink.
In general, pigment-based inks have greater light fastness, resistance to ozone, and resistance to humidity and water than dye-based inks.However, dye-based inks are more affected by environmental conditions than pigment-based inks because dye-based inks are less resistant to light and oxidisation. Epson accepted the industry challenge to find a way to manufacture dye-based inks that wouldn’t fade over time, which proved to be no easy task.
The real challenge came in maintaining or improving the ink’s quality when modifying it to improve its overall durability. Success was only achieved after the researchers significantly altered the ink’s chemical structure at an atomic level, a process that resulted in the creation of new chemical compositions.
After numerous trials and tests, Epson succeeded in not only strengthening the permanence of the dye significantly but also in improving the ink’s quality, so that it delivers unequalled high-quality printing. The result was Epson’s range of Claria inks, which are so resistant to light and oxidation that Epson is certain that prints will last 200 years* without fading.
But ink is only a fraction of the print permanence equation. The paper also impacts the quality and light fastness of photographic prints.
The type of photo paper plays a vital role in the permanence and longevity of a photo print. The two most common types of paper are swellable paper and porous paper.
As its name implies, the surface of the first type swells when it comes into contact with the moisture in the ink, allowing colourants to penetrate the top layers of the paper. Swellable papers typically have three layers: a protective top layer, a layer that fixes the ink droplets in place, and below that, a layer that absorbs additional ink components.
The coating on swellable papers not only acts to stabilise the inks by keeping the dyes from spreading, it also helps protect the image from the fading caused by light and atmospheric pollutants.
Swellable papers are generally only suitable for dye-based inks. Contrary to one-size-
fits-all marketing claims made by some manufacturers, the use of a swellable paper produces poor image quality with pigment-based ink because the pigments are not totally absorbed into the swellable ink receptive layer.
The surface of porous paper is coated with microscopic particles that create cavities in which ink is deposited. These cavities prevent the ink from spreading.
Porous paper has a higher resistance to moisture and humidity and is often referred to as “instant dry paper”. As a result, these papers require minimal drying time, so the print can usually be handled immediately with less concern about smudging.
Porous paper is the best paper to use with pigment-based inks, which are less affected by atmospheric contaminants than dye-based inks. In addition, pigment-based inks are more light fast and ozone resistant on porous papers than dye-based inks.
Measuring print permanence
Exposure to light is probably the most significant cause of photographs fading. The paper used will impact the rate of fade and different grades of dyes will yield significantly different results both for colour reproduction and light fastness.
When compared under equivalent conditions, inkjet prints made with pigment-based inks and printed on papers designed to react favourably with them yield significantly better light fastness than do most dye-based inkjet prints. They will also last longer when displayed in well lit environments.
Know your stuff
Since this subject is somewhat complicated and open to debate, consumers must exercise care when trying to understand how manufacturers position and promote claims of light fastness. Manufacturers generally recommend only certain combinations of specific inks with specific papers.
The use of other inks or other papers, even from the same manufacturer, can result in far lower protection from fading. Dye-based inks in particular typically achieve higher levels of light-fastness only with specific papers, while pigment-based inks offer greater resistance on a wide range of papers.
High temperatures and high humidity levels adversely affect all colour print materials and cause the colours in traditional silver-halide photographic images to deteriorate more rapidly.
Inkjet prints made with pigment-based inks are usually much less sensitive to high temperature and high humidity than traditional silver-halide prints and dye-based inkjet prints.
The bottom line
Just like car manufacturers may be extreme in their claims of fuel efficiency, measuring print permanence is as inconsistent as the Wild West.
There is a lot of noise out there and with varying standards in testing, it is difficult to gauge which manufacturer’s claims you should believe.
There is no doubt that every manufacturer has merit in what it says, but it’s a combination of experience, adherence to industry standards, context and transparency about testing that’s going to give you the most complete picture of which manufacturer’s claims you can believe, and which aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
If consumers and professional photographers do not insist on unbiased, comparative data obtained through rigorous test procedures and confirmed by reputable, independent test laboratories, the negative effects on the photographic and printing industries could be very profound.
At the most basic level, users will not be able to get accurate and meaningful information to make informed purchase decisions about which products can be counted on to produce photos they will cherish and pass on to their children and grandchildren.
Notes to Editor
* See www.wilhelm-research.comfor details- Print permanence ratings are based on accelerated testing of prints on specialty media, displayed indoors under glass or UV filter or stored in archival sleeves in album storage. Actual print stability will vary according to media, printed image, display conditions, light intensity, humidity, and atmospheric conditions. Epson does not guarantee longevity of prints. For maximum print life, display all prints under glass or UV filter or properly store them. Visit www.wilhelm-research.com for the latest information.
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