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Most articles on the internet about collecting photography have not caught up with the digital age. Today, more and more photographic prints are produced digitally, even if they originate in film. This article covers what collectors need to know about the digital reproduction process to ensure that their art work will give them many years of satisfaction.

Please note that all Ordover Gallery artists use archival techniques and materials.

Picture of inkjet printer

Collecting Photography: Digital Considerations
by Tom O Scott

Just about every article you read on collecting photography stresses that you need to learn about the process used to create a photograph. They then go on to describe film reproduction processes in detail. That's all well and good, but what should a collector know about digital reproduction?

In many ways, this is even a more critical area than film, since the photography world is decidedly turning digital. Even if an original image came from film, the liklihood is increasing that the print you buy was part of a digital process.

What is the "digital process"? Too many collectors focus on how an image was created. They are overly worried about "manipulation." Yet manipulation is as old as photography itself. Why else would Ansel Adams say, "the negative is the score; the print is the performance"? If the image appeals to you as a collector, the way it is captured is almost irrelevant.

The real part of the digital process you should be worried about as a collector is the last part - printing. And here you should be very concerned, because if you're not, the print you buy today may look like mush just 12 months from now.

First of all, don't be fooled by the word "giclee." This is a fancy French word meaning "ink spray." In other words, a giclee is nothing more than an inkjet print. There is no regulation of the term, and it means nothing at all in terms of the durability of your print. Yes, theoretically a "giclee" should last a long time, but in reality, the term is so loosely used it means little except that it was produced on an inkjet rather than a laser printer.

The term you as a collector should be concerned about is "archival." When we say a print is archival, that implies that it will last at least many years, if not generations. Of course, archival is a continuum. The Sumerian stone tablets represent one end of the continuum; the 8 track tape, the other. Today, at the end of 2005, an archival print should last between 70 and 250 years.

What do you as a collector need to know to verify this? First, look at the Certificate of Authenticity on the back of your print. The COA should state the type of paper used and the type of ink. If there isn't a COA, then the gallery representative should be able to provide you with that information. And if you can't get that information, don't buy the print!

"Archival-ness" is a combination primarily of ink and paper. Using archival ink on paper that's full of acid will guarantee fading, just as much as using the finest paper with non-archival ink.

Ink: Most of the digital prints produced at this writing are made using Epson inks. However, Canon and HP are also increasing in popularity. Also, various third parties, such as Lyson and MIS, produce inks for photographic reproductions. Not all of these inks are archival inks! For example, one of the most popular Epson printers was the 1280, which produced stunning prints. The only problem is, a print made on a 1280, using their original dye-based inks, fades in about 12 months. Canon, until 2005, made printers that created beautiful prints about twice as fast as Epson, but they were not archival either. HP DesignJets use archival ink, but many of their other printers do not.

Paper: It's the combination of ink and paper that makes a print archival. One of the world's foremost authorities on this subject is Wilhelm Imaging Research. On this site, you can look up literally hundreds of paper-ink combinations. For example, you will find there that Epson Ultrachrome Ink on Epson Watercolor Radiant White paper, produced on an Epson R1800, can last up to 250 years, while the same ink on Epson Premium Gloss Paper may only last 150 years. For most collectors, 150 vs. 250 years is not the problem; what is a problem is 150 years vs. 12 months. In other words, if you cannot find your paper-ink combination on a site like Wilhelm, assume the worst, i.e. that your print will fade in 12 months or so.

Finally, don't forget that it's not just the paper and ink that affect the longevity of your digital print. If the finest quality digital print is placed on matting that is not acid free, time will take its toll after a decade or so. And if you leave your print on a wall with bright sunlight with no protection, that too will accelerate the fading.

In short, collectors today must be well aware of the digital process, but the important thing is to concentrate on the making of the print rather than the making of the image. Knowing how to look for the right print/paper combination will make your purchase not just a good investment, but something you will be able to pass on to future generations.

© 2005 Tom O Scott. Other sites may reproduce this article, or portions of it, by permission only. If you would like to do so, please send email to webmaster@www.ordoverproject.com.