Inkjets try to get picture

Photos: With more printers promising to perform well for amateur photographers, guarantees of long-lasting print quality are still hard to confirm.

March 26, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

With the digital image explosion, more than a few snapshot amateurs have begun to ask the question: Will my inkjet prints last as long as those from a photo-finishing shop?

The answer: probably not.

Inkjet printer technology is so new that standards for creating ink and paper for recording images on them haven't been settled. All inkjet prints will fade over time because of air pollutants, humidity, light and temperature changes, among other things.

So, at some point in the indeterminate future, that beautiful, sharp and colorful picture of Aunt Marge on the wall without a glass cover will lose some of that color and sharpness.

For now, conventional photo finishing - with its much longer history of development - creates a longer lasting print.

"With inkjets, the industry is just not yet there," says James Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology, which helps museums and libraries preserve their images. "But as testing improves and the products settle down, it will be better for everybody."

While inkjet manufacturers argue that their prints look as good as a photofinisher's work, the technology behind the two is fundamentally different.

A traditional photograph is made by exposing paper coated with a light-sensitive silver halide solution. When the print is developed chemically, molecular changes in the coating produce the image. This technology has been continually improved for the better part of a century.

An inkjet printer sprays tiny dots of dye on the paper. The nature of the paper's coating determines the quality of the print (paper designed specifically for photos costs more to produce). The problem is that inkjet printers and photo paper have been used to record images for less than a decade.

To catch up with photography's head-start in quality control, imaging companies such as Epson, Hewlett Packard and Eastman Kodak are using technology designed to test conventional photographs and applying it to make long-lasting inkjet photos. They try to come up with ways to improve ingredients used to create and coat the paper, the makeup of dyes in the ink and the complex interaction between the two.

The environment is a major factor. Will the photograph be stored in an album in the basement where the temperature doesn't fluctuate and it's not exposed to light, air pollutants or extreme humidity? Or will it be hung unprotected on a wall where sunlight and ozone can assault the ink?

Printer and paper makers are just starting to address those issues for consumers. Kodak, for example, recently introduced Ultima Picture Paper. It claims that Ultima photos will last on display in the average home for at least 30 years if they're produced by Kodak's Personal Picture Maker 200, and 20 to 25 years if they're produced by other manufacturers' better printers.

HP, meanwhile, boasts about tests by the Image Permanence Institute which indicated that pictures on its Colorfast Photo Paper, introduced last year, will resist fading for up to 26 years under glass, and up to 17 years if exposed to air.

How do manufacturers make these claims without waiting 20 to 30 years to see what happens to an image? They cite complex testing procedures that subject prints to intense light, heat and ozone concentrations that are far worse than a photograph might receive in a day in a regular home.

For example, Douglas Bugner, Kodak's inkjet media research director, says the company subjects its test photos to light that's 1,000 to 2,000 times brighter than the light in the average home as part of its fade tests. Scientists use computers to analyze this data and predict how long a photograph will remain colorful and brilliant.

But everyone isn't using the same standards just yet, according to John Stoffel, HP's Inkjet Ink Technology Manager. One company, he says, estimates that light in an average home on a given day is one-third the amount that other printer makers estimate. And then some companies might disagree on basic interpretations of data. Many manufacturers are looking to the American National Standards Institute to adopt standards for inkjet printers and paper.

What happened to Epson last year - when its Premium Glossy Photo Paper turned out to be sensitive to ozone and many recent pictures began to fade - remains a cautionary tale. Epson says it has reformulated its Premium Glossy paper, which is more resistant to airborne contaminants. But it still recommends that its glossy inkjet photos be protected under glass or in a photo album.

Reilly says that the big manufacturers are working hard to improve the technology for long-term prints and some claims of permanence probably will stand the test of time.

In the meantime, photographers should hedge their bets. "Make a conventional print or negative," he says. "That way you're sure you've got yourself a print."

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