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A Guide to Photographic Printing: Giclée, Digital C-Type, and Silver Gelatin Prints

So you're looking to print your photographs - but you don't know what method to use? It can be confusing as there are many benefits to each of the three major types: giclée, c-type and silver gelatin printing. Whether you are a photographer looking for the best printing method for your work, or a collector interested in buying prints from other artists, you should know the differences between these three common types of photographic printing.


Giclée Printing: Modern, Bold and Fresh

Giclée printing, a term derived from the French verb ‘gicler’ meaning ‘to squirt or spray’, is a high-quality inkjet printing process that uses pigment-based inks. The name is fitting, as it describes the way an inkjet printer applies minuscule droplets of ink onto the paper or canvas. For reproducing fine art, photographers prefer this method due to its ability to produce vibrant colours, sharp details, and smooth gradients on a variety of media, including cotton rag, watercolour paper, or canvas. Giclée prints are very archivally stable, able to resist fading and deterioration over time, and often having a lifespan exceeding 100 years. This is largely due to the stability of pigment-based inks compared to dye-based inks. However, the longevity of a giclée print can also be influenced by the quality of the paper or canvas used, as well as the conditions in which it is stored and displayed.While giclée printing offers many benefits, it is not without its drawbacks. Some critics will say that it lacks the authenticity that other printing methods (involving more manual and chemical processes) lend to printing. Also, variations in printer, ink, paper, and environmental conditions can lead to the colour, contrast, and sharpness varying unpredictably.

A photograph of a photograph being handled by a professional after having been giclee printed

Giclée Printing Benefits

  • Archival Quality: Giclée prints are made with pigment-based inks that resist fading and deterioration for over 100 years, depending on the paper or canvas quality and the storage and display conditions. Giclée prints are more stable than dye-based prints, which can lose colour in a few decades or less. To preserve your giclée prints, you should avoid direct sunlight, high temperatures, and high humidity. You should also use acid-free materials for framing or mounting, and UV-resistant glass or acrylic for glazing.

  • Variety of Textures: Giclée prints offer a range of textures that can suit different types of photographs, such as portraits, landscapes, or fine art. For example, cotton rag paper has a smooth and soft surface that is ideal for portraits, while watercolour paper has a rough and irregular surface that adds depth and character to landscapes. Canvas has a fabric-like texture that can create a painterly feel, especially when stretched over a wooden frame. You can also apply varnish or coating to your giclée prints to enhance the colour, contrast, and protection. However, you should be careful not to alter the original appearance of the photograph too much, as some textures may reduce the sharpness or clarity of the image.

  • Cost-Effective: Giclée prints are relatively affordable and accessible compared to other printing methods, such as digital c-type or silver gelatin. You can print your own photographs at home using a high-quality inkjet printer and paper, or you can use a professional printing service that offers giclée printing. Giclée printing is also flexible and scalable, as you can print any size and quantity you want, without compromising the quality. You can also make adjustments to your digital files before printing, such as cropping, resizing, or editing. This gives you more control and creativity over your final product.

Things to Beware of With Giclée Printing

  • Authenticity: Giclée prints may not have the same value or uniqueness as other printing methods that involve more manual and chemical processes, such as digital c-type or silver gelatin. SSome collectors prefer these methods, as they reflect the real essence of photography, rather than a digital reproduction. However, this is a subjective and debatable issue, as some may consider giclée printing as a valid and innovative form of artistic expression.

  • Inconsistency: Giclée prints may vary in quality and accuracy depending on various factors, such as the printer, the ink, the paper, the calibration, and the environment. For example, different printers may have different colour profiles, which can result in different hues or tones. Different inks can have different densities, which may cause unbalanced saturation or brightness. And some papers may have varying absorption, resulting in a different smoothness or texture. To avoid or minimize these inconsistencies, you should use the same printer, ink, and paper for your giclée prints, and regularly check and adjust the settings and conditions of your printing equipment and environment.

 

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Digital C-Type Printing: Tradition Made Contemporary

Digital C-Type printing is a way of producing colour prints from digital images using a chemical process. The term C-Type stands for chromogenic, which means that the prints are made with light-sensitive silver halide crystals that are dyed with cyan, magenta, and yellow colours. These crystals form a colour image when they are exposed to light and developed with chemicals.


Digital C-Type printing uses a digital device, such as a LED or a laser, to project the image onto the paper. This method is widely used in professional and commercial photography, able to create excellent, large-scale prints.


Digital C-Type prints have many advantages - high resolution, high definition, and high fidelity. They can capture the finest details, the widest range of colours, and the most accurate representation of the original image. They can also last for about 60 years without significant fading or deterioration.


However, digital C-Type printing isn't for everyone, as it requires expensive and specialised equipment and materials, and the chemicals used can be toxic and hazardous, with the associated health and environmental risks.

A photograph of a lightjet printer capable of printing digital C-types

Why Choose Digital C-Type Prints for Your Photos?

This is one of the most popular options for printing your photos. Whether you want to create stunning exhibition prints, or simply enjoy your memories at home, digital C-Type prints can offer you many advantages, such as:

  • High Quality: Digital C-Type prints can deliver the best quality for your photos, with high resolution, high definition, and high fidelity. They can reproduce the finest details, the widest range of colours, and the most accurate representation of your original image. You can achieve higher contrast and density, with a finer glossiness. Moreover, they can produce prints with a continuous tone, without any visible dots or pixels, creating smooth transitions and gradients.

  • Long Lasting: Digital C-Type prints can last for a long time, up to 60 years, without significant fading or deterioration. However, the longevity of your prints also depends on the quality of the paper and the storage and display conditions. Avoid direct sunlight, high temperatures, and high humidity so that your prints have a longer lifespan. You should also use acid-free materials for framing or mounting, and UV-resistant glass or acrylic for glazing.

  • Large Size: Digital C-Type prints can be made in large sizes, up to 72 inches wide and over 100 inches long, which is ideal for creating impressive and immersive photos. There are a number of different mediums you can print on, such as paper, metal, or plastic. For example, you can print on a plastic material called Duratrans, which can be mounted on a light-box and backlit, creating a stunning and luminous effect.

Drawbacks of Digital C-Type Printing

  • Price: Digital C-Type printing is more expensive than most other printing methods, requiring specialised equipment. Digital C-Type printing is usually done by professional printing services, rather than by individual photographers, which adds to the price and reduces the artist’s control and creativity.

  • Environmental Impact: Digital C-Type printing has a higher environmental impact than most other printing methods. The chemicals needed (such as silver, bleach, and formaldehyde) are harmful. To lower the environmental impact of digital C-Type printing, you should use eco-friendly alternatives, such as recycled paper, and biodegradable chemicals.

Silver Gelatin Printing: The Ultimate in Tradition

Silver Gelatin Printing is the classic wet-printing method using a chemical process to produce prints. This traditional process requires a darkroom, a film negative, an enlarger, and various chemicals. Due to its unique and timeless aesthetic, it’s frequently the go-to for fine art photography.


Silver gelatin prints are known for their authenticity, quality, and long lifespan (often surviving more than 100 years). However, printing this way is expensive, and has a significant environmental impact, since it requires expensive and specialised tools and somewhat environmentally unfriendly materials.

A photograph a person making a darkroom print.

Reasons to Make Silver Gelatin Prints

As the classic means of producing black and white photographs, silver gelatin printing has many advantages over other printing methods, such as:

  • Originality and Value: Silver gelatin prints are highly valued by collectors and enthusiasts of photography, as they represent the original vision and technique of the photographer. Silver gelatin prints often come signed and numbered by the photographer, adding to their uniqueness and worth. They can also have a historical and artistic significance, as they are linked to the heritage and evolution of photography.

  • Quality and Fidelity: Silver gelatin prints can produce images that have high resolution, definition, and fidelity, meaning that they can capture the finest details, the widest range of tones, and the most accurate representation of the original image. Silver gelatin prints create images that have high contrast, density, and gloss, meaning that they can create deep blacks, bright whites, and shiny surfaces. Silver gelatin prints also have a continuous tone, meaning that they can create smooth transitions and gradients, without any visible dots or pixels.

  • Longevity and Durability: Silver gelatin prints can last for over 100 years without significant fading or deterioration, which is longer than most other printing methods. However, the longevity of silver gelatin prints also depends on the quality of the paper and the storage and display conditions. To protect your silver gelatin prints, avoid storing and displaying them in direct sunlight, high temperatures, and high humidity. You should also use acid-free materials for framing or mounting, and UV-resistant glass or acrylic for glazing.

Drawbacks to Silver Gelatin Printing

  • Cost: Silver gelatin printing is more expensive than most other printing methods, as it requires specialised equipment and materials, such as a darkroom, a film negative, an enlarger, and various chemicals. Silver gelatin printing is usually done by professional printing services, rather than by individual photographers, which adds to the cost and reduces the control and creativity of the artist.

  • Environmental Impact: Silver gelatin printing has a higher environmental impact than most other printing methods, as it involves the use of toxic and hazardous chemicals, such as silver, developer, stop bath, and fixer.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Printing Method

Different printing methods have different features and benefits for your images. Whether you want to print photographs, illustrations, or fine art, you need to consider the following factors before choosing a printing method:

  • Cost: How much are you willing to spend on printing? Some printing methods are more affordable than others, but they may not offer the best quality or durability. For example, Giclée printing is generally cheaper than C-Type or Silver Gelatin printing, but it may not have the same colour accuracy or light fastness.

  • Lifespan: How long do you want your prints to last? Some printing methods are more resistant to fading and deterioration than others, potentially needing more care and protection. For example, Silver Gelatin printing can last for over 100 years, but it needs to be framed behind glass or acrylic to prevent damage.

  • Display Location: Where are you going to display your prints? Some printing methods are more suitable for indoor or outdoor display than others, depending on the light, temperature, and humidity conditions. For example, Direct to Media printing can be used for outdoor display, as it is weatherproof and UV resistant, but it may not have the same brilliance or texture as other printing methods.

  • Colour: How important is the colour of your prints? You will find that some processes give you a wider range of colours than others, making them more suitable for vibrant and realistic images. For example, C-Type printing can produce a wide gamut of colours, while Silver Gelatin printing can only produce black and white images without any colour cast.

  • Finish: How do you want your prints to look and feel? Each method offers different finishes: for instance glossy, matte, metallic, or velvet, which can affect the reflectivity, contrast, and saturation of your prints. For example, Fuji Supergloss C-Type printing can offer an ultra high gloss finish, while Fuji Velvet C-Type printing can offer a flat matte finish.

Conclusion

In this article, we have introduced three main methods of photographic printing: giclée, digital c-type, and silver gelatin prints. Giclée prints are ideal for fine art prints, especially for illustrations and artworks. They are printed on high-quality papers from Hahnemühle, Somerset and Canson, using archival ultrachrome pigment inks. However, they have a delicate surface and need to be framed behind glass. Many collectors now prefer giclée prints over silver gelatin as they are more cost effective, while having a modern feel. Digital C-Type prints are the perfect choice for exhibition printing, especially for traditional photographs, whether landscapes or portraiture. They are printed using lasers on colour photographic papers. They have a high colour accuracy, light fastness and archival quality. You have a variety of specialist papers, such as Fuji Metallic C-Type, Fuji Supergloss C-Type, and Fuji C-Type Velvet to choose from. However, they are not suitable for black and white prints, as they may have a slight colour cast. And silver gelatin prints are the best option for genuine black and white prints, as they are free of colour cast and have a rich tonal depth. They are printed on true silver gelatin black and white resin coated and fibre based bromide papers, using a traditional darkroom process. These are the prime choice for exhibiting. But that comes at a price: they are much more costly, and producing them is many times more time-consuming than the other methods.

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