Last quarter’s column produced the biggest reader response so far. Not that I was overwhelmed; I needed both hands to count the emails, but I didn’t have to take off my shoes. Still, at least a few of you think combining digital imaging with traditional photographic printing is pretty neat.
When it comes to the subject at hand, Dan Burkholder wrote the book. Literally. First published in 1995 and updated in 1999, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing: A Step-By-Step Guide to Affordable Enlarged Negatives for Platinum, Silver, and Other Printing Processes concentrates mostly on using an image setter at a service bureau to produce binary (tiny black dots or clear film, with no gray anywhere in the image) silver halide negatives. The 1999 edition briefly discusses using inkjet printers to make contact negatives, which is my current quest. Four years is an eternity in inkjet printer technology, and Dan now routinely makes inkjet negs for his platinum prints. In January, I traveled to Dallas to spend a day with Dan. My objectives: to assess the state of the art in this new technology, and to get a sense of the quality of the negatives that result.
Let’s deal with quality first; unless you can get a negative suitable for your purpose, you probably don’t care much about exactly how to make the neg. What follows is my take on things, after an intense consultation with Dan and some experimentation on my own. Important insights are probably Dan’s, and errors are probably mine.
My criteria for acceptability of a contact neg are: a repeatable process, sufficient density and smoothness for a full-range tone scale, sufficient resolution to render details of the original, and invisibility of artifacts in the final print. It appears possible to get the repeatability and the density for silver gelatin and for platinum prints (some tricks are required). Whether the rest of the criteria can be met depends on 1) the size of the original negative or digital capture, 2) the process used and the paper surface chosen for the print, 3) the size of the final print.
If the original image was captured on film, the smaller the original negative, the easier it is to make acceptable digital contact negatives. There are two reasons for this: the image will have fewer details that must be resolved, and, even more importantly, the film grain in the original negative will mask image artifacts in the contact negative. In order to get maximum benefit from this masking, the negative should be scanned at a resolution sufficient to capture much of the grain structure.
Image artifacts introduced by the printer are usually small in scale, and the greater the resolution of the output medium, the more likely that they will be visible. A glossy silver gelatin print places the greatest demands on the quality of the contact negative. Platinum prints have lower resolution, and many papers used for platinum printing have patterns that obscure small details.
Larger prints are less demanding because they are viewed from greater distance than smaller ones, and the artifacts are less likely to be visible.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It is, but I can simplify it. From looking at Dan’s prints, it’s clear to me that a $400 inkjet printer can make negatives for great 7×10 platinum prints on smooth paper from 35mm originals. A more expensive printer with the same image structure could make negs for 16×16 prints from 2 ¼ square negatives, or 24×30 prints from 4x5s. Depending on the subject matter, the film, the mood of the image, and the paper surface, smaller prints might work well, but don’t expect to make perfect equivalents of 8×10 contact prints.
How about silver prints? Dan’s almost exclusively a platinum printer, so I can’t tell by looking at his work. Brad Cole has volunteered to help me with this project. He and I are conducting some experiments, and some results look encouraging.