Inkjet vs. Duratrans for Fine Art Prints

A customer recently asked if we have any information that sheds light on a set of claims by another backlit imaging firm, putting forth archival-quality inkjet printing as a preferred solution over duratrans imaging. Here’s the response we submitted:
First, let me clarify — duratrans is designed for transmissive light (backlit) applications only, not reflective. So comparing duratrans to archival papers is apples and oranges. Duratrans is not designed for or claimed as an archival solution. Some of the below comparative claims about archival media’s colorfastness may be true, but the main focus of our comparison should really be between backlit duratrans and backlit inkjet.
Inkjet sample
Here’s a point-by-point commentary on the claims that were set forth:
Inkjet printing emerged commercially in the early 1990s.
This may be true for large-format applications, but smaller format solutions had been in play since the 80’s.
Inkjet printing emerged commercially in the early 1990s.
This may be true for large-format applications, but smaller format solutions had been in play since the 80’s.
‘Inkjet’ is a generic term referring to printers that ‘spray’ controlled amounts of ink onto specially coated media.
The first half of this is true, but it is not exclusive to “specially coated” media, as there are inkjet technologies that are designed to work with uncoated media as well
There are several technologies that fall under the inkjet umbrella.
Over the last two decades inkjet printing has become very refined, with great advances in print head and ink technology.
Because inkjet printing is essentially simple, it remains an affordable, as well as a premium choice for both commercial and fine art applications in all sizes.
It’s universally true that simpler technology contributes to affordability. But to say the simplicity of inkjet is one of the reasons it’s a “premium choice” is a classic non sequitur, because there’s no automatic correlation between ‘simple’ and ‘premium’.
Much fine art printing, including printing of b/w and color photographs, is now done using archival inkjet printers.
This may be true in reflective media, but it’s absolutely false (unless “much” can mean a small fraction) in backlit media, which is what duratrans is.
Quality inkjet is capable of far greater accuracy and subtle color rendering than Duratrans from the same files. Quality fine art and fine art reproductions are now printed using permanent archival pigment inks on high grade acid-free media.
There are several secondary untruths here, but the foundational problem is that archival processes and duratrans are not in the same field nor are they used for the same application. Duratrans is optimized for best-of-class performance in backlit commercial applications, and archival processes are optimized for best-of-class performance in reflective fine art applications. If you’re looking for reflective media, then of course duratrans is not in the conversation because it’s not reflective, it’s transmissive.
If you want to backlight your fine art, the question remains as to which is more important for your application: long-term durability or color fidelity. For backlit, duratrans wins the color fidelity battle on every level. Most backlit projects are planned with the intent to optimize color bandwidth and brilliance; this is why the backlit medium was chosen in the first place, and it’s where duratrans excels above inkjet solutions. If your backlit project is more concerned with archivability, then other imaging processes may possess more UV-resistance than duratrans — although in practice, industry archiving protocols increasingly call for digital archives over hard copy archives, to keep record of color fidelity.
In summary: if archival integrity is the main goal, nothing beats a digital file. If color brilliance is the main goal, nothing beats duratrans. And by the way, duratrans holds its original color for many years except under extreme UV exposure.
Most fine art photographic reproduction for exhibition and sale is now done using inkjet printing.
In this narrowly-defined market for reflective (not backlit) prints, sure no problem.
Inkjet permanent pigment inks now surpass Duratrans in fade and UV resistance. The underlying media have comparably long expected life spans.
Pigment inks may actually offer higher UV inhibition. This does not mean the color is more true, or the blacks are darker, or the saturation is deeper, it only means that the composition resists UV breakdown more.
If you’re looking for the widest color gamut, highest contrast, deepest saturation, most tonal variation, highest potential resolution, lowest dot gain and/or deepest black opacity in a backlit medium – then a laser-exposed, chemically-developed, emulsified duratrans film process is the clear superior in each of these areas.
Inkjet printing is capable of extremely fine resolution. Our new equipment prints an extremely smooth and grainless look, unlike the visible grain of Duratrans reproductions.
If somebody visualized “grain” in a modern duratrans-grade backlit film, I suspect the original artwork contained a grain artifact, such as possibly a photo shot with a grainy film. The latest iterations of photochemically-processed backlit films (aka duratrans) do not possess any grain that is visible to the naked eye.
Inkjet sample
In closing:
We do not have a dog in this fight. Blue River Digital offers both duratrans and inkjet imaging. We just know which product is optimized for which type of project. Conversely, we wonder out loud if someone else may have an ulterior motive… perhaps some providers don’t offer one of the two products, hence a skewed devotion to the other…?
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