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In Search of B&W Printing Perfection
A Review of Canson's Platine Fiber Rag paper
by Miles Hecker
All serious photographers these days know about the digital printing process.
The last decade saw a revolution in photographic printing. Computer based imaging systems, equaled, then surpassed and replaced traditional optical printing systems in the world of color photography. As 2010 breaks, Christopher Burkett is the only fine art color photographer I know of who still uses the traditional darkroom to make his prints.
Black & white printing was the last refuge of the master optical printer. Fine silver gelatin printing was unassailable. Digital printing would never equal or surpass the quality of the print made in this genre. At least that's the way the conventional wisdom had it.
Minus 10 degrees at Snake River Overlook
I've been involved in the photographic printing process for about 43 years now. I started at the age of 16 in the wet process B&W darkroom and learned to make good silver gelatin prints. For some reason, I was never happy with B&W in my personal work. I was a landscape photographer and the lure of color was inescapable, at least for me. The problem was getting good, consistent quality, richly colored prints was almost impossible. I marveled at the quality of my transparencies and loathed the results I could get in the traditional darkroom. About 20 years ago, I gave up! Great color prints required devine intervention and I just wasn't capable of invoking it.
A funny thing happened about 10 years ago in photography, we now call it the digital revolution. Digital color printing changed everything. I could now, with the help of Photoshop and a digital printer, make the color prints I dreamt of.
I ended up teaching this new digital printing process at the college I had worked at for many years and got pretty good at it. After my retirement from full time teaching, my friend David Brookover recruited me to do the printing for his Jackson, Wyoming gallery. David shoots an 8x10 large format camera and was a stickler for quality. We purchased an Epson 9880, Xrite spectrometer and set about producing prints. David shoots big and prints big. Often two to five 8x10 film scans are combined to produce large panoramas. A typical print size is 32x40 inches and 44x55 prints are not uncommon. Our largest panoramas are some 42x84 inches in size. I use my own custom profiles for all the papers we print on.
I've always felt we produced some of the best color prints around, but I thought there was room for improvement in the B&W realm. Maybe the gods of silver gelatin really were omnipotent.
Even though much of my formal college education is in science and engineering, I am an artist in my minds eye. If it doesn't feel and look right it is a failure. No amount of measurement and technical knowledge can hide a lack of passion and aesthetic balance in the creation of a work of art.
With that in mind, I set out to improve the B&W prints I was making, so that they would equal or better any silver gelatin prints extant. This was a tactile, visual and emotional quest. It involved many aspects, the last and toughest of which was the final paper selection and its profiling. The final prints had to look and feel right under quartz halogen gallery lighting.
There were many candidate papers. In the end, I had 3 finalists, they were Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, Museo Silver Rag, and Canson Platine. The ideal paper would have no optical brighteners, be available in both large 44 inch rolls and sheets, and be 100% cotton rag.
All three of these papers had an "F" type semigloss surface. All used Epson photo black ink for rich, very deep blacks.
The Ilfold Gold Fiber Silk worked well in early test prints, but fell short on large prints. It has a 310 gram cellulose fiber base, rather than a 100% cotton base. The Ilford Silk paper uses a Baryta type coating. The cellulose base is stiff and large prints coming off a 44" roll would experience head slap on the left most 6 inches of the print. The Epson 9880 printer simply didn't have enough vacuum to hold the paper down consistently. Wider platen settings helped, but did not eliminate the problem. I did not want to have to precut sheets and decurl them. Besides, I can't fathom trying to load a 44"x84" sheet of precut paper by myself. The Gold Silk paper is quite good overall. It just falls short when used off of 44" rolls. I gather from others, that 24" rolls don't have this problem.
The Museo Silver Rag produced excellent results and the highest Dmax of 2.3. The high Dmax resulted in deepest blacks. The printed highlights were absolutely neutral, which is a touch cooler than I like. The 300 gram paper base, although 100% cotton, was also a tad stiff and I worried about problems with large rolls. The surface was also the shiniest of the three tested papers. The coating type is not specified by Museo. It is the only paper in this group available in 24"x36" and 35"x47" sheets. All told, I would have to rate this a very fine paper, but the Canson was a touch better.
The Canson was the most tactilely appealing of the 3 finalist papers. The 310 gram 100% cotton base has the soft feel of it's cousin, Arches Platine. Arches Platine is an uncoated paper commonly used by platinum-palladium printers. The softness allows me to print very large prints, even near the end of the roll, without any head slap probelems. The Canson platine prints, produced with my profile, had a very respectable Dmax of about 2.2. The highlights and near highlights had a very slight warmth to them, which I found in Goldilocks words, 'just right'. The surface is almost identical to the Ilford Baryta in appearance. The surface coating is "white carbon black". White carbon black is basically very pure white silica. Yes, fine white sand is the secret ingredient in grandma's special sauce.
It is critical when creating your profile for any of these papers to not over ink in search of super rich blacks. In any printing process, over inking will yield the deepest blacks, but the shadows will become muddy as a result. I used the standard Epson printer driver rather than a custom RIP. Earlier Espon drivers suffered from problems with uneven gradation of grey scale tones. I really think the latest drivers don't suffer from these problems and a RIP is not needed for first rate B&W printing.