Archival quality

What is archival print quality, and how to achieve (and keep) it.

You’ve probably guessed that archival quality has something to do with longevity. This blog post looks at choices for optimizing the quality of your prints and their presentation so they last as long as possible.

Dropping Acid (from your workflow)

Archival qualityThe single most important foe of longevity for your prints is acid, though other items come close behind. A primary goal of archival workflows is to eliminate acid at every turn. Acid is invisible, yet over time can cause such damage to your work as to ruin it.

Identifying where acid can creep in and damage your prints is essential. These places include:

  1. The paper on which you make your prints
  2. The board you use to back or mount prints
  3. The matte board used to matte the print
  4. The frames in which you display prints
  5. Your ungloved hands as you transfer acidic skin oils from your hands to prints
  6. The tape you use to hinge your matte boards to your prints’ backing boards
  7. The adhesives you use if you mount your print to a board
  8. The photo corners you use to hold a photo in place
  9. The moisture that condenses under glass in frames

In other blog articles on this site items 2–8 are discussed in detail. This article focuses exclusively on the surfaces on which you print.

Acid and Types of Papers; Choosing the Right Substrate for the Ages

There are four main categories for papers:

  1. Acid–free
  2. Acid–neutral
  3. We–have–no–idea what’s in them and they don’t tell us
  4. Non-paper substrates

Substrates is a term used in printing to include anything on which an image can be printed. It’s a useful word, since it includes things that are usually not called paper but are printable, such as canvas, glass, metal, foil, plastic/acrylic, papers with fragments of flowers and leaves embedded for design effects, paper made from unusual materials such as sugar cane, etc.

  1. Acid-free Papers – This group of papers is made for the ages. The absence of acid in them means they will not brown or decompose the way some papers would. The presence of acids in papers has created problems in multiple industries; libraries,for example, find collections of prints, lithographs and even books simply crumble away over time, as invisible acids corrode and dissolve them.Archival qualityWould you be able to tell the difference as you’re printing? No, not at first, but eventually, when it’s too late, and your beautiful image is stained and discolored, you would. Good acid-free paper is usually identified as such. Some are made with 100% cotton rag, but it’s also possible to find archival quality papers which are not made of 100% cotton. Check the product description to see if the particular paper is certified as archival. Breathing Color offers several papers which are certified, using the the certification shown here, and in the image above. Current offerings can be explored on the site, and include Pura Velvet and Pura Smooth. For peace of mind, and for papers for which you don’t have information you trust about a particular paper, to be sure of the absence of acid, get a pen for testing, such as this one here, and use it to check the paper you’re using to print your images.Archival qualityTest the back of the paper, as coatings on the front can give a false reading. Note that unless the paper is certified 100% archival, the paper may be archival but the coating on its front may not be.
  2. Acid-Neutral Papers – In acid-neutral papers, the manufacturer has infused the paper with a chemical that neutralizes the acids in the paper. These papers are sometimes called acid-buffered instead of acid-neutral.These are more economical papers to make, and thus sold at lower prices than true archival substrates. It’s not considered truly archival, so it can’t be used for markets such as fine art or museums, but these are very nice papers for most uses.Archival quality
  3. “We-Have-No-Idea” Papers – If nothing is indicated on the package, it’s unlikely the paper in the package is acid-free or archival.When a manufacturer goes to the trouble of making an acid-free/archival substrate, they’re going to make sure you know about it, because they use the absence of acid to justify a higher price for the paper. These papers are manufactured with an eye to affordability, and are often chock full of acid.If you’re thinking of printing on a paper with packaging that says nothing about acid, be afraid…be very afraid, and then pull out the testing pen described above and see what you get. It’s good to be sure of what we suspect.Archival quality
  4. Other substrates – Many of these specialty substrates can’t be made acid-free, so they’re often classified as “special use” papers.If you’re going to print on them, test the surfaces with the ph testing pen shown in this article. Results will vary widely, depending on the materials used. A paper with flecks of leaves and flower petals may test neutral for the paper, but the embedded flecks may be highly acidic.Sheets of aluminum prepared for inkjet printing are so new that we don’t have a lot of data on longevity testing, but one recent test suggests these prints may last 2–4 times as long as photo papers.

Types of Professional Printers and their Inks

Once you’ve selected your substrate, what you put on the paper is just as important. Printer manufacturers have spent millions researching and developing the inksets used in their printers, attempting to expand both the range of colors (gamut) their printers can deliver while extending longevity of the finished prints.

Early inkjet printers were marvelous inventions, but the light fastness of the prints produced was the products’ greatest weakness. Kodak and Fuji executives cheerfully bragged in presentations of how they had taped a half-print from an inkjet over an identical print on their respective companies’ best photo emulsion paper in a window, gleefully recounting how quickly the inkjet prints faded while their products didn’t visibly change in the same time frame. Times have changed.

Epson 3880

Permanence was achieved, only to have another problem appear which shocked people. Some prints from early archival quality printers displayed correctly under one kind of light but not another. A printer I owned made great prints when these prints were displayed under controlled perfect lighting, yet when these same prints were displayed in living rooms lit with tungsten bulbs, flesh tones suddenly bloomed hot magenta, making the subjects appear to be suffering from serious sunburn. Shadows in prints displayed under certain fluorescent lighting suddenly changed from neutral gray to bright mossy green. Turned out that when you do all your testing in laboratories, with laboratory lighting, you might miss some things when prints are displayed under certain other conditions.

Test criteria and research were expanded. It was discovered that these inks were sensitive to ozone, previously unconsidered, and as their exposure to ozone lengthened, their behavior changed for the worse. Inks were improved, testing was expanded to include ozone sensitivity, and we’ve arrived in 2015 with ink sets that continue to improve in both gamut as well as permanence, with semi-regular announcements of new inks promising continued improvements.

Archival qualityToday, inks for serious print makers are pigment-based. Older model dye-based printers have mostly faded (no pun intended) and it’s generally accepted that pigment-based ones are best for longevity and light fastness. Some 13″-wide models in the lower cost segment still use these dye inks, such as the Canon Pixma Pro-100.

A comparison of gamuts between top of the line Canon and Epson printers shows that while one may deliver more green, the other delivers more red, one delivers more orange, the other delivers more violet on the same paper, in this case Breathing Color Pura Smooth.

Printer Errors

In Epson professional printers, occasionally you’ll find a smaller total gamut (though not by much) when comparing prints done on the same paper. A downfall of the Epson printers, though, is that their print heads cannot be replaced by the user; this is an expensive, technician-only job done for you, not by you.

Shared virtues by all three companies are stability in performance for good longevity (when in proper environments), good built-in architecture for color management, options for some models to acquire built-in devices for measuring color on new papers and calibrating color on existing substrates, and availability of tools for precision calibration and control, as well as batch printing. All of them offer access to new ink cartridges through mail order and professional vendors.

All are great tools.

Which one should you buy? As in most questions of this kind, the answer is “It depends”. My recommendation is to select a combination of printer and substrate based on the gamut you need to print, the visual effect you want for each image, and the size of the paper you need to use. Any prints you make today on these printers will outlast you, properly cared for. First though, a word about avoiding the temptation to sin.

Yes or No; Third Party Ink Refills?

Rendering Intents

It’s possible to take some inkjet cartridges into various locations and have them refilled at a fraction of the cost of purchasing new brand-name cartridges. Users of these services brag about them at parties, scorning those poor fools continuing to buy original replacement cartridges each time they need one.

Unfortunately…if there are any third party ink refillers being candid about the longevity of their inks, I haven’t been able to find them. Some testing seems to indicate that these inks offer a special bonus of fading at a rate multiple times faster than the original inks they replace. Yes, they’re tempting; yes, they’re terribly inexpensive compared to purchasing the authentic product. This is one case where you definitely get what you pay for. Run the other way.

Optical Brightening Agents

Archival quality
Optical brightening agents (OBAs) are chemicals in papers to make the whites of the papers look brighter to the eye. They’re discussed in more detail in “Optical Brighteners in Fine Art Prints: Friend or Foe?” – my post on the subject. I’d also suggest downloading Breathing Color’s comprehensive article on the subject by clicking here. The bottom line advice is that papers with OBAs are not considered archival, and should not be used for prints needing to be archival.

Conclusion

Printing images is a serious investment. Ounce per ounce, printer inks are more expensive than Dom Perignon, and the time and tools used to print require substantial commitments. To make prints of beautiful images without taking the steps necessary to print them so they will last as long as possible is unfathomable. Why would we do this? The few pennies or minutes saved by cutting corners are minuscule, and these compromises will come back to bite us.

Whether you’re printing your own work or sending it out to be printed, being certain your work is printed on acid-free papers is highly recommended for workflows that justify this level of care and investment. This article has outlined a range of steps to take to be sure your works are printed to archival print quality standards. Here’s to printing beautiful images for the ages!

More Resources


Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.


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