The future outlook of RA-4 printing in this digital world RA-4 paper seems to be one of the three most common systems for commercial photo printing today. Other common systems include inkjet systems and dye-sublimation systems. It is particularly interesting that the digital RA-4 printing systems of today use essentially the same methods and chemistry as have been used in color photographic printing for decades. If it ain't broke, why fix it, might be the slogan of RA-4. While specific aspects of the RA-4 workflow have changed with the switch to digital exposure systems, the basic concept behind it remains unchanged since yesterday's color darkroom work: Expose the paper using light, and then develop it in the chemistry. It does not matter that the light source is now an array of LEDs or a laser exposure system instead of an incandescent light bulb. It is mostly irrelevant that the information used for printing is in digital form instead of light shining through a negative, directly on to paper like yesterday. It does not matter that the papers and chemicals have been improved in recent years to make prints last longer and give more tonal range. Who really cares that many of today's papers are optimized for shorter exposures and without the orange mask of the typical color negative (unless of course you are doing conventional printing and can't find the right paper). While RA-4 is nowhere near as transparent a process as, say, inkjet, the truth is that this method is essentially unchanged from the past. There is no denying that the underlying concept remains intact. Expose the paper with light, then process in the chemistry. Many of today's younger photographers don’t even realize how RA-4 works. They don't know how their own photographs from their digital SLR are printed. Some people I know think it's done using ink, like with inkjet. They are shocked to learn that RA-4 uses light exposure, and that there are silver halides involved in the process, and that the RA-4 paper has to be kept in a light-tight box. They aren't aware that the process is virtually unchanged even in this digital era, or that the underlying process and chemistry, while having recently been adapted to print from digital files, actually have more in common with traditional film photography: Light strikes the media. A decomposition occurs, sensitizing the silver grains, forming a latent image. And then chemistry is used to bleach out the silver and fix the final dyes to form the finished image. Now the question: Is RA-4 truly the standard, most common, most flexible, and affordable method of printing photos today? My local Costco now charges 13 cents for a 4x6. They don't apply any corrections to the file. I can use a custom color profile for the specific printing unit. Before having them print a big run, I can request that they recalibrate for a new emulsion batch. The Noritsu printer is exactly the same as the one that pro labs use, and outputs the exact same images. So RA-4 is common, cheap, and convenient. The final question is: is RA-4 likely to remain the de-facto gold standard of commercial color photographic printing? The only other system that I think has a chance at competing is inkjet. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. There are tradeoffs either way. Some photographers prefer one system over the other for various reasons. But the truth of the matter is, it looks like RA-4 is here to stay in the long-term. And while the systems may be expensive, the prints are very affordable, high-quality, and not much has actually changed from the "old days" of color photography in the darkroom. While many corner stores are removing their film processing equipment due to loss of profitability, the printing market continues to expand. Even digital images need to be printed; there is no escaping this reality. Will digital RA-4 stand the test of time in this digital age? I'd like to hear opinions, especially from informed industry insiders. Will inkjet one day render the digital RA-4 process obsolete? Or how about digital picture frames? Personally, I still like a paper print, and I think many other photographers do, too. But what is the future outlook of this amazing color printing technology called RA-4 that has dominated for decades (not to mention the very similar RA color processes that preceded it)?