Digital RA-4: the current and future printing standard in photographic printing systems?

Discussion in 'Film and Processing' started by a._valerio, Feb 6, 2009.

  1. 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 donโ€™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)?
     
  2. I hope RA-4 can continue to stand the test of time. Actually WalMart is converting to a dry printing process. This will eventually effect every store. They are also not going to develop film anymore. I think that things like this make a big impact on the RA-4 papers since a place like WalMart would use so much.
     
  3. (unless of course you are doing conventional printing and can't find the right paper).​
    Yup. I'm 16 and I do RA-4 color printing in a real darkroom (I'm not sure, but I think that puts me in the .0000001% minority of people.) What you say is absolutely true.
    However, inkjet prints are expensive. The RA-4 paper itself is much less expensive than the inkjet paper, and the chemistry is many times less expensive than the ink. Our school has several hundred dollars of ink on hand at any given time. It's ridiculous. One $15 cartridge will not do very many prints, and you need about 8 of them (leave it to the industry to find ways for us to spend more money on ink.) Inkjet is also best for printing on matt, canvas, or luster. If you print on gloss with an inkjet, you can see that the gloss itself changes based on the thickness of the ink heaped upon the paper. RA-4 dyes are inside the paper and not heaped on top.
    Digital RA-4 printing also goes further than analog ever could by factoring in the inadequacies in the paper itself and optimizing the recording process to compensate for these, producing cleaner colors. So in a way, the printing has changed.
    I don't think the RA-4 standard will change. RA-4 prints look great and they're cheap. What could be better? Also with the paper industry will probably go Kodak and Fuji along with all my color films so let's hope a transition doesn't occur anytime soon.
     
  4. Patrick,
    I wonder what Wal-Mart is switching to? Even inkjet is "wet" in one form. If it's truly a totally dry process, it would have to be some sort of non-photographic and non-ink process, right? Perhaps a thermal process such as dye sublimation? I remember years ago Popular Photography did a story on prototype machines that could be used in the future to develop negatives and print photographs without any chemical waste. The negatives, however, were discarded in this process because they were not developed or fixed. Somehow the latent image was read by laser, I believe...which surprises me, because the reality is, it is still not known exactly how the latent image forms from a quantum-elctrochemical perspective...not to mention a great waste of film.
    Nicholas,
    That's cool that you're doing "wet" color printing. I feel fortunate that I got to do it for about 3 weeks last summer during a color photography course. Where I was going to school, we weren't able to take photography courses unless we were photography majors, which I wasn't. And even then, there were pre-reqs such as drawing that one would have to take prior to taking even basic b&w photography. A bunch of nonsense from our perspective, but also justifiable due to not having enough professors and darkroom space for non-art majors. Only during the summer, if a course was even offered, could a non-major take photography. A friend and I lucked out; a course was available, and the pre-reqs were waived. We had a wonderful professor and a great time. It was realy cool, and I have the prints. The hardest thing was going from light to dark over and over again. It always happened that someone would be working when you had to go check your prints coming out of the machine, so there was no chance to gradually adapt. I know I took the course right before my school phased out wet color. They either already have or will be moving to inkjet shortly. I still have quite a bit of RA-4 paper left over: Fuji Crystal Archive and Kodak Supra Endura. We tried to sell it on ebay, but no one bought it. Keep doing the color darkroom thing, man...as long as you can!
     
  5. I only wish there was a digital enlarger I could afford.
     
  6. Ronald,
    Yes...the digital enlarger is a great concept...but does that DeVere unit output quality equal to commercial systems such as Light Jet? So few people own one, that it's hard to find statements from users. I wish there was somewhere nearby I could go to use one.
     
  7. "However, inkjet prints are expensive. The RA-4 paper itself is much less expensive than the inkjet paper, and the chemistry is many times less expensive than the ink."
    This may be true if you don't consider productivity as an important factor of your printing. The advantage of inkjet printing is it takes very little time to print, adjust then print again... Printing in a real darkroom on the other hand takes a lot of time and you can only crank out very limited number of good prints a day. The time it takes to wash/clean equipments, bottles, trays or processors, mixing chemicals, etc. was what wore me out in printing in a real darkroom before. I am so much happier doing inkjet printing now. I can print easily 20 8x10 good prints in an evening of time and there is no time spent on preparing and washing/cleaning equipments.
    To really make inkjet printing cost effective you need to refill your ink cartridges with good quality 3rd party compatible inks. There are plenty of them and cheap especially if you use photo printers that use only dye based inks. Most Canon photo printers (including some high end and most low end models) use only dye based ins for printing photos. You will be surprised how sharp and vibrant by the photos they produce. If you have concerns about inkjet print longevity then use them as a proof printer. You may find that the proof prints you get are not inferior to your production prints produced by RA-4 process.
    I don't go after expensive pigment based inkjet printing mostly by Epson printers. Dye based inks have a wider gamut than pigment based inks. I like the vibrancy and color dynamics of dye based inkjet printers better. Such printers and inks are cheap especially if you refill your ink cartridges.
     
  8. RA-4 will be around for a while. My current employer quotes a cost of 4.3 cents per 4x6 inch print on RA-4 paper. Even at 19 cents per 4x6 thats 14 cents/print profit. An 8x12 apparently costs 16 cents, and at $4.99 each, crazy profit. Inkjets are improving every day, and I do admit to liking the output and longevity of the epson k3 inks, however, the inkjet minilabs all use epson dye based inks or dye sub in the case of DNP(pixel magic) which I don't trust.
     
  9. This may be true if you don't consider productivity as an important factor of your printing. The advantage of inkjet printing is it takes very little time to print, adjust then print again... Printing in a real darkroom on the other hand takes a lot of time and you can only crank out very limited number of good prints a day. The time it takes to wash/clean equipments, bottles, trays or processors, mixing chemicals, etc. was what wore me out in printing in a real darkroom before. I am so much happier doing inkjet printing now. I can print easily 20 8x10 good prints in an evening of time and there is no time spent on preparing and washing/cleaning equipments.​
    That's not the disadvantage of traditional darkroom equipment. Setup/cleanup time is minimal. I can crank out a single print in about 5 minutes, and the time decreases the more I print as I can process many prints at a time. Color materials are all standardized in contrast and whatnot, and if you shoot with the same film and are good at exposure, you will have to make very limited corrections between prints.
    The main disadvantage is the limited control. You cannot adjust contrast when printing (for the most part) nor can you control seperate color curves. All must be done during exposure. This does not effect digital based systems. You can achieve more controlled colors and correct for the impurities in the paper. While inkjet is faster, RA-4 printing has a larger gamut than digital based systems, is cheaper, and highly archival. Especially for gloss, RA-4 prints are superior. Inkjet printing is better for use on canvas or matt surfaces, however.
    I believe the "dry" technologies involve dye sublimation printing. The ink comes in a huge roll with cyan magenta and yellow sheets (and sometimes a laminate) lined up and is selectively heated to sublimate onto the printing paper. They make very nice prints. The ink can be expensive and is set per number of prints versus quantity used because one print uses three to four sheets no matter if it's almost all white or almost all dark. It's available for consumer use on many photo printers.
     
  10. Maybe inkjet is faster in the home, but it's far slower as well as more expensive than photographic printing in the lab. That's the way it is at this time, but things are going to change real fast after some new inkjet head technology comes into the market. In a year or two, you're going to see that RA4 will have become a dinosaur.
     
  11. roarrrrrrr ill eat you for breakfast digital crap
     

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