What’s the real lifespan, or “shelf
life” of a photographic print? Do ink-jet based prints last longer than
prints made with traditional photo chemical-based processes? As a
photographer selling prints, should you know the answers to these
Nobody really knows for sure. There are theories and best practices regarding inks, processing, display and storage, but without a time machine, it’s impossible to accurately predict.
To get as close as I could to an answer, I asked a few expert printers who I know and trust – all of whom have been accepted into the PhotoShelter Print Vendor Network. Like going to a doctor for a second opinion, I appreciate the slight variations in their perspectives and opinions. When read together, they create a well-rounded informed answer.
My panel of printing experts are:
Richard Seiling is a photographer and owner of West Coast Imaging, a specialty fine art lab that exists to make museum-quality prints that reach the expressive limits of printmaking.
Jerry Weiner is the CEO of PWD Labs, which opened in early 2007 providing high-quality post-production printing services for professional digital photographers.
Klaus Sonnenleiter is owner and president of PrintedArt, a collection of fine art photography. Every piece in the collection is sold as finished artwork mounted on aluminum dibond and optionally finished with acrylic for a modern display without the need for framing.
Brud Jones is an owner and founder of Digital Labrador, the Midwest’s one-stop center for digital photography.
1) In your experience, what combination of printers, processes, papers, and inks produce the longest-lasting prints?
To really look at this issue, you have to understand that there is no industry-standard testing, and the industry isn’t looking to create a universal standard. All we have is assumptions based on accelerated aging with non-standardized tests that are not independently verified. It’s like having a race where every runner brings his own stop watch that hasn’t been certified to give correct time, yet we accept the results as if they were the absolute truth.
In 20, 50, or 100 years, we’ll know what really worked and what didn’t…but until then all we can do is guess, and we might make the wrong guesses. A great example is Kodachrome, which we all think is super archival, but the pre 1980s Kodachrome will fade even in dark storage. For its time, it was one of the most permanent processes, but it wasn’t as permanent as we all thought.
Therefore, I think the best way to choose a paper to print on is to look at what materials collectors and museums will accept when paying tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for. Chromogenic prints (AKA Type-C, Digital-C, RA-4) are widely accepted, and have been for the last few decades, so they remain very popular with many top photographers. Chromogenic prints have a known track record, and that makes a lot of users feel comfortable with it. If you look at the galleries of the volume print sellers like Thomas Mangelsen or Peter Lik they are using chromogenic prints. But the high-end pigmented inkjet prints from Epson, HP, Canon, and a few others, which are accepted by most to last longer than chromogenic prints, and have come to be accepted by the art world.
I think it’s important to understand that we don’t have perfect materials with magical abilities, but we do have very good materials, and museums, galleries and collectors have developed a consensus that they consider these acceptable.
We use a Fuji minilab with Fuji original papers and chemicals. This combination produces the best possible results on a consistent basis over a long period of time. We maintain our printers according to the manufacturer’s requirements.
Assuming we are talking about prints on paper, the most important pieces are the ink and the paper: Both need to have archival qualities and ideally for photos to print in strong, lasting colors, you should be using pigment inks. Both Canon and Epson have very good products for this purpose. For showcase pieces, we recommend sealing them between a layer of acrylic and a metal backboard made of aluminum dibond.
Digital Labrador only offers inkjet prints because we prefer the quality of the image that is produced by the Epson printer on Crane or Epson archival papers. The first goal is to create an incredible image today and do everything you can to make sure it lasts as long as possible.
2) What would you consider to be the average “shelf-life” time of a print?
Fuji, Epson, and others have worked hard to make print materials that will last for the lifetime of the purchaser. I’ve seen the accelerated aging tests for Fuji’s Crystal Archive, and prints on that paper look like they will outlast me. Our materials are much better than what we saw with prints in the 70’s and even 80’s because the manufacturers learned the lessons they needed to.
Longevity can never be separated from display conditions. The greater the intensity and duration of exposure to light, the greater the risk of fading. Even “archival” processes are not very tolerant of direct sunlight and can fade under it in weeks to a few years. Even indirect sunlight can accelerate fading. Most prints are very sensitive to environmental contamination (ozone, acids, cleaners, etc.), and to get the most longevity you need to use conservation mounting and framing practices, i.e. cotton rag board, UV blocking glazing, etc.
Since the mid-1980s and especially since 1990, the major photographic manufacturers have developed more stable dyes for color photographs, including the type of photographic paper used for snapshots. The good news is that these modern photographic prints will only fade a little over a lifetime, or even in 100 years, if kept in average home conditions. When displayed in moderate light conditions, slight fading might occur in 25 to 50 years.
If made with all-archival products, the shelf-life should be well beyond a few decades. Most vendors list their archival products somewhere in the range between 75 and 150 years. At PrintedArt, we seal the images, which can only add to the life expectancy of the raw print, however, it is hard to tell by how much and whether it still matters once we surpass the average human lifespan.
It’s always a matter of how the print is treated. If it hangs fully exposed in direct sunlight you can’t expect as long of a life as a print that is sprayed with a UV protective coating, properly framed and hung indoors.
3) How long should you expect a print made with a consumer-level ink-jet printer to remain un-faded?
Some consumer inks test quite well, but you’re really going to have to do your research. I see faded consumer-level prints everywhere I go. I don’t think it’s acceptable to use unknown and untested materials for professional-level work when pro-level inkjet printers or prints from a pro lab are so inexpensive.
It depends on the combination of printer-paper-ink and could range anywhere from few months to many years.
That’s a tricky questions. If we assume that “consumer-level” means we would not be using archival quality paper and ink, then the durability could vary between a few months and a few years depending on light exposure and other factors.
This is like asking how long an order of McDonald’s french fries will last before rotting. No one knows for sure. It’s a mystery how the inks are made for those consumer printers as well as the papers they use, so just like the fries, without knowing the secret ingredients, we can’t say how long they’ll last.
4) Which areas of a photograph (colors/tones) will begin to fade/change first? What signs should people be looking for?
Fading can hide for a long time because many people aren’t very sensitive to correct color balance. You’ll see it in the highlight because they have the least dye/pigment so fading will affect them most quickly, and you will also see staining or environmental contamination there. And you’ll see it as an overall shift in image color because not all the colors will fade at the same rate.
Hopefully, the print was made with archival material and we will not have to worry about this. If not, the areas to worry about the most are the ones with the highest contrast and color saturation.
Our non-scientific test of a print made with non-archival vinyl and exposed to the weather and all the elements including sunlight, rain, sleet and snow is fading primarily where the local dogs have marked their territory on the lower edges. Seriously, we haven’t seen fading of inkjet prints yet, but we refer to Wilhelm Imaging Research for the final word on archival testing of photographs.
5) How can people extend the life of a print that’s, say, hanging on the wall that gets exposed to partial indirect sunlight each day?
When indirect sunlight is a factor, UV blocking plex or glass is a must. It’s not a cure, because light itself fades photographs, but time and again, testing shows that cutting UV exposure increases longevity. Glass has to be coated to block UV, which costs more than standard picture framing glass. Plex naturally blocks some UV, but there are also special grades what block nearly all UV light, which can cost over $75 a square foot.
You also have to consider the value of the piece and just how much indirect light it receives. Eight hours a day of indirect light in Phoenix is very different from two hours of indirect light in Seattle. Sometimes the answer is to move the piece to a location with less indirect sunlight.
Color photographs fade over time. Light increases fading. Fading increases with the brightness of the light and the length of time in the light. When displayed, photos should be kept away from direct sunlight or bright lamps that are left on constantly. Heat also increases fading, even at moderate temperatures, such as 70-75F, found in homes. At these temperatures, fading always occurs, even in the dark!
Color photos will last longer if stored in the dark, in a cool dry location. However, only storage at cold temperatures can slow this irreversible decay process to a near stop. Cold storage is not practical for most people and can even cause more immediate damage if used improperly. Frost-free freezers can be used as long as special enclosures and handling procedures are followed. More information can be found on the Archives.gov website.
The trouble with exposure to sunlight really is UV exposure. There are a couple of ways to defend against this: Some inks are better at resisting UV than others. But more importantly, a UV-protective laminate or glass will shield the image from damage. Ideally, images should be sealed under acrylic to avoid exposure to UV light.
We recommend using a UV spray on the print itself then having it framed using archival materials and methods with museum grade glass.
6) For consumers who are interested in archival-quality printing, how can they ensure that the print they’ve purchased is made with materials and processes that won’t change over time?
Consumers are largely reliant on the photographers to disclose what materials they use, and to have enough education to ensure they photographer used a pro-level print process. Similarly, photographers have to educate themselves and choose labs and materials that achieve their goals.
Everything degrades over time. Using a professional lab with a good reputation will minimize, but not prevent, the degradation of prints over time.
The printer should be able to guarantee the proper material. Especially for photo prints, pigment inks will not only guarantee greater luminance, but also longer lasting colors.
Know your printer and what materials and print method is being used. If archiving is an important issue, you should start with the best possible printing and make one for storage and one for display.
7) Will all prints fade over time?
If you really want permanence, I recommend painting in the Lasceaux caves in southern France with rare earth pigments, because they have a proven track record of about 17,000 years. And they are still pulling classical Greek bronzes out of the Aegean sea. Color photography is still a fugitive medium because of the characteristics of the dyes and pigments that we use to make the photography. It appears we’re finally at the point where a color print will last a lifetime, and maybe a little longer, and with dark storage maybe a few hundred years. But it’s still not as good as silver based black-and-white photography, which has the possibility of lasting thousands of years when selenium toned, because the image is made from stable metals on a stable base paper. Color image life doesn’t happen by accident, it happens through great care of the image to achieve the desired goals.
As above, color photographs will fade over time. Light increases fading. Fading increases with the brightness of the light and the length of time in the light. Heat also increases fading.
It depends on how long we are willing to wait to see the effect. A print that was made with archival paper and ink, then sealed between acrylic and a metal backboard using the proper adhesives, should easily surpass our human life expectancy and still see no fading. However, we have not been able to thoroughly test this assumption yet since the technology has not been around long enough.
Prints today will last longer than anything that has been made to date. Check in with us again in 75 years. Isn’t the more important question whether we can still access the digital file that created it? It’s more likely to be lost than an actual print on paper.