May 19, 2008

How Can I Prevent My Inkjet Prints From Fading? (What Is Lightfastness?)

By Kara Hiltz

PrinTip: Recipe for Long-Lasting Photos: 2 Parts Chemistry, 1 Part Common Sense

You remember that moment, when your aunt and uncle posed for the camera at their anniversary party — he smiled and she kissed his cheek. That must have been ages ago, judging by the way her red sweater now looks more pink. A decade or longer, judging by the way the print has yellowed. But wait — this was your aunt and uncle's 15th anniversary, just last year. Inkjet printer technology has come a long way, but in many cases, your prints may noticeably fade and yellow in no time at all. However, once you understand what causes this degradation, you can take some steps to prevent it.

Predicting the amount of time your prints preserve their color without fading, termed lightfastness in the printer industry, relies on an imperfect science. In a nutshell, the chemistry between the ink and the paper you use to print a photo influences its lightfastness, according to Kodak scientist Douglas Bugner in his article How Long Will Inkjet Prints Last? Background on Print Life. In addition to your print and ink choices, environmental factors also play a role in your prints' preservation.

Two Parts Chemistry: Choose Ink and Paper That Work Well Together

When it comes to choosing ink and paper for your photo prints, air exposure and ink quality take first priority. First and foremost, you should use paper appropriate for photo printing. If you print a photo on low-quality or plain paper, the print will yellow quickly, says Bugner.

In terms of photo paper, the coating on your photo paper determines its lightfastness. Most photo-paper coatings fall into one of two categories: swellable or porous.

Swellable coatings swell when ink hits the coating, and then dry slowly leaving the ink trapped within the coating, according to HP's white paper on lightfastness.

Porous paper coatings dry faster, but because the ink spreads and settles into small particles on the coating's surface, the ink has increased air exposure, which makes it more susceptible to fading. Thus, photo paper with a swellable coating preserves your print's colors longer.

As far as the best ink for photo preservation, the industry seems to disagree. Two types of ink dominate the inkjet printer industry: dye-based ink and pigmented ink. Most inkjet printers use dye-based inks because they provide the best photo quality, according to HP. And while HP concedes that pigmented ink provides good lightfastness, the company believes that pigmented inks fall short when it comes to photo quality.

Epson disagrees in a white paper of its own on lightfastness, claiming that while dye-based inks provide a wide range of colors, they fade more quickly than pigmented inks — and Epson boasts that its pigmented inks rival dye-based inks' photo quality.

If you ask Tom Gromak of the Detroit News, he'll probably side with Epson given his personal testing of HP and Epson printers' lightfastness, which he recently discussed in his excellent article, Inkjet Printers — Like Inks and Paper — Aren't All Created Equal. Gromak found that photos printed with an Epson printer had not faded after two years.

Another important point to bear in mind: Many printer manufacturers optimize their own papers and inks to work together as a system. Of course, printer manufacturers want you to buy their products exclusively, but while it may seem like a marketing ploy, you may very well notice increased lightfastness if you single source your paper and ink.

One Part Common Sense: Keep Prints Safe From the Elements

Despite the paper and ink you use to print your photos, environmental factors can also result in fading colors or yellowing. Light, air, and humidity all affect your prints' life spans.

Keep your prints out of direct sunlight and limit their exposure to unfiltered fluorescent lights, recommends Bugner. You should also store photos in archival sleeves or behind glass to reduce their exposure to air, which slowly degrades the ink.

Finally, high humidity can lead to the growth of microorganisms that wear down your prints' colors, according to HP. Humidity also moistens your ink and may create a "tacky" surface, which can stick to other photos if you stack them — and damage your photos when you pull them apart.

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Sometimes useful, sometimes fun, and always interesting, PrinTips enable you to get more out of your ink jet or laser printer. That said, we don't profess to have a monopoly on printer tips so if you have anything to add, please do so below.

  • May 20, 2008 PhotoSci

    What many people seem to forget is that well over 90 % of our images are stored out of the light--in albums, shoeboxes and the like. Under these conditions, the important factors are heat, humidity, and polluting gases (like ozone).

    Testing only or primarily for light fade tells just part of the story--and sometimes not even the most important part.

    Even when pictures are on display they are exposed not only to light, but to ozone, humidity, and heat--and these factors can dramatically affect image lifetime.

    Plus, it's important when companies test for image permanence that they hold all four factors in balance, similar to the way they are balanced in your home. Overemphasizing one, like light, can give predictions that are doomed to failure.

    In any case, it's a good idea to avoid no-name inks, despite their attractive prices. There is a good chance that they will have poor image permanence. If you want to save money, pay attention to manufacturers' ink costs when you choose a printer and look for a printer with low per page costs, even if that means you pay a few dollars more up front. After all, you buy the printer once; you buy ink for the life of the printer.

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