Can Photo Prints Really Last a Lifetime?

May 18, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO 1000.

Smartphones, Snapchat and Instagram may be habituating the general public to thinking of photography as disposable and fleeting, but advances in print technology are radically reshaping expectations for what you can print on and how long those prints can last. 

“It may not feel like it, but we’re living in something of a golden age of photo print technology,” says Henry Wilhelm, print permanence expert and founder of Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR) in Grinnell, IA. 

In 2014, Epson introduced the most fundamental revision of its ink chemistry in years and in 2015, Canon unveiled its own new ink set that will trickle its way into a brand new line of large-format inkjet printers. At the same time, printing technology such as ChromaLuxe and UV curable inks have hit the photo market in force, opening the doors to exotic materials like metal and glass that are more durable than paper.

With new introductions from both Epson and Canon (pictured above) inkjet prints have taken another step forward in longevity, says permanence authority Henry Wilhelm. 

According to Wilhelm, it’s useful to think of output longevity, or how long a given print will resist fading, along a four-step hierarchy. Inkjet stands at the pinnacle.

LEVEL ONE: The least stable prints Wilhelm has ever tested were printed with third-party dye-based inks, with some having WIR Display Permanence Ratings of less than three months. 

LEVEL TWO: Modern silver-halide prints made from Kodak Endura, Kodak Edge, and Fujifilm Crystal Archive papers have very good dark storage stability and ozone resistance; however, when exposed to light on display, their stability is poor.  For example, the WIR Display Permanence Ratings for Kodak Endura papers are generally less than 20 years. Framing the prints under UV-absorbing glass or acrylic offers relatively little additional protection for silver-halide color prints.

LEVEL THREE: ChromaLuxe metal prints made with the newest versions of Sawgrass 8-color sublimation inks and Epson F-Series 4-color sublimation inks have achieved WIR Display Permanence Ratings on the order of 50 years, says Wilhelm. ChromaLuxe prints are also extremely abrasion resistant.

LEVEL FOUR: Pigment inkjet prints using the newest Ultrachrome HD and HDX ink sets from Epson have WIR Display Permanence Ratings of up to 200 years, depending on the specific paper used. Wilhelm rates black and-white prints for Epson’s UltraChrome HD and HDX inks and select Epson papers at up to 400 years (or, with some papers, significantly beyond that). With these pigment inkjet prints–both black-and-white and color–framing under UV-absorbing glass or acrylic can greatly extend the life of displayed prints.

WIR is currently evaluating the permanence of prints made with the newest Canon Lucia Pro pigment inks used in the recently announced imagePROGRAF PRO 1000 printer but the data wasn’t available at press time.

Finally, relative newcomer to the photo print market, UV curable printing, may well produce the longest lasting images of all. Images created using a UV curable process can resist scratches and tough environmental conditions better than many competing processes, but Wilhelm cautions, much more testing will be required to sort out the best, longest lasting systems, inks, and the very wide range of substrates that can be used with these new systems.

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