By John Henshall

'The whole wedding album is made up of matching photographic prints - apart from that one dye sublimation print which sticks out like a sore thumb.'

'It was the bride's mother's fault. If she hadn't been so busy interfering with how everyone else looked, she wouldn't have been caught with that stupid goldfish expression. Pity there was no other shot of that group. Cloning her from the other group was the only way.'

'The stylist is really good with Adobe Photoshop now. It was worth every penny it cost to send her on the digital restoration and retouching course. If only the print didn't look so different from all the others, nobody's attention would be drawn to that picture.'

'These digital prints look fine on their own but, viewed alongside 'real' photographic prints well, they just don't look the same at all.'

'Having the retouched image file written out to a photographic negative seemed like a good idea but, oh, so expensive and our printer couldn't get the dress and flesh tones to print anywhere near those on the other prints. And the whole print looks out of focus. How I wish we'd taken just one more shot - the dramas it would have saved. Pity the poor groom with a mother-in-law who complains like that. That marriage won't last long - nor will our business if she goes on shouting her mouth off like that.'

'If only there was some way of getting true photographic prints from digital image files. If only'

You know, there are some good things about digital imaging, even for social photographers. In the digital world, if you can dream it you can do it - one day. And the good news is that that particular dream has just come true. At last, you can have 'real' chemically-processed photographic prints direct from digital image files which have never even heard of a darkroom. We have the technology.

Some of the digital printers use cathode ray tubes - small, very sharp versions of those inside out televisions - on which images are displayed, to be focussed on regular photographic paper. They work well enough, though the maximum size of print is very limited and flare and focus drift can be problematic. If you want huge prints, there are laser-driven printers which will print fifty two inches wide by up to a whole paper roll in length. These work very well, though there are resolution problems as the laser approaches the corners of large prints at an oblique angle, landing as an elliptical beam. And the ubiquitous inverse square law needs to be compensated for as the light travels further from the source to everywhere except the centre of the print. But these problems are not as major as the real estate requirement: these printers are big.

Kodak LED Digital Printer 20P

The Kodak LED Digital Printer 20P

So Kodak has recently introduced a new kind of digital 'real' photographic (including the wet bits) printer which makes prints up to 20x32 inches from digital image files: the attractively titled Kodak LED Digital Printer 20P'Kodak LED Digital Printer 20P'. Of course, all the individual elements of this printer's name have particular individual meanings. 'Kodak' indicates that it comes from, well, not Konica. 'Digital' means it is, erm, digital - at least the part where the image goes in. And 'Printer' means it produces, would you believe prints - though it gives us no clue to the fact that, deep in its bowels, these are good old wet ones. The '20p' is, of course, the price - divided by 400,000 to avoid having too many noughts on the end. 'LED' obviously relates to the printer's weight. Well I certainly wouldn't want to pick it up, would you? It also occurs to me that some elements of this name could have double entendres: for example 'LED' also means 'Light Emitting Diode' and '20p' means that the machine takes '20 inch [wide] paper'.

In fact, the LEDs are the really novel part of this printer. They spin around on a head pivoted at the LED Drumcentre of a drum inside which the RA4 paper is held very accurately just the merest smidgen of a gnat's whisker away from the glowing LEDs. Because the LEDs are pivoted at the centre of the drum, they are always at right angles to the paper. A lead-screw drives the LED-head across the width of the paper, scanning it with varying amounts of coloured light to expose the emulsion. This system avoids unevenness of exposure, which has to be compensated for in laser devices, and definition drop-off towards the edges. Clever stuff, eh?

After all this unnatural exposure to things digital, the RA4 paper takes a welcome dip in its familiar bath of salts before emerging with a stunning image at least as good - if not better - than a conventional photographic print.

I took a trip to Dunn's Professional Imaging in Birmingham - as much as anything to stop the boyish Alan Dunn pestering me with eMails eulogising his new toy. I'd been threatening to pay Dunn's a visit for some years, so it seemed a good excuse. I took with me some real hard customers which I hoped would quieten him down.

One was a 6x6cm Fuji Velvia transparency with enough dynamic range to silence the three tenors. Another was a very soft lit Fuji 64T tranny of Kinnock and Thatcher (remember them?) against a white background for a 'Spitting Image' commercial. My DCS420 shot of the guard at Horse Guard's Parade, which started off its life as a 1.5MB camera file, was a bit of a joker. What would that be like at 16x20, I wondered? Finally, a 16MB monochrome file of Brian Whitehead, mastered on the Dicomed BigShot. A black and white picture to be output on a colour printer. What a test! I could hardly contain myself.

Alan Dunn with PrintAs the prints - up to 20 inches wide by 32 inches long - rolled out of the printer onto Dunn's slightly retro-looking print catcher, I became speechless. The truth is, I was really annoyed by the prints. I mean, I had done everything I could to break Dunn's new toy and, sadly, I had to admit that I had failed. To make matters worse, Alan Dunn seemed really to be enjoying seeing me squirm. He even called in some reserve gloating from Andy Hughes.

Back at the EPIcentre, I sent Dunn's the images from the Agfa ePhoto1280 in last month's Chip Shop, and a panorama of Sydney, by ISDN. The finished prints were delivered to me the next day.

Gordon Allen outputting to printerI became Public Enemy Number One of the lab world a few years back for daring to be kind enough to tell them they'd be out of business if they didn't Go Digital. Dunn's had already Gone Digital in a big way. They were the first to buy a Photo-CD Workstation and now they're the first to buy a LED 20P. Another annoying thing is that they are unnecessarily clever at everything - I think they actually work at it. They have already closed down their reversal darkroom but instead of firing their printer, Gordon Allen, they've retrained him to operate a Macintosh (well that takes all of five minutes) and to drive the new printer. Clever, eh? Carry his craft skills forward into the digital age instead of consigning them to the scrap heap.

But how on earth do they do reversal prints, from transparency originals, without a darkroom? They become devious, that's how, scanning all their 'R' type orders onto Photo-CD before printing them on the LED 20P. I hate to admit it but the results are superb. Well they already know how to get the best out of Photo-CD scans, so they have an unfair advantage.

Photo-CD WorkstationSpeaking of unfair advantages, I've just realised how you can take advantage of Dunn's. If you send a transparency to them for ordinary reversal printing they will scan it then print it on the new fangled 20P printer at no extra charge. But they won't advertise the fact that they are doing it this way. We've reproduced below part of one of the prints they did for me, alongside a direct reversal print from the same transparency. Note the much better tonal range of the digital scan and print, with very pleasing handling of shadows and highlights. Compare this with the high contrast and lack of tonal separation in the highlights and shadows of the direct reversal print. The only thing the LED 20P will not do is prints over twenty inches wide. But the bread and butter is likely to be of prints up to 20x32 inches and there are other machines made especially for the largest sizes.

Left: LED print from the Kodak 20P Digital Printer and Right: A direct reversal print from the same transparency.

So you can kiss goodbye to digital prints sticking out from the rest like a sore thumb. And who's going to be first to bond one of these digital prints to canvas? Don't worry, I'll not be racing you to it.

This article first appeared in "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" magazine, November 1997.
This document is Copyright © 1997 John Henshall. All rights reserved.
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