Manten|Photography | What Type Of Photographic Print Did You Buy?

What Type Of Photographic Print Did You Buy?

August 09, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

A brief introduction to photographic prints


You decided you want to collect fine art photography and you have bought, framed, and displayed your first print.

You are admiring your purchase, and probably showing it off to your friends. But do you actually know what type of print it is (your friends might ask...)? Ideally, you should have known before you bought the print. Or at least you should have seen it on the certificate of authenticity.

Assuming you want to buy more photographic prints in the future, and to offer a helping hand for making educated decisions, I have listed after the break a brief overview of the most common photography print types you might encounter when searching for your collection.

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Contemporary print types

The first group of photographic printing techniques is what I like to call 'contemporary'. Although some of these techniques have been in use since the early 20th century, all are still currently being used by a broad range of photographers. The more modern printing techniques in this section are very commonly used by fine art photographers and are most likely the ones you might encounter at art fairs and even in high quality galleries.


Gelatin silver print (silver halide print)

This is what most people have in mind when talking about black and white photography. These prints are made in a 'wet process', using chemicals in a darkroom. The printer uses an enlarger to project the image from a negative film onto photographic paper that has been made sensitive to light by adding a gelatin silver layer. Changes to the final print can be made by exposing the photographic paper for a shorter or longer time, sometimes using dodging and/or burning tools to impact certain areas of the image.

After exposing the photographic paper, it is put through several chemical baths to develop and fix the image.

When correctly done, this process delivers beautiful black and white images of a very high archival quality and longevity.


C-Print (Chromogenic print)

This is basically the same technique as for the gelatine silver print, but printed from a color negative or slide. It is the most common type of color photography prints made in the darkroom.

The big difference is the photographic paper used. C-Print paper has different layers, with each layer on the paper sensitized to one of the primary light colors (red, green, and blue).  Since color is rendered different on paper than with light, the light sensitive layers on this paper are composed of cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Whereas the enlarger, photographic paper and chemicals are different than for gelatin silver prints, the whole darkroom process basically is similar. And this process also creates (color) images of very high archival quality and longevity.


Digital C-Print

Where gelatin silver printing and C-printing has been available since the early and mid 20th century, the Digital C-Print is from a more recent era.

With C-printing the wet part of the developing proces is actually the same as with the former two printing techniques (putting exposed photographic paper through several chemical baths). The difference concerns exposing the paper: where for gelatin silver printing and C-printing a traditional negative is used in an enlarger, for Digital C-Printing a digital 'negative' is projected with laser light on the paper.

This means that it is no longer necessary to have actually a negative film available to make darkroom prints: images can be directly used from photo manipulation programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, PhaseOne, etcetera.

Since the actual developing process is similar to gelatin silver and traditional C-printing, the prints created with Digital C-Printing also have a very high archival quality and longevity.


Giclee or archival inkjet prints

With the development of high-quality inkjet printers and pigment-based inks, the giclee or archival inkjet print probably has become the most common printing technique for fine art photography today.

It is important to distinguish the giclee print from regular inkjet prints: it is imperative that pigment-based inks are used to achieve the archival quality and longevity that true giclee prints have . When purchasing a limited edition print this of course should be indicated on the certificate of authenticity.



Like other traditional analog (film based) photography, Polaroid photography has made quite a come back recently. The Polaroid process creates dye diffusion transfer prints, where the chemicals included in the film package create an 'instant' image on the light sensitive paper that also is held within the camera.

This printing process generally creates unique, 'one edition' images. However, when the peel-apart version of instant film is used it is possible to retrieve a negative from the sheet with the chemicals (which usually is thrown away). That negative then can be used for other printing techniques as mentioned above.

The archival quality and longevity of instant prints is not as good as prints created with any of the other processes mentioned in this blog.


Vintage print types

The second group of photographic printing techniques contains processes I like to call 'vintage'. Although some of these processes are still in use by fine art photographers, they are more specialized and less commonly used than those above.


Cibachrome (silver dye bleach print)

Although I placed this process in the Vintage group, it is quite new: being developed in the early 1960's.

Prints created using this technique are recognizable from their high-gloss, plastic-like paper base and the very bold colors. The prints are created through a process where dyes that exist in the photographic paper are selectively dyed, providing one of the most stable and long-lasting of all color prints.



With this process a traditional negative is transferred to a copper plate, which then can be used for making multiple prints. Since this is copper plate printing, there is no use of light sensitive paper or darkroom chemicals. The images sometimes are recognizable by the imprint the copper plate left on the paper.


Albumen print

This is an old technique where images from a negative are printed on paper that has been made light sensitive with a coat of egg white sensitized with silver salts. The negatives used often were glass plate negatives.

Albumen prints, which were very common during the 19th century, render a very high level of detail.



Cyanotypes are created using a contact-printing process. Paper is made light sensitive by brushing iron salts on it. An object, or a negative, is then placed directly on the paper and exposed by light (this can be done with an enlarger, or any other light source; even just laying it in the sun will work).

Prints created using this process are easily recognizable by their bright blue tone.



This is actually one of the oldest processes for making photographs, and it produces one-of-a-kind type of images. A copper plate is coated with a silver emulsion and then directly exposed in-camera. After further chemical treatment in a darkroom it produces an image directly on the copper plate.

Daguerreotypes are immediately recognizable because of their very shiny surface, almost like a mirror, and the very high level of detail in the image.

These photographs are also extremely fragile, and usually are kept within a protective sleeve or presentation frame.

Daguerreotypes were later replaced by Platinum and Palladium prints: whereas the basic technique of creating an image is the same as with the Daguerreotype, they are longer lasting and have a greater tonal range.


I hope the information above provides some helpful starting points for you to make educated decisions regarding building your fine art photography collection. 


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