Chromogenic prints, also known as C-prints, were first created in 1936, and they would be commercially available in 1942 when Kodak introduced the first chromogenic paper. The paper helped popularize photographs and was the medium of choice when elevating photography to fine art.
Recently, chromogenic prints have been coming back with the help of specialized printers and digital images. They’re one of the most popular mediums for fine photography and grace the halls of many museums.
If you’re getting serious about photography, sending a digital file to a photo lab to develop your own chromogenic print may be a good idea. With the C-Prints set, you’ll be able to see the difference between a c-print and a pigment print, as it’s an enormous difference that you can only know once you’re looking at the prints up close.
What are Chromogenic Prints (C-prints)?
Chromogenic Prints are the first photographs to feature accurate colors. Negatives are exposed to low-light conditions through a particular chemical process, and the prints are steadily exposed through reversal coloring.
Chromogenic Printing was the primary photography method for photographers of all experience levels and was the leading photographic print of the twentieth century. They were affectionately called C-prints, even after Kodak changed the name in 1964 to Kodak Etkacolor Paper.
Modern digital chromogenic printing is different from the chemical processes of yesteryear, as now c-prints are created with baths of chemicals and precise laser light exposure. However, with your own darkroom, it’s easy to make your own c type print the old-fashioned way.
Modern c prints are used for fine photographic images displayed in museums, and professional photographers may prefer to print their photographs this way. With the original chromogenic chemical process, there’s a lot of room for creativity by tampering with the negatives, using positive colors to get negative colors, and modifying the exposure time, which controls the amount of blur in the print.
What is The Chromogenic Print Process?
The chromogenic print process relies mostly on chemical reactions and light exposure. You need a dark room to work in and the right paper to print on, known as chromogenic paper.
Chromogenic paper is a specific, chemically treated type that’s increasingly difficult to find. It contains layers of three colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) coupled with silver halides. This paper is light-sensitive, so the amount of exposure determines which colors emerge and remain strongest in each area of the picture.
Digging a bit deeper, the process involves bathing the chromogenic print in the light from the negative. It goes through a series of chemicals that activate different color layers that bond with the paper via dye couplers.
As the colors bond to the paper, the negatives convert to positive colors. This process is known as a reversal chemical process due to the colors inverting from negative into positive.
Silver halide serves as the trigger in this process, allowing the paper to store light during the exposure phase. By manipulating the amount of exposure to each color layer, you get a range of accurate, vivid color prints.
What are Digital Chromogenic Prints?
A digital chromogenic print uses the same general principles but works from a digital image instead of a physical object or negative. This process is known as Duratrans, and involves light boxes, protective glass, and patience to achieve the desired results.
The photographic paper features the chemicals, but the light exposure works differently. Digital chromogenic prints rely on special lightboxes to achieve precise laser light exposure from light-emitting diodes or LED lights.
The limited exposure to light makes modern chromogenic printers far more accurate and versatile. They can deliver much larger prints than most regular printers.
You can get rich colors and incredible details with a modern c print, and they can be scaled. However, overly large prints might lose the details and impressive colors you can get with the chromogenic chemical process.
That’s why modern fine art photographers lean into chromogenic prints, even if it’s harder to access and create than a photographic print with an inkjet printer.
The History of Chromogenic Prints
Benno Homolka, a German chemist, made the first colors using the Chromogenic printing method. However, he only found dyes for indigo-blue and red colors, so while one could use them to create stunning photographic effects, it needed to include a full-color image.
In 1912, another German chemist named Rudolf Fischer described the first chromogenic process. He could produce color on prints from negatives by using dye couplers with light-sensitive silver halide emulsion. But he couldn’t stop the dye couplers from spreading between the emulsion layers, thus not producing a clear print.
Finally, Kodak produced the first commercialized chromogenic photographic paper and began developing chromogenic photos from negatives in film sent to them.
Since then, photographic technology has rapidly changed through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In modern times, Chromogenic prints are considered one of the best ways to display photographic images and can last much longer than pigment prints.
Chromogenic printing remains one of the most popular methods of creating photographic prints today and significantly altered the course of photography with the introduction of a full-color image.
The Invention of Chromogenic Prints in 1936 and 1942
In 1936, Gustav Williams and William Schneider perfected the first color prints. They discovered it was possible to reproduce accurate colors by establishing the three primary colors as individual layers. Then, Williams and Schneider used gelatin to let the colors bleed a little.
Despite being the first chromogenic print, the process never took off because of how expensive it was to reproduce. Agfa, the premier German photography company at the time, attempted to make the process cheaper, but Kodak did it first.
Kodacolor debuted in 1942 when Kodak realized that water droplets with carbon chains could spread through the paper’s gelatin layers to develop gorgeous colors. Kodak’s method was simpler, cheaper, and worked with most cameras. Agfa’s chromogenic process simply couldn’t compete, meaning Kodacolor quickly became the twentieth century’s top printing method.
Of course, pricing looked different during the early Kodacolor era. The new chromogenic printing process included the cost of developing with the price of the film. Today, the costs of all materials are separate, meaning a c-print is more expensive than using an inkjet printer.
Popularization of Chromogenic Prints
While Kodacolor was the first chromogenic paper to hit the mainstream, it was not the last. In 1955, Kodak released the new Type C Paper, commonly known as c prints. This release marked the beginning of using the abbreviation C for all chromogenic process prints.
Even though Kodak tried to change the moniker by updating the label with a new name (Kodak Etkacolor Paper), the C stuck. To this day, most people refer to chromogenic prints as c-prints.
By 1960, chromogenic processes ruled the photography world as the top way to finish photographic prints. C-prints remained the top option for several years, and even emerged as the choice for museum exhibitions. Ernst Haas hosted the first collection of fine photography in the Museum of Modern Art in 1962 and the rest is history.
William Eggleston and Stephen Shore were other pioneers in the field. During the 1970s and 80s, you could find their work displayed in various galleries, which cemented chromogenic prints as the preferred medium in the field.
Modern Digital Chromogenic Prints
The modern giclee or inkjet printer changed that. Rather than a complicated chemical process that needed to be done in a dark room, an inkjet printer could print out the photo you want with accurate colors.
Soon, it overtook chromogenic prints, and the new pigment print became all the rage in photography. But the story of the c print doesn’t end there. Once technology advanced enough, the unknown digital chromogenic printer was born.
These printers automate chromogenic printing and use LED lights to expose parts of the photographic print selectively. This creates stunningly accurate photo prints that have taken over modern photography and have reclaimed popularity among photographers.
Moreover, by using large format printers, you can create much larger prints than pigment printers could ever dream of, all while retaining an incredible amount of detail and a full-color image.
The first chromogenic paper contained fibers that tended to yellow with age. You can see it with older photos that yellowed, a phenomenon that occurred as the yellow base layer became more pronounced with age.
Advancements in chromogenic printing led to new paper varieties that were more durable. The non-fiber materials allow the chromogenic paper to last for decades, meaning they work better for collections and museums. Some of the newer chromogenic papers can resist color fading over time to keep photos looking fresh.
Several popular brands make quality chromogenic paper, including Kodak and Epson. Ask any photographer and they can probably tell you their favorite brand without blinking. If you’re interested in acquiring your own paper, it’s best to head to your local photography supplier to speak with an expert and see what they offer.
Laser Chromogenic Printers
Laser chromogenic prints represent the newest innovation in printing. Several brands, like Lambda prints, created digital chromogenic printers to handle the entire process quickly and efficiently. They rely on digital exposure systems to draw out the desired colors.
Instead of manually making chromogenic prints in a dark room, you can buy a chromogenic printer or go to a photo lab and have them run digital copies. Some photo labs even feature chromogenic printers you can use, but like most things in art, you get what you pay for when using a public machine.
There are notable benefits to owning your own machine, aside from easy access and knowing who operates it at all times. You have complete control and the ability to create large-format prints for a display or exhibition
Another perk of having your own printer is the ability to modify the digital files to alter your images and create unique effects. However, you won’t be able to modify them the same way you can mess with negatives, exposure time, and other darkroom practices to achieve different photo effects.
The downside of owning your own chromogenic printer is that it can get expensive fast. Aside from the initial purchase, it costs a lot to maintain these machines.
Pigment Printers vs. Chromogenic Printers
Chromogenic printers are quite different from the standard printer used today, the Pigment printer. Pigment printers were invented in the 1990s; they take digital images and spray dye directly onto the page. This can create accurate prints with vivid colors and is much more convenient than chromogenic printing.
However, there are a few problems with pigment printing. Firstly, the dye is sprayed in small dots per pixel. Using a poor printer means you can see the individual dots. This issue isn’t as noticeable for modern printers, but it’s obvious and off-putting with older ones.
Most pigment prints only last a decade or two before fading or falling apart. There’s a workaround with archival pigments. Archival pigment printing has small colored particles suspended in water rather than dye. So it lasts for much longer.
Archival pigment prints outlast chromogenic prints by several decades, though they can still fade from light. Archival pigments are just as good as chromogenic processes when developing prints.
The one thing inkjet printers can’t beat chromogenic printers on is size. Most inkjet printers can’t go too big without breaking down or becoming difficult to use. On the other hand, Chromogenic printers can do large-format prints because rather than spraying dyes, it’s revealing colors already on the print, which is much simpler.
There’s a stigma against pigment prints as “serious” photography. Chromogenic prints are considered better, even though the level of detail and lifespan can be overcome with technology and archival pigments.
Using one or the other in display photos mostly comes down to preference. While inkjet printers are more accessible and cheaper, digital chromogenic prints are more glamorous than can be denied.
Chromogenic Prints Vs. Digital Prints
The main difference between digital and chemical chromogenic prints is light exposure.
Regular chromogenic prints use old-school darkrooms with low light from the color negatives. The print essentially pulls colors from the negative when exposed to chemical baths that manipulate the print’s color layers. The original process remained the favored practice for photographers until the 1990s with the giclee printer release.
Modern digital prints made with chromogenic printers alter the process slightly. Though they use the same chemicals, the light is different. Digital prints rely on precise LED lights to deliver accurate colors. They translate colors from the digital file and relay them to paper at the exact points.
You get a far more accurate print with a digital chromogenic printer. They are also significantly faster to produce. However, these printers are expensive to purchase individually. That means most chromogenic prints come from photo labs.
Not all photo labs allow you to use the printers, meaning you have to trust the people working in the lab. Trusting somebody else to handle your prints might not be easy. It’s a good idea to research the labs before choosing one to make sure they can do what you want.
Modern photographers have plenty of room to work with chromogenic photography. It’s possible to experiment with so many components to draw out different patterns and details that you cannot replicate with a digital file.
You can turn simple, everyday items into stunning works of art by manipulating the exposure to pull out more vivid colors and muted tones. Artists have turned two twisted onion rings into galaxies, crafted loud, detailed pictures like Luigi Visconti, or create unique self-portraits like Vivian Maier.
Another unique take comes from Uta Barth’s collection. The artist likes to express movement in photographs by using chromogenic exposure and longer exposure time to create fuzzier edges. The effect is similar to looking at pictures with our peripheral vision.
Chromogenic Prints and Museums
Most museums’ prints are digital chromogenic prints made from the original digital image. So, while photography has primarily shifted into the digital sphere, C-prints are still the chosen method to display physical photographs.
Museums and photography naturally go together. You can visit several modern exhibitions, like the Smithsonian’s Sony World Photography Awards, with several stunning photos featuring perspective shifts, colorful backdrops, and more somber prints.
The National Gallery of Art is another excellent historical example. While the gallery didn’t begin collecting photographs until the 1990s, their collection stretches back to 1948, when Georgia O’Keefe donated her late husband’s photos.
Now their photography collection has over 20,000 works that stretch from the invention of photography in 1939 to the present. You can see chromogenic prints from today back to when Kodak first introduced them.
Perhaps you’re looking for stunning photos to hang on your walls. Many photographers have websites where you can buy prints of their work to support the artists behind them. Check out the International Photography Awards website for the best photos of 2022, for everything from current events to abstract art.
Chromogenic prints and museums go together quite well. So the next time you visit an exhibit and see color prints remember that they were printed using the chromogenic printing process, and that’s why they seem so vivid and detailed.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re getting into photography, chromogenic prints are a great way to display the pictures you take pride in.
How Long Do Chromogenic Prints Last?
Most chromogenic prints last about sixty years. However, they can last longer if properly stored away from sunlight. You shouldn’t expect them to last longer than 100 years, however.
You’re better off using archival pigment printing if you want your print to last longer than that.
What is a Digital Chromogenic Print?
Essentially, digital chromogenic prints are chromogenic prints created from a digital file. Rather than a negative being exposed to light and the paper developing from that light, LED lights target the areas that need to be exposed based on the digital file.
What Chemicals are Used to Develop Chromogenic Prints?
While the chemicals vary by individual, the most popular ones are metol, phenidone, dimezone, and hydroquinone. You’ll also need an alkaline chemical to get high pHs, like sodium carbonate, borax, or sodium hydroxide.
How Much Do C-Prints Cost?
It varies depending on how many copies you need and the size. Generally, expect to pay around twenty dollars for a 9X12 from a lab. However, prints that are 30X60 can cost over 200 dollars a copy.
You’ll spend less on each copy if you get multiples, but it still adds up quickly, so you should save chromogenic printing for your best photos.
How Do You Know if a Printer is Chromogenic?
If the printer regularly needs chemicals or the dark to operate, it’s a chromogenic printer. Some chromogenic printers use old-school negative exposures, but they are rare and expensive.
The humble c-print has completely changed the history of photography by introducing full-color prints that are accurate to real life. Of course, depending on your artistic preferences, you may disagree. Still, from the reversal of chemical processes of the last century to the positive-to-positive process of modern-day digital chromogenic printing, chromogenic printing has dominated photography for much of its existence.
Nowadays, the old chemical process of creating a print from a negative has almost wholly disappeared. But it’s been replaced with a more modern and convenient version that’s perfect for making prints with an old-school feel but with vivid colors and incredible details.
Chromogenic prints remain as popular as ever in art, and serious photographers favor this medium over other paper. So the next time you see a photography exhibition, remember that it’s likely a chromogenic print, and it’s one of the best ways to show off your photos.
Chromogenic prints will continue to be important in photography, and knowing how and when to use them is integral to mastering the craft. Chromogenic prints are the top-of-the-line prints displayed for everyone to see, the works you’re proud of.