Magazine Article


Still Swooning for Silver
Pro labs, photographers keep silver-halide paper alive

Ilford Photo/Harman Technology
© Henry Horenstein

© Elizabeth Messina

© Steve Bedell

Silver-halide paper and Mark Twain have something in common: rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. And while the venerable Twain clocked in at 75 years, silver halide/AgX paper is well past the century mark and looks to have many more years left.

"Five years ago, people were saying silver would be dead by now, and it's not," says ROD PARSONS, VP, Technical Operations, Ilford Photo/Harman Technology.

Silver-halide paper has survived, and in some cases thrived, for several reasons: consumers are printing more of their digital images at retail or online, the bulk of which are output on silver-halide paper; pro photographers still value the medium; and pro labs continue to make a profit on silver-halide–based products. The market's turn-of-the-century contraction has already winnowed the number of suppliers, and the remaining players are cautiously optimistic about a stable future.

Indeed, silver halide's maturity is one of its assets, says CHRISTOPHER VAN ZANDT, GM and VP, Professional Output, Kodak. "It's a very consistent and predictable product," he explains. Silver halide's roll-to-roll color, cost consistency, and the sheer volume of images still being output on it will keep the medium viable for the foreseeable future, he adds.

"The people using silver halide now know why they're using it-they like the way it behaves, the way it reproduces colors and gradations," says DOUG FACHNIE, director of marketing, Commercial Products, Imaging Group, Fujifilm. Though the market will continue to decline modestly as older processing equipment is swapped for inkjet, silver-halide paper is "not endangered by any means," Fachnie says.

"Silver halide is still the backbone of our industry," says KEN WILSON, owner of the Canton, MA–based pro lab LustreColor. "I don't see that changing for the foreseeable future." Despite the competition from inkjet, silver halide "is still the gold standard when it comes to quality," he says.

Wilson, a Kodak Endura paper customer, points to photobooks as an example. "The conventional wisdom is that press-printed books would [diminish] the silver-based books. We have both, and our customers by far prefer silver halide."

"We still believe that you get the absolute best image from silver-halide paper," says LOU GEORGE, president, BWC Photo Imaging in Dallas, Texas. George describes herself as firmly in the "pro silver" camp, noting that the majority of the work flowing from BWC is output on silver-halide paper. George doesn't see that changing in the near term: "Our very best product goes out on silver."

Though product introductions have slowed, investments in color and black-and-white papers continue to this day. Here's a look at some recent additions:

Ilford Photo/Harman Technology

This company's newest black-and-white paper was introduced last year. Galerie FB Digital is a fiber-based paper with a 270g/m˛ base and has been optimized for tricolor laser enlargement systems from Durst and Océ. It's not for use in LED, LCD, CRT, or conventional printing systems, though, according to the company's cautious disclaimer, "it may give results in some systems that might be suitable for some applications." It's available in roll sizes up to 50 inches wide and 98 feet long.

The company's Ilfospeed RC digital paper, introduced in 2004, will be updated shortly and supplied in narrower rolls for use in digital minilabs, Parsons says. The current offering is supplied in 10- to 50-inch-wide rolls. The panchromatic photographic paper is coated onto a bright-white, 190g/m˛, resin-coated base. It, too, is optimized for laser systems from Durst and others.

According to Parsons, Ilford is working on rolling out professional black-and-white processing services through independent labs in the U.S., following a similar program launched successfully in Europe. "We get a lot of inquiries from professional photographers looking for good black-and-white processing-it's difficult to find," Parsons observes.

Henry Horenstein
A photographer, teacher, and author of more than 30 books, including the widely used texts Beyond Basic Photography, Color Photography, and Photography, Horenstein currently resides in Boston and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

SP: What papers do you use?
HH: Mostly Ilford Photo Multigrade matte and glossy.

SP: Why do you use them?
HH: For black and whites, I really like the look of silver halide. I prefer the prints to inkjet, although I do many color prints on inkjet. I choose a paper based on individual pictures. In some ways, it's simpler to make a print traditionally with a darkroom, although many people don't have that luxury. I find that sometimes it's even quicker to make a good black-and-white print in the darkroom.

Digital works for reproductions, but to get that good first print, I can make it quickly in the darkroom. Sometimes it's a matter of quality, sometimes of workflow and practicality.

SP: How long do you see yourself printing on silver halide?
HH: As long as I have a darkroom, I'll print silver. It's hard to say, but I've been using Ilford for a long time.


Fujifilm's newest paper, introduced last year, is the Fujicolor Crystal Archive Digital Pearl paper. It was designed to give portrait studios and others in the commercial space an up-sell opportunity, says CHRISTIAN FRIDHOLM, vice president of marketing, Consumables, Fujifilm. Pearl paper features embedded mica crystals coated with metal oxides. The crystals produces metallic-like reflections on the paper; it's recommended for images featuring highly saturated colors, fabrics, or metallic objects.

In addition to the crystals, the paper uses Fujifilm's cyan coupler technology (X-Coupler) previously incorporated into its Crystal Archive Super Type C paper. According to the company, X-Coupler "enables the paper to reproduce subtle shades of green and the most vibrant shades of blues and red." It also uses Fujifilm's New Low Stain Spectral-Sensitizer (NLS) and Advanced Resistance-to-Radiation (ARR) technologies incorporated on other papers in its Professional line. These technologies, suppress color paper fogging caused by ambient radiation, among other things. Pearl paper is non-backprinted and is available in widths up to 50 inches.

Elizabeth Messina
California-based wedding photographer.

SP: What papers do you use?
EM: I love the Fujicolor Crystal Archive PEARL Paper from Fujifilm.

SP: Why do you use them?
EM: I feel that Fujifilm paper really accentuates my images. It has a beautiful feel and glow. The quality of light in my photographs is very important to me, and the paper is an integral part of that result. The tones and luminosity of the paper is amazing. Image Source (lab) prints all my work on the Pearl paper.

SP: How long do you see yourself printing your images
on silver halide?
EM: Forever and long as Fujifilm keeps making it.


Kodak continues to invest in silver-halide R&D, with an eye toward improving productivity in the digital workflow, Van Zandt says. That means papers that require fewer chemicals and are quicker to process. The company's newest additions to its Endura lineup for 2008 include the Supra Endura VC Digital Paper and Professional Ultra High Definition paper.

The VC Digital paper delivers a higher color gamut than previous papers while delivering a 10 percent reduction in developer and bleach/fix replenishment. It's optimized for color-managed digital exposure systems (not optical) and will be available in rolls of glossy, matte, lustre, and silk.

Also new to the Endura line is the Professional Ultra High Definition paper, a high-gloss, iridescent surface paper. Available in 40- or 50-inch widths, it can be imaged digitally or optically. Unlike the existing Professional Ultra paper, the high-definition line does not have a backprint and sports a thicker base, so it's geared toward a wider variety of commercial applications.

Kodak has also "invested in manufacturing assets that are specific to the pro market," Van Zandt says. "We can be more nimble, more responsive, and better integrated with our customer's supply chain."

Steve Bedell
Steve Bedell is a New Hampshire–based portrait and studio photographer and the creator administrator of EPhotoElite, an online forum (

SP: What are your favorite papers?
SB: I use Kodak Endura e-surface paper for most of my work, with a glossy finish for special projects. We're using the metallic paper more this year, especially for high-school-senior wallets.

SP: Why do you use them?
SB: There's a depth and richness to silver-halide paper that's seldom equaled by other printing methods. I just supply my lab with a well-exposed, color-balanced file with a controlled brightness range. Many repeat clients prefer that new images, especially canvas prints, "match" the look of previous ones. When I use glossy paper, I don't worry about metamerism, a surface reflection still present with many ink/paper combos. Plus, I'm confident that the chemistry/paper my lab uses is in perfect condition.

SP: How long do you see yourself printing on silver halide?
SB: As long as it's available, or until my lab advises that there are better options.