What is an Archival Print?

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Archival is a term that has been overused. Unfortunately, the term has found its way into all sorts of marketing jargon when it comes to printers and printing. Today, we are hoping to give everyone a solid understanding of what a true archival print is and what it takes to make one yourself.

The Core Meaning

At its simplest, being “archival” means that the product is designed to last for a long time—with proper care and storage. One thing to understand is that everything regarding printing needs to be stored or displayed in a way that will preserve its quality. Fortunately, digital techniques are significantly better than most of the classic chemical technologies.

When we look at current printer tech, there are two main elements that determine the relative archival-ness of a print: ink and paper. Both must be formulated to maintain accurate color over long periods of time. There’s also one huge enemy to a print’s longevity: light.

What to Know

Step one to figuring out the archival nature of your printer/ink and paper is to read the provided information. Now, a lot of this is based on standardized testing that in no way can give you a perfect representation of the specific combinations over time. It’s just the unfortunate side effect of having to guess how long something is supposed to last without actually testing it for that long. I will say that, given the proper techniques, most modern prints should last a lifetime.

For printers, the key information is the ink. I’m going to focus on inkjet since I feel most consumer printers will be using that and, with these printers, there are dye-based and pigment-based inks. There isn’t much debate to declare pigment-based the winner for archival prints. Dye based are still quite good, with many rated for 100 years, but they are more prone to color shifts over time and can be easily damaged by water since they are mostly water based. Pigment inks, on the other hand, use fine particles suspended in liquid and are much less susceptible to the same issues. This gives some formulations ratings of more than 200 years. So, the simple answer for anyone searching for a new printer is to look at models that offer pigment-based ink sets.

Canon CLI-271XL Ink Tank

As for paper, there are a few more things to consider. One interesting one is the use of optical brightening agents, or OBAs. This is the stuff that makes your paper look super white and bright. They work by absorbing UV light and then bouncing it back as visible light in the blue spectrum that gives the appearance, to the human eye, of extra brightness or whiteness. They also fade over time. Your image will never look as good after a few years as it did when it came off your printer. But, OBAs can make a print look truly amazing. One example would be Epson’s Exhibition Fiber, which uses OBAs to great effect and is a favorite among many photographers.

Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper

Next would be to make sure the print is acid- and lignin-free. Most photo-oriented papers these days will advertise themselves as such because these components can be extremely detrimental to a paper’s longevity. Another related aspect is whether the paper is buffered. Commonly using calcium carbonate, this alkaline chemical will protect the paper from becoming acidic over time—or at least too quickly.

Epson Hot Press Bright Paper

Finally, the last aspect of your paper to consider is the base material. Perhaps surprisingly, classic wood pulp-based papers are not the best choice. The current king is cotton rag. It offers not only better longevity, but it is also better able to absorb and hold onto ink for improved colorfastness.

Canson Infinity Rag Photographique Paper

How to Protect your Prints

None of this information means anything if you don’t take precautions with your photos—or at least understand what is going to happen to them. If you simply pop out a print using the best pigment-based ink on nice, acid- and OBA-free paper and then put it behind untreated glass in an area of your home that gets direct sunlight for half the day, the colors will start to fade and the paper will likely start to shift. There is a reason historical documents and artifacts are kept in such strict environments in museum collections.

The best way to protect a print? Easy: keep it in a light-tight and acid-free box or other archival storage medium, ideally with some interleaving sheets of excellent quality and in a room or area with stable humidity and temperature; then you could make the print last, effectively forever, which is basically the best-case scenario for an archival print. Unfortunately, this makes it tough to look at the print, so what’s the point? I bring this ideal method up because it is objectively the best way to preserve a print. The other reason is that if you end up having a rotating collection of prints, you should know how to store the images that aren’t actively on display.

If your intention is to display your prints on a wall or gift them, then a helpful thing to consider is the quality of glass or glazing and the placement of the photo. Glass or another glazing that blocks UV light is critical. Light is harmful to prints, over time, but it is UV light that is the real offender. UV light is the same type that gives you sunburn, so just imagine a UV-blocking glazing as sunblock for your photos. It also dulls the effect of the OBAs we discussed earlier, so beware if that is your goal.

Another thing to discuss is that proper framing and storage will protect your prints from accidental damage. Even handling a print with your bare hands can impart some acid from your skin that can impact paper negatively over time. So, use gloves, and take proper care any time you are working with anything you want to deem archival.

Has this helped you in your printing journey? Any more questions about “archival” terminology or other printing information? Please make sure to leave a comment, below!

7 Comments

This article is focused on photographic prints but do you have any suggestions for printed documents archival?  Is the pigment-based ink with cotton rag paper the best option there as well?  I just want to print family recipes but I want the printouts to last for a long time without losing them

Hi Dale,

Sorry I'm not so tuned in on archival processes outside of photographic prints, but you definitely can't go wrong by following these suggestions. And as always, it's a lot about how your store the prints afterwards. Keeping them in an archival box or album will keep the prints good for a long while.

As I just bought my first photo color printer, this article is helpful.  It answers many questions I have wondered about lately, such as, "What is it that makes a print last -- the paper or the ink?"  Apparently, it's both, and more.  I've printed out this article since I'm sure I'll refer to it often.

Thanks for this article. Curating photographs and documents takes more time, effort, and money than creating them.

Light is only one danger to archives. Humidity, mold, and mildew are a significant threat. Unfortunately, the gelatin-based emulsions of photographic materials are especially susceptible to environmental considerations.

Inadequate documentation is a major threat. In time, robbed of their context, all photographs become historic novelties that are often used as disposable interior decoration in restaurants, for instance.

Perhaps the greatest threat to archival permanence is curation continuity. It is hard to run an archive, and harder to maintain the effort over time -- even if funding is not a problem. Prime example: NASA has lost the original video tapes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. It is thought the tapes were simply erased and reused. Not that video tape is an archival medium, but this illustrates the point how difficult it can be to have a flawless chain of custody.

Ditto here.  Thank you for this.  I am personally at that point where I have decades of negatives, slides and prints as well as decades of digital images with few or no “permanent” physical prints to match.  It is time to start printing a few “keepers” for posterity.

Well written. Thank you!

Thanks BH for printing this article...loved it

keep up this practice. Always in for learning 

have a great day.

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