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Monday, 04 November 2019


I'd love to know how Cibachrome prints are in comparison to dye transfer prints. Back in the film days I shot mostly slide film and always thought the Cibachrome prints were better than conventional prints made from negatives. Of course it lacked the adjustability of dye transfer. I wonder if it is even available anywhere now?

J Williams: Cibachrome prints could be adjusted for contrast by using masks, though I never attempted it because it seemed to be a very precise process and I had no one to teach me. For me, Kodachrome slides printed on Ciba were the pinnacle of colour printing.

Dear J,

Comparing prints from negatives to prints from slides is an apples and oranges comparison. Negative printing is always going to be better for the same level of labor, until you get to heroic levels. That's because negatives have been designed to be printed, with appropriate contrast levels and curve shapes and built-in color-correction masking. To get the same out of slides, you have to do all of that manually.

Straight Cibachrome prints don't come anywhere close to dye transfers from slides. There are ways to make them look as good — I know a few Cibachrome printers who did such a superb job of masking that the quality of the rendition was comparable. Joe Holmes took it to a whole new level, by designing a custom light source for his enlarger that eliminated the significant color crossover problems associated with Cibachrome.

That said, once you went to such heroic measures, banging out a whole series of Cibachrome prints was a hell of a lot less work than printing dye transfers (although you still didn't get the longevity, nor the superb D-max).

- pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

I know I'm straying off the topic of dye transfer prints, but those photos from Lassen Volcanic National Park, right?

Dear Dan,

Yeah, that's "Painted Dunes and Fantastic Lava Beds, Lassen Volcanic Park CA - 1985"

pax / Ctein

Dear Earl,

Cibachrome was well-matched to the dye set in Kodachrome and was probably the best way to print those slides short of going to dye transfer. Unfortunately, that wasn't always true if you were printing anything other than Kodachrome (i.e., any of the chromogenic slide films). There were problems with red-shadow/cyan-highlight color crossover which varied in severity depending on the particular slide film and the version of Cibachrome. It was particularly bad with some flavors of Ilfochrome.

As I mentioned to J, you could solve that with elaborate color correction masking or customized enlarger light sources, but there was no easy fix for ordinary mortals.

Other than dye transfer, I gave up slide printing in the darkroom in the late 90s. Even with the primitive color printers available then, I could get better prints by scanning my slides, correcting the contrast and curve shapes in Photoshop and printing them on what were (by today's standards) pretty bad printers.

Also, because of the always-high cost of slide printing materials, it wasn't much more expensive to print digitally.

- pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

Thanks for your writing on dye transfer printing, Ctein. I've been reading it with pleasure and look forward to more.

Now, myself, I go off in very different directions in two ways: one, since we are not in a film photography, film-developing rich environment now, simply doing black and white film will satisfy my mojo, which is purely on behalf of certain artistic impulses I have. I don't have a Charlie to bankroll advanced ventures, and I don't care. The pleasant pictures I have taken so far, pleasing and whispering silky promises of even better results in the future, to me at least, did not call for exquisitely demanding technique and lots of expensive gear, but rather, for a good eye and some resourcefulness in approaching possible subjects for a picture.

That's the way I'll go, though I know I'll give up bragging rights in the process. And two, I'm busy imagining how I hopefully will get to do film photography on my own in a Starting Now kind of way, not replicating a muscle memory from another time or whatever. And, ahem, having said that, I did do a little film photography back in the day, so in fact I do have photographic muscle memories after all, tenuous remnants of early dreams from my times as a beginner, but what I do going forward will be based on what I am feeling and looking into Now, to the extent I even care about labels and attitudes.

That means that I look for manufacturers to come along soon who pick up on new and growing interest among photography students in shooting film and follow through with new inventions and products to help those new film fans do their preferred thing. I imagine digital camera makers like Canon and Nikon and of course my main brand Pentax, that somehow get a film photography inspiration and in a small but sustained way, make new things happen that link up to the shared past of film photography. That means cleaner and safer darkroom chemistry, film enlargers made in a digital world and with whatever digital advantages they can dream up, and either completely new, solid film cameras or honest revivals of tried and true film camera designs like Nikon's FM. New developments like Bergger's Pancro 400 dual emulsion black and white film will hopefully pave the way for more inventing of new ways to do film.

For me, there's no need for purism or wearing a technological hairshirt when doing film photography, far from it. I'm not like those fellows who carry muskets and reenact Civil War battles in the summer sunshine. I will be glad if modern technology augments film technology in myriad ways, as long as the end result is recognizably a film negative made in a film camera and a film photographic print from that.

I'd be glad to have a hybrid film and digital camera that's light and capable and is as durable, compact and well-engineered as a Nikon FM (you see I like keeping it simple, so as to concentrate on getting good film photos if I can). And such a camera can have digital features to the extent that its digital side keeps out of the way of taking pictures on film.

My black and white prints will not match the sort of thing you achieved with dye transfer back in the day. They won't ascend Parnassian heights of technique and sustained application of specialised knowledge. That's a given and it doesn't bother me. But my film efforts can at times have a look all their own, and that is what makes it worth doing, or at least, at the moment, mostly worth dreaming about.

Yes the developments I posit earlier in this note may not ever happen, and things may not ever magically make it easier to do film than it has been for a while now. I already know that my style however I make it happen is based more on discovery than on rigid controls and figuring everything out down to the tiny details in advance of taking a shot or printing a picture, but I know what I'm doing well enough to do ok anyway. I'll get by for the present with used but still functional Nikon FMs and similar classic film cameras because they were built to last and I am very fond of how they feel in the hand as well as the results they give me. As long as it is film and I get to do most of the process myself, it's all good.

Thanks again for writing,
Jeff Clevenger
Ann Arbor, Michigan

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