Since the beginning of the medium, photographers have sought to make the largest possible sharp prints of their images. The image file size is often a limiting factor for print size. You can up-res a file with excellent results, but at a certain point the apparent resolution does break down. Today’s high-res cameras and, in particular, very high-resolution medium-format DSLR backs, are shifting that limiting factor to the output technology. If your files are big enough and your photos are sharp enough, a new Polielettronica printer at Duggal Visual Solutions in New York gives you an attractive option.
Duggal Visual Solutions is a cornerstone of the photographic business that has defined photographic processing since founder Baldev Duggal arrived in the United States from India in the late ’50s and then launched his photo-processing business in the 1960s.
The massive 30,000-square-foot facility on 23rd Street in New York City is a sprawling and frenetic hub of activity. My father, a commercial photographer in Manhattan in the 1970s, used Duggal for large output prints; I used Duggal in the 1990s when I attended the School of Visual Arts and needed a shop to process my rolls of Velvia and make Photo CDs.
Entering the front door of the complex feels the same as it did decades ago (albeit, at a different location), when I was a regular. Technicians in white lab coats calmly take orders, answer phones and dispatch packages across the boroughs. Only now the front desk is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, masking the enormous processing and corporate headquarters behind it. It’s also the gateway to services at the company’s seven buildings at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, each between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet.
With such a powerful command of the photographic output business in New York City and beyond, it’s no wonder that Duggal gets some exclusive toys to play with. One such toy is the reason I’m at the company’s headquarters: a massive digital HD C-print machine by Italian firm Polielettronica.
C-prints hearken back to the days of Kodacolor and refer to the use of chemicals and photo-sensitive papers to create output versus technologies like lithography or inkjet printing. Digital C-prints keep the color saturation, vibrancy and feeling of film output without needing to reproduce an image via a camera. Feed a digital image to a digital C-printer and out comes an image with the look of film, but it’s a digital creation.
Digital C-printers work by exposing the photographic paper with a trio of laser beams and then developing that exposed film in traditional chemicals.While there’s a variety of digital C-printers on the market, the Lambda is the most popular (and is also available at Duggal), with an output resolution maxing out at 400 dpi—an apparent resolution of 4000 dpi.
The Polielettronica printer has a 610 dpi maximum resolution and 48-bit color, and provides an apparent resolution of 6100 dpi. Duggal isn’t the only company to use the HD C-printer, but it’s the only one to have the newest, largest model, which produces output up to 100×50 inches.
With 48-bit color depth, the machine creates images with excellent continuous tone and both highlight and shadow detail.
Installed in March 2013, the Polielettronica has been used by everyone from fashion photographers to cartographers, thanks to the incredibly high resolution of the output. One of the prints that Duggal shows off is a map with type so small, a loupe is needed to see the text—yet under the loupe, the letters are clear and crisp.
Cartographers aren’t the only fans of the new printers: Canon, Nikon and Sony all ordered massively large output from the device for the PhotoPlus Expo trade show in New York City in October 2013.
The process of taking a digital file and creating an oversized digital print is pretty complex, so the Duggal tech pulled the side off of the printer and showed me how a photograph is turned into a gigantic print.
First, a file is run through a RIP, or Raster Image Processor, the device that separates the images into the RGB data needed to flow from the lasers, and then gets queued for print. Despite the huge amount of technology inside the box, the printer needs to be fed paper in gigantic lighttight cassettes.
The cassettes are filled the old-school way, in a large darkroom near the printer. It’s a bit like loading shells into a deck-mounted gun on a Navy ship, with a loading card used to align the cartridges. Some of the papers need to sit in the canister at least three weeks after rolling before use, so job estimation is important.
The HD C-prints can be output on transparency, metallic, matte or glossy photo paper, which is fed into a washing-machine-sized lighttight chamber around four feet wide. A circular drum holds the paper via suction, and the device slowly moves a laser to expose the paper.
The HD C-printer needs to perform calibration when the paper is changed, but when it has been completed, the device will stay in register, unlike inkjet or other printers that tend to come out of alignment over time.
Evaluating the images, I found them to be excellent, although not necessarily the best choice for all photographers. For casual output and even for some gallery work, we’ve seen inkjet devices produce highly detailed work with good longevity.
But the HD C-printer has two things going for it, most importantly, the C-print look. There’s a different look—albeit, sometimes subtle—between something produced on an inkjet and work that’s produced on photographic paper using photographic chemical processing, and it’s a look that photographers and designers often seek out.
The other great thing about this printer is the super-large output size. At 100 inches, it bests the widest inkjets by a considerable margin and produces best-in-class images.
For the next year, Duggal will be the exclusive user of the 100-inch version of the Polielettronica HD C-printer, explaining the popularity of the unit during the leadup to PhotoPlus Expo.
Visit duggal.com/hdc.aspx or call Duggal Visual Solutions at (646) 638-7316.