We live in a time of plenty amidst a confusing array of similar products, nowhere more so than in this rapidly expanding world of digital photography. Thirty years ago, I had three or four paper choices at most for quality darkroom printing. Now it would seem there are dozens of options for their digital equivalent, and who has the time (or income) to assess them all? Ally to this the continual development and refinement of inks and delivery systems by the printer manufactures, and today’s wisdom can become an irrelevant footnote to history within months, not years, such is the pace of change. Baryta, for now, is the buzz-word on the Internet, or more specifically baryta-coated inkjet printing papers.
So in September 2007 we have two new glossy inkjet papers with this base coating from Harman and (Swiss) Ilford, with a third on the way from Hahnemuhle. It would seem that Harman’s competitors were not content to let the Cheshire-based firm have it all their own way with baryta, and battle is joined over market share for high-end glossy inkjet media. I now have samples of the Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk and have been testing them for a week, so perhaps this is an appropriate time for a direct comparison with the Harman Gloss FB Al, which arrived a little earlier in Cornwall. All my tests were made from B/W scanned film on an Epson R2400 using the standard K3 inkset, PK cartridge and Epson’s Advanced B/W Mode. If you have any of the Epson printers with the K3 inks (3800, 4800 etc) you should get similar results. I shall leave it to others to comment on the papers’ performance with different inksets, and with colour images and ICC profiles.
Unfortunately, ever since Ilford was re-structured in 2005, there has been confusion in many photographer’s minds over the Ilford brand. While Swiss Ilford (which was once part of Ciba-Geigy, hence “Cibachrome” for those of you who remember it) and Ilford UK (now Harman Technology) both use the Ilford brand-name, they no longer have anything commercially to do with each other. Swiss Ilford own and can use the Ilford name as they wish, but it seems that Harman may only use the Ilford name for their existing range of B/W film, chemistry, and silver-gelatine papers. Any new products from Harman, like their inkjet papers, do not use the Ilford name. Confused? Well, yes, so is everybody else, particularly when both companies release a baryta-coated glossy inkjet paper at the same moment in time. However, the products, like the firms themselves, are most definitely not the same. The first point we may note, examining the packaging, is that while Harman manufacture the Gloss FB in the UK, the Ilford paper is “designed by Ilford” but manufactured in Germany, unlike the majority of their papers which are made in Switzerland. Out of the box, the two papers are plainly quite different.
Whereas the Harman is definitely glossy, with the highest surface gloss of any of the recent fibre-based inkjet papers, the Galerie Gold has a very soft, smooth sheen, not a gloss. The closest match I could find for it is Hahnemule Fine Art Pearl. The Ilford paper also has a similar surface feel to the established papers like FAP and Crane Museo Silver Rag, with a slightly rubbery texture. The Harman Gloss has a unique crisp surface, perhaps due to the alumina coating, and is much more akin to a silver-gelatine paper in all respects. Both papers have a similar weight, at 320 gsm for the Harman and 310 gsm for the Ilford, although for some strange reason the Ilford feels thicker in the hand, even though by measurement it is not. The Galerie Gold is also distinctly warmer in base tint than the Harman Gloss, which is quite a bright white (although Harman will be planning to release a warm-tone version of their paper in future). Thus, for any given setting in the Epson ABW mode, the Ilford will return a slightly warmer result. A subtle difference is that the Galerie Gold also has a back coating to the paper base, whereas the Harman does not, and thus feels rather more “organic”. Now here’s a curiosity - both papers have a distinct curl to them (although by no means enough to cause paper feed problems on the R2400), but whereas the Harman paper curls towards the “emulsion” side, the Ilford paper curls away from it.
Many observers have already commented on the print quality of Harman Gloss FB. Richard Lohmann’s assessment here on the Luminous Landscape is extremely thorough, and I would broadly concur with his findings. On the Epson R2400 the Harman Gloss produces perfect results using the ABW Mode and the Premium Glossy paper settings, with no further profiling required. You might improve things slightly by playing with a RIP I suppose, but frankly I would rather just get on and print my pictures. The Harman Gloss is the sort of paper where you spend the evening reprinting your favourite negatives just for the pleasure of seeing them again, looking better than you have ever seen them before. This paper has the remarkable ability to separate the most delicate tonal subtleties not just in the shadow areas, but in the mid-tones and highlights too, giving the prints a sparkle and punch I had never previously seen from an inkjet printer.
The Harman Gloss FB certainly was a hard act to follow. Faced with such a performance, the Ilford Galerie Gold turned out to be a pleasant paper in many respects, and a praiseworthy entry into a very competitive marketplace, but despite the common use of baryta as a substrate the two papers produce very different results. Given the same negative, the Galerie Gold has slightly less ability to separate shadow detail. It is only a very small difference, but it is none the less there. I have no sophisticated measuring equipment, but my eyes tell me that the blacks are deeper on the Harman and that the Ilford has a somewhat lower D-max. Perhaps as a consequence of both these factors, the Harman Gloss has more “lift” and a three-dimensional, luminous quality to the print which the Ilford paper does not quite achieve. These are all very subtle distinctions, but the one factor which is not at all subtle is the look and feel of the finished print as an organic whole. In a similar fashion to Hahnemuhle FAP and Crane MSR, the Ilford Galerie Gold produces an ink surface which is much glossier than the paper base itself, unprinted. Like them, it also has a distracting surface texture to this reflection, which catches the eye. There are two consequences. The first is that if you like to print with wide borders, as I do, the printed portion appears to be applied on top of the paper and to be separated from the unprinted border, as the gloss levels are so different. The Harman paper technologists, on the other hand, have very cleverly engineered a paper surface which (when printed with the K3 pigment inks) has an almost even gloss over printed and unprinted areas alike. As a result, prints with borders have a greater sense of unity about them, and there is no distraction caused by uneven reflection.
The second consequence is that the Ilford paper displays, naturally enough, a greater degree of gloss differential within the printed area than does the Harman. Both papers do exhibit the effect, but whereas the Galerie Gold (like many other semi-gloss papers) uses surface texture to disguise the problem, the Harman relies on its natural high surface gloss to minimise it with somewhat greater assurance. These paper qualities (gloss differential, surface texture and apparent gloss) have been debated ad nauseam here and elsewhere, but for me and many others they remain a crucial weakness of pigment ink printing compared to its darkroom counterpart. Ansel Adams discussed the very same issues nearly thirty years ago, but with reference to the reproduction of his photographs in books (Adams, A, 1980, The Print, p187). The Harman Gloss, partnered with the K3 inks, is a real break-through in this respect.
In other respects the score-board is very even. Both papers feed reliably through the R2400, either through the manual rear feed or in fact through the front sheet feeder (although I only ever loaded one sheet at a time). The back of both papers accepts pencil annotation. Such has been the progress with pigment-ink printing over the past five years, that with the K3 inkset bronzing is pretty much a non-issue on both, and likewise there is just a hint of metamerism between tungsten and daylight illumination but nothing to arouse concern.
To summarise, then – the Ilford Galerie Gold, whilst also distinguished by its use of Baryta, is by no means a new departure for glossy fibre-base inkjet printing. The end result is much like the Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl or the Crane Museo Silver Rag, and if you like those papers you will probably enjoy the Ilford’s somewhat glossier and sharper (but similar) result too. The Harman Gloss FB Al is on the other hand a cat that walks alone, and until now the only thing remotely like it has been the Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss, which I have used extensively in recent months. The Harman Gloss has a radically different character to all preceding glossy fibre inkjet papers, and is the closest approach yet to printing on a traditional double-weight darkroom silver paper. It would be churlish, of course, to complain about greater choice. Both the Harman and the Ilford offerings have their own qualities, are available in five-sheet trial packs, and I recommend that you assess them for yourself.