RA4: elusive pure white
Am I the only person noticing this? If so, I’ll back off and let this post die a natural death. But…take a really close look at your borders. (I warn you that I am being a bit absolute here.)
Since 1978 I have been processing ‘C’ prints, first with EP2, then, as now, with RA4. Back then I lived in New York City and regularly bought really fresh Ektacolor paper from Olden Camera (as there was great turnover there). From then to now, regardless of process or method, I have been mildly annoyed with something most might not even be noticing: the purity of the whites.
When prints are fully washed after the process and left to dry, the tiny problem emerges without fail. Take a Kleenex or some white bathroom tissue or a piece of bright white copy paper and compare, closely, with the unexposed border of the dry color print. There will be a very small, but definite, level of density in the print’s white area no matter how fresh the paper. Optical brighteners do not mitigate this reality.
Certainly, when looking at the print alone, without this relative comparison test, the print looks great because, mentally, we subconsciously make the small adaptation towards visual optimization. (We ‘know’ in advance what the print ‘should’ look like from our reservoir of common knowledge.) But what really got me noticing this and refusing to back down from this minor flaw was the fact that the dyes on digital prints do not ever touch the ‘virgin’ whites when they are not supposed to, and leave them truly pristine. In the RA4 process everything gets developed, exposed or not, and there always seems to be a tiny level of density present (which slowly increases as the paper ages). Obviously, changing filtration will not affect this tiny base density that is there solely because of the chemical process and without the aid of light, so attempts at filtration change do ‘improve’ the overall situation but the overall base is still there. Again, this becomes a factor only with the comparison with the pure digital colors. I hate to admit this superiority that digital intrinsically has over ‘C’ prints, but it is true. Analogously, this is like comparing the playing of a pristine 33 RPM record and then playing a CD of the same recording: suddenly, the almost nonexistent surface noise of the LP becomes apparent and we no longer can get away with letting out minds filter out this almost silent ‘noise’. (However, LPs may have other acoustical factors, some will say, that obviate this CD advantage.)
The identical density problem is present also in the BW process. But there we have the luxury of passing the print briefly through a dilute Farmers reducer to bring back the pristine whites so that they shine. Also, in the BW process there are situations whereby a cream base ADDS to the aesthetics of the picture, and visually enhances the monochrome image. Unless for abstract reasons, this is decidedly not the convenient case with colors, as they demand purity to be most effective.
Am I missing something here? Maybe this ‘complaint’ is not noticed or, instead, is considered too immaterial to be rightly discussed. But I do notice this and this factor keeps me from fully embracing the color process. Perhaps my being too much of a purist stands in the way of practicality and largely misses the point (I welcome criticism), but the factor is real to me and becomes a bit like looking at a color image though a skylight filter: it is that slight downgrading of the hues that I am talking about. – David Lyga.