Buffered vs. Non-Buffered/Unbuffered Materials for Digital Pigment Prints

“Cadillac, Late Afternoon Fog #2”, Copyright Jim Nickelson. All Rights Reserved.


Should I use buffered or non-/unbuffered materials (matboard, interleaving sheets, etc.) with my digital pigment prints?

The Short Answer

This is a common question I receive from clients and an area of obvious relevance. Surprisingly, after researching this subject, the answer to this question was not as clear cut as I anticipated. After performing my research, I intend on recommending buffered materials for use with digital prints.

The Longer Answer

The explanation of how I came to this conclusion starts with a few definitions. First, buffered materials are materials in which calcium carbonate (a chalk) or a similar material has been added to paper pulp during the paper making process to act as a buffering agent. The calcium carbonate raises the pH level of the resulting material to the alkaline side of things, making it non-acidic, and acts to counter acidic substances or pollution in the environment (such as smog) from impacting the buffered material. Many inkjet papers themselves are buffered for this reason.

Historically, archivists preferred buffered materials for conservation purposes to help combat acid from materials in the environment unless a particular material required non-buffered materials around it. The most common exclusion from being used with buffered materials is any item with components made from animals (i.e., protein-based materials), such as silk or leather. Photographic prints in this category include albumen prints, cyanotypes, and dye transfer prints because of their component materials.

An article Jeffrey Neumann from Picture Framing Magazine (link to PDF here) explains the history of the buffering issue as applied to photographic prints (more info also from Wilhelm Research). In the 1980’s, many conservators started recommending non-buffered materials for use with albumen, cyanotype, dye transfer, and chromogenic (color) prints by extrapolating from damage done to various albumen prints in storage. Additional research in the 1990’s by the Image Permanence Institute – the same researchers who made the initial determination that buffered materials were the culprit – led to the IPI to withdraw their recommendation to use unbuffered materials.

They now contend that either buffered or non-buffered are acceptable for all photographic prints except for dye transfer and cyanotypes. The IPI now instead recommends the use of high quality materials — Museum quality board, acid- and lingin-free, and able to pass their Photographic Activity Test (PAT). They also recommend buffered materials for photographic enclosures (which would include matboards and interleaving paper) as a means to help prevent acid from an enclosure from damaging a print and possibly to help absorb environmental acids.

Information from resellers and manufacturers also support the use of buffered materials with digital prints. Archival Methods, one of the big suppliers of matboard and tissue, suggests using unbuffered materials only for dye transfer and cyanotypes. Resellers such as B&H also say this, though they may simply be parroting what manufacturers such as Archival Methods tell them. University Products also has a nice article on this issue and comes to the same conclusion. (I did find at least one retailer, Light Impressions, that seems to have contradictory advice – recommends buffered but at least in one location says to use non-buffered for chromogenic prints. Given the other information I found there and elsewhere, I think it is likely sloppiness that chromogenic prints are listed there.)

Despite this history, many conservators and others recommend unbuffered materials for use with digital prints. I suspect the reasons for this vary by individual, but a lack of compelling evidence to change their recommendation might be factor (even if the original recommendation for non-buffered had much weaker evidence). I will say that the evidence is not overwhelming — it is not clear to me that anyone has done systematic, long-term research on this issue — but the weight of evidence and theory right now is that buffered materials are better for digital pigment prints.

Does it Even Matter?

A consensus also seems to have formed around the fact that the buffering issue is actually not that important for digital prints — many other factors are much more important in determining print longevity, including exposure to light or sunlight, humidity,temperature, the particular paper and ink combination, and the like. Mark McCormick-Goodhart of Aardenberg Imaging & Archives (which I think to be the best source now of info on digital print longevity) emphasizes the unimportance of the buffering issue in a post on the Luminous Landscape forum. Here’s what he says:

The major factors determining your print longevity are your material choices for inkjet paper,inks and possibly coatings combined with the actual environmental conditions, ie., the light intensity on display, the temperature on display or in storage, and the relative humidity on display or in storage.

Picture frame glazing, matting and mounting (which should be specified acid and lignin-free but largely irrelevant whether buffered or unbuffered) goes a long way to reduce the external air pollution effects. Note that some companies marketing conservation quality matt board will have their products also certified with the PAT test (photographic activity test) that is available as a testing procedure at IPI (the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, NY). It’s a worthwhile test for silver gelatin print processes, certainly doesn’t hurt and may be beneficial for some ink jet print processes if the matt board passes it.

Mark also provided input on the dpreview discussion boards along similar lines:

For pigmented inks, the buffered versus non buffered question is a rather academic discussion, as the pigment particles are not going to migrate from acid to base conditions which is what can possibly happen (under high humidity conditions) when acidified dyes come in direct contact with an alkaline buffered tissue or mount board. Buffering agents in rag board are typically materials like calcium carbonate. While buffered mat board can protect against “acid burn” from external polluting sources (No3 and SO2 gases from urban smog, etc), it won’t stabilize wood pulp papers with lignin remaining in the bulk material, etc. I’ve seen many “archival” mat boards that don’t live up to their marketing hype. Stick with reputable manufacturers of mat board and papers, and consider the non-buffered materials if you are matting and storing dye-based inkjet materials. Otherwise, either buffered or non-buffered will be OK provided, as Neil also noted, the inherent processing during manufacture was done well.


My recommendation is to use buffered materials with your pigment-based digital prints, but non-buffered materials should also be fine if you want to go that way. I’m personally more convinced that buffered solutions are superior and will accordingly use them for my own photographs and will also recommend them for my clients going forward.


The Fine Print

"Egg Moon I", Copyright Jim Nickelson. All Rights Reserved.

As readers of this blog will know, I am a strong proponent and champion of the fine print. If you are a photographer, I think it is essential to eventually print your work. You can do it yourself or have someone else do it, you can create a fine digital print or something equally and differently wondrous like a silver gelatin or platinum print, and you can print at whatever size that makes you happy. The exercise of selecting a photograph for print, performing any necessary preparation, and seeing how it actually looks once off the screen can be extremely valuable.

While I love how the Internet has made it possible to disseminate images, I do believe that there is something special about an actual physical print. Perhaps it is the presence of a fine print as an object, perhaps it is the implication that you care enough about the photograph to actually create a physical print, or perhaps it is the fact that so many photographs just look different (some better, some worse) on paper rather than on a backlit LCD monitor or iPad screen.

Since I love prints so much, it is likely not surprising that I’m always on the hunt for resources about prints and printing and so I thought I’d share a few recent ones here. First, a recent article on The Agnostic Print entitled “In Defense of the Precious Object”, is, not surprisingly, an homage to prints, and particularly small prints, couched in a review of current New York shows including those of Cindy Sherman and four separate Japanese photographers from a show at the Howard Greenburg Gallery (including two of my all-time favorite photographers, Kenro Izu and Hiroshi Sugimoto).

Noted digital printer John Paul Caponigro also recently posted three video interviews with noted silver gelatin printer John Sexton, which are definitely worthwhile to hear Sexton’s perspectives on printing of all sorts (and photography more generally, too).

If you are interested in creating the fine print digitally, two recent posts on The Online Photographer will also be of note. First, digital printmaker Ctein (formerly a master dye printer, too) wrote a very interesting post on what is involved in being a good digital printmaker. This can be a good roadmap to doing your own printing as well as providing questions to ask if you are seeking out someone else to print your work.

Mike Johnston also wrote an article outlining a plan for becoming a good digital printmaker yourself over the course of months and years. I think his general recommendation is a good one, though obviously there is quite a bit of flexibility in the specifics. I’ll have to think about how I would structure a program like this myself…hmm, an idea for a future blog post!

If you are interested in the fine print, I hope you find some of these online resources useful.

A Book Cover, Starry Night, and the VoxPhotographs blog

I was very pleased to learn that my image was selected for the catalog cover for the upcoming exhibition at the PhotoPlace Gallery in Vermont. You can order the catalog here (and browse through all the images) and you can find out more about the upcoming “Four Seasons” exhibition here. I sprung for the hardcover, of course!

On Friday I published a guest article on the VoxPhotographs blog on selecting a paper for fine art printing. Please check it out if you missed it (and bookmark that blog, too, as it has become one of the go-to sites for the Maine fine art photography community). Thank you to Heather Frederic for the platform as well.

Lastly, I’d like to link to something on the Web that I found. Petros Vrellis created an animation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (perhaps my favorite painting) that is very cool on its own, but the animation is interactive – users can use their fingers to change the flow of stars, etc. Alas, the video itself isn’t interactive but it does show how the interaction works – I’d love to see a commercially-available version of this. It would make a great iPad app if it has the necessary computational horsepower to perform all the calculations.

Printing Tips – Humidity in your printing environment

Copyright Jim Nickelson

Sometimes we take for granted modern inkjet printers because of their competence and reliability. Modern printers, though, are incredibly complex machines, particularly with respect to the printheads. Each printer and its printheads is designed for a particular range of environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity. For most home printing situations, humidity is most likely to be the issue as temperature ranges in most houses stay within a relatively tight range. Epson printers (which is what I use) have a recommended humidity range of 40% – 60% for optimal operation.

So, does this really matter in the real world? Generally speaking, yes. My personal experience, and that of many others, is that operating one of these printers outside this range (particularly at lower humidity) can result in much more frequent clogs and, as a result, wastage of ink from nozzle cleanings and wastage of both ink and paper from ruined prints. (to read the full article, please go here).


Various and sundry, post-Thanksgiving edition

Copyright Jim Nickelson

I just posted a new article here on this site – my comparison of inkjet/pigment prints with digital C-prints (digital prints made with chemicals rather than ink). Check it out if you are interested and please let me know if you have any questions.

Nomenclature is always a tricky issue, particular in fields such as digital printing that are relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Heather Frederick made a very interesting post on the VoxPhotographs blog about what to call digital prints (and why not to use the term giclee) – check it out here.

And speaking of nomenclature, I do maintain a glossary of fine art printing and photography terms here on this site – please take a look if you were wondering what something means…and also feel free to suggest anything new. I’m constantly adding to the list.

The 12th Annual Photo-A-Go-Go from the Bakery Photo Collective is in coming up on December 9th down in Westbrook, ME – take a look at all of the photographs available in this fundraising auction…Even if you can’t make it to the silent auction, it is definitely worthwhile to browse through the wide variety of photographs offered by Maine’s fine art photographers.

New Article about Types of Paper Substrates for Digital Printing (including Baryta)

I’ve just written an article about different paper substrates that are available for digital printing. You can find the whole article here, but below you’ll find an excerpt from the article about baryta papers, a type about which I’m frequently asked.

Baryta Fiber-based papers

One of the more popular type of papers for digital printing of late has been the class of baryta papers that utilize a layer of barium sulphate, a white clay-like substance,

Copyright Jim Nickelson

to give the paper its smoothness, whitepoint, and, interestingly, a smell just a bit reminiscent of the darkroom. Baryta (pronounced bah-RYE-tah) papers have their origin in the traditional darkroom as fiber-based silver gelatin prints typically used a white layer of barium-sulphate gelatin applied to the paper ground and beneath the light-sensitive layer to help provide pure whites and rich blacks. As such, the use of baryta in papers for photographic printing has a long history of archival permanence.

Inkjet-compatible baryta papers use a multi-layer coating that includes baryta over a base such as cotton rag or alpha cellulose. Popular baryta papers for digital printing include Ilford Galerie Gold Fiber Silk 310 gsm (and its sister Canson Infinity Bartya Photographique 310 gsm), Harman Gloss FB Al, and one of my all-time favorites, Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta 315gsm.

Baryta papers for the digital darkroom have all the archival characteristics you would like and importantly, have a very similar look and feel to great air-dried fiber-based silver-gelatin papers. Similar, mind you, is not the same as identical – while these papers do appear very similar to traditional darkroom papers, there are of course differences visible to the discerning eye, most notably in how the ink sits on the surface rather than being embedded in the surface in a darkroom print. But they are mighty close and are wonderful objects in their own right, and that is ultimately what is important to me as a printer and photographer – not how closely the end result matches traditional methods, but how it stands on its own.

If you haven’t yet tried this baryta class of papers I definitely recommend you try some out (such as the ones I mentioned above). If you have any questions or experiences with these papers, please feel free to comment below!

Paper Review – Canson Platine Fiber Rag


"Waterscape Blue/Red #5", Copyright Jim Nickelson

I somehow have neglected to post much about this relatively new paper from Canson Infinity despite it being my new favorite paper. Paper choice is very subjective, but for me, Platine Fiber Rag (PFR) hits the sweet spot in so many ways. If you haven’t yet tried it out, I certainly highly recommend doing so. There are other reviews of this paper out in the world – I’d recommend this one from the Luminous Landscape for more details and charts than this relatively short review and this one for details about printing B&W with this paper.

So, what is PFR? It is a fiber-based lustre paper with a 100% cotton rag paper base that uses no optical brightening agents (OBAs) to achieve its brightness. According to Canson (you can read the nitty gritty for yourself here), the paper base is from a cotton paper used for platinum printing with a suitable coating to receive inkjet inks applied on top of that base. It naturally has all the archival characteristics (e.g., acid-free, internally buffered, etc.) we have come to expect from modern, high-end inkjet papers. It is in the general class of lustre/luster papers that, on the Epson printers, use the Photo Black ink rather than the Matte Black ink and that also have a somewhat textured or stippled surface.

Okay, those are the basics, so what is like? PFR is one of my favorite papers when held in the hand. It is relatively thick (310 grams) and the cotton rag base gives it a ‘fine art’ feel. The stippled surface has a very nice look – it is just a little more stippled than competitors such as Ilford Gold Fiber Silk and Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique, and for much of my work I find the extra stippling to add a bit of pleasing sparkle to the final print.

One excellent characteristic of PFR is that, when printing off of rolls, it dries relatively flat and does not need additional flattening. There are some lovely papers with more curl than this one, and the last step of trying to flatten takes up valuable time and also introduces an opportunity for the print to be damaged so flat drying is a distinct advantage.

What about color and image quality? Wonderful. There are papers with more range in what they can show (such as its cousin Baryta Photographique), but it has enough range for almost any task. Perhaps the slightly less color range allows the paper to print with a bit more subtlety, but I’ve been happier with prints on this paper than anything else.

The paper is pretty neutral overall but I believe that the highlights are slightly warm. Certainly compared to papers such as Epson Exhibition Fiber with brighteners PFR will feel on the warm side, but its overall neutrality is one of its strengths. For many artists, the slight warmth in the highlights is a feature, not a bug — for my own work that little bit of warmth adds to the overall experience of the paper.


One of the best papers for digital printing. My own subjective feeling is that this paper is the best overall current option for the lustre papers. It is 100% cotton, no OBAs, just a touch warm, great feel in the hand, easy to work with on rolls, has a very nice stippled surface, and great image quality. I definitely recommend trying it out to see if it is suitable for your own work and aesthetic.

Recycling and Digital Printing

Many people involved in digital printing have likely wondered about how to ameliorate its environmental impact. One obvious solution is to recycle as many of the involved products as possible. Scrap prints are easy — almost any locale now has facilities for recycling paper products such as printing paper. In my household, scrap prints take a slight detour on the road to the town transfer station and are first cut into pieces and repurposed as art paper for my preschool-aged daughter.

I’ve recently found out about solutions for recycling ink cartridges and the printers themselves. Many big box stores such as Staples do take ink cartridges for recycling, but I’m not sure if they take the large format cartridges used in wide format printers (as such printers are not carried by those stores). One option that I choose is to send empty cartridges to a retailer such as Shades of Paper in New Jersey — they’ll take care of recycling the cartridges for you. (They are also a great place to purchase ink cartridges and paper from, too).  Sometimes you’ll receive a sample pack of paper in return, sometimes not – but I’m happy to have a place to send them for recycling even if I end up paying for a little shipping.

For printers that are no longer usable, you can drop them off at your local transfer station and possibly pay a disposal fee, but manufacturers are now doing a better job of making this process easier as well. Epson has a printer recycling program that is pretty slick. You fill out a form and they send you a pre-paid Fed Ex shipping label to send it to their warehouse for recycling. Wait for the label to arrive in the mail, slap it on the box, and your work is done. I just did this with an Epson 2200 that had gone into the final wash (to use Ansel A.’s term). Definitely recommended if you have an older, broken Epson printer sitting around your office as I did.

Let me know below if you have any other recycling ideas for digital printing!

The Paper Chase consolidated and many client updates

For a few years now I’ve maintained separate blogs for my printing business (the blog name was The Paper Chase) and my photography. A few months ago I morphed the photography blog into this one. I’ve been wrestling with how best to go forward with the other and I’ve finally made a decision – everything will be consolidated here on 56×56. The multiple blogs only resulted in confusion for readers and extra work for myself. The Paper Chase will live on going forward as a category here on 56×56 as well as in my selecting writings on printing. So, here we go!

One of the main topics on The Paper Chase was providing updates on exhibitions and other news relating to Nickelson Edition clients. Since The Paper Chase is no more, I thought I would summarize a few of the recent posts that are no longer available as they pertain to current exhibitions.

Breakfast Bowl © Sarah Szwajkos.
Breakfast Bowl © Sarah Szwajkos

Okay, onto the client shows! I just mentioned UMMA’s Photo National 2011 in the previous post here, but you can find Sarah Szwajkos a few other places right now, too, including Smith College in Massachusetts:

Personal Space: Photographic Portraits of Homes & Special Places
Smith College Alumnae House Gallery, Northampton, MA
4/25/2011 – 9/1/2011

Sarah and other friends/clients Terry Hire and Ann Krumrein are in the exhibition The Art of the Boat exhibition at the Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport, ME that runs until October 23rd.

“Galilee Prelude”, Copyright Terry Hire. All Rights Reserved.No less than four NE clients — Ann Krumrein, Terry Hire, Robert Moran, & Arla Patch — will be amongst the featured photographers in the Through the Lens exhibition at Lewiston’s Gallery 5 that runs until July 16th. You can also find Robert Moran’s work in an upcoming show in Portland opening at Trinket & Fern, Friday, July 1st, at 1 pm.

You can see Lynn Karlin’s gorgeous work in a few places right now, too. In addition to a number of pieces at Sweet Pea Gardens in Surry, Maine, you can find her Pedestal Series work at the joint “From the Garden to the Kitchen”exhibits between the Stonewall Kitchen Gardens and the George Marshall Store Gallery in York. The Stonewall Kitchens exhibit includes large-scale replications of the artists work in the Stonewall Kitchen gardens, and planting is designed to complement the art pieces. The gardens are expected to be open for viewing by mid-June and in full bloom by mid-July. A celebration will be held July 14th. You can find photos of the installation (there are pretty cool!) on a posting by one of her galleries in Hammertown, NY.

NE client Jane Yudelman is showing in two locations this summer here in Maine – Chapter Two Gallery in Corea and Neal Parent’s gallery in Belfast.

NE client Thomas Birtwistle and 3 other photographers are featured in a new show at the new Common Street Gallery in Waterville, which runs until August 17th. It looks like an interesting show and I’ll hopefully be able to make it over there this summer to check out the show, and gallery, in person.

NE client Peter Ralston recently opened his new gallery, located in Rockport Harbor in the location where Tim Whelan’s bookstore used to sit. The space looks great – congrats Peter!


Whither Prints? And an excellent way to spend 6 minutes, 39 seconds of your time

I’m a bit late to this video as it went around a month or so go (such as here), but I found these excerpts from an interview with renowned printmaker and printing historian Richard Benson absolutely fascinating. In this brief but jam-packed interview, Benson discusses the future of prints and film, painting and printing versus traditional darkroom photography, conceptual photography, digital prints and electronic imagery, and more. Here are three choice quotes I pulled from this that I love (n.b. any transcription errors are my fault alone):

“The thing that is ironic is that the new digital technologies, to my mind, are far and away the finest printing processes that have ever existed – they are better than anything that has existed in the past. I find myself very, very excited to use this new technology that is going to destroy photography to make the best versions of it I’ve ever seen.”

“Don’t do all this stupid conceptual stuff…go out in the world with your camera and photograph and find out that the world is smarter than you are.”

“I don’t think that the printed photograph is ever going to go away….I think it will likely become a minor aspect of the medium….I’m desperately practicing a minor art, and hope that it lives as long as I do.”

Great stuff. Part of the reason I liked the interview is that is consistent with my views on the future of photography and printing (as relates to two of those quotes). This is obviously a subject near and dear to my heart, so I’ve given quite a bit of thought to it. I believe that the future of photography on the whole will be digital distribution and display of imagery – most people at some point in the future will enjoy photography that is displayed electronically as their entire photographic experience, whether it be advertising imagery, a wall-mounted monitor  in their living room with rotating landscapes or family portraits, checking out galleries and websites on their tablet or cell phone, or the like. This is despite the fact that modern printing methods, particularly for color, are as good if not better in almost every way than the printing methods that have come before – color fidelity and range, longevity, the ability of control every aspect, etc. The advantages of electronic images, in terms of cost, availability, and flexibility, are just too overwhelming.

Fewer and fewer people are likely going to want to buy or display and actual physical print and hang it on their wall.  Fewer and fewer, however, does not equate to zero. I absolutely believe that there will also be a passion and desire for physical fine art prints, just like there is such an interest in many other types of art (or other displaced technologies) that were long ago “outdated”. The challenge then is to educate people on what a print can be and to make those prints as amazing as possible. If you want to defeat something that is cheaper and more convenient, you had better be offering something that is unequivocally better. Make your prints better than people have ever seen. Make a handmade book of your photographs that you’ve bound yourself that tells a story (see Alec Soth’s post here, too). Make your work so interesting or beautiful or important that people don’t want to live without it. Do something great. That is our challenge as photographers and printers in this new world.