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Can Anyone Explain Giclee? What Makes Giclee Photo Prints Different From Standard Digital Reproductions?

It's not always been easy to explain giclee. It's a term used to refer to high quality digital prints, but beyond that it can be tricky to get a handle on what it actually means.

'Giclee' isn't even a real word! It was invented in the early '90's by Jack Duganne, and stems from the French 'gicleur', to 'squirt' or 'spray' (in reference to inket printer technology which sprays ink on to paper through nozzles).

Duganne, like others at the time using digital technology to produce top notch prints, didn't want his work to be directly associated with the cheap, convenient, large scale digital image prints found in magazines and papers.

That was fair enough, but what actually made giclee photo prints different from magazine and newspaper pics? What is the definition of giclee?

Well, I'll try to explain giclee in terms of what these 'fine art' standard prints offer that cheaper digital reproductions don't. I'll also look at the technical factors that produce these differences.


What's so good about giclee photo prints!?

One important point is that giclee photo prints have a greater range of colours than bog standard digital prints. Giclee reproductions accurately match the full array of colours in a photo, which can make for a very noticeable difference.

This improved colour gamut in turn makes the subtle shifts between different tones and colours more precise. There's no unnatural contrast between 2 parts of a photo in a giclee print. Everything blends seamlessly and naturally together.

I couldn't explain giclee satisfactorily without mentioning the fact that the vibrancy of a photo, or art print, is preserved for much longer than with other printing methods.

When we buy a really nice framed print for hanging on a wall, we don't expect the colour to fade drastically within a mere few years. But if you were to print out a photo on a typical home photo printer that is, unfortunately, exactly what would happen.

Giclee photo prints are great because they last. In fact, it's often estimated that they would retain their vibrancy for 100 - 200 years!

Something else that happens to cheap digital prints on ordinary photo paper is the development of a brown tinge over time. It's part of the increased expense of printing to giclee standards to prevent this from happening.

Giclee photo prints are also produced on heavyweight paper.

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So how are giclee prints made so much better?

Ok, the above points illustrate some of the key reasons why there has been a desire to differentiate between certain kinds of digital image printing.

But what produces these differences? To explain giclee properly, let's look at some of the technical areas that are responsible for high quality prints.

First up, giclee photo prints are produced using printers with more ink cartridges than run of the mill home photo printers. Inkjet printers function by spraying, or squirting (hence 'gicleur' - 'giclee'), thousands of droplets of ink on to a small area on a piece of photo paper.

This ink comes from cartridges inside the printer and is divided into several basic colours: Cyan, magenta, yellow and black. This is referred to as the CMYK colour system ('K' for 'key black').

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All printers need at least these 4 simple colours to print images of passable quality. The colours blend together to create a fuller range that matches the subtle colours in a picture.

But variants of these essential colours are available, such as 'light cyan' and 'light magenta'. Many home photo printers feature a couple of variants and have 6 cartridges.

Giclee prints are produced on printers with even more cartridges, which make it more possible to finely match the tones and colours of a print to the original image. This increased number of cartridges also makes it possible improve the subtlety of transitions between different colours.

What makes giclee photo prints retain their vibrancy for such a long time? A different kind of ink is used, specifically ink that is acid free. This prevents fading from occurring when a photo is exposed to UV light.

All prints fade eventually, but those defined as giclee can be expected to last for a great deal longer than any of us would be able to enjoy them for!

What protects giclee photo prints from the brown tinge that forms on lots of photos that are exposed to UV rays? Well, this time it's acid free paper. Acid free ink and acid free paper tend to get jointly called 'archival' materials.

The weight of paper for giclee printing - measured in grammes/square metre or 'gsm' - is also greater than that used in cheaper methods. A heavy fine art paper referred to as 'cotton rag' is often used, which typically exceeds 300gsm.


Explain Giclee! A Quick Summary

So basically the word 'giclee' developed in response to improvements in the reproduction of digital images.

Various figures producing prints in the fine art world were keen to distinguish their careful work from the cheap and convenient character of industrial digital reproductions.

Many things contribute to high quality prints, including the processing of images on the computer. But some of the major technical requirements for fine art prints are a large colour range, acid free inks and acid free paper.

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