The title is slightly misleading. You see, as I type this, there are three bears, but I'm expecting a fourth in the post any time now. What the hack am I going on about? Well it's more of those teddy bear photograph. I've had the same scan of it printed as a 6x4 by four different photo finishers, just to see how they differ, and which one I like best. Three are beside my MacBook from Truprint, SnapMad and Ilford LabDirect. The forth is on its way from PhotoBox, who I've been using since 2003. As I had to dismantle my darkroom, this is the only way I can get a back & white print now. So which one is best?
First, the photograph. It was taken with a Nikon FE with a AIS 50mm f1.8 on Delta 400 and developed in Aculux 3. It's 'Big Ted' on the sofa, being held tightly by Linda whilst she watched the telly. Nothing amazing, just a picture I like with some nice lighting and tones. It's never been printed optically, so I've only ever had the scan to look at. This was made with my now ancient Acer 2720S dedicated film scanner at 2700dpi and re sized down 1800 x 1200 pixels, to give 6"x4" @ 300ppi.
The first bear to arrive was from Truprint, but that's because I ordered it a week before the others. Initially I was thrilled. The colour was very neutral. It was a little grainy in the darker mid tones, and I put that down to my scanner's love of finding grain in anything over iso 100. But then, the SnapMad and Ilford prints arrived in the same post. The snap mad was slightly darker and a bit warm toned. For some reason I chose not to click the 'make this b&w' button, so I'm sure a neutral toned b&w is possible. But as soon as I saw that it had so much less grain, the Truprint version started to look bad. Really Bad. Both prints were 9p each, and SnapMad has free P&P if you spend over 99p.
Truprint - grainy
99p? Wow, that's really good value and makes the Ilford print very expensive at £1.25 + postage. The difference with Ilford though is that they print the digital file via lasers onto real silver gelatin black & white paper. Not the Fuji Crystal Archive that everyone else seems to use. Now there's nothing wrong with the Fuji paper. For colour, it's fantastic stuff. But as a chromogenic material, the final image is made up of three layers of coloured dye rather than grains of real silver. This is why black & white prints made on colour paper look fundamentally different to prints made on real black & white paper. And explains why you'll sometimes get a colour cast. The result from Ilford is superb. Not only does it look like a real black & white print - after all it is a real black & white print, but the grain is gone. I can't quite understand why, but instead of grain, there are smooth tones from the shadows though the mids into the highlights. The only way to get a better print is to print optically, something that would be expensive to do unless you have your own darkroom. If I wanted to make prints for display, I'd go with Ilford, no question.
So what about the Photobox print? Like Truprint and SnapMad it's on Fuji Crystal Archive, but they're better than either. They match what I see on my screen closer that Snapmad, and haven't got the wierd grain of Truprint. The tone is neutral but of course, not a patch on the Ilford.
Ilford LabDirect. Smoother tones and real B&W paper!
Conclusion. I'll use PhotoBox for day to day stuff, and for colour. For prints that are going an the wall, I'll pay the extra and get the real thing from Ilford.