Printing Fractals

by Janet Parke & Kerry Mitchell

Now that you've finished composing your fractal masterpiece, it's only natural to want a print of it. After all, lugging your computer and monitor around to show your fractal can quickly become tiring. In this article, we discuss three techniques of producing professional prints of fractals: prints from film, digital photographic prints, and giclee inkjet prints.

Prints from Film

These prints are the most like traditional photographs, and require either a negative or a transparency of the image. The transparency (typically a slide) is a positive image; looking at the slide shows you the same image as you saw on the monitor. Negatives reverse the color, so something that was blue on the monitor will be orange on the negative. The advantage of using negatives is that they can be printed by any "one-hour" minilab. Transparencies, on the other hand, can usually only be printed by a photo lab. However, the quality of a good print directly from a transparency usually far exceeds that from a negative. More on this below.

There are two basic options for generating the film. For quick, inexpensive prints, photographing the monitor is one option, and you can use print or slide film. For higher quality negatives or transparencies, consult a service bureau or a professional photo lab. A photo lab will use either a film recorder or a digital imaging system to expose the film. A film recorder (such as a Solitaire recorder) is essentially a high quality monitor on which the image is shown, and then photographed. The digital route typically involves your providing a high-resolution render of your fractal image to the service bureau which will then use a machine like the Kodak LVT. The LVT uses lasers to expose each pixel of the image directly onto the film, without using a monitor. Consequently, LVT films can be of higher resolution than recorder films, and suffer no distortion due to the geometry of the monitor. LVT resolutions can be over 3000 pixels per inch. Film recorders typically produce 35mm or 4x5 format films; LVT's can write to 35mm, 4x5, and 8x10 formats.

Once the film is exposed and processed, it needs to be printed. Professional photographers typically have a transparency printed directly to the photographic paper (Ilfochrome process). From the Lightroom web site, "Ilfochrome Classic prints are known for both their archival qualities (best of any common color printing material) and their rich, saturated colors."

The next level below Ilfochrome would be "type c" prints, in which the negative is printed on reversal paper. This technique can produce excellent results, but the prints tend to be not quite as sharp as Ilfochromes. However, they are generally less expensive, and can be obtained much more widely than Ilfochromes.

"Type r" processes print slides onto reversal film. This is the most common "print from slide" technique. Since reversal film requires a negative, an "internegative" is created. Essentially, your transparency is photographed onto negative film. This extra step adds needless cost and complexity, and reduces the final print quality. For highest quality prints, go with Ilfochromes or type c prints, but not type r.

Once you've gotten your film exposed and processed, you have to entrust it to a photo lab for printing. Unfortunately, this step is critical to getting good prints, and is one over which you may have relatively little control. The printing step is usually done by someone who may have a pretty good idea of what people and landscapes should look like, but may have no idea how fractals should look. This is important because the printer has a lot of power in determining the final color of the print. Further complicating matters is the fact that you can never exactly match a print to what you see on the screen. The screen image represents transmitted light, which is of a different quality that the reflected light coming off of the print. It will be important to find a photo lab with whom you can work and who will take direction. If possible, you should have a color guide to show the printer how the colors should look. If you have a good color printer in your computer system, you can print one or two images and give them to the lab to match. Or, you can create a "test pattern" of standard colors. Have the lab correct for the test pattern, and then print the fractal image the same way. When you get a good print of your image, you may want to use that as a color guide in case you have other prints made.

If you're having a large print (say 16 inches by 20 inches or larger) made, or it's your first time, use a professional photo lab. You may spend a bit more money, but you'll have the opportunity of getting your questions answered and learning more about the process. Also, many labs will print an approval strip for a fraction of the print price, so you can gauge the color fidelity.

Archival Quality Digital Photographic Prints

In this method, typified by the Durst Lambda printer, lasers directly expose the photographic paper (glossy or matte) without any intermediate film. The final print quality compares favorably with Ilfochromes, and the print lifetime should also be many decades. An advantage of Lambda prints is that a negative or transparency is not needed, only a high-resolution render. Current Lambdas print at 200 dpi, which means that your print will have a maximum of 200 pixels per inch, but because the paper is exposed with continuous tone rather than dots, this produces a beautiful print. Newer Lambdas reportedly print up to 400 dpi. Also, Lambdas print from rolls of paper, 40" to 50" wide (check with your printer). So printing a mural larger than that may be difficult (and will not be easy for a traditional photographic print, either!). For more information about Lambda printers, see Durst's website. Low(er) Cost Photographic Prints

We have found several websites from which you can order prints of your digital images printed on photographic paper. We have used and been very pleased with Ofoto and EZPrints. Ken Childress has used Sedona Digital Print Service and suggests that has received good reviews. Some of these websites offer online albums from which your friends and family can order copies of your prints and at least one offers greeting cards and other gift items emblazoned with your images.

Giclee Prints

"Giclee" is from the French for "spray", and giclee prints are essentially ink jet prints. The most famous tradename is Iris, and the phrase "Iris print" was synonymous with "gallery quality prints of digital art". The inkjet technology for giclee prints is quite sophisticated, when compared to typical desktop inkjets. One description of the process can be found at the Color Works website.

Being inkjet prints, giclee prints have some inherent pixelation. However, the "effective" (dithered) resolution is reported to be well over 1500 dpi. Giclee printers are relatively slow, and are not well suited for high-volume applications. They print one sheet at a time, and sheet sizes are typically limited to 35 inches by 47 inches. This apparent limitation is offset by the fact the giclee printers can use a variety of papers, from smooth surface coated papers to watercolor stock.

An open question in the digital art community concerns the stability and longevity of the prints. The consensus seems to be that, when properly mounted and lit, giclee prints can easily last a few decades, if not as long as traditional photographs. Before investing in a giclee print, be sure to discuss this issue with your printer.

Less expensive large inkjet prints are now being provided by Kinko's copy and office supply stores. One printer used was a Hewlett Packard inkjet, with an approximately 4 foot wide carriage, that printed on roll paper. This might be a viable option when extraordinary, gallery quality prints are not required.


There are several options available to the fractal artist who wants prints of their work, and the number is continually increasing. This article is intended only as an introduction--do your research before spending a lot of money on a print. Be sure that the technique you use is the one that best meets your needs: size, cost, color fidelity, print longevity, processing time, and, very importantly, hassle factor.

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