Inkjet prints are, at the highest level, simply prints made from a digital file by applying very fine droplets of ink on paper. Many inkjet inks are dye-based, but I strongly recommend using pigment-based inks for any fine art purposes because of their improved longevity. The professional photographic printers such as those from Epson & Canon all use pigment technology and the results are often called (archival) pigment prints.
Digital C-prints, on the other hand, are the result of printing a digital file on a continuous tone printer that uses silver-based paper. The photograph is created by exposing the paper with light sources (such as lasers or LEDs) and then processing the exposed paper with traditional chemistry. The most common papers are type-C papers (usually Fuji Crystal Archive, which is the best) processed in RA-4 chemistry. The continuous tone printers include the Lightjet, Durst Lambda, and the Chromira, and labs that make these types of prints will usually advertise that they use one of those three brands.
Ok, so those are the types of digital prints – which one should you use? I myself have chosen pigment prints after a time having digital C-prints made, and pigment prints made from an inkjet printer are what I recommend to most photographers and other artists. I’ll outline below what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of both.
1. Do you want to do your own printing? Well, if the answer is yes and you aren’t fabulously wealthy, the choice is actually pretty simple – pigment prints. While inkjet printing at home isn’t free, you can get a nice set-up for well under $500. Those continuous tone printers typically run for more than $100,000 and are thus usually only found in professional labs. Advantage pigment prints.
2. Longevity. Digital C-prints printed on Fuji Crystal Archive (FCA) are rated at an estimated longevity of 60 years, surpassing traditional color methods. Pigment prints using the most recent formulations from Epson, HP, & Canon are often rated at over 100 years, depending on the particular paper chosen. Advantage pigment prints.
3. Paper choice. FCA papers include Matte, Pearl, Glossy, and Super Glossy (and perhaps a few others), while inkjet papers suitable for fine art printing number in the hundreds with wide varieties of paper color, texture, thickness, feel, and the like. I personally find the choice of papers for pigment paper to be liberating and love the choice to find a paper perfect for each body of work and artist. That being said, if your tastes run to the super glossy, I feel the FCA papers to be slightly superior – no gloss differential and a smoother, more mirror-like surface. Advantage pigment prints, unless you really like super glossy.
4. Marketing. Many people who print or sell the digital C-prints on FCA market them as “real” photograph prints on real photographic paper. I think there probably is still some slight marketing advantage to a chemical-based print because of the bad connotations the word inkjet had early on in digital printing, but that advantage has diminished as technology and education have improved. Advantage (very slightly) to digital C-prints.
5. Image quality. From my experience and from the technical specs, modern pigment prints can provide more color gamut (range of colors), more dynamic range, and additional sharpness. To my eye, the print quality on the most recent Epson (9900 series) is clearly superior to that of a digital C-print. Advantage pigment prints.
6. Size. There are some continuous tone printers that go up to 72″ wide, surpassing the maximum inkjet width of 60″ (based on my knowledge). (Note – there may be larger versions of each with which I’m not familiar). So if five feet wide just isn’t big enough for you and you need six feet wide, you know what you need to do. Advantage digital C-prints.
For me personally, I wanted the highest image quality combined with the ability to make my own prints, making pigments prints the clear choice. If you really want a super glossy look, need the largest possible print size, or just prefer to have prints made with chemicals, you may come down differently. I recommend uploading a file to a place like West Coast imaging and ordering a print done each way if you want to see for yourself — once you get beyond the absolutes mentioned above, print preference is certainly subjective.