Pigment vs. dye inks - Which is best?

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For the past five months, I’ve been living in printer heaven, testing some new inkjet printers designed for professional photographers and graphic artists. I have reviewed Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF5000 (   ), and Hewlett-Packard’s Photosmart Pro B9180 (   ), and am getting ready to look at Epson’s new Stylus Professional 3800. I have printed more than 1,000 images on many different paper types, and had quite a few discussions with printer vendors, photographers, paper companies and people interested in printing. It’s been fun, trust me.

All of these printers share one primary characteristic—they print using pigment-based inks, instead of the traditional dye-based inks found in most inkjet printers sold today. Epson was the first company to ship a printer based that used pigment inks, which are made up of tiny, encapsulated particles that sit on top of the paper, instead of being absorbed into a paper’s fibers, which is what happens with dyes. When I talk about this with photographers and people who haven’t lived with these printers, the biggest question I get is, “Why should I care about what type of ink my printer has?”

The most important reasons for using pigment inks are archival print life and color stability. The dye inks used in most early inkjet printers exhibited signs of fading or shifts in color after a short period of time (as quickly as days, in some cases). As a result, the graphic art and fine art markets turned to pigment inks. Pigment inks are much more stable and can last more than 200 years on some paper types under ideal (museum-quality lighting and framing) conditions, according to testing done by Wilhelm Imaging Research, the leader in this field. (You can find out just about anything in this field on Wilhelm’s site; I highly recommend it if you’re interested in lots of information on the topic.)

It’s important to note that the paper (called the substrate by printer geeks) is as important as the ink in measuring print life. Glossy papers, with their slick finishes, are usually the worst offenders in terms of print life, but any paper with so-called optical brighteners—used to make a paper’s finish bright, bright white—will have some issues with either ultraviolet light or atmospheric pollutants , as Wilhelm terms gases like ozone, which can quickly break down dye inks on unprotected prints. This is why companies like Hahnemuehle, Crane’s, and Moab, to name three, have been so successful with their natural-fiber papers, even though they don’t have the brightness that we have become used to in the world of the consumer inkjet.

The drawbacks of pigment inks
Pigment inks aren’t perfect—they’re generally more expensive than dye inks, and they don’t have the brightness and broad color range (or gamut) that dye inks have. And, most printer manufacturers continue to push the print longevity of dye inks. Right now, many dye-based prints, kept under glass and away from direct light, can last for up to 25 or 30 years, which is more than adequate for most of us. But Wilhelm has tested a few dye/paper combinations that show archival life of nearly 100 years —that’s the primary reason why dye printers aren’t going away any time soon.

Another problem that some early pigment inks had was a phenomenon called metamerism, which is essentially the human eye detecting a shift in color when viewing a print under different light sources. For example, an image might look normal under fluorescent light, but exhibit a greenish color cast when viewed outside in bright daylight or under a reading lamp. Metamerism plagued the first generation of pigment inks, but Epson, who pioneered pigment inks as a mainstream technology, worked extensively to reduce this (through more chemistry than I need to know about), and companies like Canon and HP are reaping the benefits of Epson’s initial forays into this market.

[I’ve since been corrected—a color vision researcher helpfully informed me that it’s “ metameric failure,” not metamerism, that I’m referring to above. I plead guilty; as should most of us in the inkjet printer world, who have mistakenly been referring to this phenomenon for years.]

Custom inks
In addition to the big three printer manufacturers, a small cottage industry composed of third-party vendors has arisen that provides custom ink sets. I’m not talking about the low-cost cartridge-refilling companies; I’m referring to companies like MIS Associates and people like Jon Cone, who has created a wide range of pigment ink sets that work in commercial printers and provide even greater tonal range for specific printing needs, most commonly (but not limited to) black and white images, especially some of the split-toning methods that originated in the darkroom. Cone, for example was one of the first people to use quadtone black inks, four black inks of varying densities that produced truly neutral (or custom-toned) monochrome prints of stunning quality. Cone’s printing workshops at his studio in Vermont are highly regarded, if you’re serious about diving into the world of digital printmaking.

The bottom line
When thinking about why you would want a more expensive, pigment-based printer and specialized papers, there is one compelling reason: money. If you are a photographer or an artist looking to sell your work, the stability and longevity of pigment-ink-based prints means that you can do so without worrying about a buyer coming back in a year complaining that your print has yellowed or turned green.

Remember too, the paper: Crane’s Museo and Hahnemuehle’s Photo Rag are my current favorites, followed by Epson’s Premium Luster semi-gloss paper, but I’m always playing with new papers as I find them. If you can’t find papers at your local full-service photography store, check out Digital Art Supplies on the Web. They’re a great source of traditional and unique papers for digital printing, including some great papers from Japan that work with inkjet printers.

And, one last aside: by comparison, traditional photographic prints on resin-coated or fiber-based papers are expected to last at least up to 100 years under museum conditions, but sadly, no one is quite sure, because less research is being done here than it is in the digital printing realm. I for one, would hate to see a print as beautiful as Paul Strand’s Wall Street , printed in 1915, fade on the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which might be one reason it currently isn’t on view). As much as I am committed to digital printing, I have a soft spot in my heart for the darkroom, chemicals and all.

[Updated December 5, 2:10 p.m.: Changed wording in last paragraph to correct error regarding RC papers. See this forum post for more info.]

[Updated December 6, 1:40 p.m.: Added link to HP Photosmart Pro B9180 review, clarification on metameric failure]

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