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
), 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
of information on the topic.)
It’s important to note that the paper (called the
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
, as Wilhelm terms gases like ozone, which can quickly break down dye inks on unprotected prints. This is why companies like
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.
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.]
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
, 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
forum post for more info.]
[Updated December 6, 1:40 p.m.: Added link to HP Photosmart Pro B9180 review, clarification on metameric failure]