Text by David Saffir.
Images as Noted.
Digital imaging and inkjet printing have improved dramatically in the past six to 12 months. Many changes have been made and new products have been introduced in response to the needs of photographers, designers and anyone else who wants to put ink on paper. Some of these changes include improved color controls, better software, faster print times, and better black-and-white prints.
This article describes several new printers from Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard. My hands-on experience covers some of the HP and Epson models, and I also include some early reports on the newest batch of pigment-based Canon inkjets. The chart describes various printer specs, and the sidebar, "Quick Tips for Top Prints," offers suggestions for just about any inkjet printer. I'll be chiming in throughout the article with comments and suggestions that should help make your current or future inkjet experience much easier (and enjoyable!).
HP has introduced the Designjet 30, 90, and 130. These models are virtually identical, except for their size (see chart), and they use specially formulated 6-color dye-based inks named "Vivera." All three printers share the same exact ink cartridges; different-color ink tanks come in different sizes, and were designed based on the way in which ink is commonly used.
Unlike other systems that use dye-based inks, prints made on the HP Designjet 30, 90, and 130 have a print-life expectancy of 80+ years when paired with specific HP inkjet papers, according to Wilhelm Research (www.wilhelm-research.com). These papers are swellable, enabling them to hold dyes in a way that greatly increases their lightfastness. As of press time, estimated print life has not been reported by Wilhelm Research on matte papers with the Vivera inks, but results are expected in the future. HP offers a RIP and network card option for all the printers, and a roll paper option is available for the Designjet 90 and 130 models.
Highlights & Observations:
Based on my observations and experience as an owner of an HP Designjet 130, all three printers produce prints with excellent sharpness and detail, an excellent color palette, and a very wide dynamic range (especially on HP Photo Satin and HP Photo Gloss papers). The printers also have an automated color calibration feature, which works very well, and an excellent browser-based printer management and maintenance utility, which is very easy to use. The blacks are extremely black, and prints have a unique look and feel.
I have also found that these printers make excellent black and white prints, with no discernible bronzing or color casts. In my opinion, on HP Glossy Paper, the images are nearly indistinguishable from normal B&W darkroom prints. The driver's "black -and-white" option is generally not recommended, which will only print with one ink. Instead, I recommend printing black and white using the same settings as with color prints. The Designjet 90 and 130 can use sheet paper from a paper tray, or sheets may be fed individually from the front or back. The built-in paper cutter also works well. Consider cutting sheets off of rolls and feeding them manually. This will not only save money, but it allows for a wide range of different-size prints, especially panoramas. The printer is also quiet while running or in idle mode.
Prints made on the Designjet do not feel dry to the touch as quickly as those made on some printers using pigment-based inks, so care is required for a few minutes to avoid fingerprints. One of the printer's best tools is the "color calibration" feature. I have found that this generates excellent color. Additionally, I have never needed to run a print head cleaning cycle, which is often necessary with other printers.
HP provides good paper profiles for its media, and these can be selected through the printer driver or the RIP. Like just about any printer on the market, you can squeeze some additional quality, sparkle, and color accuracy out of the Designjet 130 using a custom paper profile--I have made custom profiles using the X-Rite Pulse system, and have achieved excellent results. Other companies, such as GretagMacbeth also make excellent color profiling systems. I've also found that many of the HP papers are heavyweight (about 300gsm), easy to handle once printed, and tolerate mounting very well.
Epson recently announced the UltraChrome K3 printers. The lineup includes the Stylus Photo R2400 (13'' wide), Stylus Pro 4800 (17'' wide), SP 7800 (24'' wide) and the SP 9800 (44'' wide). All feature the new Ultrachrome K3 ink set, with a larger gamut and better fade resistance, compared with the original UltraChrome ink set. Preliminary display-permanence ratings of these printers' output are available for review at www.wilhelm-research.com.
The printers now feature eight ink cartridge slots, including a new Light Light Black ink. On all the printers, there is a changeout process when switching between Photo Black (optimized for photo paper), and Matte Black (optimized for matte or art papers). This procedure has been modified so that switching between the two inks on the 7800 or 9800 is far more efficient than it was with the SP 7600 and SP 9600 models. An additional ink-maintenance tank has also been added.
Highlights & Observations:
I currently own both an Epson Stylus Pro 7600 for printing on fine art papers (matte black installed), and a Stylus Pro 9600 for printing on semi-gloss and glossy photographic papers (photo black installed). I use the machines for high-end photo and other reproduction, and both machines have performed well. I recently had the opportunity to work, hands on, testing the new Stylus Pro 4800 (17'' width) and 9800 (44'' width) printers, and I believe that their hardware and software are significantly improved. Special thanks to celebrity and fine-art photographer Greg Gorman, who spent time with me at his studio, showing me his stunning prints while outputting my files and demonstrating the printers' new hardware and software features.
I was impressed by both printers' faster print speeds (even at 2,880 resolution), more user-friendly printer driver, and the new "Advanced Black and White mode." With the UltraChrome K3 printers, Epson has provided photographers with better control over B&W printing, including the ability to make excellent B&W prints through the new interface, directly from color or black and white files. Toning is done using a simple color wheel in the driver and a small preview box shows the tone selected. The results are truly neutral or very even-toned sepia, cool, or other toned prints, and I was extremely impressed with the prints we made on Epson Smooth Fine Art Paper. Contrast/density can also be adjusted using a list of presets, giving the user the ability to dial in a softer, or snappier look.
In the case of the SP 4800, paper handling is greatly improved over the SP 4000. Epson has also reduced the gloss differential significantly, which was an issue previously on some semi-gloss and gloss papers. As a result, semi-gloss and glossy papers now look smoother and more brilliant. Skin tone reproduction is excellent, as are shadow-highlight transition areas, and the prints have a strong sense of depth. The ink cartridges are shorter, and are all the same length, whether they are the 110ml or 220ml capacity. This helps keep them out of the way and, more importantly, the cartridges are pressurized, which should translate into more consistent ink flow and reliability.