In a major effort to guide customers to quality inkjet supplies, the Wilhelm Imaging Research Certified Image Perman-ence Testing Program has been endorsed by Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark. The program certifies that any paper carrying the WIR Seal has been tested to have a display life of 25 years or more.
With over 90% of the inkjet market, these manufacturers hope to reduce the confusion that many consumers have when it comes to selecting the proper media for their photo printing needs. The WIR testing methodologies have long been considered the standard among pros, and this program should help educate the much larger consumer market where generic papers with unknown quality compete against the more expensive brand name products.
Printer manufacturers have all made improvements to the lifespan of the typical digital photo. Several years ago it wasn't uncommon for inkjet prints to begin showing signs of fading or color shifts after only a few months of display. Of course, this type of display life was completely unacceptable to pros (and many consumers as well) and led to numerous ways around the issue, including other print methods such as LightJet and Lambda.
Every major printer manufacturer today has reformulated their inks and papers to vastly improve the display life of prints made with their inkjets. And, a standard of sorts has been established to measure and rate the permanence of a print. This is great for consumers but typically only applies when using the vendor's inks and papers. What about other papers, both regular photo papers and specialty fine art papers? How do you convince the average consumer that the bulk paper they are buying from Staples, Costco, or CompUSA isn't always going to give them the results they expect?
Enter the Standards
Like most things computing oriented, there are competing standards today. The one most often cited and used by most pros is Wilhelm Imaging Research. All of the major printer manufacturers, including Canon, Epson, and Hewlett Packard are now using Wilhelm certified numbers for their papers and inks. Wilhelm numbers are also cited by several third party paper vendors as well, such as Ilford, Moab, and Hahnemühle. The major non-conformist is Kodak, which uses their own testing methods that generates results many companies dispute. Both Wilhelm and Kodak subject prints to controlled lighting and ozone levels that speed up the fading process. Where they differ is the intensity of the light used. Wilhelm uses a 450 lux light source while Kodak claims that 120 lux is more realistic and appropriate for the average home. Based on which standard you use, the Kodak papers are rated for either 100 or 30 years.
In the long run, until the ISO (International Standards Organization) establishes a clear standard for everyone to follow, the safe money is on Wilhelm. Aside from Henry Wilhelm's reputation in the industry, the only standard that has a true chance at being successful is an independently created one.
Why it Matters
Consumers are willing to pay more for quality (well, most of them are. The ones that aren't will always be shopping for the lowest price). With longevity ratings on the paper it's much easier to convince the buyer that, although the Epson (or HP or Canon) paper costs more than the warehouse club paper, the results will be more consistent and last longer. Buying name brand insures that the ink and paper will produce the prints the customer is looking for, while using the bargain brand is likely to vary widely in quality. The major paper vendors typically create and provide profiles to ensure their papers work well with the popular printers.
The same holds true for inks. There are a number of generic inkjet refill kits available, all promising lower costs than replacing with the manufacturers inks. Many of these kits are of dubious quality though, with inks that don't come close to matching either the display life or color palette of the OEM inks.
Educating the Consumer
The home printing market is exploding right now. Photo quality printers are available for under $100 that can match or exceed the quality of prints from a minilab, but only when the consumer knows what works well and what doesn't. If you sell printers, you have a golden opportunity to explain the differences between the vendor or other quality paper supplier such as Kodak and Ilford, to the bargain brands at the office supply or other location. Some stores have gone as far as keeping samples on hand of the different papers, showing how fading and color shifting can occur when using the wrong type of paper with inkjet printers. As always, a visual reminder is the most effective, and can help the customer make a buying decision that is likely to keep them coming back to you for their printing supplies.
When talking about display life, it's easy for the customer to see the value of paper and ink that will last 100 years or more (up to 300 years in some cases) compared to an unknown amount that could be measured in months.
Printing technology is constantly improving, and each improvement makes the need for quality supplies more important. Unfortunately, the average consumer knows little of what is needed to get the most from their equipment. By educating yourself and your staff on issues such as print life, you can increase sales and repeat business in a way that the warehouse and office supply store could never hope to match. PTN