Epson UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper
In the spring of 2003, at the PMA trade show in Las Vegas, Epson introduced a new fine-art paper called Ultrasmooth. I was provided with a sample pack and when I returned to my office tested a few sheets and was very impressed. My write-up from that time can be found here.
I immediately placed an order for some Ultrasmooth with my dealer. More than a year has now passed and it was just last month that I received a call saying that a small quantity of the paper had arrived. About time! No one knows or will say what the delay has been. One industry source tells me that Epson had problems having the paper manufactured in sufficient quantity to permit an international roll-out. What's curious as well is that though it's now available in limited quantities, the sizes available are also truncated. Only rolls and large sheets (24X30") will be available, not smaller sizes such as A3 and Super A3/B. (To my knowledge Epson has cancelled plans to offer Ultrasmooth in these smaller sheet sizes).
Regrettably this means that only users of Epson's large format printers will be able to avail themselves of this paper. These includes the current (summer 2004) Epson 4000, 7600, 9600 and 10600 printers. This is a real shame, because my testing shows it to be one of the most attractive papers available for fine-art exhibition quality prints.
Contax 645 with Kodak DCS Proback and Zeiss Sonnar 210mm f/4 lens at ISO 100
Fine Art Longevity
A few words are needed about the issue of the so-called archival properties of inkjet prints. Firstly, it's only been during the past couple of years that the words archival and inkjet can be used in the same sentence without the word not in between them. But to its great credit Epson has advanced the state of the art, and with its Ultrachrome pigment-based inks and certain papers we now have prints that are rated as having fade-free lives of between 100 and 200 years. This is as long as any colour photographic processes yet invented, including Cibachrome/Ilfochrome and also Dye Transfer. There are lots of caveats, such as display and storage conditions. If you're not already familiar with them you may wish to read some of the test reports and technical papers published on the subject by Wilhelm Research.
But one issue about archival permanence that I'd like to spend a moment on, and which many photographers don't pay enough attention to, is that of the synergistic relationship between inks and papers. One simply can't speak about the archival properties of an inkset, such as Ultrachrome, without taking into consideration the paper that it's printed on. Don't imagine that just because you're printing with pigment-based inks that you can buy any old paper whose characteristics that you like, and expect excellent lasting properties. You might get them, but then again, you might not. Paper and ink have a symbiotic relationship, and unless a manufacturer or some trusted third party such as Wilhelm provides test results, nothing should be assumed.
Paper isn't just paper, and its colour, weight and texture aren't its only important characteristics. For example, for maximum longevity a fine-art printing paper should be acid free and not contain any lignin, chlorine or whiteners. It should also be made from 100% cotton rag and be pH buffered. Now, when combined with a pigment based inkset, such as Epson's Ultrachrome, you have a combination that offers the greatest anti-fading, anti-oxidization and anti-yellowing characteristics that current technology can provide. (By the way, these are exactly the same concerns that painters have had for centuries with regard to their paints and papers).
So, how does one find a printing paper with these characteristics? Easy, because this is what is offered by Epson's Ultrasmooth paper. It is what is known as a hot-pressed paper, which means that it has a very smooth surface, unlike some similar quality fine-art papers which are textured (cold press). Which one you prefer is a matter of personal taste, but I like matte finished smooth papers because they interfere the least with the image itself.
Till now my preferred paper has been Epson's Enhanced Matte. It is smooth, has a bright white finish, and is inexpensive. But, it also has whiteners, is not pH neutral, and therefore tests show that it does not offer the ultimate in archival characteristics. Not bad, but not the best. By comparison, Ultrasmooth is not as white, but unlike a number of fine-art papers that I have tried is far less yellow than many.
Ultrasmooth is a heavier paper than Enhanced Matte. It is 250 g/m2, whereas Enhanced Matte is 192 g/m2. This is quite a difference, and when handled by prospective buyers the heavier weight makes a positive impression. (The 24X40" sheets are 500 g/m2, which is almost a cardboard type weight, and likely unsuitable for most fine-art applications).
Appearance and Image Quality
After making a number of comparison prints on Ultrasmooth alongside Enhanced Matte, I must say that they look very similar. Ultrasmooth is slightly less white and has an ever so small amount of additional paper texture. I don't see much of a difference in terms of black density, and colour saturation seems quite similar. The surface has a bit more tooth than Enhanced Matte and this means that it scuffs more easily. Prints on Ultrasmooth should have a sheet of tissue paper protecting them when they're in transit or in a portfolio with other prints, to prevent scuffing. This makes it less than ideal as a portfolio paper but doesn't present a problem with prints that are to be framed.
Given its superior archival characteristics this has now become my preferred paper for exhibition quality prints. I am using it on 17" rolls with an Epson 4000 printer, using the Imageprint RIP and Colorbyte's proprietary downloadable profiles. Epson does not yet offer a factory profile for Ultrasmooth and so you'll have to make one yourself, or have one made for you unless you're using a RIP. I tried using the Epson Enhanced Matte profile, and got decent results, but the exacting worker will prefer to use a custom profile specifically designed for this paper.
You can order Ultrasmooth from any Epson dealer, or online from various suppliers, including Inkjetart.com.
Reader Gerry Davis has sent the following e-mail along with some excellent additional information;
Michael, as usual you are on point with this review. I
love this paper on my 4000, although you have to be careful with images with
certain colors since the cream finish changes colors especially in the yellow
and orange area. It also darkens some images too much over more white
A couple of points not dealt with that you might want to know and supplement the excellent review with –
1 – this paper has been available in larger rolls in the US for nearly a year and in 17 inch since June 2004. At PMA last March, a product manager flatly told me it would not be available in cut sheets until they could meet the demand for rolls since it was more profitable to sell rolls.
2 – if you read the PDF file on the paper on the US Epson website, it specifically says to use the RW Watercolor profile for it. Not the Enhanced Matte. The RW profile works very well.
3 – I understand that Epson has a profile for it under development, which should be released this Fall.
4 – There is a company in the Bay Area, http://www.eximvaios.com that will cut the larger rolls into different widths so it can be used on the R800 and 2200 printers. This has been discussed a lot on Fredmiranda.com and a number of people have used it with great success. This company also sells U/S at fair prices.
5 – Finally, I have been experimenting with an alternative since the cut sheets still are not available. The Entrada paper from www.moabpaper.com which comes in two weights and two finishes, Bright and Natural, is an excellent alternative and is much less expensive. I find that it picks up the blacks and midtones as well as U/S and best of all, it comes in various cut sheet sizes as well as rolls – and it is available and shipping. If you call or email their customer service, they will send you sample packs of all their excellent papers. They expect shortly to have a profile for this paper for the 4000 and for now suggest using the same RW Watercolor profile that Epson recommends.
Hope this is helpful to you and your readers. I have spent a huge amount of time playing with and researching this, since I love this printer and the images it produces.