Archival Digital Processing
April - June, 2000
This article was written in the Fall of 1999, prior to the release of the Epson 870 and 1270 printers in the spring of 2000 and the 2000P that summer. These printers have revolutionized desktop photographic printing because of their archival inks and papers.
The article below would have to be totally rewritten to be updated. Rather than do so it is being left in its original form since it still contains much useful information. Read my review of the Epson 1270 printer and the pigment-ink based Epson 2000P for the most up-to-date information on archival digital processing.
Since the advent of ink-jet printers there has been both joy and despair among fine-art photographers who have embraced digital image processing. Each succeeding generation of printers has produced increasingly finer image quality, till the point we're at today where printers like the Epson Photo 750 and 1200 can produce prints superior in most ways to traditional photographic media. Except one! Archival permanence.
This section explores the newest papers and inks and describes how they are changing the face of ink-jet imaging.
Same Background Information
Colour fades. There's no way of getting around it. The biggest culprits in fading are heat, moisture and the type of colour dyes or pigments used. Have you noticed how the colour of the paint of your car fades over the years? How about clothing that has been repeatedly washed in hot water? Have you noticed how in art galleries light levels and humidity are carefully controlled? This all applies to colour prints as well; those using traditional photochemical processes as well as the new ink-jet media.
A few years ago early users of ink-jet printers for photographic reproduction were astounded to discover that their prints faded within months. Sometimes even weeks. During the past year or so manufacturers have made significant advances in increasing the fade resistances of both their papers and inks. But, you can't fight mother nature. Dye based inks simply fade much faster than ones that are pigment based. Up until now all inks for ink-jet printers have been dye based. These have a wide colour gamut but are highly susceptible to fading.
In the world of traditional colour photographic media this was one of the reasons for the popularity of Cibachrome (later Ilfochrome) material. This is a pigment based process using a polyester based substrate and therefore much more resistant to fading than regular photochemical processes. In fact for many years photo galleries and art museums would only accept colour prints for display and sale if they were on Cibachrome or other archival colour processes. Who wants to buy a print that will fade away in a few years?
In the fall of 1999 several new products came to market aimed specifically at improving the fade resistance of ink-jet prints. Among the papers and inks that appear to be the most promising are Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film and MediaStreet's Generations pigment based inks. There are others, but these two appeared to me to offer the best combination of image quality and archival characteristics.
Pictorico Pro: Photo Gallery Hi-Gloss White Film
The name is quite a mouthful, but what's the product like?
The closest comparison I can make is with my previous gold
standard, Epson Glossy Film. By comparison Pictorico is whiter, glossier and
heavier. While Epson film feels like plastic, Pictorico feels more like paper
coated in plastic. In fact, as a Cibachrome (Ilfochrome) printer for more than
30 years I must say that it appears to me to be very similar in look and feel to
Pictorico is currently available in 3 paper sizes; 8.5X11²,
11X17² and 13X19². The 8.5X11² package contains 40 sheets and costs $64.95.
The 11X17² package has 20 sheets and costs the same. The largest size,
13X19², also has 20 sheets and costs $78.95. These prices include free 2-day
FedEx delivery within the USA; quite convenient since mail order is currently
the primary means of availability.
So, in terms of cost per sheet, 8.5X11² is $1.63, 11X17² is $3.25 and 13X19² is $3.95.
As mentioned above with printers like the Epson Photo 750 and 1200 and Pictorico we can now produce prints that are superior in almost every way to those that can be produced with traditional papers. The ³almost² is now confined to archival longevity. I¹m not a scientist. I¹m a fine arts photographer. But, it¹s known that the two factors that influence fade resistance are the inherent natures of the paper and the inks. Pictorico, I believe, addresses the former very effectively. I¹ll leave it to others to perform scientific fade resistance tests, but my own bathtub tests convince me that this paper truly is waterproof. Try this yourself. Make a print on Pictorico and also your favourite paper. Take them both, place them under running water right after printing, and rub them with your fingers. (The Pictorico paper appears almost impervious to water and smudging.) Since the effects of humidity are one of the devils of print permanence I believe that Pictorico should have a higher degree of ink and image retention than other papers of my experience. Apparently this imperviousness to moisture is as a result of impregnating the paper with fine ceramic particles. Whatever works. Note: Results of my Archival Test are now in and they are very disappointing for Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film.
In terms of colour fidelity and ease of color setting, my impression has been that on an Epson Photo printer it prints almost identically to Epson Glossy Film, and that is the recommended setting. Some small tweaking may be desirable with some images, but generally you shouldn¹t have any problems. Colors are rich and vibrant, and as I¹ve already mentioned remind me most of Cibachromes. If when used with archival pigment based inks we can also have the archival qualities of Cibachrome itself the millennium will have truly arrived. ( See Generations pigment ink review below. Unfortunately these inks are not compatible with Film type papers.).
There is a very informative paper test located at DigitalDarkroom, a Singapore based site devoted to digital imaging products and techniques in particular relating to Epson Photo printers. Scroll down the main page till you see the heading titled Papers Update. A high powered microscope has been used to scan various papers showing how they handle ink.
Pictorico papers are available by phone or may be ordered over the net. The web site is www.pictorico.com, but if the site is down you can call (888) 879-8592.
NB: Like Epson's Glossy Film Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film has a notch in the upper right hand corner of the printable side. One package of Pictorico paper that I received though had the notch on the wrong side. The best way to check if you are printing on the correct side is to be sure that you are using the glossy side, not the satin finish side.
GENERATIONS Micro-Bright Pigment Ink
I've been waiting for something like this for a long time pigment based inks for my Epson Photo series printers. What's the big deal you say? Inks are inks, right? Wrong. Pigments are much more resistant to fading than are dyes. MediaStreet.com, the products manufacturer claims that their own internal testing is showing 75 years without fading or colour shift.
This claim remains to be independently verified. I'm a fine-arts photographer, not a scientist, but I have conducted some accelerated fade tests and the results are that on Epson Photo Paper Generations inks actually fade faster than Epson's own inks.
Archival permanence aside for the moment, what's it like to print with Generations ink? The answer is, uneventful if you're using one of the less glossy papers such as Epson Photo Paper. MediaStreet states in their on-line information that because these inks have a different colour gamut than do the Epson OEM inks colour adjustments might be necessary. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the colour shift is relatively minor. In fact colour accuracy is quite good and the real difference seems to one of contrast and saturation.
On Epson Photo paper I found that contrast seemed slightly lower than with Epson inks and either a custom profile or some minor tweaking is all that's needed to produce results that are essentially indistinguishable from standard inks. But, on Epson Glossy Film and Pictorico Hi-Gloss film results are very disappointing. Unfortunately and as stated by the MediaStreet.com, Generations inks are not compatible with what I regard as the highest quality papers, specifically Epson's Glossy Film and Pictorico's Hi-Gloss Film. MediaStreet has some new high quality papers that are compatible with Generations inks and as soon as I have had an opportunity to test these I will add them to the test suite described below.
Update: After a discussion with MediaStreet about my disappointment that Generations ink aren't compatible with resin coated papers such as Pictorico and Epson Film I was sent a sample of their best cast-coated paper called JET Drive Photo-Realistic Paper.
The finish is reminiscent of Epson Photo Paper but somewhat thinner in weight. It also has blue-white rather than a creamy-white base colour. Frankly, I don't care for the paper. The blue tint is less pleasing than are whiter papers and when using Generations ink I got much less saturated colours than I did with Epson Photo paper, a curious result.
In addition to MediaStreet's Generations archival inks MIS also has a colour archival ink which I have now tested. Simply put this appears to be the exact same product as MediaStreet's, reviewed above. My guess is that they are both OEM'd from the same supplier in Japan. Regrettably the same smearing problem with Glossy Films like those from Pictorico and Epson prevents these great papers from being used.
MediaStreet states on their web site that their archival colour inks are not compatible with Glossy Films and so does MIS; "We have found that the archival ink will print on most coated paper except for the film type papers." But, they also state; "Preferred papers include, MIS glossy and matt finish papers (Weber-Valentine), Somerset Velvet, Somerset Enhanced, Concord Rag, Lyson Standard, Konica Glossy, and Pictorico high gloss film". (Underline is mine). This is obviously neither consistent not correct.
So, the choice is to use purportedly archival colour inks like those from MediaStreet and MIS with regular printing papers, or to stick with non-archival Epson inks but be able to use Epson's Glossy Film or Pictorico's Photo Gallery Hi-Gloss White Film. While I love the idea of archival ink-jet prints my preference is for the highest quality images possible and for this reason for the time being I'll be sticking with Epson inks and Pictorico paper.
This page details the results of these tests.
MIS' Quadtone inks are pigment based. They allow most Epson Photo printers to utilize pigment based black & white inks instead of the usual dye based colour inks. Either the 4 colour or 6 colour cartridge (depending on the Epson model) is replaced with an ink cartridge that contains black inks in various shades of gray. The separate black ink cartridge is also replaced with one that contains black pigment based inks.
The result is a printer that produces much better monochrome prints than are possible when using Epson's colour cartridges, and the use of pigment based inks reputedly produce greater archival permanence. It should be noted that unlike with the Generations colour inks, Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film does work very well with MIS inks even though these are pigment based.
For more on monochrome digital printing using MIS Quadtone inks, please see the article entitled Digital Black & White Printing.
MediaStreet's Generations ink as well as MIS's archival colour inks potentially offer archival qualities comparable to or exceeding those of traditional colour media, though not yet with the most preferable papers such as Epson and Pictorico's Glossy Films. This page details results of test to determine how various paper and ink combination compare.
For a comprehensive look at some scientific testing results have a look at recent data from Wilhelm Research. (This is a PDF format file).