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B&W Inkjet Printing Comes of Age

Any Colour, As Long As It's Black

Since the advent of inkjet printing, colour has dominated. This is in large part due to the overwhelming popularity among photographers for working in colour, but in large part reluctance by traditional B&W practitioners to embrace digital methodologies. This has largely been because the use of standard colour inks to produce B&W images is fraught with problems, including colour casts and longevity issues.

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, advances in inkjet printing have been dramatic in the past few years. In the 6 years since 1995, when the first Epson Stylus Photo printer was introduced, till now (2001), desktop inkjet printers have gone from hobbyist novelty to professional tool. With the introduction of pigment-ink based printers (Epson 2000P, 7500, 9500) by Epson in mid-2000 print longevity made an exponential leap — from fading in as short a time as a few weeks to current claimed archival fade resistance of 100 to 200 years. This gives a 2000P print made on Archival Matt paper a fade-resistance greater than any traditional colour print, including Cibachrome / Ilfochrome and even Dye Transfer.

But, what about B&W printing? Simultaneous with the rapid development of interest in and the capabilities of digital image processing and printing, there has a dramatic re-emergence in interest in B&W photography. This topic is explored in my recent essay B&W Revival

Tiger Gamblers — Toronto, 2001

Photographed with a Leica M6 TTL and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH on Ilford XP2

Beginning in 1999 I started using monochrome inks to make B&W prints. MIS was one of the early suppliers and I used these with my Photo EX printer for a number of months. But, ultimately I remained unsatisfied with both the inks and papers available for monochrome printing.

I then turned to doing monochrome printing using my existing printers, (over time with Epson's EX, 1200 and then 1270 models). The technique I've been using was to use Duotones in Photoshop, and then print with colour inks. The reason for using Duotones is because a grayscale image can never produce a totally neutral print using colour inks. Even the most highly calibrated and profiled system can not use colour inks for neutral monochrome tones across the full range from black to white.

Piezography

Jon Cone has been involved with professional inkjet printing systems since the early 1990's, using commercial IRIS large-format printers. In 2000 he commercially introduced a system that he calls Piezography (abbreviated here and many other places to Piezo). The system is sold directly online and by mail-order through Jon's company Inkjetmall.com

I have been aware of Piezo for quite some time, but wherever I saw prints I was not particularly impressed. Without a side-by-side comparison I felt that my Duotone / colour prints were just as good. 

But eventually I decided to see for myself. I have an old Epson 1200 printer and I ordered a Piezo system to use with it. This report is based on my initial impressions doing Piezo printing. I am not writing a full review here, but instead my impressions and practical use experiences. If you'd like to read a more comprehensive review I suggest you read my friend Ian Lyons' comprehensive report at Computer Darkroom, under the Reviews subheading.

Choosing a Printer

One of the first things to consider is that the printer that you use needs to be dedicated to Piezo printing. This makes Piezo printing expensive. In addition to a dedicated printer, the starter kit, which includes a set of inks as well as special Mac or PC software and "flushing" cartridges, is not inexpensive. The starter kit for the Epson 1200, for example, is US $375.00. 

After you've bought a starter kit you will need to purchase inks on an ongoing basis. Here is a link to a page that lists prices for all the various combinations of starter kits and inks needed for various printer models.

Which printer to use raises some issues. Piezography currently (October 2001) supports the Epson 750,760,860,980,1160,1200,1520 and 3000 and 7000 models. As this is being written inks and kits for the new Epson 1280/90 models are just starting to be shipped.

Here are the problems as I see them. The 750,760,860,980 models are limited to letter sized prints. Some if these are current models and readily available. But the wide carriage 1160,1200,1520 models are no longer current and are therefore only available used or refurbished. 

The newly supported 1280/90 is current, but it uses Epson's "chipped" cartridges. Epson says that the so-called "smart" carts are designed this way for technical reasons, but everyone knows and understands that they are to deter the use of third-party inks. There is now technology available to "fool" the printer into using non-Epson ink cartridges but it's expensive. This means that Cone has only been able to use this technology in its Continuous Inking System (CIS), not in individual cartridges as with earlier model printers. 

CIS is a great way to go, particularly if you do a lot of printing. Ink costs are dramatically reduced by the use of bulk ink. But to accommodate the expensive technology needed to bypass Epson's chipped cartridge requirement means that the 1280/90 can only be supported using a CIS system. The price for this is almost US $1,000. Like I said, expensive.

The Epson 3000 is now Epson's longest lived printer, and is still available after some 6 years on the market. It makes a very suitable platform for Piezography and is only surpassed by the newer and much more expensive Epson 7000 for large format prints.

I was curious as to whether or not there was a difference in Piezo output between the various Epson printer models, especially since they cover some 6 years of evolution in print head technology. According to Cone technical staff there is essentially no visible difference between Piezo prints produced by different models. Under a magnifier there may be small differences, but not to the naked eye when viewing prints under normal conditions.

How it Works

The key to Piezography is the proprietary printer driver software written by Cone and his development group. Once installed, instead of using Epson's driver from the Print menu, you go to File / Export in Photoshop where you'll now find a Piezography selection. The Epson driver is still used, but only for selecting paper size and orientation (and utilities such as head cleaning).

The next window looks like this.

Here you simply select the paper profile you wish under the Media drop-down. The software ships with a huge number of profiles for both Epson, ConeTech and major third party fine art papers. Cone is constantly updating these, and new versions of the software are available online for downloading.

That's it. Press OK and printing begins.

WYSIWYG 

Because you're working in B&W onscreen, monitor calibration is somewhat less sensitive than it is working in colour. But if your monitor has already been calibrated for colour work using a Spyder you're almost there.

The manual is quite good in helping you get the final few yards to a perfect match between what appears on-screen and what appears on your prints. I won't go into the details here, since they're well explained in the PDF manual, but the essence is that you use Photoshop's Color Settings menu to access the Custom Dot-Gain menu, seen above.

You first make a print with no special settings. Then with the print in front of you, you adjust the curve so that the screen image appears identical to the print. This can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on how neurotic / compulsive you are. When done, and you should do this for each paper type, you'll be able to print confidently in WYSIWYG mode.

But, Is it Better?

Suspicion — Toronto, 2001

Photographed with Leica M6 and f/4 Tri-Elmar lens @50mm on Ilford XP2 Super

This photograph is a recent favourite of mine. Not only is the composition strong, but the tonalities are lovely when seen close-up on a print. It is also remarkably sharp. It therefore is a good sample to use in the evaluation and comparison of B&W printing methods..

   These scans were made directly from prints

Piezography — Epson 1200                Duotone — Epson 1270

These two enlargements make for an interesting comparison. The scans were of prints made on Epson Archival Matt, the paper that I use most when printing B&W. They were made with an Agfa Duoscan flatbed scanner. 

Firstly, what these enlargements can't show you is the tone of the prints. I tried to scan them in colour but the tonality shifts that can be introduced along the way made this less than fruitful. Also, my Duotone settings and your Duotones settings may be totally different and even look different depending on our individual printers. The Duotone that I use is a Tritone that is as close to "cool" as I can get on my particular printer. The Piezo print, as described above, has a warm / neutral tonality that is very appealing.

As can be seen, the dithering patterns are slightly different. It isn't that obvious in the samples seen above, but under a loupe it's clear that the Piezo print has slightly smoother transitions, particularly in the mid-tone areas. This is more noticeable on some images than others. What isn't possible to see in their onscreen representations though is the overall silky-smooth tonalities of the Piezo prints when combined with the essentially neutral to slightly warm ink colour. In a word, luscious, and very much like the tonalities of a traditional bromide print.

What's also much more obvious when looking directly at the prints is that the Piezo prints show more detail. The Epson driver can not take an input file of more than 360 DPI. Feed it a higher resolution file and the data is discarded by the driver. A Piezo driven printer can take a much higher resolution file, and make use of it.

Papers

Over the years my taste in photographic printing papers migrated from hi-gloss to matt. Similarly, when I started doing inkjet printing in the mid-90's I was enamoured of very glossy papers like Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film. But, as the technology matured, so too did my taste in papers.

Today for my colour work I use Epson's Archival Matt paper almost exclusively. This paper has a good weight, never wrinkles from over-inking, and has a nice smooth white finish. It's also inexpensive and readily available. For all of these reasons it has become my baseline reference for comparison with other papers.

Cone Editions thoughtfully provides a package of nine different sample papers when one buys a Piezo kit. Seven of these papers interested me and so here are my impressions, in each case using Epson's Archival Matt (EAM) as my reference point. If you're familiar with the look and feel of that paper then my comments will make some sense for you. The papers are listed in descending order of preference — most favourite first.

Epson Archival Matt

This is the whitest of the papers and the one which gives the most neutral colour rendition. The Piezo inks are still somewhat warm on this paper but the most neutral of any paper yet tested. This paper has a 192 g/m2 weight giving it good heft. The surface is very smooth. Regrettably in packages of all sizes that I've bought since the summer of 2001 Epson has decided to watermark the back of the paper with their logo and direction arrows. I find this to be unsightly in a fine art photo paper.

As mentioned above, the paper is readily available and relatively inexpensive, making it a good choice for day-to-day Piezo printing. But, though it has a very nice surface and heft, note that though it is rated as having a 100—200 year life with Epson's pigment colour inks on a 2000P or 5500, its ultimate life span with Piezo inks can not be guaranteed because the paper is acidic in nature.

Orwell

This is a 310 g/m2 paper, making it the heaviest of the lot. It reminds me of a traditional heavyweight matt photographic paper like Chlorobromide because of its heft as well as its slight warm tone. The paper has a soft textured surface which tends to add a bit of texture to images.

Somerset Velvet

This is the second whitest paper after EAM. At 250 g/m2 it is slightly heavier as well. It has a soft textured surface that's a bit smoother than Orwell. Blacks are not as intense (easily compensated for though) and mid-tone areas seem to show dithering a bit more than the previous two papers.

Somerset Enhanced

Not quite as white as Somerset Velvet, this paper produces a slightly more olive coloured image. It weighs the same as Somerset Velvet. The surface has a slightly softer texture and blacks seem a bit richer. 250 g/m2 .

Wells River

Quite similar in tonality to Somerset Enhanced, this paper is 190 g/m2 . It's also a bit warmer and coarser textured.

Concord Rag

This is an ivory coloured paper that can be quite suitable for portraits. It has a smooth surface and is quite hefty with a weight of 183 g/m2 .

Tunbridge

An even warmer ivory coloured paper than Concord Rag, at 160 g/m2 it is somewhat lighter in weight. I find the texture a bit much for high detail images.

Chelsea

A 210 g/m2 paper that is the most like a traditional "watercolour" of this group. A warm tonality with good deep blacks.

Epson Premium Semigloss & Premium Luster

Neither of these papers is particularly well suited to use with Piezography because the pigment inks tend to produce a "bronzing" effect. This means that when viewed from an oblique angle the ink appears to be sitting on the surface of the paper, rather than being part of it.

It needs to be said that one of the joys of working with inkjet (Giclee) printers is that there is a wide choice of papers available. The world of silver printing papers has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years, but there has been a veritable explosion in the inkjet world. One of the above will surely meet most peoples needs, for Piezography as well as for specialized colour printing applications.

All of the above non-Epson papers are available from Inkjetmall.com.

Another source of fine-art inkjet papers is Photoinkjet.com.

Multiple Paper Sources

One thing to keep in mind is that while there are hundreds of fine-art papers from dozens of sources, there are in fact relatively few actual paper manufacturers. One of these is the German firm of Hahnemule. The table below shows the Hahnemule product name on the left and and along the top row some of the leading paper suppliers. The brand names are shown where these rows and columns intersect.

Hahnemule Papers and Alternate Names

 

gsm

ConeTech

Media Street

Luminous

Lyson

Brightcube

German Etching 310

310

Orwell

Royal Plush

Classic Velour

Fine Art Standard

Vienna

William Turner 310

310

 

 

 

Cotton Rag

 

Torchon 285

285

 

Royal Riviera 285

Museum Parchment

Soft fine Art

 

Hahnemule 230

230

 

 

 

 

 

Albrecht Durer 210

210

Chelsea

Royal Weave 210

Flaxen Weave

Rough Fine Art

 

William Turner 190

190

Wells River

Royal Jazz

Woven Fiber

 

 

Photo Gloss 170

170

Gloss

 

 

 

 

Photo Matte 170

170

Matte

 

 

170 gsm Matte

 

Allegretto 160

160

Tunbridge

Royal Sunrise

 

 

 

Linen 150

150

 

 

 

 

 

Structure 150

150

 

Aspen Moguls 150

 

 

 

Burga Giclee German Antique 140

140

 

 

 

 

 

Burga Giclee Natural White 140

140

 

 

 

 

 

Japan 90

90

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Gloss 180

180

 

 

 

180 gsm Fast Dry Gloss

 

This list was compiled by Antonis Ricos and others of the Digital B&W group on Yahoo, and can be found in the Files section. 

Head Clogs

One of the facts of life when using any printer that utilizes pigment-based inks is that the heads clog more frequently than when dye-based inks are used. Since Piezo inks are pigment-based clogged heads are not uncommon.

The easiest preventative approach is to turn the printer off when it's not actually printing. All Epson printers automatically park their heads with an air-tight cap when they are turned off. This goes a long way to helping prevent the problem. I have found that running a nozzle check before every printing session is a good idea. If clogs show then one or two cleaning cycles usually put things right. I can be very frustrating to make a print on a large expensive sheet of art paper and then find that it looks bad because one of the heads is clogged. The documentation provides additional information on how to clean badly clogged heads.

One annoying aspect of using the Piezo system is that there is almost no correlation between ink usage and the ink level report from the cartridge. For this reason it can be impossible to determine the difference between a head clog and an empty cartridge. This has happened to me more than once and I have wasted a log of time cleaning heads when the problem was an empty cartridge. For this reason I now recommend the Continuous Inking System once you've determined that Piezo is for you. You can see at a glance how much of each ink remains and also you don't end up throwing out a 4 ink cartridge when only one of the inks is used up. After the initial investment, ink costs are reduced by between 3X and 4X — a significant saving.

Conclusion

In a word, Piezography is the way to go if you care about fine-art B&W printing. Compared to inkjet prints made using colour inks and Duotones, the results are sharper and infinitely more neutral in print colour. Compared to traditional B&W silver prints the results are lovely because of the wonderful range of papers available and the depth of control that digital image processing can provide.

If working in B&W is your thing, and you'd like to get your feet wet with Piezography, my suggestion is to do one of two things. Buy one of the currently available letter sized printers, or find a used or refurbished wide carriage model like an 1160 or a 1200. Buy a starter kit and become familiar with the system. If you then become hooked, and I think you will, you can then buy a larger, newer printer like a 1280/90 or a 3000, and a Continuous Inking System. You will be able to use the same software that you originally got as part of your Starter Kit because all the drivers for various printers and profiles for various papers are built in. You need only buy the software once.

What's Next?

Jon Cone is doing a great job with Piezography. The number of supported printers continues to grow and there are new profiles and drivers on a regular basis. But, there have been persistent rumours of Epson introducing their own line of B&W photographic printers. When and if this happens how these will compare, and what will happen to Piezography on an ongoing basis is anyone's guess.

In the meantime, I've got a lot of Piezo prints to make.

Other Links

Here are some other articles on this site that you may find of interest...

Duotones
Better B&W Using Channel Mixer
B&W Revival 

There is also an online discussion forum on topics related to Piezography and another on B&W digital printing.

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Concepts: Printing, Inkjet printer, Ink, Ink cartridge, Printer, Computer printers, Hewlett-Packard, Paper

Entities: Toronto, Inkjetmall.com, your Starter Kit, Piezo, image processing, Giclee, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Piezography, Jon Cone, Ian Lyons, Jon, Photoshop, Spyder

Tags: Epson, paper, printing, inks, prints, piezo prints, starter kit, colour inks, Archival Matt, image, Piezo printing, inkjet printing, duotones, Continuous Inking System, Epson Archival Matt, B&W printing, epson printers, Archival Matt paper, Epson driver, Epson 1200 printer, digital image processing, soft textured surface, colour prints, higher resolution file, Epson printer models, epson 1200 duotone, Epson Stylus Photo, colour work, monochrome printing, printing papers, traditional, Piezo driven printer, Epson Premium Semigloss, expensive epson, day-to-day piezo printing, Leica M6, new epson, various printers, ink cartridge, art paper