Pigment Inkjet Printing Comes of Age
A Review of the New Epson Stylus Pro 9600 Printer
and of Epson's New UltraChrome Inks
By: Alain Briot
Alain Briot is one of the most successful landscape photographers working in the American Southwest today. His work is widely exhibited and collected. His monthly columns for this web site, of which this is one, is called Briot's View.
An extensive interview with Alain is included in Issue #1 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.
Alain Briot and his new "baby"
A New Standard of Inkjet Printing
The release of Epson's new 9600, 7600 and 2200 printers (2100 in some countries), represent a momentous event in the history of fine art and photo quality inkjet printing. The most remarkable aspect of these printers is the new inkset they use: Epson UltraChrome pigmented ink. This inkset is used by all three printers and in this respect most of what is said here about the 9600, the printer that I own and that I am reviewing, applies equally to the 7600 and the 2200. The difference between these three printers boils down to maximum printing width. The 9600 is a 44" wide printer, the 7600 a 24" printer and the 2200 is a desktop printer with a 13" width.
First print emerging
First print in natural light
Gamut or Longevity: That Was the Question
For years photographers who wanted to print their work with inkjet printers faced a dilemma. They could either print highly colorful prints with a short life span using dye inks or they could print muted prints, affected to various degrees by metamerism, using pigmented inks. The whole problem was that until Epson UltraChrome inks, one had to choose between permanence and color gamut. Dye inksets produced a large color gamut with saturated colors but faded rapidly when exposed to UV light. Pigmented inksets produced a much smaller color gamut and were subject to metamerism, but could last between 100 and 200 years under normal display conditions. For those new to this subject metamerism refers to the tendency of certain inks to shift color, typically towards a green hue, when seen under different light sources, typically tungsten and sunlight.
Epson UltraChrome pigmented inkset has changed all of that. According to my tests, done independently of any Epson connection — (I bought my printer at full price and I do not get anything from Epson in return for my comments) — UltraChrome inks deliver the same color gamut and the same maximum black density on glossy papers as do dye inks. When comparing output done on the Epson 1270, which uses dye inks, to output from the 9600 I actually prefer the prints done on the 9600, for some images, as they appear to have a larger color gamut.
Dye & Pigment prints
Green or Magenta?
Not only that but black and white prints also print better with the new UltraChrome inks. It used to be that black and white images would print with either a green or a magenta color cast, sometimes even with a blue cast, and that this color cast would have to be "tuned out" through color adjustments in Photoshop. Not any more. My very first black and white print on the 9600, using the Epson profiles which came with the printer, all 7 inks and an RGB file, printed with beautiful neutral gray tones. It looked perfect the first time around! This was a great surprise after years of expecting to have to correct color casts on black and white inkjet prints.
The Seventh Ink
The reason for the neutral blacks provided by the new UltraChrome inkset is largely due to the presence of a 7th ink. In addition to black, magenta, cyan, light magenta and light cyan Epson added a new ink called Light Black. This light black ink makes UltraChrome printers just as excellent with black and white as they are with color.
The 2200, according to pre-release reports, comes with a software utility called the Gray Balancer. In essence what the Gray Balancer does is allow you to print a series of gray squares, varying from neutral to greenish to reddish and bluish, and then allow you to tell the software which squares are which color so as that the printer knows how to create a perfectly neutral black and white print. I very much expected the Gray Balancer to ship with the 9600 but alas it came without it. However, after my very satisfying experience printing black and white on the 9600, I found it not to be necessary, although it would be nice to have just in case.
The Eighth Ink
Epson went the extra mile to satisfy not only black and white photographers but also photographers or fine artists who like to print on uncoated or matte papers. With the UltraChrome inkset Epson offers two different black inks: Photo Black, which comes standard with the printer, and Matte Black, which comes as an option. The user has to choose between one of these two blacks as only one of them can be installed at any given time. However the user can switch from Photo to Matte Black as desired. In this respect these printers are 7 color printers although an 8th ink is available as an option.
There is great advantages to this second black ink. Photo Black is designed to print on photo-quality papers such as glossy, luster and other photo-based media. Matte Black is designed to print on fine art or uncoated media such as enhanced matte, watercolor, or engraving papers. Typically these papers do not generate blacks as deep as on glossy stock. Matte Black remedies to this problem by delivering a higher maximum black density on these papers, reportedly 1.7 instead of 1.5 for Photo Black.
However there is a drawback for switching from one black to the other. All the black ink present in the ink lines must be purged out of the printer before the new black can be loaded. Because the printer pumps all inks at the same time this means purging the other 6 lines at the same time. This is of particular concern for 9600 and 7600 owners since those printers have ink lines that are measured in feet. It is of much less concern for 2200 owners since the ink cartridges sit on top of the print head. On the 9600 changing from one black to the other means a waste of about a full 110 ml ink cartridge total across all 7 inks, or about $70. Of course the same process has to be repeated in reverse should you decide to change again.
Introducing the Ink Maintenance Tank
So where does all this ink go? Well, certainly, it does not evaporate into thin air. It goes into an ink waste tank appropriately called the Maintenance Tank. All inkjet printers have such a waste tank but until UltraChrome this tank was only accessible to trained repairmen. Most users, myself included, did not even know that such tanks existed. When it was full the printer would stop working and a maintenance call had to be made. Hopefully, your warranty covered it. Otherwise, you were in for a significant expense just to drain the tank and replace the ink pads.
|Maintenance Tank Drawer||Maintenance Tank Pulled Out|
With the 7600 and 9600 the Maintenance Tank consists of a drawer located under the print head on the right side of the printer. This drawer can be pulled out just like a desk drawer to reveal a series of ink pads saturated by wasted ink. When full, something decided by the printer software via a chip located on the side of the Maintenance Tank, the drawer can be replaced by the user for a cost of about $40. Because so much ink is wasted during black cartridge changes the maintenance drawer must be considered a consumable. It is therefore a good idea to stock a new drawer along with new ink cartridges.
The Importance of Profiling
The 9600 is an excellent printer right out of the box and images printed with the provided profiles look very nice. However, accurate profiling can do wonders for this machine. I therefore recommend that you look into acquiring profiles for UltraChrome inks if you want to get the most out of this three printers. I have tested profiles made with Gretag McBeth Eye One hardware and software combination and prints made from these profiles are much more satisfying to me. They exhibit a higher color saturation, more open shadows, and better blue and magenta tones than prints of the same images done with the Epson profiles.
|Enhanced Matt With Epson Profile||Enhanced Matt With One Eye Profile|
I am currently in the process of having other profiles with a SpectroScan and ProfileMaker 4 Pro. The results obtained with these profiles will be posted on my 9600 diary.
By the way this diary provides many details about the inner working of the 9600.
My Favorite Papers
The 9600, just like the 7600 and 2200, is a 2880 maximum resolution printer. However, I found out that printing at 1440 dpi, or even at 720 dpi on certain papers, resulted in a complete lack of "dots" or digital artifacts. Printing speed is also much better at these lower resolutions.
I personally print most of my work on photo-quality papers. My tests so far have therefore focused on isolating photo-base media which would work best with the 9600. Here is what I found:
Epson Glossy Photo-Weight
Very nice color saturation, deep blacks; RC base
Epson Premium Glossy
The glossiest paper I found. Deep blacks, excellent saturation; RC base
Epson Enhanced Matte
Comes with the 9600 as a partial 44" roll. Great for black and white and for subdued color prints when a matte surface is desired. This paper should be used with the Matte Black ink for maximum black density. With the Eye One profile I got one of the most saturated color prints so far.
|Parrot Ultra Luster|
Great blacks, excellent saturation, paper lays perfectly flat after printing; smooth luster paper (almost no texture) on an RC base; the lack of curling is due to the presence of an anti curling agent in the paper.
For some time I entertained the idea of having both a photographic dye printer and a pigmented ink printer. The 9600 has changed my thinking since it can create prints which are just as good, or better, than dye ink prints. However, I may still get a second printer, and that would be another 9600, or 7600, in which I would permanently install Matte Black ink so as to avoid the ink purge required when switching from one black to another. Such a solution is particularly attractive if you print both on photo-base and on fine-art media on a regular basis. This solution can also be used with the 2200 printer.
When I first made the jump from chemical photography to digital photography in 1992 the only printer able to generate photo-quality prints from a digital file was the Iris printer. I wanted one, real bad, but the only problem was they cost in excess of $100,000. Ten years later you can have the same quality for $5,000 down to $900 (the expected price of the 2200), depending on which printing width you choose. What a change in only 10 years! It did seem like an eternity, and perhaps it was in digital imaging years, but the result was worth it. I still wouldn't spend $100,000 for a printer today, and I don't think I am alone in this regard. However, I gladly spent $5,000 for the Epson 9600 because it allows me to create images which rival what an Iris printer can do, for a fraction of the cost of an Iris printer, and for a much lower maintenance cost.
Pigment inks have come of age or, as they say, they have arrived. It took ten years to complete the journey in my case, but the superb prints afforded by the 7600, 9600 and 2200 were worth the wait.
This is one of a regular series of articles titled Briot's View
written exclusively for The Luminous Landscape
by Alain Briot