Epson Gray Balancer
The Software That Epson North America
Thinks Its Customers
Are Too Dumb to Use
Epson's latest 7-ink archival desktop printer is sold around the world under two different model designations. In Europe and elsewhere in the world — except for Japan and North America — it is sold as the Stylus Photo 2100. In The U.S. and Canada it is called the Stylus Photo 2200. It is essentially the same printer, differing in its hardware only in the power supply and AC power plugs. Inks used are identical.
The printer drivers are also essentially identical, as are most of the utilities provided. The most important exception is that the 2100 ships with a program called the Gray Balancer, while the 2200 in North America does not. Therein lies the tale.
I'm going to start by making two seemingly contradictory statements.
— The Epson 2200 is just about the most neutral printer that I've ever seen. When properly set up it can print monochrome (B&W) prints that are very pleasing in appearance. In fact I prefer them to the B&W prints that I've been making for the past year or so on an Epson 1200 using Peizography inks.
— Epson's Gray Balancer software is the most valuable image management tool ever provided with a semi-professional grade printer. For anyone wanting to do fine-art B&W printing it is an almost indispensable tool.
I'll try and reconcile these apparently contradictory concepts.
A reader from Sweden was kind enough to send me his copy of the Epson 2100's Gray Balancer, which comes as part of the printer software installation disk. The provided reference charts were also sent along. I was very curious to discover what it was that U.S. and Canadian customers were being denied or protected from.
Gray Balancer is a standalone program whose primary purpose is to fine tune the printer's ability to produce extremely neutral B&W prints, and also to add precise tonalities, if that is the user's wish. It is a complex program. The manual is provided on disk as a PDF file and is 120 pages in length. In addition to a comprehensive tutorial on what the program does and how it does it, the guide provides detailed instructions on how to utilize the program's three separate balancing utilities. The documentation is comprehensive, but not as "lucid" as it might be. It really is a slog working through it, but anyone who has some familiarity with image processing will not have any great difficulty. This is not a "beginners" manual, but then again it isn't a beginner's program or a beginner's printer.
Fortunately Gray Balancer has integrated step-by-step instructions built into the program. In fact I was able to utilize the stand-alone aspect of the program and generate test prints prior to even reading the manual. The manual made a few things clearer, but basic operation was not at all difficult, simply by using the on-screen instructions.
What It Does
What Gray Balancer does is provide the user with three levels of precise control over how the printer lays down the 7 inks to create a monochrome image. At first it would seem counterintuitive that two black inks and 5 colour ones would be used to try and create a monochrome image.
Using two black inks instead of one, as the 2200 does, definitely gives increased detail and smoother tonal transitions in shadow areas. But if it only used one or even two black inks, the only way that the printer could reproduce lighter tones would be by spreading out its dot patterns (dithering). This would make the mid and lighter tones appear grainy. So instead, all 7 inks are used including the 5 colour ones.
Now, of course if all of the inks are blended perfectly at every possible tonal level, then, all other things being equal, (which they aren't, because of residual metamerism) we would expect to see a perfectly neutral gray print. But as consistant and high precision as Epson's printer head and ink formulation technology are, they are not perfect. That means that every printer reproduces these ink mixtures slightly differently, and when changing inks there are bound to be minor variations. All of this means that my 2200 this week and your 2200 next week won't be able to print exactly the same. Damn close, but not exactly the same.
That's where the Gray Balancer comes in. When printing in colour these minor differences between heads and inks are indeed minor. For the perfectionists among us there are of course custom profiles. You can have them made for you by specialty companies to match the paper that you use and your specific printer. Or, you can buy a quality profiling system and make them for yourself.
The Gray Balancer is in effect a custom profile maker for the 2200. But, it's one that's especially designed for monochrome printing. That's why it's such an important product. It allows the individual user, with a little work, to create essentially neutral B&W prints, adjusting for any minor variances due to the heads and inks being used.
B&W printing is one of the last remaining areas where prints from the traditional wet darkroom hold an edge over inkjet prints. Some inkjet systems, such as an Epson printer using the Peizography system, are capable of superb results. But these and other third-party inks can be problematic, and can cause frequent head clogging. To be able to produce high-quality B&W prints from the same inkjet printer that one uses for colour prints is a dream that fine-art photographers have had for years. It's now at hand.
How It Does It
I think it's important for 2200 owners to know what it is that they are missing. (A comprehensive review is also available at Vincent Oliver's photo-i.
The small printed card that you see above is one of several provided with the Gray Balancer kit. The print behind it is one of the test prints that the software allows you to make. After making this print you hold the card over each of the 4 matrix areas. These are for 100%, 70%, 45% and 20% ink coverage. You look through the hole in the card and match the tone of the 70% square on the card (for example), with the best matching tone on the 70% matrix area underneath it on your print. You then note the number of that matching block and enter it back into the program. Similarly the 100%, 45% and 20% matrixes are compared.
Since the reference card is theoretically perfectly neutral in tone what you are doing by matching the neutral card with a square underneath it is determining the variance from neutrality that the printer is producing for that tone level.
So, for example, I have written the number 245 on the card above the 70% matrix. It was that square number underneath the hole in the card that matched the 70% block on the card. By entering this number into the Gray Balancer software I am telling it that for tones on the 70% range it should mix the ink colours in a certain way to produce neutral gray.
You can stop here and get excellent results. But, if you're really compulsive you can do the same thing for up to 15 tonal levels instead of just 4. Then, for the truly compulsive-neurotic among us there is the Curve Editor, that allows you to perform this matching for as many points as you wish using a continuous curve.
Using The Corrections
This is the elegant part. Once you have made the corrections, including the ability to apply some grosser adjustments (such as major tints), you name this file and save it from inside the Gray Balancer software. Now, whenever you make a print with the 2200 (even without the Gray Balancer running), — including colour prints — this correction curve is automatically applied. This means that your colour prints will in fact have greater accuracy and your B&W prints will be extremely neutral.
Note though that you should not use any of the printer's provided profiles. Instead set the printer driver to ICM and then in Photoshop set the Print Space to Printer Color Management.
Muskoka Landing Strip — Ontario, 2002
Canon D60 with Canon 100-400mm f/4.5L IS lens @ 250mm. ISO 200
As I see it the mistake that Epson North America has made is in underestimating its customers. The 2200 is not a consumer item. It is not sold through mass market retailers. It is a professional product, or at minimum one that will be used by the advanced-amateur. These are people who are comfortable with using profiles, calibrating systems, dealing with colour management and the like.
Epson may have removed Gray Balancer from the U.S. and Canadian version from fears of customer support difficulties. How are we different from photographers in France, Germany or the UK? Why is an Australian photographer considered supportable, while we aren't? Are Americans and Canadians considered by Epson to be that stupid? But, what else are we to think by their actions?
Part of the problem stems from the fact the Epson (and they are not alone in this regard) simply doesn't appreciate that with the Internet the world has changed. One can no longer ship a product in one part of the world and then provide people in other countries with a degraded or crippled version.
By definition if you buy a 2200 printer, you have a computer. If you have a computer and the need for a 2200 printer you will almost certainly have Internet access. If you are on the Net you will undoubtedly regularly read sites like this one to find out what's new in the world of image processing and associated equipment.
Did Epson think we wouldn't notice what we were missing? I really wonder!!
So. If Epson North America won't sell it to us let's just call Epson in the U.K. and order a copy. Or, failing that, have a friend in London or Sydney e-mail a copy. Unfortunately this won't work for a couple of reasons.
The first is that Epson is not selling the software. At the moment, not even as a replacement to registered owners of 2100s. Secondly, the software alone isn't enough. You need the printed reference charts as well. They really don't want us to have this product!
The Only Solution
As I see it the only solution for us, Epson's existing or prospective 2200 owners, is to lobby Epson to make the Gray Balancer available. We need to contact our retailers and have them tell their Epson reps of our dissatisfaction. We need to contact Epson directly — by mail, by phone and by e-mail and let them know what we think of the way they have treated us — their customers. Only when a vocal consumer makes his voice known do some companies do the right thing. And in this instance Epson needs to do the right thing!
The only acceptable option for Epson is to make Gray Balancer available. If there's to be an extra charge, then fine, charge us. But at least let those 2200 owners who want and need this program to have the opportunity to take advantage of what it has to offer. Right now we're frozen out with no alternatives.
The Epson Gray Balancer is too important a product for many fine-art photographers in the U.S. and Canada to be deprived of. Spread the word in the photographic community. Urge dealers, sales reps, editorial writers and other photographers via discussion boards around the Net to convince Epson that they have underestimated us.
Come on Epson. Do the right thing!
Here is Epson's corporate address...
Epson America Inc.
3840 Kilroy Airport Way
Long Beach, CA 90806
Attn: National Sales Manager
Customer Support: (800) 922-8911
(Sorry — Epson does not publish an e-mail address).