LightJet Vs. Inkjet
This article was written in the Fall of 1999, prior to the release of the Epson 870 and 1270 printers. When these were first released in the late-winter of 2000 they 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 for the most up-to-date information on archival digital processing.
Things move quickly. Everything said above about the Epson 1270 now applies to the new generation of pigment based archival printers from Epson — the 2000P, 7500 and 9500. My review of the Epson 2000P covers this printer and provides links to the other two.
For some further thoughts on this subject, another year later, see my essay entitled Handmade, The Inkjet Print as Objet D'Art.
Inkjet printers have come a long way in the past few years. But, commercial multi-hundred thousand dollar printers such as the Cymbolic Sciences International LightJet 5000, which is arguably the finest continuous tone digital printer on the market, have got to produce superior prints. Right?
In the other corner is the Epson Photo 1200, again arguably the finest consumer grade inkjet printer presently on the market at least as of Nov '99.
Recently while preparing some presentation prints I decided to see for myself how the current state-of-the-art in each area compared. For this comparison I chose one of my favourite recent images.
A larger version my be seen by clicking on the above image. Afterward, use your browsers BACK button to return here.
Taken in the Eastern Sierra in October 1999, this photograph show remarkable detail. It was taken with a Hasselblad XPan and 90mm lens on Provia 100. The 24X65mm transparency was scanned with a Polaroid 4000 scanner and it produced a 103MB file scanned at 4000dpi.
On the Epson 1200 I made the largest print possible on 13X19" Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film, using standard Epson inks the highest quality combination that I currently know of. The file was reduced to 360dpi, because my tests have shown that the printer can not use higher res files than this they simply slow down the printing process.
The LightJet 5000 print was made for me by Colourgenics, a custom lab in Toronto. The print was on 20X24" paper (the smallest size that they print) and Fuji Crystal Archive paper was used. This paper is rated by Wilhelm Research as having a life-span of some 60 years before noticeable fading occurs, double that of Ilfochrome (Cibachrome) one of the long-time archival champs.
I prepared a file for the lab by simply taking the same file that I had used for the Epson print and reducing it to exactly 305dpi at 100% size, the resolution required by the LightJet.
How Do They Look?
Firstly, it needs to be said that both prints are excellent. They are also almost identical in colour and tonality, with the LightJet print showing the yellow Aspen leaves in the background as somewhat more orange that did the Epson.
The next critical question is, did the Epson print look like any different than the LightJet in terms of apparent resolution, dot visibility or other artifacts? The answer is a loud and resounding NO! Even though the LightJet print is a true continuous-tone photographic print and the Epson Photo 1200 is a dot-based inkjet there is absolutely no apparent difference to the unaided eye at any viewing distance. Even through a 3-power Rodenstock Aspherical Lupe very little difference can be seen.
Epson Photo 1200 LightJet 5000
These very large blow-ups were made by scanning the actual prints at 1000dpi on an Agfa Duoscan. The section is taken from the area in the left third of the image above where the group of fallen tress is leaning against one still standing. It is at "actual pixel" resolution, so while it's already very large a bigger blow-up would only show pixelation not detail.
What is shows is what I have described above. There is essentially no visible difference between these prints.
What Does Each Print Cost?
The Pictorico paper costs $3.95 / sheet. I figure that about $2 worth of ink was used, so call the cost $6. (All prices shown are in U.S. dollars). The LightJet print cost about $55, almost 10 times more.
But, things are not weighted so badly against the LightJet from a cost standpoint. A 22X28" print costs just a few dollars more at about $59. Four different 11X14" images can be placed on one such print, reducing the cost per print to less than $15. Very attractive pricing indeed. Since this particular lab can make prints up to 48x96" in size you can do the math yourself on how inexpensive a mass printing like this can be on a per/print basis.
The Bottom Line
What I have learned from this is that unless I need prints larger than 13X19" (Super A3/B), and unless the print is being made for exhibition and sale where archival permanence is necessary, there is no reason not to prefer my inkjet printer to even the highest quality commercial prints. In the days ahead, as companies continue to develop and improve the archival permanence of their inks and papers, there will be essentially no reason to use a custom lab. Today's consumer grade scanners and printers really do deliver the goods.
NB: I have just concluded (Nov 10, '99) initial results from my long-term archival print tests. Pictorico Hi-Gloss did very poorly. In fact it did worse that any other ink / paper combination. This has caused me to rethink my comments above. While an Epson 1200 print on Pictorico Hi-Gloss film does indeed produce a print with excellent image quality the fact that it appears to be subject to fading at such a rapid rate really makes it less appropriate for some applications that it otherwise would be. You definitely wouldn't want to go to the expensive of framing one to hang on your wall at home much less sell one. Not when it will likely fade in a few years, even under indoor conditions. LightJet prints ganged-up on larger paper for economy printing are therefore the best option at the moment.
But, having said that, let me confuse you further. In my experience there simply isn't a better inkjet paper than Pictorico Hi-Gloss Film for displaying detail and saturated colours. Consequently I'll continue to use it for proofing and all other applications where its archival properties are not an issue.