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Epson UltraSmooth
Fine Art Paper

A Preliminary Evaluation

At the PMA show in early March, 2003, Epson announced several new printing papers. The most exciting of these from the point of view of fine art photographers is UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper. Here's what Epson's press release has to say about it...

EPSON UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper is a 100 percent cotton rag that is acid-free, lignin-free and optical brightener-free. The UltraSmooth base is slightly alkaline, with a 2 percent calcium carbonate buffer to preserve the alkalinity to a conservator's pH of about 8.0. Wilhelm Imaging Research has rated dark storage well in excess of 100 years, with tests still continuing(a). The ultra smooth surface is similar to Epson's very popular Enhanced Matte Paper, but this paper has the greater archivability required by photographers and fine artists. It also has the highest D-Max and greatest scratch resistance of any archival paper on the market.

Sounds terrific doesn't it? I currently use Epson's Enhanced Matte (formerly Archival Matte) for 95% of my printing needs. Properly profiled, using UltraChrome pigment inks on the Epson 2200 printer, I am getting photographic prints that are breathtaking in quality. Saturated colours, tonal subtlety, rich blacks (using Matte Black ink) and a total lack of bronzing and reflections, as well as very little metamerism. Almost an ideal paper for fine art prints.

But, it isn't perfect. It is not totally acid free cotton rag, and consequently questions have been raised about its lasting properties. According to an independant test this appears to be about 70 years under dark conditions, which is actually less than some of the Epson glossy and semi-gloss Resin Coated papers. Still better than every colour process to date (including Cibachrome, but excluding Dye Transfer). Consequently many fine art printers have been experimenting with other manufacturer's papers. My experience though has been that I prefer the way Epson's UltraChrome inks work with Epson papers to those from third parties.

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Hot Off The Printer

Fortunately I was able to obtain samples of UltraSmooth from Epson at the PMA show. Just a handful of sheets, but enough to run some tests and to draw some intial impressions.


Bryce Canyon — Dawn Glow. March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

Following the suggestion provided with the paper by Epson I used the same settings as for Enhanced Matte paper. Until I'm able to print with a custom profile, I can say that in terms of colour balance and reproduction UltraSmooth is extremely close to Enhanced Matte. It also has slightly more texture to the surface. It isn't decernable to the touch, but under a bright light one can see a bit more"surface", rather than the almost perfect smoothness of Enhanced Matte. I like it, and find it to be totally appropriate for a fine art paper.

The most noticeable characteristic of UltraSmooth as compared to Enhanced Matte is the paper colour. It is not as bright, and under daylight can be seen to be somewhat warmer — some would say yellower. This is likely due to the lack of optical brighteners in the paper, which is what contributes to the claimed greater archival lasting characteristics. Whether or not you'll be concerned about this only you will be able to say. I see it as a matter of comparison. When the two papers are side by side the difference is obvious. When UltraSmooth prints are seen on their own one isn't aware of the paper tone nearly as much.

The paper will be available double sided, which be very welcomed by many for a variety of reasons including the fact that wasting sheets by inserting the wrong side will no longer happen to all of us from time to time. (250g rolls will be single sided only).

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Weighing In

The paper will also be available in a number of different weights, but not all weights will be available in all sizes. (See the table below). The only weights available for desktop printers will be 205g and 325g. The 205g is just slightly heavier than Enhanced Matte (at 192g), while the 325g is roughly the weight of the cardboard stiffeners that used to come with shirts from the cleaners. A terrific weight for individual fine art prints, especially if they're going to be handled by customers at an art show or gallery.

The paper will also be available in 24" and 44" rolls in 250g, and in 24 X 30" and 36 X 44" in 500g weight. Anyone with an Epson 7600 or 9600 printer will be pestering their dealers for these, beginning right now.

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Sizes & Availability

Epson clearly expects its UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper to be a success and much in demand by photographers. Here is a table showing the sizes, weights and availability dates.

Weight
Sizes
Ship Date
205g
8.5X11"
13X19"
July - 03
April - 03
250g
(single sided only)
24" X 50' rolls
44" X 50' rolls
April - 03
April - 03
325g
8.5X11"
13X19"
April - 03
April - 03
500g
24" X 30"
36" X 44"
April - 03
July - 03

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The Oversight

Look at the list above and tell me what's missing. A3 (11 X 17"), right? Can I be the only person in the world that uses this size? In fact I find it to be the ideal size for many of my applications. I hardly ever use A4, and only use 13 X 19" for display and sale prints. All of my other work is done on 11X17". But, Epson in its corporate wisdom (hah!) has completely ignored this paper size. Why? Who knows? But it sure is a stupid oversight in my books.

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The Bottom Line?

It's too early to tell. I do like what I see so far, but a half dozen sheets is nowhere near enough to judge a new paper with. But you can bet that my paper dealer is going to be asked to put aside several packages for me from the first shipment. But, come on Epson — make with the 11X17" size. Please!!


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Concepts: Paper, Printing, Fine art, Color, Ink, Fine art photography, Book, Weight

Entities: EPSON, PMA, subtlety, UltraChrome, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Matte

Tags: paper, epson, fine art, fine art paper, UltraSmooth Fine Art, fine art prints, matte paper, cotton rag, Epson 2200 printer, Epson papers, fine art photographers, fine art printers, percent cotton rag, show, percent calcium carbonate, Archival Matte, Wilhelm Imaging Research, ideal paper, archival paper, greatest scratch resistance, ultra smooth surface, paper tone, paper colour, new printing papers, claimed greater archival, individual fine art, Resin Coated papers, free cotton rag, paper size, paper dealer, half dozen sheets, new paper, fine artists, UltraSmooth base, press release, tonal subtlety, noticeable characteristic, different weights, intial impressions, highest d-max