Monday, September 1, 2008
Time For A New Printer
Best B&W Inkjet Prints • Resolving Resolution • Light Outdoor Photography • How Long Will It Last?
Q) My present printer is getting old and not giving me decent black-and-white prints. What should I look for in a new printer to maximize the black-and-white area without losing any color capabilities?
Via the Internet
A) Many of today’s inkjet printers are capable of making fine black-and-white as well as superb color prints. The secret to this evolution is the number of black inks in the ink set. Initially, there was just one black ink, and for obvious reasons, this didn’t give great black-and-white results. Then, a light black ink was added to the dark black, and black-and-white prints improved, but getting a neutral black-and-white print was difficult. Today, the best printers have three to four black inks (they only print with three at one time) to offer excellent black-and-white prints that rival silver prints in nearly every way. Due to the optimization capabilities of imaging software, the black-and-white inkjet print now has a tonal range that exceeds what can be accomplished in the wet darkroom. The longevity factor, long the purview of silver prints, is now matched by pigment inks. In museum storage conditions, the pigment black-and-white prints probably will last as long as the paper that supports the image.
What you need to look for in a black-and-white and color printer is a lot of inks, especially the black inks. It helps to have a solid black for glossy paper and another for matte papers (only one is used at a time). In addition, you can expect a medium black ink and a light black ink. The three will combine with the color inks to give a great tonal capability. Make sure you’re using pigment inks for longevity and then consider the variety of paper sizes the printer will handle. Some people (like me) need a roll feeder for big prints and loooooooong panoramas, and others use standard paper sizes. Choose the one that satisfies your current and anticipated needs. There are three main players in the photographic inkjet printer world: Canon (which I use exclusively), Epson and HP. Choosing your printer will be as simple as black-and-white.
Q) Before I retired, I worked on film at Eastman Kodak Company in the research labs. I’m in the middle of a heated discussion with some of my co-retirees as to the benefits and resolution of the new Canon 21-megapixel camera. I’ve used a lens resolution chart and found that the Nikon D200 (10 megapixels) resolved about 40 lines per mm (lpm), the D3 (12 mega-pixels) resolved about 50 lpm and a roll of Kodak ASA 160 color-negative film under the same conditions gave me 80 lpm in the mid-aperture lens range (f/8, f/11). The digital cameras gave a flat lpm resolution over all apertures (except f/22); I assume this was because the resolution was limited by the number of megapixels and not by the lens resolution. It would seem to me that the Canon 21-megapixel camera could show noticeable sharpness improvement over a 12-megapixel camera. Extrapolating from my data above, the Canon could be capable of more than 90 lpm.
Via the Internet
A) It’s hard for me to assess your data because you aren’t telling me the most important information about the digital files you shot: the file format and the postcapture processing. All digital files need to be sharpened after capture. If you shoot JPEG files, the sharpening can happen in the camera, but you’re not testing the camera’s full capability. To test the sharpness of a digital file, I would shoot it in RAW, generating the largest possible file the camera can produce, and then sharpen it in an image-editing software. Only at that point could the sharpness be measured. It’s not just the camera, lens and film anymore—it’s the whole process.
Using a top-quality scanner, I regularly scan my 35mm slides from my predigital days—images captured with the best-quality systems available. At that point, I bring them into Photoshop CS3 for optimization, after which I can easily compare them to my optimized digital captures. Starting at about 10 megapixels, digital cameras produced files sharper than Kodak E100VS film. I’m sure I’ll get e-mails telling me that tests show I’m wrong, but I’ll just show them the results. For me, the final assessment is made not on the line pairs, but in the final print.
Digital captures are very different from scanned 35mm film. The grainless nature of the digital file allows a much cleaner result. Add more pixels to the camera’s capture and the information increases to allow larger prints with more detail. Noise and grain can be equated, but the newer cameras with better processing capabilities give an image that at ISO 1600 is better than the film structure at ISO 400.
In 35mm film capture, the limiting factor to sharpness was the film. In my film days, the only film that could resolve all the information from a macro lens was Kodak’s Tech Pan. Now, digital captures from a 21-megapixel camera match what can be achieved on 6x9 film. With the new cameras at 12 to 25 megapixels, the limiting factor is becoming the optic. The camera manufacturers are designing new lenses with resolving power that’s getting better than what we ever had for film. For me, there’s no reason to continue the film/digital debate; it’s over, and my 40x60-inch prints prove it.
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