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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

High-Tech B&W Printers

Today’s high-tech black-and-white printers can produce images that surpass anything that was possible in the film darkroom

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This Article Features Photo Zoom
Epson Stylus Pro 488
Black-and-white printing has never been more popular than it is today. Programs like Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop make it easy to convert color images into compelling black-and-white shots that would have made Ansel Adams proud. The problem now is getting that vision onto paper. Inkjet printers haven’t had the greatest reputation for quality black-and-white output. This is partly due to the fact that even though you’re printing a grayscale image, it’s being placed on the paper with color inks. There are a couple of exceptions, but in general, you find that unwanted green or magenta colorcasts are a common complaint with many photographers using inkjets.

Like the improvements to software, today’s high-end photo printers do a much better job getting your image onto paper the same way it appears on screen. Thanks, in part, to new ink formulations and the addition of more gray inks, it’s possible to get truly neutral black-and-white prints at a reasonable cost without sending your images to a lab. In this roundup, we’ll take a look at the options that are available in 13-inch and larger-size printers.

Inkjet printers use either dye- or pigment-based inks. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. In the class of printers we’re looking at here, the only real option in the dye-based category is the HP Designjet 130. The most compact 24-inch printer available, it’s also the only one with a media tray for cut-sheet paper (all the other printers in this size require feeding cut sheets individually). A separate roll-feed unit also is available. The Designjet 130 is getting a bit long in the tooth, having been out for several years now, but it still has the ability to knock your socks off with the right paper and image type.

Epson Stylus Pro 3800
The printer uses six inks, only one of which is black. But, oh, what a black. Dye ink just produces a darker black than any pigment ink is able to output. The drawbacks, however, are an archival life of about 80 years, short by today’s standards, and the fragility of the prints. For best results, you need to print on a “swellable” surface medium like HP Premium Gloss or Premium Satin, or Ilford Classic papers. If there’s the slightest chance the print will come in contact with moisture, you’ll need to seal it with something like PremierArt Print Shield to prevent damage.

All of the most popular printers today use pigment inks. These are great for the variety of media that you can print on (just about anything that you can feed through the printer can be used), and the archival life. Most printers using pigment inks have been rated at well over 100 years, and some exceed 200 years, making them a solution that works for anyone concerned with the longevity of their prints.

Pigment also is where we begin to see additional ink colors being added to the mix. Where six colors—cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta and black—were the standard, these new printers use from eight to 12 ink cartridges for smoother tonal gradation and better color accuracy. Just two short years ago, you’d have been looking at one manufacturer for a printer of this type, Epson. In the past two years, however, Canon and HP have made strong product introductions in the pro-level photo-printer arena, and Epson has continued to refine its lineup with new and improved products. What this means for us is a great number of options to choose from, and at better prices than ever could have been imagined a few years back.

Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100
Two problems that face many people when printing are bronzing and metamerism. Bronzing is the effect that you see when viewing a print from an angle. The different amounts of ink laid down on the page reflect different amounts of light, causing some areas to look flatter than others. The second problem really isn’t a problem, but it’s perceived as one nonetheless. Metamerism is the situation that occurs when viewing the print under different light sources. Most printer profiles are optimized for daylight color temperatures. They’ll look fine under this light, but when you move to a fluorescent or tungsten light source, the print takes on a colorcast. The only reason this is a problem for black-and-white prints is due to a fundamental design issue—black-and-white prints are created with a mix of CMYK inks. The only way to completely eliminate metamerism is to print with gray-only inks (this includes blacks). Of course, you can “trick” the print by using a profile designed for the specific light source in which it will be displayed. For exhibition prints, I always check with the gallery to find out what the lighting will be and then choose a profile tuned to that light source.

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