Improved (and more) inks, better papers and the latest printer technology mean inkjet prints that look better—and last longer—than conventional photos
By Mike Stensvold
Inks—the more the merrier. My first inkjet printer used four inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. It made nice color prints, and not-so-nice black-and-white ones. Today’s inkjet printers use as many as 12 inks. And they make superb prints, both color and black-and-white.
What do all the extra inks do? They produce smoother tone transitions, more accurate colors and a greater range of colors. Multiple black inks (generally light gray, dark gray and black) produce a smoother, more neutral and greater range of gray tones from black through white. Some printers use special matte black ink to print on matte papers, and photo black ink to print on glossy papers, to optimize image quality on each paper type.
Today’s photo inkjet printers use dye-based inks or pigment-based inks. Dye-based inks consist of colorants and additives dissolved in liquid, while pigment-based inks consist of much larger colorant particles and additives suspended in liquid. Historically, dye-based inks delivered better colors and could be used on a wider range of media types, but they yielded poor print longevity compared to pigment-based inks.
Getting pigment-based inks to deliver great colors took lots of R&D, one major problem being those relatively huge pigment particles. But all that effort has paid off wonderfully, and today the technology in inks, nozzles and print heads has advanced to the point where most large-format inkjet photo printers use pigment-based inks. Canon’s latest large-format inks are the pigment-based 10- and 12-color Lucia and the dye-based 8-color ChromaLife 100 inksets, Epson’s is the pigment-based 8-color UltraChrome K3 inkset, and HP’s are the 8- and 12-color Vivera inksets.
Dye-based inks are generally used in lower-priced smaller-format printers, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in quality or cutting-edge technology: Pigment pioneer Epson recently introduced the dye-based 6-color Claria Hi-Definition inks (along with three low-priced photo printers that use them), with estimated dark-storage print life of more than 200 years when used with specified Epson papers, while Canon (ChromaLife 100) and HP (Vivera) also offer dye-based inks with 100-year longevity.
Besides the printer manufacturers, independent ink companies offer color and monochrome inksets for popular inkjets: Inkfarm, Inkjet Mall, Lyson, MediaStreet and Pantone are a few sources. Third-party inks are often less expensive.
Much is made of ink droplet size, and smaller is better. Today’s large-format inkjet printers use droplet sizes in the 2- to 4-picoliter range (a picoliter is one-trillionth of a liter), while some smaller-format inkjets use droplets as small as 1 picoliter. But even more important than droplet size is how those droplets are put down on the paper. As mentioned earlier, each printer manufacturer has its own top-secret droplet-placement and screening algorithms, and the onesfor the printers cited here are very efficient.