Gadget Bag: Large Format Printers

Ansel Adams was a master landscape printer. Take the same type of control with your prints by finding the perfect 17-inch printer to meet your preferences.
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Not only was Ansel Adams iconic due to his ability to compose grand landscapes with beautiful light, but he was also known for the excellence of his prints. He often created his monochromatic prints in a large-scale format, using a 16×20 enlarger, allowing the viewer to fully take in the details of the moment. With inkjet printers improving in quality today, it’s increasingly possible for every photographer to take the same interest and pride in creating a physical print, regardless of our move to a digital format. Capable of creating 17×22-inch precut prints or longer 17-inch-wide panoramas with paper rolls, the 17-inch printer is a comparable size to Adams’ images and provides a great chance to explore the craft of printing.

In terms of size, 17-inch printers are the smallest of the “large-format” printers. Physically, it’s a great foray into large format while still being midsized, as it can create large images while sitting on your desktop instead of making its own spatial footprint in your workspace the way most 24-inch (and above) printers do.

If you’re comparing a 17-inch printer to a 13×19 desktop, you might be put off by the dramatic price jump. To make this decision, think about how often you’ll print at 17 inches and how often you’ll have to go to a lab for these prints. You’ll also need to consider that, with lab processing, you lose control over quality in terms of ink, permanence and full media selection. Depending on your print frequency and control, you may prefer the initial printer investment.

Color Gamut
A gamut is the range of colors that’s possible to display. Your computer screen and the printed page deal with light in different ways. The screen emits light across the RGB (red, blue, green) spectrum, while paper absorbs some light and reflects others within the CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) color gamut. Because of this difference in light behavior and color gamut, it may not always be possible to reproduce the specific color on your screen onto paper. Printers deal with this disparity through their ink selection and their own factory calibration process. There are several third-party systems for monitor calibration.

Originally, printers for your home came with a very small color palette, making it difficult to print images at a high enough quality. Today’s printers have expanded their color gamut to include different dilutions of colors to create flawless transitions between colors, tones and dense spaces, making high-quality home prints possible.

Ink comes in two varieties: dye and pigment. Dye ink is high in saturation and density of blacks. It’s less prone to color shifts due to viewing in different temperatured lighting (an occurrence known as metamerism). But while it’s highly durable, standing up to scuffing, it has poor permanence and is more likely to fade if it’s displayed in areas with extended exposure to light. Pigment ink is more resistant to fading over time. In fact, it may add 100 years to the life of the image. And, through the years, pigment solutions have been increasing in their durability and saturation, as well as decreasing in metamerism.

If you have an ink preference, it’s particularly important to note this before choosing a printer, as printers often are only compatible with one type of ink. If your printer is compatible with both, flush the printer before making the switch to reduce clogs and contamination. Printer manufacturers create inks to go with their products. There are third-party inks, but these often void the warranty of your printer, so check into those specifics before taking the dive.

Media Selection
One printing choice that provides an instant visual reference to the viewer about the entire mood and emotion of your photo without even touching on the image itself is the paper you choose to print on. The paper quality not only has its own sense of character to complement your image, but it also affects the look of the ink and has an effect on permanence.

The two major types of paper are glossy and matte, and within each lies an entire world of subtypes. With a smooth, reflective quality, glossy includes luster, semigloss and satin. Generally, glossy paper does a great job of covering the entire color gamut, matching a wide range of hues and deep saturations. Matte, with a very wide range of textures, is thought of as “fine-art” paper and includes rag, watercolor and canvas. Matte papers can give a specific effect, such as pen to paper, and they tend to mute the color gamut, including absorption of blacks. Experimentation with a particular paper will help to refine and achieve a particular look.

Printer manufacturers create their own papers and inks that complement one another, so you may want to use them in tandem for optimal results. Also, your printer will dictate the thickness of the paper you can print on. Heavier art paper, around 1.5mm, is usually supported with 17-inch printers.

Monochrome Printing
If you’re going for a true Ansel Adams look, you’re probably printing landscapes in black-and-white. Just as quality was added to color prints through the addition of light colors of the CMY color gamut, the quality of black-and-white printing has increased by adding multiple levels of diluted black ink. Using two or more levels of black makes it less necessary to use as much color ink to create the monochrome, reducing the metamerism and sometimes negating it completely. Additionally, with more dilutions of black available, the grayscale tonal range becomes smoother.

Printers may also offer different Black and White Mode options. These may include using only the black and black dilution inks, or using the printer’s driver software to ensure your photo prints with the correct look.

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Canon & Epson
Over the years, two companies have taken the reins of the home printer industry and have created printers that meet the size specifications of 17-inch large format: Canon and Epson.

Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100

The Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100 uses the L-COA processor, but with a more highly accurate PF-03 Dual Print Head System with twin nozzle heads for additional speed. The iPF5100 combines the RGB and CMY color gamuts, using a 12-color LUCIA pigment ink system with RGBCM colors in addition to black, matte black, gray and photo gray. This wide range of black dilutions is used particularly well in Monochrome Mode to make black-and-white images stand out. A print plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and Digital Photo Professional allows you to print 16-bit RGB RAW files directly from your software without going through the printer driver and includes a full-screen preview; additional options including quality selections and paper type. The printer also includes built-in calibration with sensors to measure ink density and variation, and can return to factory settings, when needed. The iPF5100 provides a front-load cassette for precut pages, a rear manual feed, a front straight path manual feed for thick paper up to 1.5mm and a roller feed for long lengths, which includes a built-in media cutter. Estimated Street Price: $1,579.

Epson Stylus Pro 3880

The Epson Stylus Pro 3880 uses Epson UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta Ink Technology. This pigment ink technology yields a wide color gamut and prints will have the longevity that was common with black-and-white silver-halide prints. The printer automatically changes between photo black and matte black, as needed, when printing black-and-white images. The 8-color inkset has three-level black technology to create rich, deep blacks and the kind of snap silver-halide images were famous for. An Advanced Black and White Photo Mode can be selected in the printer driver. This mode gives you gray profiles, and lets you personalize color toning, density and other adjustments. The Stylus Pro 3880 prints at 2880×1440 dpi resolution with smooth color transitions. The Stylus Pro 3880 prints on cut sheets up to 17×22 with two top-load options (one for thicker fine-art paper) and one front-load for paper 16 inches wide and thicknesses up to 1.5mm. Estimated Street Price: $1,129.

Epson Stylus Pro 4900

The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 utilizes Epson’s UltraChrome HDR inkset, MicroPiezo TFP print head and AccuPhoto HDR screening technology. The system also uses three levels of blacks (black, light black and light light black) to create smooth monochromatic tones. The 10-channel MicroPiezo TFP print head combines with AccuPhoto HDR screening technology to generate 2880×1440 dpi resolution with increased color balance and reduced grain. The MicroPiezo TFP print head uses electric impulses to lay down the ink for maximum accuracy. The droplets are perfectly spherical for top-quality reproduction and sharpness. The Stylus Pro 4900 provides a front tray, front top manual feed for 17-inch-wide papers and a front manual feed for papers with a 1.5mm thickness. The printer also has a roller feed with automatic tagging for tracking remaining paper on the roll, as well as a built-in rotary cutter. The Stylus Pro 4900 incorporates the Epson Advanced Black and White Mode to create prints with photographic tonal transitions. Estimated Street Price: $1,895.