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High-Tech B&W Printers
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.
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.
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.
Canon has one 13-inch desktop printer in this roundup, the PIXMA Pro9500. Like the other Canon printers covered here, the Pro9500 uses Canon’s Lucia pigment inks; in this case, there are 10 inks. In addition to the standard six colors, Canon added red, green, gray and a matte black. The Pro9500 has a dedicated grayscale mode that primarily uses the black and gray inks for output. You also have the option to tone your prints, for example, giving them a sepia or platinum effect, by mixing in color. Depending on the type of paper you’re printing to, you’ll use either photo black or matte black inks. Like the other Canon desktop printers, the Pro9500 works with sheet paper only, but a straight-feed path allows you to print on heavy fine-art media. Estimated Street Price: $849.
In the 17-inch printer category, the imagePROGRAF iPF5100 is a work-horse that’s capable of excellent black-and-white output. With a tray feed, manual single-sheet feed and a fully motorized roll-feed unit, the iPF5100 is a 12-color printer with photo black, matte black, photo gray and gray inks that are capable of excellent black-and-white prints. One unique benefit is an included plug-in for Photoshop that gives you complete control over output in a single location. If you’re using Canon paper, all you need to do is select the paper type from the list rather than selecting the appropriate profile. When printing in black-and-white, this uses specific information to mix inks in the optimal manner to generate very neutral black-and-whites. You also have the ability to print in 16-bit mode, something that the other printers can’t match at this time (Epson has a 16-bit option for Mac OS X 10.5 users, but Canon’s solution works with all platforms). When choosing the Auto Monochrome setting, you have access to a full-featured tool to adjust the properties of your grayscale mix from warm to cool, including a Curves editor to fine-tune the output. Estimated Street Price: $1,995.
The imagePROGRAF is available in larger sizes, including a 24-inch model, the iPF6100, which drops the tray feed but adds a stand. Print output from both is identical as they use the same ink and printheads. Estimated Street Price: $3,495.
Epson is well known to anyone who has been printing images for any amount of time. In fact, Epson essentially created the ability for digital photographers to output photo-quality prints from their desktop. Epson also pioneered the use of pigment inks for improved stability and print life. Epson offers the widest lineup of printers designed for the pro or advanced amateur, starting with the new Stylus Photo R2880. A 13-inch desktop printer, the R2880 is a nine-color printer with photo black, matte black, light gray and light light gray inks, along with the Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta inks found in the large-format 4880, 7880 and 9880 models. Only photo or matte black ink can be installed at any time, so in essence you have three shades of black available to you. Epson has an Advanced Black-and-White mode in its print driver that lets you adjust the toning of your prints with presets or by adjusting sliders for brightness, contrast, tonality and density. The R2880 can print to single sheets or to roll paper, as well as onto printable CD/DVD media. Estimated Street Price: $799.
The next step up in size and performance is the Stylus Pro 3800. The most affordable 17-inch printer on the market, the Pro 3800 is an excellent option for those who don’t need to print on roll media. It uses 80ml ink cartridges with the same formulation as those found in the R2880. All nine inks are installed in the printer, but you still need to flush one ink line when going from photo black to matte black. The Pro 3800 does have a new print head that improves the smoothness of tonal gradations. Estimated Street Price: $1,295.
If higher volume and roll paper are on your list, the Stylus Pro 4880 has the same 17-inch-wide paper path as the Pro 3800, but adds a high-capacity tray and roll feed. The ink capacity also is larger, with the option to use up to 220ml cartridges. Unlike the Pro 3800, you’ll need to swap the photo and matte black cartridges when changing paper types. The Pro 4880 uses a new Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta ink formula that increases color gamut, especially in the blues and purples. For landscape and nature photography, these colors are sometimes hard to reproduce. The new inks make a big difference here. You have the same Advanced Black-and-White mode options in the print driver as the R2880 and Pro 3800. Estimated Street Price: $1,995.
The Stylus Pro 7880 has the same feature set as the Pro 4880 but drops the paper tray and adds a stand. Like the 4880, the 24-inch-wide Pro 7880 can use ink cartridges up to 220ml. All of Epson’s Pro series printers include Ethernet ports for shared use on a network as well as USB. Estimated Street Price: $2,995.
We mentioned the HP Designjet 130 as the lone dye-based printer in this lineup. HP also has a range of pigment printers, and some of them have unique features you won’t find in the others.
The Photosmart Pro B9180 is an eight-color, 13-inch desktop printer that uses Vivera pigment inks. It includes photo black, matte black and gray inks. Unlike the other printers, you can choose to use only these three inks to print a black-and-white image. By selecting only gray inks in the print driver, you essentially turn your printer into a tritone device. If you want to use toning on the print, you’d select Composite gray, which forces the printer to use mainly the black inks, mixing in color as needed to achieve the tone you’re looking for. The B9180 has a paper tray but no roll feed. You can print panoramas, but you’ll need to precut your paper and use the manual feed path. Estimated Street Price: $699.
HP doesn’t have anything in the 17-inch range at this time, so your next step is the 24-inch Designjet Z2100. The Z2100 uses the same eight inks as the Photosmart Pro B9180, so the output is virtually identical between the two, making it possible to use the B9180 as a proofing device before sending the final print to the larger Z2100. What’s unique about the Z series printers from HP is the addition of an onboard spectrophotometer for color calibration and profiling. Essentially, you have an X-Rite i1 Photo built into the printer. This lets you create custom profiles for additional paper types, as well as calibrate your printer to keep print quality consistent. Estimated Street Price: $2,895.
Outwardly identical to the Z2100, the Designjet Z3100 is a 12-ink printer with 11 color cartridges and a gloss enhancer. Unlike the gloss optimizer used in some of the Epson consumer-level printers, the Z3100 mixes the gloss optimizer with the inks at different levels to ensure that the entire print has the same uniform density. This is the only printer I’ve used that has absolutely no gloss differential when printing on glossy paper. The Z3100 also has no visible metamerism when viewing prints under different lighting sources. Estimated Street Price: $3,395.