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Ansel Adams was a legendary craftsman who labored over the creation of perfect prints. In his home darkroom, Adams had a conventional table-top enlarger for prints up to 11x14 inches or so, and he had a side-mounted model on a rail system to make large prints 16x20 inches and larger by projecting the image on the wall. Some images just call for a big print!
In the digital darkroom, large printers that had been beyond the means of most photographers have come down in price to the point where 17- and 24-inch models are within reach. But which printer has what you need at a price you can afford? A look at the technology and cost breakdowns will help you choose the model that will transform your desktop darkroom into one that a photographer like Ansel Adams would have craved.
Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100
The first question: How big do you want to go? The term “large format” covers a wide variety of printer sizes. At one end of the scale are the 17-inch models, which are capable of producing up to 17x22-inch prints from cut-sheet media or longer prints (i.e., 17x40 inches) using up to 17-inch-wide rolls. Some of these can fit on a desktop, and popular models include the 17-inch Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100 ($1,600 estimated street price, cut-sheet and roll media), the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 ($1,200 estimated street price, cut-sheet only) and the newer Epson Stylus Pro 4900 ($2,500 estimated street price, cut-sheet or roll media). Next in size, and considered the sweet spot in the large-format category, are 24-inch inkjet printers capable of printing on cut-sheet media and rolls up to 24 inches wide. Top choices include the 24-inch Canon imagePROGRAF iPF6300 ($2,600 estimated street price), the new Epson Stylus Pro 7890 ($3,000 estimated street price) and the HP Designjet Z3200 ($3,400 estimated street price). Moving up the scale, in both price and size, are the 44- to 64-inch printers, most of which feature printing technologies and ink sets similar to their 24-inch counterparts. Examples include the 44-inch Canon imagePROGRAF iPF8300 ($4,400 estimated street price), 64-inch Epson Stylus Pro 11880 ($9,000 estimated street price) and 60-inch HP Designjet Z6100 ($16,000 estimated street price).
With large-format printers starting at $1,200, you might be tempted to choose a more affordable ($500-$700) 13x19-inch desktop printer for the majority of your work and send the larger sizes out to a pro lab (the Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II, for example). But if you plan to make more than a few dozen 13x19-inch or larger prints per year, or if you want to take charge of the whole image-making process, you’ll want to invest in your own printer. Let’s take a closer look at these advantages and then compare the features, technologies and image quality available in state-of-the-art 24-inch models from Canon, Epson and HP.
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Epson Stylus Pro 4900
Higher Image Quality And Longevity
Image quality and print longevity are two major benefits that you can immediately see and understand, and may be willing to pay for. The fact is that most prints made in pro labs are printed on silver-halide photo papers, which have a lower color gamut and potential display life (rated at less than 60 years) than prints made using the latest 24-inch, pigmented inkjet models on premium photo paper (rated at 100 to 200 years). Pro-lab pigment prints are usually sold at a much higher price. Compared to first-generation, pigment-based, large-format printers, image quality also has improved dramatically. Gone are most of the bronzing effects that plagued earlier pigment printers, and gloss differential has been decreased significantly—especially on popular luster-surface papers. There still are measurable and visible image-quality variations between the popular large-format models from Canon, Epson and HP, but it’s getting harder for clients to tell the difference between prints made on premium-coated photo papers from any of the manufacturers. It’s another story for prints made on fine-art watercolor papers, canvas and other specialty medias.
Not All Colored Inks Are Created Equal
People often link the number of colored inks a printer uses to the potential image quality of the prints it makes. However, more color cartridges don’t always add up to higher image quality. The printhead technology, size and shape of the ink dots, algorithms used to convert ink dots into colors and details, and the type of print media all contribute to image quality. The Canon imagePROGRAF iPF6300, for example, contains 12 inks, but only uses up to 11 colors when printing an image (the 12th ink is either the Matte Black or Photo Black, depending on the loaded media). On Canon’s Premium RC Photo Luster Paper, those 11 inks actually produce a tested color gamut with a slightly larger volume than the gamut of the nine-ink Epson Stylus Pro 7890 (which uses up to eight colors for similar reasons) on its own Premium RC Luster Photo Paper. However, it doesn’t mean that Canon prints are more colorful than prints from the Epson Stylus Pro 7890. While both have similar maximum black densities, the Canon’s higher color-gamut volume stems primarily from a greater capacity to produce highly saturated dark purple and dark indigo colors, and not from more common red, green, yellow and blue shades.
Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II
So you might not notice a color difference in most prints, but you may notice finer gradations in highly saturated reds and other colors on the Epson prints as well as a lower gloss differential in highlight regions. Those are two subtle advantages, but more extreme differences may jump out when each of these printers is loaded with third-party fine-art watercolor papers. The bottom line is that print quality can’t be judged merely by reading the specs or counting color cartridges. If possible, study sample output from each model or find pro labs with these printers (or larger 36-inch and 44-inch versions with similar technology specs and inks) and make your own comparison prints. Depending upon where you go, you can make a sample print in the store to evaluate.
Expanding Creative Options
Nearly all offer advanced printer driver software for color and black-and-white printing, setup wizards for establishing network connections, and job-tracking utilities for monitoring ink usage in multiple jobs. Because these are pro-level printers, you can expect higher levels of tech support from the manufacturer, longer warranties, commercial-grade construction and a lot more help from experienced users in online forums. All of these features and advantages add up to increased reliability and consistency between prints, with increased control over the size, quality and creative options for displaying your best work. As a bonus, the long-term savings you get from a large-format printer might be enough to cover the initial cost of the printer.
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|[ Printer Speak ]|
|1 Bronzing: An undesired pigment-ink artifact that appears as a mirror-like finish over dense shadow areas and dark saturated colors, especially on glossy-surface prints.
2 Dye Ink: Made from organic ingredients that are water-soluble and, in most cases, more susceptible to fading and humidity. However, dye-based inks may produce more highly saturated colors and fewer image artifacts than pigment-based inks.
3 Gloss Differential: A visible difference in reflectivity between the paper surface and the inks, found primarily in highlight regions where little or no ink is laid down (for a pure paper white) next to areas where ink is used to make slightly darker whites or colors.
4 Matte Black Vs. Photo Black Ink: Nearly all large-format printers contain separate matte black and photo black ink cartridges that are automatically switched by the printer depending on the media loaded. Matte black ink is generally used for watercolor, canvas, plain paper and other specialty surfaces. Photo black inks are used primarily for glossy, luster and semigloss coated photo papers. When the wrong black inks are used, maximum black density and print contrast drop noticeably.
5 Pigment Ink: Made primarily from inorganic and insoluble colorants and minerals (i.e., iron oxide) that reflect or absorb specific wavelengths of visible light. These are ground into microscopic particles that are suspended in a liquid binder. As a result, pigmented inks tend to settle closer to the surface on most papers, but are far more resistant to light fading and humidity.
6 Printer DPI Vs. Image File DPI: All printer specifications include a dpi (dots per inch) resolution figure that describes the maximum number of ink dots that can be placed in a given area. Examples include 2400x1200 dpi for the 24-inch Canon imagePROGRAF iPF6300 and 2880x2880 dpi for the 24-inch Epson Stylus Pro 7890. Those printer dpi ratings often are confused with the dots-per-inch resolution of an image file (better defined as pixels per inch, or ppi.) For the best quality and speed results when printing enlargements, the resolution of an image file needs only be between 200 and 250 dpi (or ppi). Therefore, a 16x20-inch print would look best if it came from a file containing at least (16 x 200) x (20 x 200) = 12,800,000 pixels (12.8 MP).
|[ Costs Per Print ]|
It can cost less per print to use a large-format pro printer than a lower-priced consumer model. How is that possible when the ink cartridges that you typically load into a large-format printer cost far more than the inks used in a 13x19-inch desktop printer? The answer: Economy of scale. For example, it costs $60 for each of the nine cartridges used in the 17-inch Epson Stylus Pro 3880 compared to $13 each for the nine cartridges used in the 13-inch Epson Stylus Photo R2880. That totals $540 to replace all 3880 inks, and only $117 to replace the R2880 inks. But that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, since each of the standard ink cartridges in the large-format 3880 contain 80ml of ink—for a cost of $0.75 per ml—compared to approximately 11ml in each R2880 cartridge—for a cost of $1.18 per ml. As you move up into the 24-inch printer category, the price per ml drops even further: The nine standard cartridges in the Epson Stylus Pro 7890 cost $90 each but hold 150ml, for a price of $0.60 per ml. Optional higher-capacity 350ml ($160 each, or $0.46 per ml) and 700ml ($240 each, or $0.34 per ml) cartridges also are available. Assuming that each printer uses the same quantity of ink to print the same-sized enlargement, and based on a test of ink use for the R2880 at www.printerville.net, the cost for the ink used making a 13x19-inch color print could drop from $2.77 (Epson R2880) to $1.08 (Epson 7890 with 700ml cartridges.) Visit www.printerville.net/2008/09/14/epson-stylus-photo-r2880-review.
In addition to ink savings, most large-format printers can be loaded with roll media in various widths and lengths (ranging from 40 to 100 feet). Cut-sheet sizes generally stop at 17x22 inches, and 24-inch and wider media is available only in rolls for most printers. Once again, you may pay more up front for a roll of photo paper than for a box of cut sheets, but rolls usually hold more paper, are easier to ship and store, and typically cost 10% to 20% less per square foot than cut sheets. That’s not as great a savings as that of the inks, but over time, both differences could wind up saving you as much as you paid for the printer, plus labor costs for loading cut sheets and changing out smaller-capacity ink cartridges.
Granted, it takes time to make your own prints and maintain your own large-format printer; however, the cost per do-it-yourself print is usually far lower than the cost for a custom print at a pro lab, and thanks to the built-in color calibration and accurate color profiles that ship with most 24-inch printers, it’s even possible for a novice to match the image on a calibrated monitor to a print on the first try. In addition, custom profiles (costing under $100) can be purchased for third-party fine-art and photo papers. (Bear in mind that Adams—and today’s serious landscape photographers—made/make a number of test prints to get everything perfect. This runs up the cost if you’re just making a single print of an image, but is relatively minor if you’re printing an edition.)
If you’re in a hurry, no lab can beat the 10- to 15-minute turnaround time for a 24x36-inch print or less than two minutes for a 13x19-inch print. When using roll media, you also can stack multiple print jobs in a print queue and send them all to the printer at a time you choose, thereby maximizing printer efficiency and power usage.
Michael J. McNamara is a photovideographer who’s been reporting on imaging products and trends since 1989. His blog and a portfolio of movies and still photos can be found at www.mcnamarareport.com.