Points in Focus Photography

Adventures in Printing: 5 Years on and Still Lost

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I like prints, preferably big ones. Moreover, I get a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing one of my photos slide out of even my mid-range printer as a concrete expression of my vision.

That said, while I like the results, I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the process. Moreover, I’ve certainly made some concessions when it comes to printing, that while maybe not ideal are what they are. I’m certainly not convinced that every photographer with some semblance of standards has to run out and buy a $2000 Epson Stylus Pro and print everything on $20 per sq. ft. fine art papers. I know I don’t; my printer is a lowly Canon Pixma Pro 9000 mark II that I got for a song, and I print mostly on Canon’s mid- and high-end papers[1].

In the 3 and a half years that I’ve been printing my own stuff, I feel almost as clueless about the whole thing as I was when I started. That said, I have learned some things, and this post is detailing some of them.

Documentation

I have yet to find a printer manufacturer that writes what I consider good documentation.

Consider the differences this:

Depth of Field Preview
The aperture opening (diaphragm) changes only at the moment when the picture is taken. Otherwise, the aperture remains fully open. Therefore, when you look at the scene through the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor, the depth of filed will look narrow.
Press the depth-of-field preview button to stop down the lens to the current aperture setting and check the depth of field (range of acceptable focus).

As compared to this:

Select the Media Type setting that matches the paper you loaded.

The first except (from a Canon camera manual) provides some inkling about what happens when the depth of field preview button and why to use it.

On the other hand, telling me to select the media type that matches the paper I’ve loaded is, obvious to the point of uselessness.

What I need to know to make an informed decision is what the setting does not just a restatement of it’s title. Does it adjust the platen hight? Does it change the ink volume that’s used? If so, what do the various values do the settings translate to?

I’m not singling out Epson here either. Canon’s printer manuals aren’t any different.

The only place where Epson gets a point in documentation is in the formats the provide. Their docs, at least the ones I looked at, are available online in HTML and offline in PDF format. Canon is still using a proprietary “help” program that needs to be installed on Windows or MacOS to be used.

Price

In pretty much any online discussion about “printing” price is one of the first reasons that I see loads of people say not to bother; just send your stuff out.

For small prints (4×6), you can’t beat the prices for sending them out. 8×10, narrow the gap to being more of a wash. By 12×18, you can come out ahead printing at home in terms of ink and paper costs, but the printer is probably a sunk cost unless you print a lot. Larger than A3+ (13×19), and the printers cost so much that it starts shifting the economies back to the labs.

That said, I will also argue that people who only look at the costs aren’t really interested in the results that much either. Printing yourself yields a number of benefits that aren’t summarized in costs alone.

First is convenience; you don’t have to go pick up prints somewhere, and you don’t have to wait for them be shipped to you.

Second is control; you have complete control over not only the printing aspect, but also the paper that’s used.

Finally, there is color gamut. Most photo services print the vast majority of their products using light-jet printers that are limited to the sRGB color space. Virtual all good quality inkjet photo printers can exceed that color space, and frequently in important areas like skin tones.

That said, like most things, there’s a continuum for the ranges of prices, and that continuum depends on just how far you want to take printing. You can certainly get a printer and get started on a reasonable, if not shoe string, budget.

My Pixma Pro 9000 mark II ended up costing me $50. I got it when B+H was having a sale and there was an included mail in rebate with it as well. I had two friends who recently bought Pixma Pro–100s for $100 after rebates. So it’s perfectly doable to get a quality photo printer on the cheap.

The other major cost center is supplies; paper and ink.

As far as ink goes, I find it’s very rare to find sales on it. That’s not to say that there might not be one, on rare occasions, but I’ve never been lucky enough to catch one.

The only way I know of to reliably save money on ink is to go with 3rd party re-inking kits. And that puts you into grey areas with respect to quality, longevity, and you can pretty much discount any readily available/manufacturer supplied printer profiles.

Paper, on the other hand, is something that I see show up on sale from time to time. Especially from Canon. In fact, if you’re buying a Canon printer, it behooves you to register it and get on Canon’s mailing list for their store’s sales. Most of the time the mailings well be garbage, but once or twice a year I find incredible deals to score paper for pennies on the dollar.

The last time I stocked up on paper, I scored a little over $600 in Canon papers, from Canon for around $150. My per page costs for A3+ prints on Canon’s Pro Premium Matte paper, is somewhere around 10–20¢ per page.

Admittedly if you fall in love with a fine art paper, like Moab’s Entrada Rag, you’re probably not going to be able to score deals like that.

Spectrophotometers

It goes without saying that color calibration is important. A better question is; How important?

This is probably the area where I’ve spent the most time trying to get a handle on what’s really necessary and how necessary everything really is. Ultimately, the problem is costs.

You cannot generate printer profiles with a colorimeter — like you might use to profile your monitor. Instead, you need a spectrophotometer, and one that has reflective capabilities at that. Ignoring the technical differences, the biggest hurdle is cost.

A good colorimeter, like a Colormunki Display runs around $170. What’s marketed as a pretty high end one, like the i1 Display Pro can be had for around $250. Datacolor offers Spyder products in about the same price ranges with about the same capabilities — though I prefer X-Rite products as they seem to be more compatible with DisplayCal and Argyll CMS.

Pair any of those colorimeters with the really powerful free/open source color management programs in DisplayCal and Argyll CSM, and you can get incredibly accurate monitor profiles for what’s really a quite reasonable price.

Stepping up to spectrophotometers, and the prices go up a bunch. The Colormunki Photo, runs about $500; and the i1 Pro, is in the $1200–1500 range. Again, I’m not ignoring Datacolor’s Spyder products, I just don’t know them well enough to be able to discuss them fully.

That’s a pretty big leap in price. Moreover, there’s a limitation here that isn’t obvious. The Colormunki Photo doesn’t have the capability to profile with UV light sources.

The trouble here isn’t the spectrophotometer, it’s the papers; or rather it’s the Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs), used in the papers.

Broadly speaking, OBAs work by absorbing invisible UV light, and re-emitting that as visible blue light. This has the effect of making the paper brighter, as it’s radiating more visible light than it otherwise would. But as far as color goes, it also changes the paper’s white point to be more blue — at least when the paper is under some UV light.

If you were to build a profile for a paper that uses OBAs with a spectrophotometer that doesn’t have UV capabilities, then the change in paper color under UV light will result in a color shift in the printed images that wasn’t correctly compensated for by the color profile.

And it’s not like just limiting yourself to “fine art” papers solves the problems. Many high end gloss papers, like Canon’s Pro Platinum and Moab’s Slickrock Pearl, have OBAs in them. Even high end matte and semi-gloss papers, such as Moab’s Entrada Rag, are frequently available in bright versions with OBAs.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a damnation of OBAs, or paper companies for using them. My point is that if you’re going to get into generating your own printer profiles, you need to be aware of this limitation in spectrophotometers, so you can either work around it or plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can completely skip the spectrophotometer until you get into doing rather higher end work. This was my choice, and I can’t say I have any regrets.

In my experience, both using Moab and Canon papers on my Pixma Pro 9000 mark II, the supplied color profiles have been generally very good. Maybe not so good that you can make exact print matches to Pantone color swatches. But they’ve been certainly good enough that there aren’t obvious problems in the print’s color compared to my properly profiled displays.

My advice: If you don’t already have a colorimeter to profile your displays, consider getting a Colormunki Photo that can also generate profiles for OBA-free papers. If you already have a colorimeter for your monitors, skip a spectrophotometer for now.

Papers

One of the biggest advantages of ink jet printers, and printing yourself, is that you can pick and choose the papers you use. Of course, this is an entire can of worms itself.

Broadly speaking, papers come in 3 surface types; gloss, semi-gloss, and matte.

Gloss papers tend to hold the most details and usually provide the widest possible color gamuts and dynamic ranges. The down side is that they’re glossy and reflect light sources clearly.

Semi-gloss papers (frequently called luster and semi-gloss), exhibit most of the better characteristics of gloss papers, but not quite as strongly. However, since the surface textured, they don’t reflect light sources as distinctly.

Matte papers are an entirely different visceral experience. Since they lack the uniform coating of gloss and semi-gloss papers, the paper’s structure shows through more. As such they frequently impart some of their own texture into the print, as well as muting some of the fine details. On the other hand they don’t reflect light sources distinctly at all.

To me the biggest thing about matte papers is that they make prints feel like art. There’s an entirely different visceral experience of holding a print that’s on a good heavy matt paper that simply can’t be touched by the plastic-y coated gloss papers.

Of course purists will argue that you shouldn’t be handling your prints, and certainly not without gloves. To which I say rubbish, they’re my prints, and the entire point of the print as far as I’m concerned is to connect with the image in a way you can’t when holding an iPad or looking at it on a monitor.

Anyway…

Depending on the printer and the papers you choose, paper is going to be the first or second biggest ongoing expense for printing.

My advice for papers is pretty simple.

When you first get started, try as many different papers as you can; find something you like not just something that has good specs. For the longest time I never really bothered with matte papers, in my mind at the time my glossy papers were so much better “technically” than the matte papers were that they weren’t worth it. Now I practically print only on Matte papers, because the results feel like art not like something I picked up at a local photo lab.

Second, try not to limit yourself to just one kind of paper. The bulk of my paper stocks are matte, but I have a small amount of high gloss, luster, and pearl (Moab Slickrock Pearl). Some prints just pop way better on different papers. Moreover if you’re framing the print, the higher resolution of a gloss paper may very well outweighs the feel of a print you won’t be feeling.

Also don’t get too caught up in the whole “fine art” paper versus something else. It would be easy to sneer down one’s nose at say Canon’s Pro Premium Matte paper being less good than Moab’s Entrada rag. However, so much of choice of paper is a personal thing that it’s not necessarily a given that you’ll like the look or feel of the more expensive paper just because it’s more expensive.

Pigment v. Dye Inks

This is another one of those places where the hard numbers don’t really tell the whole story. Pigment inks have some solid advantages in terms of print life and dynamic range. Most people printing fine art prints are printing with pigment inks for those reasons.

However, pigment inks, or more specifically the printers they’re used in, demand one major consideration; volume. If you’re not printing somewhat regularly, the pigment inks can clog print nozzles. The alternative to printing is cleaning cycles which just waste ink.

How often you have to print to keep a pigment printer happy is not a question I can answer. The last time I dealt with pigment printers was more than a decade ago, and the gist was if they weren’t being used on a weekly bases then, they would clog — though there were other factors involved.

On the other hand, dye based printers in my experience are perfectly happy to go unused for extended periods of time. My Pixma Pro 9000 mk II has sat idle for 6 or more months in some cases, and fired up and made great prints right away.

Given that my printing tends to be very bursty — print a bunch then sit idle for 3–6 months — I find that I’m much more comfortable with my dye based printer. Yea, I could probably get darker blacks with a pigment printer instead, but I’m also much more likely to have to either waste a lot of ink or deal with more clogging issues than I do with my dye inks.

As far as print permanence goes. I’m not all that concerned either. I have several 4 or 5 year old prints under glass that haven’t noticeably degraded. And I have a whole slew of year or more old prints that aren just hanging with no protection form the environment that likewise are in good shape.

That said, I do recognize that these prints probably won’t last 50 or 100 years. But I’m fine with that. Even for fine-art print sales, I’m fine with that as long as it’s made clear to the buyer that the prints may not last 100 years and the price reflects that reality.

One Parting Thought

Thom Hogan has an article where he recommends buying the best tripod first, because buying through all the intermediate steps costs so much more money. I never agreed with that line of thinking, and I really wouldn’t apply it here. Unless you’re absolutely sure you’re going to print like crazy, buy the least expensive quality printer you can afford and build from there. The last thing you want to do is buy a $1000 printer and a $1500 colorimeter, and print 5 pictures a year or less.


  1. I mostly print on Canon’s Pro Premium Matte and Pro Platinum papers, though I’ve experimented with several of Moab’s papers, and really like their Entrada rag and Slickrock pearl.  ↩

Comments

Matt O’Brien

“Thom Hogan has an article where he recommends buying the best tripod first”..

I agree with the Thom Hogan article. It mirrors my experience in terms of buying tripods and absolutely mirrors my experience with printing images.

The key point … figure out what volume you wish to print.

My experience ….
a. Using the entry level printers…. very very expensive ink and constant clogs ..constant frustration.
b. Non oem inks … a lot more work than you think … may work well for black & white. Useful to experiment with a printer nearing end of life. A great learning experience. Biggest problem .. getting profiles that work.

I eventually purchased an Epson 3800 (now 2 generations old). Prints to A2, has 80 ml tanks, highly regarded as a non clogging machine.

I regularly get plaudits from competition judges on the quality of my printing.

The reason I print my own.
a. I have total control of the quality.
b. I have total control of the paper I wish to use.
c. I have total control of timing… ie I print to suit my timetable and do not have to travel to pick up prints or be dependent on mail delivery.
d. For me, it is more economic than using a 3rd party printing service.

The canned profiles for modern printers and inks are now really very good. I would not trust myself to do my own printer profiling (I tried). I used canned profiles (mainly on Hahnemuhle paper).

    Jason Franke| admin

    Matt,

    “Thom Hogan has an article where he recommends buying the best tripod first”..

    I agree with the Thom Hogan article. It mirrors my experience in terms of buying tripods and absolutely mirrors my experience with printing images.

    Obviously I disagree entirely, nor does his experience in any way mirror my experience with buying tripods or printers.

    My primary objections come down to one of understanding and actual useful optimizations of spent money.

    On the understanding front, I would argue that nobody who’s reading Thom’s article and understands the value of a $1000 Gitzo needs to read Thom’s article in the first place. It could at best be considered a couple of pros talking shop — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    For someone who doesn’t already understand what they need there being presented with the view that they need X and if they don’t get X now they’ll spend a lot more money. There’s no understanding being imparted to someone who’s not sure what they need or why they need it, just spend a lot of money now because if you don’t you’ll spend even more later — which is a fallacious argument anyway.

    The same applies here. You’re clearly an experienced printer, and you’re certainly not reading this post going “oooh I need to throw out my stuff and knowledge because this article I read says…” No, that’s nonsense. On the other hand, a lot of people I’ve run into at the hobbyist and semi-pro level looking to get into printing, don’t have answers to your question of “how much volume”, or even whether they’ll want to print regularly or if it’s just too much of a hassle to bother with after the initial excitement wears off. Nor do they know enough to begin to estimate that kind of stuff.

    The key point … figure out what volume you wish to print.

    I might as well tell you to go perform surgery or build a rocket right now. Most people that I’ve talked to looking to get into photo printing don’t know what volume they’ll be printing, and don’t even know where to begin to estimate that.

    My experience ….
    a. Using the entry level printers…. very very expensive ink and constant clogs ..constant frustration.

    Not clogging has a lot more to do with ink formulations (especially for pigment inks, dye inks really don’t clog at all), how well the print head seals to prevent drying, and whether the built in software handles regular cleaning (because the inks will dry regardless) automatically or if you’re just expected to maintain some minimum print volume to keep the heads saturated with fresh ink, than how cheap or expensive the printer is.

    b. Non oem inks … a lot more work than you think … may work well for black & white. Useful to experiment with a printer nearing end of life. A great learning experience. Biggest problem .. getting profiles that work.

    I won’t ever recommend non-OEM inks, especially for someone starting out. They’re a bigger false optimization than buying a high end printer now to save spending money on a mid-range one is.

    To start with, I have a long sordid history with non-OEM inks (in Epson printers), from the late 90s and early 2000s when I was doing IT stuff and not photography. We had massive clog issues with the non-OEM inks that we were forced to use, to the point that we had ~30-40% downtime for the printer fleet.

    Second, using non-OEM inks absolutely means you MUST have a spectrophotometer and you must build your own color profiles. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts, about that. You cannot use OEM color profiles for these inks. That’s an additional $500-1200 (depending on whether you need OBA capable profiling or not, which again means you need to be able to predict the future) to your costs which is prohibitive for most people who aren’t selling prints or selling prints regularly.

    Finally, if you care about print permanence, as far as I know, nobody doing print permanence testing is testing non-OEM inks so you have no idea and no data to support how long that print might last. That’s critical information if you’re selling work and not just printing it for yourself.

    I eventually purchased an Epson 3800 (now 2 generations old). Prints to A2, has 80 ml tanks, highly regarded as a non clogging machine.

    And it costs $450 to reink. Which is another point I’ve run across with respect to printing. I see a lot of people citing $/ml for inks, which goes down with the bigger tanks. And $/ml makes a lot of sense when we’re talking about a production facility — or even a pro photographer that prints regularly.

    But for most hobbyists, I’ve found $/ml is secondary to the actual outlay in total dollars. $12 for a new ink cart is a lot more acceptable than $50, even if that $12 has to be spent 5 times as often. Though this again goes back to volume, and being able to predict the future.

    The reason I print my own.
    a. I have total control of the quality.
    b. I have total control of the paper I wish to use.
    c. I have total control of timing… ie I print to suit my timetable and do not have to travel to pick up prints or be dependent on mail delivery.
    d. For me, it is more economic than using a 3rd party printing service.

    I agree across the board.

    The canned profiles for modern printers and inks are now really very good. I would not trust myself to do my own printer profiling (I tried). I used canned profiles (mainly on Hahnemuhle paper).

    It’s not the quality of the canned profiles that’s so good. It’s that there’s so little variation in the color of the inks and papers from batch to batch that one profile can be consistently good.

Matt O’Brien

I suspect that tripods are entitled to an article on their own, so will just make the point that if people have bought a tripod and are not happy with it they should read Thom’s article before buying a second.

Also, I agree, people at the beginning of their photography journey really have no idea where that journey may lead to (in terms of volume or genre or equipment or any other factor).

I also feel (strongly) that by dipping your feet into the printing world (entry level or advanced) has the potential to massively improve the standard of your photography and a greater understanding of both the technical and artistic elements of the craft.

I am really pleased now that I was so frustrated by my early attempts at printing and my journey evolved as my knowledge of the ingredients improved (paper, inks, printers, colour management, etc).

As a member of a camera club, I see many of our members with good images and bad prints. Most have their images printed by a superb third party printer, but the members still have difficulty (despite many presentations by the club) on how to prepare a digital image for printing. As a camera club we strive to improve the knowledge skill sets of our members, without becoming a training school rather than a camera club. By making attempts to print yourself you have an immediate feedback loop to any errors in the process. This can be done with the cheapest printer and ink combination.

Finally, my Epson 3800 printer fits into the semi Pro range, takes 9 cartridges and cost €600 euros to completely replace all my inks. On the other hand, the printer is less than the price of some of my lens and allows me to produce output quality of a far higher standard than the treadmill cycle of purchasing/upgrading lens or cameras. For me, the time gap between ink replacement is quite a long period and I do not have to replace all the cartridges at the same time. This works for me, but will not suit everyone.

    Jason Franke| admin

    Matt,

    I suspect that tripods are entitled to an article on their own, so will just make the point that if people have bought a tripod and are not happy with it they should read Thom’s article before buying a second.

    I agree with this sentiment.

    I think my angst over the discussion comes down more to taking it to an extreme — which I see done far to often. I don’t see anything wrong with buying a solid entry level class product (say a $200 Manfrotto or one of the Chinese carbon fiber jobbies, or a $500 class medium format printer) to learn on then when you really understand what you want and need, stepping up to the more expensive tiers. I would also agree that buying a $50 8×10 printer then a $200 11×17 printer, then a $500 A3+, then a $1000-1500 17″ class printer is a waste of money.

    I also feel (strongly) that by dipping your feet into the printing world (entry level or advanced) has the potential to massively improve the standard of your photography and a greater understanding of both the technical and artistic elements of the craft.

    I totally agree here. Though I never really thought of it that way until now. There’s a lot you can get away with when making a tiny image that’s displayed on a relatively crappy quality screen that you can’t when making a decent sized print. And the best way to combat that is to get better at the art and craft of actually taking a picture — because being real good at Photoshop can only take you so far.

    I am really pleased now that I was so frustrated by my early attempts at printing and my journey evolved as my knowledge of the ingredients improved (paper, inks, printers, colour management, etc).

    ++ here too. I’ve always found it very satisfying to learn and master something, and printing has the added plus of being something that not only can you be satisfied that you mastered but you get really nice pictures out of it too.

    Finally, my Epson 3800 printer fits into the semi Pro range, takes 9 cartridges and cost €600 euros to completely replace all my inks.

    So the printer I generally recommend as a good starting point here is Canon’s Pixma Pro 100, it’s a $500 semi-pro 8-color printer. But the big reason I find it to be a great place to start is that between camera and printer deals, and just rebates on the printers alone, you can find them for <$200 several times a year.

    On the other hand, the printer is less than the price of some of my lens and allows me to produce output quality of a far higher standard than the treadmill cycle of purchasing/upgrading lens or cameras. For me, the time gap between ink replacement is quite a long period and I do not have to replace all the cartridges at the same time. This works for me, but will not suit everyone.

    I absolutely agree, that if you can learn to print, you can squeeze far more out of your cameras and lenses and in general get far more satisfying results as a whole.

Matt O’Brien

Photography, just like life itself, is an accumulation of experiences.

The reason I comment on this blog is that it digs a little deeper than most, presents very useful information which has been well considered and provides an opportunity to share hard eared experience.

Occasional, I do not mind having a go at some of the big names (eg Adobe) who are too lazy at times to finish the job they started.

We do not have to agree all the time as we come from different places, but I think our minds are in the same place.

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