Making fine prints in your digital darkroom
Photo printers
by Norman Koren

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updated June 2, 2005
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Table of contents

for the Making Fine
Prints series

Getting started | Light & color
Scanners | Pixels, images, & files
Digital cameras | Papers and inks
Printers
Introduction | Epson 2200
Epson 1280/1290 | Red shift fading
Maintenance/troubleshooting tips
Other printers | Links
How many pixels do you need?
Monitor calibration and gamma
Printer calibration | Scanning | Basic image editing
Black & White | Matting and framing
Tonal quality and dynamic range in digital cameras

Color Management: Introduction | Implementation
Profiles with MonacoEZcolor | Evaluating profiles




for Image editing with
Picture Window Pro
Introduction | Making masks
Contrast masking
Tinting and hand coloring B&W images
Example: Sunset, Providence, Rhode Island
In this page we introduce printer technologies, then we describe the Epson 2200 (my current printer), the 1280/1290, and a few others. We include troubleshooting tips. The page ends with a discussion of the number of pixels required for high quality prints. Related pages:
Related pages:  Papers and inks | Printer calibration | Black & White printing
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Ye news
May, 2005. Epson has revamped its line of Ultrachrome printers with a new series that takes the 8-color Ultrachrome K3 ink set. The new models include the R2400 (13 inches wide; $850 USD), 4800 (17 inches wide; $2,000 USD), 7800 (24 inches wide; about $3,000 USD), and 9800 (44 inches wide; about $5,000 USD). Useful links:
  • Joseph Holmes' early review is well worth reading. The Dmax (deepest printable black tone) is apparently impressive. (His number for the old Ultrachrome printers is identical to the number I measured for the 2200 using Imatest Print Test.)
  • Epson R2400 and Ultrachrome K3 Ink Report  by Jeff Schewe confirms Holmes' claim that the new printers have outstanding Dmax.
  • Michael Reichmann (Luminous-Landscape.com) was somewhat disappointed by the 4800. There are problems with ink waste when changing the black cartridges, and the native B&W quality (with the Epson Printer Driver) wasn't up to his standards. He is a big fan of Imageprint, which he uses with the 4000.
  • Photo-i.co.uk has an announcement. Expect an excellent review.
February, 2005. Epson has released the 17-inch wide R1800 printer with the gloss optimizer for printing on glossy (RC) surfaces. It is not a replacement for the 2200 (see above). It produces excellent results on glossy paper ($530 USD).

February, 2004.
Epson has released a new set of ICC profiles for the 2200 printer. The profiles are for 1440 and 2880 dpi for Premium Luster, Semigloss, Glossy, Enhanced Matte, Watercolor - Radiant White, Velvet Fine Art, and PremierArt™ Water-Resistant Canvas. I haven't had a chance to evaluate them. Finding them can be a little tricky because you can't link directly to Epson pages, and as of February 2004 they're not yet on Epson USA's Drivers & Downloads page for the 2200. To locate them you must click on Announcements (in the left column), then click on New ICC Profiles for Epson Stylus Photo 2200. They obvouisly won't be there forever; I'll update this page when they move.

I have a problem with the workflow in their How to use ICC profiles document. In Step 7 for Windows, it recommends selecting Assign working RGB: Adobe RGB (1998) for documents that have no embedded ICC profile. This is generally a bad practice because the Windows default color space for images with no embedded profile is sRGB. But there are exceptions. If you convert a RAW file to Adobe RGB (1998) with Canon's (mediocre) File Viewer Utility, it won't embed a profile. Bad practice, but Epson's recommendation is appropriate in this case. Then in Step 8 it recommends assigning a different profile if the color balance appears incorrect. Very slipshod! It's best to select the correct profile when you open the file, then use other adjustments.

Introduction to inkjet printers

Several printer technologies are available-- laser, inkjet and dye sublimation. Inkjet printers, particularly those with six or more ink colors, lead the pack for photographic image quality. Inkjet printers fall into two categories: dye and pigment-based.
Epson dominates the market for photo quality printers, but Canon and Hewlett-Packard offer serious competition. The inks in the older Epsons weren't lightfast, but that changed in 2000 with the introduction of the Stylus Photo 870 and 1270, which print 8½ and 13 inches wide, respectively. And things continue to improve.  
Standard print sizes
more on Inkjetart.com
Metric
A4: 210x297 mm ( 8.3x11.7 in)
A3: 297x420 mm (11.7x16.5 in)
A2: 420x594 mm (16.5x23.4 in)
A1: 594x841 mm (23.4x33.1 in)
(All have a 1:1.414 aspect ratio.)
 
US
A (letter):    8.5x11 in.
B (ledger):   11x17 in.
Super A3/B: 13x19 in.
C:  17x22 in.
D:   22x34 in.

Epson photo printers fall into three categories: I can't keep up with all of Epson's new models, especially the letter-sized/A4 printers. Here is a page from Epson UK that compares printer models (still confusing; many of the A4 models differ in minor features).

My top choice for a printer today would be one of the Epson Ultrachrome printers. In October 2002 I purchased the Epson Stylus Pro 2200 (replaced by the R2400 in mid-2005), which prints 13 inches wide. Reasons: long print life, excellent color gamut, and good B&W performance. The 17 inch wide 4000, 24 inch wide 7600, or 44 inch wide 9600 are the printers of choice for high volume work. The 13 inch wide Epson 1280/1290 and Canon S9000/i9100 printers would be my second choices: less expensive, but shorter print life (about 25 years) and not quite as good for B&W. (See news above for the 2005 replacements.)

Among 8½ inch wide printers I'd consider the Epson R800, which uses Ultrachrome inks and the Hewlett-Packard 7960, which uses 8 dye inks that last nearly as long as Epson Ultrachrome pigments. The 8 inks include black and two grays: it's reputed to be outstanding for Black & White printing. Confession: I don't keep up with smaller printers, so this is almost certainly out of date..

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Epson Ultrachrome printers: Stylus Photo 2200 (2100 outside North America)

The Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (2100 outside North America; replaced in mid-2005 by the R2400), introducedAugust 2002, was the first of Epson's 7-color "Ultrachrome" printers. It has seven ink cartridges-- one for each color, which saves ink because you don't have to replace a 5-color cartridge when one ink runs out. But the 18 ml cartridges can still be expensive if you do a high volume of printing. Prints up to 13 inches wide (A3+/Super B print size). $650. Compared to the 2000P it features better color gamut, deeper blacks and faster printing, but less image permanence: 75-100 years instead of 200-- still very good. 4 picoliter droplet size. The ink set includes gray (light black) and a choice of  matte or photo black (for matte (fiber-based) or RC papers, respectively). It is better suited for B&W than the 2000P, but it still has some metamerism (change in appearance under different light sources). Its  roll paper holder has an automatic cutter (a big improvement over the flimsy piece of trash that passed for the 1270 roll holder). It also has a special feeding slot for thick fine art papers.

Ultrachrome printers have been a tremendous commercial success. As a result, several models are now available.

I bought a 2200 in September 2002 and gave the trusty 1270 to my son (it seems to have worn out since he got it). It does a superb job. I'll continue to add material as time goes on. Some links to the Ultrachrome printers are, Here are some observations about the 2200.

Epson Stylus Photo 1280 ( 1290 outside North America)

The Epson Stylus Photo 1280 ( 1290 outside North America) About $380. Uses the dye-based same inks and papers as the 1270 but prints up to 2880 dpi. Its principal advantage is that it can make borderless prints. Color rendition may be slightly improved. From all accounts, actual sharpness at 2880 dpi is barely distinguishable from 1440 dpi, and print speeds are much slower. Here Ron Harris's comment about B&W, "With the 1280 you only get 2880 dpi if you use Epson Premium Glossy. For matte paper it's 1440 dpi. I have made some prints at 2880 dpi using black ink only. The results are not up to the standard of fine art photography." I've established a workflow to get good B&W results with the 1270/1280/1290. But the 2200 is the printer of choice for serious B&W. You can learn more from Inkjetart.com, particularly Inkjet News & Tips, February 20, 2001, and from reviews by Michael Reichmann and Ian Lyons.

Epson Stylus Photo 1270 (replaced by the 1280/1290 February 2001) 1440 dpi. Prints up to 13 inches wide using relatively lightfast dye-based inks, rated by Wilhelm Research at 10 years on Premium Glossy paper and 25 years on Matte Heavyweight. The prints are beautiful! Color gamut is excellent. All surfaces reproduce deep rich black tones. I used a 1270 between early 2000 and September 2002, when I got the 2200.

Available papers for the 1270/1280/1290  Papers not on this list may have longevity problems due to chemical interaction with the dyes. My printer settings are on the Printer calibration page. Epson also recommends Premium Glossy or Semigloss for the 1280, but I don't; I removed them from the list below because of their susceptibility to red shift fading.

"Red shift" fading in dye-based printers (Epson 1270/1280/1290, Canon S9000 etc.)

A few months after the 1270 was introduced, people started noticing that Premium Glossy prints would occasionally and unpredictably turn orange or red due to fading of the cyan dye. This turned out to be a big embarrassment for Epson. I saw the "red shift" once. I accidentally left a Luster print in my bright skylit living room where it received direct afternoon sun, and it faded severely in just one week-- with frightening rapidity for such a short period. I did a few tests-- it was something in the air, not sunlight or summer heat. A Luster print in a shady part in the same room faded at the same rate, but the same print in my cool dry basement didn't fade at all. None of the Matte Heavyweight prints faded. 

"Red shift" is caused by oxidation of the cyan dye. The culprit was originally thought to be ozone (O3 )-- a particularly potent form of oxygen, but it's now recognized that plain oxygen (O2 ) in combination with still unknown atmospheric contaminants which act as catalysts can cause the fading. Not nice! My Luster paper turned out to be an old batch. Anti-oxidants were added to Premium Gloss, Premium Semigloss, and Premium Luster starting in 2001. (See the Inkjetart.com article.) This improves things, but doesn't fix the problem entirely-- fading can start when the anti-oxidant is depleted. And display life is only rated at 10 years. Framing the print under glass eliminates the problem. Polypropylene sleves offer some protection. Check out Bob Meyer's site for more detail on this problem.

As a result, the only papers I can recommend for the 1270/1280/1290 are Matte Heavyweight and swellable polymer papers, such as ColorLife, which has a lovely semigloss surface and a claimed longevity of 25 years. Canon dye-based printers suffer from the same problem.

 
Epson printer troubleshooting and maintenance tips

Nozzle checkIf your prints don't look right,the first thing to do is to run the nozzle check check.  If any of the six colors fail the test, run the Head Cleaning cycle. The test doesn't take much time or ink, and you can use scratch paper. You access it through the Utility tab in the printer Properties window.

1270/1280/1290 Ink formulation  has been changed from the original. Ron Harris no longer likes B&W with Matte Heavyweight paper. Here is Epson's documentation.

Troubleshooting Tip #0302   Ink Color Variance in Stylus Photo 870/875/1270   (from Epson, undated. 2001?)
We are aware that some of our customers use special color matching techniques to precisely calibrate the color performance of Epson Stylus Photo printers. We are alerting such customers of a change in manufacturers of dye components used in the color ink that results in a very slight change in the output from Epson Stylus Photo 870, 875, and 1270 printers. This slight change would not be descernible with printers less capable of continuous tone printing, and most users of Epson Stylus Photo printers will also not notice any changes in color performance.

Photographers who are particularly discerning, however, may notice that colors such as blue are very slightly more vivid and gray tones are very slightly cooler. This change affects T008201 and T009201 cartridges. The affected cartridges have lot numbers that begin with the letter "A".

Eliminating "Rail Drag" Here is a valuable tip from Inkjetart.com's Inkjet NEWS & Tips - 10 Dec 01. It seemed to fix my communication error problem (below) for a while. I strongly recommend subscribing to this newsletter.
Is your inkjet printer starting to make awful sounds and/or making a mess of the files sent to it? It could be that your print heads are suffering from "rail drag". This is one of the most common repair problems we hear of (often costing a minimum of $50 if your printer is out of warranty, or at the least several days of down time even if it is under warranty).

The most common culprit is "rail drag" due to a dirty and/or dried out print head rail. If you're experiencing problems, try cleaning the rail (the chrome bar) that the print heads glide back and forth on -- before you go to the repair shop. Use WD-40 or a light sewing machine oil (some use gun oil) and wipe off the excess. (Yes, a repair shop has no problems with charging you $50 just for doing this simple procedure!) Do this with a clean cotton cloth about every three months, or monthly if your printer is under heavy use. Whenever the printer motor experiences any extra friction or resistance from the print head assembly it will "fail-safe" and stop, or go to a default position so as not to force the issue and damage the motor or the print head drive assembly. The cleaning of the printer head rail eliminates most of these problems.

Printer stops part way through a print with "communication error."After about a year my 1270 would intermittently stop part way through a print and give me a "communication error" message. Flaky! This problem drove me crazy. I reinstalled the drivers from the USA and UK sites, rearranged the IRQ's, reinstalled Windows 98, etc., to no avail. Cleaning the rails (above) seemed to help for a while. I changed the motherboard, installed Windows XP Pro, removed the USB hub and made sure there was sufficient disk space on the C drive for a scratch file-- at least five times the image file size for 1440 dpi printing. But the problem persisted.

I heard that the only surefire solution is to switch from USB to a parallel printer connection-- slower on my old computer with Windows 98. Perhaps not so slow on my new computer with Windows XP.

I bought a USB 2.0 PCI card to accomodate my Epson 2450 scanner. It uses different drivers from standard USB 1.1 cards. The USB 2.0 card fixed the problem.

Here is a solution from Rich Hureau of Hampton, NH.
I recently purchased an Epson 1280 and soon started to get the "communication error." But I found a simple soution, based on experience with my older Epson 900. For years the Remaining ink display would periodically be grayed out, but it would print OK. This didn't affect the printer performance at all, and would go away after rebooting (although I could also just ignore it).

When the 1280 started giving me these pesky "communication" errors, I wondered if it was related. So I looked in the printer driver settings. In the Utility tab, there is a button labelled "Speed and Progress". If you click it, another dialog pops up with a button labelled "Monitoring Preferences." Click this, and another dialog appears, with several checkboxes. One says: "Communication Error," with a On/Off setting. By default, the Epson 900 has a setting OFF on this checkbox. But the 1280 has a default ON. So, I set it to OFF, and it seems to have solved the problem. The Remaining ink display occasionally turns gray, and when it does,
the Status Monitor shows a Communication Error, but the printer keeps on printing.
That box is still there-- and still equally hidden-- in the R2400. Fortunately it is OFF by default.

Windows XP printing errors?  Most errors can be fixed by installing Service Pack 1, which includes the latest USB 2.0 drivers.You will need to update the drivers for the USB host controllers. Robert Zembowicz (and Microsoft) have some valuable advice on doing this. Before I installed it the print spooler often failed to clear completed print jobs. Here's what I did. (1) Close the print spooler (spoolsv.exe). The quickest way is to open the Task Manager (Ctrl-Alt-Del) and end the spoolsv.exe process. (2) Remove old print jobs by deleting *.SHD and *.SPL files from C:\WINDOWS\system32\spool\PRINTERS. Explorer must be set to view hidden and system files. It might be a good idea to do this whenever you cancel a print job midstream. (3) Restart the print spooler. This can be done by clicking Start, Run..., and entering spoolsv.exe in the Open: box. It can also be done from the Task Manager. I made a shortcut (to C:\WINDOWS\system32\spoolsv.exe ) to speed up this process. Sometimes spoolsv.exe takes a minute or so to restart. When you check print job status in the Printers and Faxes window, you may want to click View, Refresh. It doesn't always show current status. An alternative approach to stopping/restarting the print spooler is to open the Control Panel, double-click on Administrative Tools, Services, click on Print Spooler, then stop it. Delete the *.SHD and *.SPL files, then restart it from the Services window. Before I found these fixes I always had to reboot my computer, sometimes twice, whenever it refused to print. But these fixes weren't perfect. The software sometimes failed to recognize the printer-- the ink level boxes in Printer Preferences remained clear white or grayed out.

Dale cotton has a page on printer maintenance.

Other printers

Epson Stylus Photo 2000P  Introduced in 2000. About $900. Prints up to 13 inches wide using "polymer-encapsulated" pigment-based inks. 100-200+ year print lifetime. Less color gamut than Epson's dye-based printers, but reviewers generally find it acceptable. Prints suffer from metamerism -- a substantial color shift when viewed under different light sources. Not acceptable for Back & White. I didn't buy one because the black tones on the sample I've seen were not as deep as the 1270. Print quality may be improved by increasing the contrast in the dialog box (below) to 10 as Ron Harris suggests, or setting the mode to "Vivid" as Michael Reichmann suggests. Inkjetart.com compared of the 1270 and 2000P. For all practical purposes, the 2000P has been replaced by the 2100/2200, which is faster and has a superior color gamut, though its pigment longevity is only 75-100 years.

Canon  has several 6-ink dye-based printers that compete with Epson. Like the Epson dye-based printers they suffer from the red-shift problem, which is dealt with by using matte or swellable polymer glossy papers. Photo-i has a review of the 5-ink i865, which is classified as a business printer-- fewer cartridges than the Photo printers listed below..

Hewlett-Packard  dropped its 6-color photo printers in favor of 4-color office printers in 2000 but returned with a promising new line in 2002. A good thing because they have excellent technology. They claimed up to 75 year print life (excellent). I was impressed by some prints I saw, and Wilhelm's results indicated a 73 year lifetime for images printed on HP Premium Plus Photo Paper- Glossy-- far better than other dye-based prints and nearly as good as the Epson 2200. Photographers will start paying more attention to HP when they come out with a 13 inch wide model, but an insider friend told me that Epson's marketing gurus can't imagine why any consumer would want a printer wider than 8½ inches. Here are some highlights in their current line. Black and White printing is discussed in B&W, matting and framing.

Links Recommended websites with printer news, reviews, and products

 

How many pixels do you need?

A printer's dpi rating (1440 or 2880 dpi for Epsons at their highest quality setting) is sometimes called its "resolution," but it is not true resolution. It is the amount the stepper motor moves between printing dots. It takes several printer dots to reproduce an image pixel. If you are using Picture Window Pro or Qimage Pro (a Photoshop post-processor), you don't need to resize an image for printing; you don't need to worry about the exact mapping between image and printer pixels. The image is resampled and sent directly to the printer. Prints are optimally sharp. You will, however, need to resize images if you send them out to a lab for LightJet printing.

Your only concern is that you have sufficient image pixels per inch on the print. The following table has some useful guidelines.
 

Print PPI
Perceived print quality
300
Outstanding. As sharp as most printers can print; about as sharp as the eye can see at normal viewing distances.
200
Excellent. Close to 300 PPI for small prints, 8½x11 (or A4) and smaller.
Outstanding quality in large prints, 11x17" (or A3) and larger, which tend to be viewed from greater distances.
150
OK for large prints. Adequate, but not optimum, for small prints.
100
Adequate, but not optimum, for large prints. Mediocre for small prints.

These numbers are actual pixels per inch, not necessarily the dpi or ppi "resolution" of the image file, which is actually a scaling factor. Print file size and scaling are discussed in Pixels, images, and files. Print sharpness measurements are described in Understanding image sharpness part 3: Printers and prints.

Digital Dog's 1600x2000 pixel test image looks very sharp printed at 200 pixels per inch on Letter-size paper. There is only a small improvement in going to 300 pixels per inch. If I don't plan to print larger than Letter size, I scan at 2000 dpi with the Canon FS4000US (1800 dpi with the Hewlett-Packard S20). This keeps file sizes smaller and speeds editing. If I plan to print A3 or larger I scan at maximum resolution.
 

Professional graphics: another world  So you invested heavily in the burgeoning Internet industry in 1995 and decided to sell your stocks when they seemed a bit high in 2000. Now your problem is what to do with all that money. I offer a solution. There's another world out there-- the world of professional graphics; of giclée printing; of huge prints and high volume industrial strength equipment. A good entry is the FLAAR websites-- verbose and opinionated, but always fascinating. I often disagree with them, particularly when they dismiss consumer grade equipment like Epson printers, which are capable of remarkable quality, but don't have the speed or ruggedness to meet professional demands. Still, a wide format giclée printer (24 inches or more) would be very nice...  


Images and text copyright © 2000-2014 by Norman Koren.
Norman Koren lives in Boulder, Colorado, founded Imatest LLC in 2004, previously worked on magnetic recording technology. He has been involved with photography since 1964.