May 10th, 2005

Major News for the Digital Printmaking Community

May 10, 2005 (minor revisions 5-11-05)

(See supplemental notes at the end 11-13-05 and 2-10-06)

Major News for the Digital Printmaking Community:
EPSON 9800, EPSON 7800, EPSON 4800

From Joseph Holmes

New EPSON Printers and Inkset Announced Today, Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I have just made, for an exhibit to open Thursday, May 19th at the Ordover Gallery in Solana Beach, California, the most beautiful set of color prints that I've ever made, using a new EPSON 44" printer and the new inkset announced today. When considering all aspects of the resulting prints, I have no doubt that this is the best system ever for making color prints.

For some thirty years, I have done everything I could to make the finest color prints possible, so it is of no minor consequence to me that the technologies behind the best digital printing systems keep improving. As of today, the public can begin to learn about the wonderful new pro printers and eight-color inkset that EPSON will soon begin shipping to eager photographers and others.

The last new series of printers, the Stylus Color Pro 9600, 7600 and 4000, all used a seven-color inkset called UltraChrome. The new printers, the 9800, 7800 and 4800 (maintaining the same form factor as the previous three printers) use the new and greatly improved eight color UltraChrome K3 inkset. This new inkset adds a third neutral ink, called Light Light Black, and uses nearly all-new pigments to totally revamp and in many ways improve upon the original UltraChrome inkset, which itself was a major quality advance in several respects.

At the same time, the driver tables, which the user accesses by picking No Color Adjustment and a particular paper choice in the EPSON driver, are hugely improved from those in the older driver. The gray neutrality is more than ten times better, and the tonal linearity is significantly improved, so that traditional ICC profile making processes work much better than they did with the previous systems.

The new inkset has numerous advantages, including:

1) A greatly improved pattern of surface gloss which includes the black having the highest gloss, by a small amount, of any neutral color, with no tone reversals in the surface reflectance pattern (given sufficient drying time between head passes, which is user-adjustable, and which works correctly at default settings).

2) A hugely improved Dmax, when using the best available settings in the driver (not necessarily the default settings for a given paper, which will yield a more modest but substantial improvement over the prior inkset). The best Dmax I was able to get from my 9600 on Premium Luster Photo Paper (250) was 2.09 dry, but with the new inkset, I am able to achieve 2.45 dry in color mode! The dry L* value is 3.3! This is a superb black. Only dye-based inkjet printing systems, dye-sublimation printers, and the old dye transfer system are capable of even higher Dmax values, as far as I know. Specially processed Cibachrome, optimized for Dmax (such as I used to make) achieved a Dmax of 2.30. Most digitally exposed chromogenic output (LightJet or Chromira) does not reach any higher than about 2.30 and often less. Reportedly Ansel Adams' best printed Dmax on selenium-toned papers was about 2.30 or less. EPSON's official claim is for a Dmax of 2.30 (L* of 4.1). This claim is limited by the standard driver settings, which are conservative and can be readily overridden.

3) The gamut volume appears from 3D comparisons in ColorThink to be roughly five to eight percent bigger, give or take a few percent. This means an average increase of radius of just two to three percent. The gamut shape has changed though, in a way that favors actual image content more often than it hurts it and the change in gamut radius is quite non-uniform. I have yet to see a single image of mine be significantly challenged by the gamut of this inkset. Some dark, rich blues in a small region of my standard blue-gamut busting image "Eagle Lake..." are a little damaged in some soft proofs for K3 on Luster, but not in others from different profiles (gamut boundary info in profiles tends to be a bit imprecise, so gamut warnings and soft proof limits are not perfectly accurate). That's the worst problem I've seen and I've seen a lot of cases of improvement. The magenta ink is much warmer in hue and a few percent higher in chroma, being about the same hue as a typical lithographic magenta, and the cyan is further toward blue and also a few percent higher in chroma. The yellow is unchanged except for a very small increase in chroma. One of the net effects of these changes is that the warm colors' gamut, which was often the most limiting area in my pictures is improved noticeably, many of the greens are improved quite a bit, and the purply-blue to magenta-red gamut is decreased up to a maximum of 10 to 12%, through a range of about 60 degrees of hue, in the central lightnesses, although that hue range also improves a bit in some of the darkest colors, and is unchanged in others. In the 3D models from two profiles that I've built, the lighter colors have increased for the most part, while some of the darker colors have decreased a little, except near black, but these comparisons can be misleading, and a better way to see is to do comparison soft proofs with your own images using profiles for each system, with the rendering intent set to RelCol with Black Pt. Compensation on, unless the Perceptual tables in your profiles are particularly good (cause minimal color shifting). The most accurate way to tell is to print, but it's slow to put together a full assessment that way. So far, every picture I've printed (including sixteen varied favorites for my next exhibit, ten of them 24 x 30s, has either had no change or been benefitted by the changes to the gamut, and every image has looked more brilliant because of the improved Dmax and surface gloss.

4) The color of the neutral inks is a mildly warm shade, more neutral than the prior neutrals and a very good choice for the roles that these inks must play, especially in black & white printing. The three neutrals, Black, Light Black and Light Light Black, are used together for a moderately aggressive GCR (gray component replacement) in color images, which improves the light fading properties of the more neutral colors of any color image by replacing color inks of equivalent density with neutral inks which are inherently more fade-resistant among other benefits. Most importantly, these three neutrals make the new Advanced Black & White mode feasible. In this mode, a color image is automatically converted into grayscale (or a grayscale image is used directly) and printed through one of several basic tables at different degrees of lightness. The ink used to form the image is overwhelmingly the three neutrals, however, the color inks are used as needed to impart subtle coloration in whichever degree the user wishes, from very slight to something on the order of a strong sepia, but in any hue. This approach to tunable, fine black & white printing is what I have long regarded as essentially the best possible approach in an 8-color system intended for dual, color/B&W use, and is capable of stunningly beautiful black & white as well as color. Furthermore, the Wilhelm Imaging Research display permanence ratings of black & white prints made with the Advanced Black & White mode will be far better than those from the older UltraChrome inkset and driver, which came in between 76 years and over 200 years depending on the paper, behind plain glass. UV-protected results, without protective spray, ranged up to 300 years for the old inkset. It looks as though the new WIR results exceed 200 years behind plain glass on some if not most or all EPSON papers tested already, with the tests not having been completed, meaning that the average numbers will still improve (information is just beginning to appear). I'm hoping for ratings of 300+ for most papers, and it seems we are likely to get them, at least for UV-protected results. Serious black & white!

5) Metameric color shifting with both the color and Advanced Black & White modes is said to be much improved over prior results, and I certainly haven't noticed any problem in this area.

6) The display permanence ratings of the color prints are looking like they will be the same or a little better than those from the original UltraChrome inkset (e.g. 165 years for Luster behind UV-filtering plex or UV-filtering glass). Improvements would derive from the improved neutrals rendition (somewhat more GCR).

7) My initial experience suggests that the humectant load which should be removed from barrier-type papers ("RC" papers like Premium Luster) after printing is reduced somewhat, however, curing is still probably an important processing step to avoid the possibility of eventual fogging of the inside of glass or plex by prints on barrier-type papers. I have been curing all of my prints for over a year now. This is an issue with all inkjet printing systems except the Iris, which uses continuous flow to (try to!) prevent nozzle clogging, and which therefore doesn't need to add the nearly non-evaporating humectant chemicals to the inks. I use a clean sheet of 32 x 40" Light Impressions Renaissance non-buffered, archival paper over the print for one day of curing prior to matting, shipping, and/or framing of my prints. I weight the paper down with strips of 4-ply museum board, three or four layers deep to insure good contact between the plain paper and the print, starting this process 15 minutes after the print is finished printing. If the prints are the same size, quite a few can be stacked up on the same worktable. This is not an issue when printing on rag papers, because the humectant has a large volume of paper into which to move in those cases.

The new printers are a major step forward as well:

1) The print head is now 1" tall, double the prior printing swath width, so print times are cut approximately in half at any given quality level. I find that unlike the 9600, I can now work comfortably with the 2880 x 1440 dpi driver option. A print measuring 27 x 33" using 2880 dpi and uni-directional printing (High Speed turned off for best quality) takes just under 50 minutes.

2) The image structure is incredibly fine. The image smoothness is incredibly fine. I have not done all possible comparisons, but at 2880 Uni-D, the 9800 is far superior to the 9600 at 1440 Uni-D in terms of resolvable detail and smoothness of the image. Dots are now almost invisible under a 4X loupe, let alone to the naked eye. The Cyan and Magenta inks are only used in the darkest areas of the image, with Light Cyan and Light Magenta dominating in area by a very large margin. Despite this, the rate at which the inks are consumed is surprisingly equal between the colors, although Light Magenta still runs out first. Black, Magenta and Cyan run out last. The Light Black and Light Light Black help to keep the ink consumption even.

3) The ink cartridges are split into two groups of four, one at each end of the machine. They are recessed into the machine so they don't stick out and get walked into, nor do they interfere with the removal of large prints. The ink cartridge technology is totally new, using two connections instead of one between the printer and the cartridge. The system is now pressurized and the ink is withdrawn from a point below center, with a central point being used to pressurize the cartridge. This may be due to the need to move more ink further, faster, than earlier designs have required. The cartridges are, amazingly, the same size as the old 110 ml cartridges, but they hold either 110 or 220 mls! The ink may also have a higher pigment load, and this may result in more printable area per milliliter of ink, but this remains to be seen. From left to right, the color sequence is: Light Light Black, Light Magenta, Light Cyan, Light Black, then on the right end Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow. KCMY is the standard sequence for most lithographic printing, by the way.

4) The printer (9800 at least) has two waste ink cartridges instead of one (one at each end). The one on the right fills up first, and the EPSON Utility application shows you how much capacity remains in each. This way it's much less likely that you'll be stuck, unable to print because your waste cartridge has filled up and you don't have a spare on hand. After the initial charging of the system, they fill up very slowly, presumably at about the same rate as they did in the older system.

5) The new inkset has a Matte Black option, as before, but this time, when you change from Photo Black (for printing on photographic-style, glossier papers) to Matte Black (for printing on "fine art" rag-style papers), it's only necessary to waste some of the black ink, instead of wasting all the colors of ink. So changing blacks is much more practical. I have yet to test the Matte black ink to see how high I can get the Dmax on any rag papers, but I am anxiously anticipating the best rag paper results ever. (note: This preliminary info about the swapping of the black inks was incorrect. The swap consumes a total of 90ml of ink, and it is some of each ink. See the supplementary note at the end of this paper for more info on this.)

6) The printer has a new kind of fully automatic nozzle check capability. It's slower than the manual check, where you make a quick print on a small sheet of paper (I use 8.5 x 11" plain laser printer paper), but you can either initiate it by hand, or set it to run at the start of every job (you probably won't want to do that). The printer prints out a checkerboard-like pattern of small rectangles, each of which is printed entirely by one nozzle. It then uses the sensor which is mounted in the head to see if any of the rectangles are missing. If so, it runs a cleaning cycle and repeats the process. As soon as the darker four colors are finished, it moves on to the lighter four colors. If any nozzle is clogged, it goes back to square one and starts over. Note that the more expensive 10000 and 10600 printers use an even better (but more expensive to make) system which employs a laser to check that each nozzle is firing.

7) The printer has the ability to automatically "align" the print heads (standard, user-performable head alignments are actually timing adjustments for the various colors of ink which cause them all to fire at just the right time for best register between the colors). The Auto Head Alignment works by printing out a set of targets in the central 9 inches, roughly, of whichever roll paper you may have in the machine (don't do this test on plain paper). The sensor reads the apparent brightness of the printed patches and can tell which adjustment is the best and sets it for you, for each color and droplet size. No more need to use a loupe and mark a page and then enter in the best values.

8) The screening technology has been overhauled for color, to accommodate the improved precision of the new print head. The screening for the Advanced Black & White mode is of course all new and does an amazing job of creating consistent coloration throughout the tone scale and superb smoothness on photographic papers (e.g. Premium Luster). Smooth results on rag papers are much easier to achieve.

9) After use, the machine goes totally silent, and it uses only 0.7 watts when off. The reported idle power consumption is up to 15 watts, but I doubt if it's anywhere near that high. If so, better to leave it off when not in use. The world is increasingly full of little power-sucking "vampires" which sit there doing nothing but using up a few watts continuously (cell phone chargers, power supplies of many other kinds, instant-on TVs, cable boxes, DVD players, etc.), and making electricity is having drastically destructive consequences to the planetary atmosphere, so it's no small matter that the power-wasting habits of these billions of devices are being reformed aggressively as a result of governmental mandates around the world. I do everything I can in my life to use less electricity and we all should. In America, making electricity does even more to damage the global climate than our portly transportation sector by roughly twenty-five percent. Coal is the number one culprit within the power sector.

10) In response to an earlier request of mine, new software provided with the printer for performing several new functions, can be set to alert the user with an alarm of some sort on the Mac's speakers (I wanted the printer to ding the way Toast does when a print is about to be finished so I can come and catch it just after it's cut off the roll). I haven't been able to test this yet because of an installation glitsch with the software, but yahoo anyway!

11) The annoying tendency of the two or three little metal clips across the front which seem to fall out every time you bump into them will be gone, with a redesigned method of keeping roll paper from curling under the printer, above the stand's cross bar.

12) The printer has an all-new LCD and control panel, which is a good redesign and combines some buttons. The software interface is very quick and easy to learn, and the error messages are more explicit. Note that various kinds of error messages, such as the paper skew warning, can be manually overridden by pushing the Pause button.

13) The printer has a new and much faster processor inside to boot up more quickly, among other quicker processes. The longer it's been since you've used the printer, the more likely it is that the printer will perform a perfunctory nozzle cleaning (without paper) as a part of the startup procedure.

14) The printer has USB 2 and FireWire 400 built in, with a 10/100 BaseT Ethernet card option.

15) The prices for the 9800 and 7800 are the same as for the 9600 and 7600. The 4800 is $200 more than the 4000, which is still available, but I don't know for how long.


The problems of inkjet systems are getting to be hard to find! One wonders what will come next to improve upon these amazingly good products. Maybe somebody will figure out how to have the printer apply a protective coating, giving yet more physical robustness (resistance to abrasion, water droplets, etc.) as well as even better light fading performance. Or maybe some genius will figure out how to avoid the humectant issue entirely with barrier papers. We shall see!

I really think that after all these decades of dreaming about ultimately fine realizations of my photographic visions of the best of nature, that it has finally come to pass. From now on, I'll be making all of my prints on a 9800 or two, rather than on my 10000 and my 9600. Contact me if you are in Northern California and are in the market for the 10000. I've now sold the 9600.

Supplementary note, November 13, 2005

When I performed a black ink swap — matte black (MK) for photo black (PK) — the result was that 90mls of ink were consumed and it was some of each of the eight inks. At street prices this amounts to about $40 worth of ink, and the cost would be the same again to switch back. The switching process takes about 13 minutes, if none of your cartridges are nearly empty. If they are, then you'll have to put in new cartridges before you begin so the system can be sure you won't run out during the swap. After swapping in the MK ink, I printed a standard full black (normal driver settings) on a sheet of EPSON Velvet Fine Art, which typically yields the blackest blacks of any rag paper that I know of, and the measured Dmax with my densitometer was 1.68, meaning that it was extremely similar if not identical to the black that you can get from the MK ink when using it in the original UltraChrome printers. No improvement. By comparison, a Hahnemühle PhotoRag black printed with EPSON's dye inkset measured 1.98 with my densitometer. Although this result yields stunning prints, the light fading behavior of this combination is disastrous (perhaps a two- or three-year rating, compared with roughly a century with the two pigmented UltraChrome inksets, depending on UV filtration and paper type, etc.).

When reflection density measurements are made on papers with a fairly glossy surface, including papers like EPSON's Premium Luster, Premium Semi-Matte, and Premium Glossy, the surface reflection from the paper is not measured because the instrument does not see it — the surface reflection is relatively specular and the surface light bounces away from the sensor. When such measurements are made from "fine art", aka matte or rag papers, including PhotoRag, Velvet Fine Art, Enhanced Matte, and many others, the surface reflection is so diffuse that it is always included in the measurement, i.e. the instrument sees the light reflected from the surface instead of missing it. For this reason, a Dmax of 1.98 on a matte paper is roughly visually equivalent to a Dmax on photo papers of 2.50. Similarly a Dmax of 1.68 on matte paper is roughly visually equivalent to 2.00 on photo paper. Those comparisons are valid for a fairly diffuse lighting condition. If the lighting is perfect gallery lighting with spotlights in an otherwise dark room, the measured Dmax would more closely reflect the actual appearance of matte versus photo-type papers so a photo paper with a black of 2.50 Dmax would look darker than a 1.98 Dmax on a matte paper instead of looking about equally dark.

Just to complicate matters, if the measurements of density are made with an instrument (densitometer or spectrophotometer) which is fitted with a polarizing filter, then surface reflections are largely eliminated, so the differences in measured Dmax between the two paper families would be much less than I have described.

Hopefully EPSON will pull a non-toxic-components, high Dmax, matte black ink out of the ether of chemical possibilities before long. Prints with a completely matte surface and very black blacks tend to create the wonderful illusion of looking out of an open window. Just don't be touching the dark areas because they mar very easily.

Note on Ink Consumption, February 10, 2006

I just checked out the ink consumption for printing four of my images on Premium Luster Photo Paper (250), which one can find by printing a test report from the LCD menu of the printer (Test Print > Job Information) and it varied between 2.02 and 2.60 ml per square foot printed, total, for all eight inks combined. At the best discount prices available for ink (30% off retail) that works out to $0.83 to $1.06 per square foot for ink when using 220 ml cartridges or about 10% higher when using 110 ml cartridges.