Today’s post is not a structured formal review – there will be plenty of those coming in the weeks ahead as new products will begin to ship from the manufacturers. Instead, today’s article is just a casual discussion about the wide format printer I have been using for the past year: the Epson 4880 with Vivid Magenta Inks. I have owned the printer for 13 months, 12 of which I have actually used the printer. Much to my dismay, when the printer initially arrived it sat in its box for about a month as there were other projects going on, and quite honestly no place to put it yet as we really had no idea how large this sucker actually was! By the way, in case you are wondering – it’s heavy too, about 90lbs!
Upon finally setting up the printer, there were a few driver issues that I had to overcome, as the setup is much more complex that your standard home printer. I think the issue was since I have it running off of a network connection, it was quite finicky getting detected. Upon going to the Epson website to read some support issues, I found that two days prior, Epson released a firmware update for the printer to better ensure networking capatability. I found this amusing, downloaded the update, and I was off an running.
The initial priming of the print head sure does consume a lot of ink. If you recall from my previous article about the cost of ink, you too would have been scared when you saw your ink level drop to 50% after the unit was done making noise! However, I was so delighted to see that it took a very long time before the ink levels dropped any lower, and I was ever-so surprised that it took me the better part of two months, doing a decent amount of print work 4 times a week before I had to even change my Light Magenta for the first time. Light magenta is usually the color to go first, as it is the primary ink used to render skin tones. After the light magenta, light cyan, then cyan are usually the next to go, as they are the primary component of most scenic photos. Unless you are doing black & white photographs, the blacks inks are usually last to go. Of course, this will vary from user to user based on the image content one is printing.
The standard paper that I print on is the Epson Ultra Premium Luster 260. I purchase this paper rolls at a time, as roll paper is so much more cost effective than cut-sheet paper. Even when using the Epson 2200, R1800, & R800 in the past, Epson Premium Luster was always my standard go-to paper. It’s heavy-weight, quite durable, has the feel of N-finish darkroom papers, does not give nasty reflections like junky glossy paper does, and delivers rich and luscious color saturation. Subtle details in the deepest blacks and the brightest highlights are still discernable on this top-grade paper from Epson. In addition to the Premium Luster, I print my fine-art exhibits photographs exclusively on Hahnemuhle Fine Art photo papers for a few reasons: 1) they have a 425-year reputation for creating fine art-specific papers with archival quality of over 200 years, 2) their wide selection of paper surfaces, 3) their commitment to protecting artist copyright and valuation through myArt Registry and the Certificate of Authenticity system, and 4) their attempt to advance research and development for the manufacture of digital art papers from renewable resources such as bamboo and sugarcane. I have been testing these papers for sometime now and they produce interesting results.
The reason for this segue, of course, is that a client of mine began to share the excitement of Hahnemuhle papers with me and decided that he wanted me to print a series of his images for his next exhibit on the Hahnemuhle Photo Rag paper which is a matte paper, and most of his images were black & white. Now, I knew about this when I purchased the printer – it does not auto-switch photo black and matte black inks. One must drain the photo black throug a series of commands, install the matte black ink and let the printer run it through its system. This whole process takes nearly 20 minutes and sucks up some of your color inks too. Now, financially this wasn’t really a problem as the print job was more than paying for this loss in ink, however, it was time consuming and really puts a damper on the impulse to going back and forth between paper surfaces. I am aware the Epson 3800 has auto-switching and prints 17″ wide. However, I was not impressed with the build quality of the 3800 – it remind me of the 2200, 1800, etc and I figured if I was going to buy a printer that I might as well buy a printer. The 4880 is so much stronger built – the printhead itself a heavier-duty, has an ink repelling coating to help prevent nozzle-clogging, can maintain a 16-bit workflow from file to output, and of course accepts larger ink cartridges. I would love to purchase the 11800 which uses 700ml ink cartridges, however the price tag on the printer is a little cost prohibitive for the volume I do, not to mention – where do you even put a printer that size?
It is unfortunate they could not incorporate the auto-switching black-ink technology into a printer of a higher-class than the 3800, but it just forces me to be more selective with media for my personal work. It helps me narrow and focus my projects.
Every once in a while I end up using cut-sheet paper, especially for many of the specialty Hahnemuhle papers I print on. They are such specific-use, one-time prints that it doesn’t make sense to purchase an entire roll of the paper surface. Something I have been noticing lately (within the past 3 months) is that the sheet feeder does not perform the paper take-up correctly all the time. The suction seems to be fine, but let’s say I have a stack of 10 sheets in the tray and I hit print. One sheet will run completely through, spit out blank, the printer will make some noise, suck in a second sheet and send it out right away again, and then it will finally print the image on the third sheet. This is truly odd and I can’t quite explain it. It happens with all different paper thicknesses and even the Epson Premium Luster sheets. Its annoying, but its not a deal-breaker. It worked fine in the beginning and there has never been an issue with suction or take-up on the roll papers. I will say since first setting the printer up, I had reservations about the quality of the paper tray. For such an expensive printer, the tray just seems so darn cheap and fragile. I know this has nothing to do with how the paper is being sucked in, but I just thought I would comment on the lack of quality I noticed in this component of the printer.
With specific regard to print quality – what is there to say? It is quite ridiculously amazing. Assuming one has done the appropriate prep work and output sharpening to your digital files (even images you may have digitized from slides or negatives) you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between inkjet and chemical – especially with the black & white prints. I still prefer to perform all black & white conversion by hand through Photoshop Channel Mixer or by layering and blending the channels by hand, but the Advanced Black & White mode built into the Epson print driver does an extremely good job in the way it decides on converting color tones to grayscale and then rendering the relative contrast of each particular color value to another. The use of three black inks allows a finer gradation of blacks & grays in addition to eliminating metamerism, which is the phenomena of color-shifting when viewed under different lighting conditions. Goodbye black & white film, goodbye darkroom, goodbye chemical prints.
The Vivid Magenta ink system provides access to a color space which approaches the ProPhoto RGB color space, the color space in which RAW files are captured. This means that the Epson 4880 and all other printers with the Vivid Magenta system are capable or reproducing close to 95% of the color tones and gradations that the human eye can perceive! On top of that inkjet prints have an archival rating upwards of 200 years which is about three times as long as chemical print. Many people’s chemical prints haven’t even lasted 25-30 years without fading, warping, cracking, & peeling.
If you want a good printer, purchase an Epson R1900 or 3800. If you want a great printer that will last you 10 or more years, purchase a 4800-series Epson. If you have tons of spare cash that you don’t know what to do with purchase an Epson 11800 – hey they have a $4000 rebate going on right now! If you can afford one for yourself, you can surely afford to purchase one for me too ;-). Or, you can make a donation to the continuing funding of a photography school for talented youth in Terni, Italy where we teach photo & imaging courses.
Also, if you are in the area, you might be interested in attending my inkjet printing workshop on May 17, 2009. Go to the Workshop page for all the details.
If you are interested in any of the custom print services I offer including color or black & white enlargements, color management, printer calibration and custom paper profiles, please send me an e-mail inquiry. firstname.lastname@example.org