Digital Photography Now Printer Reviews
3-part series: Photo ink-jets laid bare
By Ian Burley
Part 2: The truth about photo ink-jet print quality:
Ink-jet technology limitations
Test summaries printer by printer:
Ink-jet printer technology has been transformed in less than five years. In the mid-90s you’d be hard pushed to expect photographic prints from an ink-jet printer that would be indistinguishable from conventionally produced photos. The printers were slow, often unreliable, noisy and expensive to run. Today, all of the top manufacturers can justifiably claim to achieve respectable photo quality given the right media to print on.
However, the battle to replace conventional photo prints is not over. Concerns over the longevity and other aspects of ink-jet photo print technology are currently stirring up a lot of debate.
A great deal of fuss is being made about ink-jet photo print longevity. Many have noticed that their prints fade noticeably, especially when exposed to sunlight. Manufacturers have responded to this by introducing new media and inks to slow down deterioration.
Some Epson printer users have reported that their prints have acquired an unwelcome orange cast in just a few months. Epson has, in part, admitted that a problem exists and has responded with revised inks and papers that now claim at least 10 years light fastness. Canon and HP have also made various claims about addressing light fastness in recent months. New pigment-based inks are now being associated with claims of up to 100 years light fastness.
My feeling is that you shouldn’t forget that even conventional photos are prone to fading. The organic chemicals that make up the colour dyes in both ink-jet and processed prints are susceptible to the effects of both oxidation and light. Poor quality paper contains bleach residues from the manufacturing process that can also contribute to the problem.
If you want your prints to last, use trustworthy inks and papers, store them out of the sun - even indirect sunlight and consider air-tight packaging for archival material.
But one of the beauties of digital imaging is that, with a bit of care, your original images will not degrade at all. This means even if your original prints are lost or damaged, you can make perfect replacements. Remember, negatives and slides deteriorate over time. The main vulnerability of digital images is storage media failure, so make plenty of backups and choose reliable backup media.
This is another weakness of ink-jet prints. Even with the finest of dots and photorealism that is almost perfect to the naked eye, ink-jet printers can’t yet replace conventional prints for some uses. One of these uses is quality print (press) reproduction.
As a journalist, I used to receive product and people photos accompanying press releases every day. When used with articles to be printed in magazines and other journals, these photos are scanned and incorporated in to the page. At present, I’d be very cautious about using an ink-jet print for such work.
The problem is lies in the structure of the detail of an ink-jet print. Both the Canon S800 and the Epson Stylus 895, for example, use a screen approach to printing. This means there is regular detail and, when scanned, that underlying detail can make its presence felt. Above is an example of a photo that has been re-scanned after being printed, in this case, on an Epson Stylus 870 Photo, a close relative of the 895. Here we show a selection from the original print, itself a selective enlargement from the original image taken on a Canon D30.
Ignoring the obvious colour differences between the re-scanned version on the right and the original image on the left, you can see that the re-scanned version has acquired some unpleasant harshness that can be attributed to the ink-jet print characteristics.
The actual print is visually free from these imperfections when viewed conventionally.
But re-scanning ink-jet prints is not shunned by all. With the right printer and a bit of skill, it can be a useful technique. My good friend, Danny Chau, is a professional photo printer, using both conventional and digital technologies. He often uses his Epson Stylus Pro 5500 and Pro 10000CF printers for printing and re-scanning digital images. He says it produces a very desirable result. Both these printers have a dot pattern that is less susceptible to the screened effect of the Canon S800 and Epson Stylus 870/895.