Digital imaging and Internet culture have not been kind to the time-honored tradition of making photographic prints. Yet the endless flood of virtual image sharing only heightens the significance of the photographic print as a tactile object, particularly within the realm of fine art.
Above Photograph: Example of double-sided printing for a Zeiss corporate book project
“It’s really about getting people to get their files and images out of their cameras and back onto papers again, because that’s really what art is about,” says Eric Luden, owner of Digital Silver Imaging (DSI). “It becomes a dialog. Works on paper are meant to be seen and viewed and held in a way that people can respect, enjoy, and appreciate together.”
(The following views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of B&H Photo management.)
Luden knows a lot about printing. A photographer in his own right, his career trajectory includes positions as a consultant with Eastman Kodak and a marketing executive at Ilford. In 2008, he founded DSI as a Boston-area photo lab specializing in digital fine art printing. DSI is one of the few labs that can produce true black-and-white silver gelatin prints directly from a digital file, using a Lightjet 430 photographic laser enlarger and a custom-designed 52" black-and-white chemical processor. In 2010, the lab expanded its offerings to fine art color inkjet prints.
“At that time, Epson was the clear leader in fine art inkjet printing technology,” says Luden. “We considered Canon printers, but the reviews and initial feedback was that they weren’t quite there yet.”
After looking at the various models in the Epson line, Luden went with the high-end 44" Epson 9900 Large-Format Inkjet printer, explaining, “We liked the 9900 series because of the extra inks in the HDR insets. It ran very well,” he adds, which prompted DSI to add a 17" Epson Stylus Pro 4900 Inkjet printer to its production line in 2012, for making smaller format prints in larger quantities. “Overall, the 4900 did OK,” says Luden. “However, it often had paper feed issues, and we had to have it serviced in 2013.”
Making the Switch
In October, 2015, Luden was at the PhotoPlus trade show, in New York City, when printing technology expert Henry Wilhelm told him about the newly released 17" Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 inkjet printer, and suggested that he check it out at the show.
At about the same time, DSI landed a large job for a corporate book project for Zeiss, which required printing on double-sided paper. “I had found this great Ilford paper, Ilford Galerie Prestige Semigloss Duo, one of the only double-sided photo-based papers that’s not matte, but our Epson 4900 wouldn’t handle the sheets,” Luden explains. “We tested the paper with the Canon machine that we had on loan, and it worked phenomenally well.”
After running about 6,000 sheets of 13 x 19" paper through the PRO-1000 with only a single paper jam, Luden and DSI production manager Christopher Bowers decided to put the machine to some further tests. “We were looking at things like shadow detail and other qualities,” he says. “We certainly liked the print quality better, but there were a couple of additional reasons the Canon did a much better job in managing this project.”
One important distinction between the Epson and Canon 17" printers is the paper feed. “With the Epson 4900, the paper gets loaded into a tray, then it has to get sucked up out of the tray, do a 180-degree turn and come through the printer feed,” Luden explains. “The Canon PRO-1000 is gravity fed, with all the paper stacked up top. This is one of the reasons why thicker and double-sided papers work so much better on the Canon. That was really important to us,” he adds.
Once DSI determined the Canon machine was their best solution, they began to put the wheels in motion to purchase the 44" Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000, which did not become available until October, 2016. According to Luden, printer companies typically release a smaller version of a given model first, since it is more applicable to the consumer market. “Canon’s 17" printer was introduced at PhotoPlus 2015. Then they massaged it for a year, and did some firmware upgrades,” he says.
“Since both the 17 and 44" versions had the same ink sets, and given all I was reading, we didn’t test the larger printer before making the decision to buy it,” says Luden. “We really needed to make a move to replace our 44" Epson printer, because the print head had started to clog.”
This points to another key difference between the Epson and Canon machines—print head design. “The Epson print head is not user-replaceable; it’s a pretty complicated thing to do, requiring a technician with a whole new assembly,” Luden explains. “By the time you’re done, it’s close to a $2,000 repair. “We haven’t had the Canon printer long enough to know for sure,” he continues, “but from everything I’ve read online and watched on YouTube, Canon has a user replaceable head, which costs about $300.”
Once both new printers were in place, DSI started a slow migration from Epson to Canon. “We were in the middle of printing some jobs, and had client editions we needed to finish up,” Luden says. “In fact, we still run the 9900 periodically for one of our clients, but otherwise we’re virtually done with it at this point.”
While Luden doesn’t find there to be a huge quality difference between the Canon and Epson machines, he says, “These two brands have been chasing each other neck and neck for quite a while. Canon has been playing catch-up all this time, and looking at the design, the workflow, and the quality of the new head design—specifically in shadow detail—they’ve made that leap.”
In addition to the improved head design, one of Bowers’s favorite features is an update to the Canon printers that results in a separate housing for photo black and matte black ink cartridges. “To switch between matte black and photo black with the Epson printers, you’d have to swap ink lines,” he explains. “The machine had to suck ink through to purge the line of one ink and prepare it with the other. It was a waste of money, and for us it was a waste of time.”
He estimates the resulting downtime at 15 to 20 minutes, which can add up quickly in a production environment. “You had to be really careful and plan ahead to separate all the jobs that required matte ink from the photo ink jobs,” he explains. “If you missed one, it was a huge inconvenience to flush the line for that one print.” With the Canon printer, the type of black ink to be deployed is built into the software, and is based on the paper type selected from the print menu.
Another advancement in Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO series is the addition of a Chroma Optimizer ink. Housed in a separate cartridge that can be turned on and off, this new feature helps to minimize the gloss differential that occurs when running certain glossy photo-based inkjet papers through the printer. “It lays down an extra layer that’s almost like a clear coat,” says Luden. “It makes a print more photo realistic, and really improves the look,” he adds.
Factors of Ink and Production Costs
When it comes to ink costs, “Canon and Epson are basically identical, when you get down to the cost per milliliter,” Luden says. Nevertheless, Canon’s solution for separately housing the dual black ink cartridges results in cost savings and workflow efficiency.
Another time saver with the Canon series is the ability to hot-swap inks once a given cartridge runs out. As Luden explains it, when an ink cartridge is depleted in the Epson models, the printer will pause for the old cartridge to be removed and a new one inserted before printing resumes. “It didn’t happen all the time, but in some cases, you can get a little density line because the printer paused, and the ink dried at different times,” he explains.
“The beauty of the Canon printer is that when you finally hit bottom with the ink, the line has enough left to allow you to pull out the empty cartridge while the printer keeps going,” Luden notes. “As long as you’re right there, and ready to insert a fresh cartridge, it’s seamless. Again, it’s a great advantage in a production environment.”
Custom Printer Configuration
As production manager, Bowers plays an integral role in DSI’s printer operation and testing. “Christopher is a self-proclaimed technical geek,” says Luden. “He loves to really dig down deep.”
And with Canon’s PRO-1000 and PRO-4000 printers, he can dial in on a deep level and control printer functions such as paper thickness and ink-drying times. “You can really instruct the printer to slow down because you’re using media of a certain thickness. It’s very customizable for someone who really wants to take advantage of that level of control,” Luden points out.
He admits that this might not matter to 75 percent of users, “but for those of us who really enjoy that degree of control, and can see a difference in the quality, it’s huge. The bottom line with all this is productivity. It saves time,” he says.
Comparing Paper Feeds
As mentioned earlier, one factor driving DSI’s brand switch was the paper feed. Luden says, “In my experience over the years, one of the areas where Canon did better, was in its ability to transport thicker fine art media. While we were still working with the 17" model; we found that it transported paper more efficiently, and we had fewer jams.”
When comparing the paper transport of both brands by size, the 17" Canon 1000 lacks a roll feed mechanism, which is present in the Epson 4900; however, using the roll feed requires access to the back of the Epson machine, to transport fine art papers in a straight feed through the back.
On the 44" models, the Epson 9900 is top loading, whereas paper is fed through the Canon 4000 from the bottom up. This can prove somewhat problematic when loading certain papers automatically. “Every now and then, we use Hahnemuhle 500 GSM paper, which is super thick,” says Luden. “This can be a bit hard to feed through the printer due to the sharp bend.”
Yet, while this can be frustrating and likely requires special handling, it’s not a key differentiator. As Luden admits, “Frankly, we had the same problem with the 9900.”
One more distinguishing factor between the brands is the Canon 4000’s configurable catch basket, which allows users to freely adjust the unit’s arms for multiple purposes, whereas Epson’s catch bin is fixed.
DSI currently offers about a dozen different papers in all, each of which has a custom profile that Bowers creates with an X-rite paper profiler. While a favorite paper is very much a personal preference, and heavily dependent on the subject matter being printed, Luden mentions the following two options that stand out among DSI’s current offerings.
“For a really nice semi-gloss fine art paper, perhaps my favorite right now is Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta Satin. It’s just a beautiful paper, and it’s relatively new,” he says. This paper is especially good for people pictures with a lot of flesh tones.
“Or, for something with a lot of punch and snap, we’ve been using Ilford GALERIE Prestige Metallic Gloss paper,” Luden says. While he admits that metallic papers are not for everybody, “It’s got a really nice look to it for the right kind of image.”
The Significance of Color Gamut
Both printer brands include two extra colors of ink: Epson offers orange and green, while the Canon models offer red and blue. “Those colors are going to have different advantages,” says Luden. “Maybe the orange could be a little better in some instances, but I think Canon’s colors would generally outperform Epson’s, because we’re not dealing in a Pantone, color-matching world,” he points out. “The blue in the Canon models could be a much better solution, especially for sky and things like that.”
According to Luden, color gamut also has significance when considering the evolution of printer technology. He explains that inkjet printing has evolved from a basic mix of four colors, representing CMYK, to more elaborate combinations of inks in different tonalities of a color from light to dark.
“There are a lot of different color spaces out there today. The gamut is so wide,” he says. “And if you think about the quality of our lenses, cameras, and monitors, they can take advantage of that color space, but papers and printers can’t hit it.”
“So, what’s going to be the next big thing?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s going to be color gamut. Companies are probably going to have to figure out how to add more colors, to address that high dynamic range, ultra-gamut color space.”
“I’m not a scientist,” Luden sums up, “I’m just someone who has watched what’s happened with inks, since my days working at Ilford. Throughout that whole transition, all the printer companies kept adding inks to the range to fill in the gaps. I think they’ll keep going in that direction.”
To learn more about Digital Silver Imaging and its custom printing services, click here to visit the company website.
This is the seventh in a series featuring the many stories and myriad reasons prompting users to switch brands. Make sure to follow the links at the end to read about other gear switches—from one DSLR to another, from DSLR to Mirrorless and from digital to analog film.
The fine-art images featured in this article feature the winners of DSI’s 2016 Portfolio Awards, which assists emerging fine art photographers in establishing a career in the field by providing three recent graduates with a $1,250 printing grant. DSI is currently seeking submissions to the 2017 Portfolio Awards, with a deadline of June 9, 2017. Full details are available here.
To read the other stories in our series, Why I Switched, click here: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/p/why-i-switched.
Do you have a story or some insights to share about switching brands? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.