B&W output has presented unique problems since the inception of digital printmaking. As photographers have migrated from a chemical matrix to a digital matrix the needs of B&W photographers have been largely overlooked.
Most manufacturers have historically targeted their technology toward the mainstream and ignored the needs of this small but influential group of photographers. When my partner, Graham Nash, and I started Nash Editions in 1989 our primary focus was to develop a B&W digital output that was visually satisfying.
We had both learned our B&W aesthetics in the darkroom so we knew what we were looking for. We welcomed new paper surfaces but we were unwilling to give up a rich, deep black or a full range grayscale that allowed us to capture subtle shadow and highlight detail.
When we purchased our first IRIS Graphics printer in 1989 we immediately began experimenting with different ways to output B&W prints. Using the software that came with the IRIS produced a flat, muddy, green monochromatic image. The folks at IRIS Graphics thought we were out of our minds for buying the finest digital color printer in the world ($126,000 in 1989) and then using it to output B&W. Our first attempts involved creating a set of 4 black inks of increasing density. This strategy worked and allowed us to print neutral B&W but we were unable to tint or tone prints so we abandoned that approach and tried a CMYK solution.
Mac is shown here examining a print on the IRIS drum, circa 1991.
We were helped along in this quest by a color scientist from Walt Disney by the name of David Coons. Luckily for us, the IRIS Graphics ink set we used was fairly neutral. A small adjustment of the CMY (97% Cyan, 100% Magenta, and 80% Yellow) produced a neutral grey. By applying a custom curve to the CMY channels we were able to insure 100% of CYMK in the deep shadows, minimal CMY contribution in the midtones and zero CMY contribution in the highlights.
We automated the processing of the grayscale data and created a proprietary Photoshop plugin that handled the conversion. The IRIS software allowed us to add a tone to the black as well as a tint to the white areas of the final image so we were able create custom B&W profiles to meet the individual needs of our clients. The dye based IRIS inks allowed us to create full tone prints with strong, deep blacks, neutral midtones and delicate highlights – truly beautiful B&W. The one thing they lacked was permanence. The early inks were so fugitive that a print, if left in direct sunlight, would noticeably fade in a matter of hours!
This is the original location of Nash Editions in a Manhatten Beach, California coachhouse in 1989.
Fortunately, new ink sets were quickly developed that extended the life of IRIS output to a much more acceptable level. We continued to use our CMYK approach throughout the 1990’s and by 2000 our IRIS B&W output had a permanence rating of over 100 years. Then, in 1998, we were introduced to a new, less expensive, more reliable technology by Epson and, once again, we were back trying to figure out how to create decent B&W.
At our first meeting with Mark Radogna, product manager for the Epson Stylus Pro 9000, Graham asked Mark to output a B&W file we had brought with us. The results were less than stellar. Instead of the smooth neutral tones we had become accustomed to with the IRIS we saw a muddy green, monochromatic image. The ink set was definitely not neutral balanced but I knew from our experience with the IRIS that there most likely was a solution. IRIS never considered their technology to have any implications outside of the proofing world and had offered us very little technical assistance in solving the many ink and paper problems we faced over the years. In the 10 years that we used the IRIS equipment there were only a handful of software or hardware changes that were in any way meaningful.
Mark Radogna and Epson, on the other hand, let it be known that they were committed to consistently improving their printing technology by responding to the needs of their clients. Although we didn’t get an official commitment to a B&W solution that first day, I knew that if Epson listened to the photographic community a B&W option would eventually be in the works. Here was a company that actually responded to the needs of the end user. A welcome change!
A week after our first visit to Epson an Epson Stylus Pro 9000 was delivered to Nash Editions. I spent a couple of months of precious spare time experimenting with both color and B&W output and was quite encouraged with the results of both. After 10 years of working with the IRIS, the Epson was a joy! No need to spend 2-3 hours each morning maintaining the printers and having to deal with numerous nozzle problems and registration issues. With the Epson, maintenance usually required nothing more than a 2 minute nozzle clean and check each morning. I was so enamored with the technology I had completely overlooked the fact that the 9000 used a fugitive dye-based ink. I printed out some color and B&W charts and put them in our UV acceleration chamber to see what a little high energy ultraviolet light would do to the dyes. It didn’t take long to realize that, while I was able to create a neutral B&W with the dye-based 9000 ink set, I was reluctant to spend the time to perfect it and offer the prints to our clients due to the impermanent nature of the inks. Our studio had reached a point where our color IRIS prints were on par with traditional chromogenic prints and we had no interest in offering our clients a product that was substantially less permanent.
In March of 2000 we received a beta Stylus Photo 2000P with newly developed Epson pigmented inks which reputedly created prints that had a display life of up to 200 years! This was an unexpected leap forward in ink technology. Just as we began experimenting with the 2000P a new large format pigmented ink printer, the Epson Stylus 9500, was delivered to the studio for beta testing.
Along with the 9500 came the request to print a large show for Epson, “America in Detail”, featuring photographs by Stephen Wilkes. “America in Detail” was designed to introduce the archival pigmented inks and the printers that used them to the American consumer. The show was scheduled to open in New York on Jan. 19, 2001. This was what I had been waiting for. I find I do my best problem solving when I’m “under the gun.” I had a few months to get up to speed with the new equipment before Stephen would begin shooting his images and I’d need to start scanning and proofing.
The exhibit featured several B&W images and after much experimentation I finally created a test set of warm toned B&W images that I thought were excellent examples of well-crafted B&W prints. Well, I was partially right… I’ll never forget picking up one of my proofs and walking outside into the sunlight. I was shocked to see that the image had turned into an ugly lime-green monochromatic mess. The change was so drastic I initially thought I’d picked up the wrong print. I immediately placed one of the first of many calls Epson would receive over the next few years regarding the metameric nature of their archival pigmented ink. It affected all 9500 output, although it was especially disturbing in monochromatic prints. I was disappointed. We were always aware of the effect of light temperature on the perception of color but from that point on we became hyper-aware.
In August 2000 I attended the Seybold show in San Francisco and was shown some preliminary B&W tests by Epson engineers. It the first official acknowledgement of Epson’s interest in developing a B&W solution I had seen. Although it was encouraging, none of this experimental work was going to help with my immediate problem – the “America in Detail” monochromatic prints. In the end, it was only through critical control of the color temperature of the viewing lights at the exhibition that made it possible to present acceptable monochromatic prints. Epson was very aware of the problem but the options were few and mostly ineffective. In 2001 an alternate driver was released for the 7500/9500 that did reduce the metamerism – but at a cost – the images produced were noticeably coarser.
In the Spring of 2002 things gathered momentum when we began testing the Epson Stylus Photo 2200. This printer introduced a new pigmented ink set – UltraChrome. This innovative ink set offered a color gamut that was remarkable for a pigmented ink – almost the equal of the Epson dye-based inks. In addition the set included a lower density black, Light Black, which helped to produce more neutral grays as well as to insure smooth gradient transitions. The Black component was available in either Photo Black, for resin coated photo papers or Matte Black for fine art matte papers. The different blacks insured the best D-max on the respective substrates.
The first image I printed on the 2200, only minutes out of the box, was B&W. I assumed the printer was more than capable at color printing. I found the 2200 was capable of printing substantially better B&W than any of its predecessors but there were still issues to be resolved. On RC papers the UltraChrome inks created two undesirable phenomena – gloss differential and “bronzing”, a direct result of the micro-encapsulation of the pigment particles in resin.
In late April 2002 Epson Stylus 2200 Product Manager Parker Plaisted invited me to attend a 2 day “think tank” at Epson to investigate B&W output on the 2200 as well as to evaluate a beta software tool that Epson had asked us to experiment with prior to the meeting. Joining me in Long Beach were Bruce Fraser, Michael Greco, Douglas Dubler, Eric Magneson and others as well as several Epson engineers from both the U.S. and Japan. The group shared example prints and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the existing technology. Although the software they presented, the Grey Balancer, did provide a way to insure neutral prints, it did so in a complex and unintuitive way. It was the recommendation of the group not to release it in the U.S. Epson America agreed and the Gray Balancer software was not released. This decision displeased a lot of professional as well as amateur digital photographers. Having extensively used the software I know that if Epson had released it, their support infrastructure would have been brought to its knees. I also feel that it very likely would have delayed the development of future solutions like the Advanced B&W mode now available in Epson’s newest generation of printers.
At this point in time (2002-2003) we were slowly integrating the Epson prints into our work flow. We were struggling with new substrates, trying to find papers that exhibited the same qualities that we had grown accustomed to with the IRIS. The IRIS’s were still producing the bulk of our color work and 100% of our B&W output. The weak point of the Epson technology, then as well as now, is the paper. The composition of the Epson inks includes substances (glycols, used to keep the ink moist in the nozzles and surfactants, used to insure even distribution of the micro-encapsulated pigment particles) that create extreme dot gain. The only way to tame it is by creating substrates that are aggressively coated. This coating traps the ink particle, solving the dot-gain problem but in turn creating another – a print with a relatively fragile surface. We experimented with many types of paper and found most printed well but few had enough surface durability to hold up under even minimal handling. Just transporting the prints interleaved could cause minor, but unacceptable, surface scuffing.
In May of 2002 we replaced our 9500’s with Epson’s newest offering the 9600 and, as we began to identify appropriate papers, we started to print more and more of our color work on the 9600. By 2003 all of our new color work was being done on the 9600. We found that the Epson B&W output, although much improved, was still subject to hue shift under different light temperatures and that it was hard to consistently print neutral images. The IRIS’s weren’t useless yet.
In early 2003 we acquired Imageprint 5.0. This 3rd party RIP for the 9600 allowed us to produce stunning B&W. Not only did it produce virtually neutral output, it also allowed us to tone the prints. It soon became our preferred mode of B&W output. Over the next year we acquired a few more 9600’s as well as two 7600’s that we used exclusively for proofing. The IRIS’s were beginning to take up space. Imageprint 5.0 was upgraded to 6.0 and by the end of 2004 it became apparent that the IRIS technology had seen it’s day. The printer was no longer manufactured and the support options for existing machines became fewer and fewer. It no longer was a question if the IRIS technology would become obsolete but rather when. Our clientele was very satisfied with both the color and B&W Epson output and so we decided not to stick around and find out when the last IRIS print would be made. As of Jan. 1, 2005 Nash Editions no longer offered IRIS output.
In November of 2004 I was shown some sample B&W Epson prints that were output from an experimental driver that clearly indicated an Epson B&W solution was not only in the works but very close to being integrated into their basic driver. Finally, in January of 2005, we were shipped a beta Epson Stylus Pro 9800 with instructions to pay special attention to the Advanced B&W Mode. The new printer also sported a new ink set, K3 Ultrachrome, that included 3 blacks – black, light black and light light black.
The color components had been reformulated and exhibited a noticeably improved color gamut. Once again the first print off the 9800 was a B&W image. I was so impressed with my first Advanced B&W Mode print I did something I normally don’t do– I printed out and took spectrophotometric readings of grayscale patches. I wanted to verify what I thought I was seeing. B&W output had definitely been improved.
Not only was it more neutral but its tonal linearity had been substantially improved. Even printing a grayscale as a RGB using the appropriate ICC profile created acceptable results. While I found that Imageprint 6.0 printed a slightly more neutral image, the 9800 was the clear winner in creating a print with more accurate tonal linearity. It should be made clear that the Epson driver is not a replacement for Imageprint which offers many productivity enhancements unavailable with the Epson driver. But I do think it’s fair to state that the Advanced B&W mode of the new Epson driver should more than suffice for even the most critical B&W output. World class digital B&W has truly arrived. Now if someone could come up with a paper that could emulate the look of an air dried silver print……
(Note: There are many unsung heroes in the development of digital B&W output. The companies and individuals mentioned here are only those we encountered.)
On August 12, 2005 Graham Nash and I will be in Washington D.C. where our first IRIS printer and associated equipment will be officially included in the Smithsonian/National Museum’s “History of American Photography” collection.
About Nash Editions
Nash Editions was conceived by R. Mac Holbert and Graham Nash to develop methods of outputting Nash’s digitally manipulated black & white photography.
In 1988, Nash and Holbert had begun experimenting with scanning amid manipulating photographic images on a computer. Although excited about the look they could achieve on the computer screen, they were disappointed with the existing digital output technologies.
After searching the world for more than a year, they finally came a cross the IRIS 3047 Graphics Printer. The images printed by the IRIS looked beautiful, but they were not satisfied with the quality of the standard IRIS papers. With a team of artists and photographers they modified the printer and the software to enable the use of high quality fine art papers. To do so, they voided the warrantee on their $126,000 printer but they saw their quest for fine art prints become a reality.
Today, the staff at Nash Editions; Ruthanne Holbert (imaging), Ming Tshing (imaging) Kumi Higo (scanning/imaging), Chis Pan Abbe (curator), John Bilotta (printmaker) and Lisette Kennedy (curatorial assistant) and Jim Watt (assistant printmaker) combine to make Nash Editions the top digital printmakers.