Since Epson’s May 10th announcement, there’s been a lot discussion regarding the new printers and the new inks. In particular, a lot of people are curious about how good the new printers and inks are for black and white.
As a beta tester for Epson, I’ve had the opportunity to run one of the R2400 printers with the new inks since the end of last year. I thought it would be useful to report my findings. It should be noted, however, that this is a report, not a review of the new printers. Since I have an affiliation with Epson, it’s not really for me to conduct a product review. But I can offer an objective report of my testing and provide some useful info regarding the prints & inks.
Some points to clarify; the unit I’ve been working on is a preproduction unit. I’ve been told by Epson that the final production units will meet or exceed the test units. My tests have centered primarily on the Advanced B&W mode rather than the new ink’s color gamut and I’ve been primarily interested in how the new printers will impact my work and my prints. I’m not particularly interested in answering every question that users may have.
The procedure I used was relatively scientifically based. I consulted with Bruce Fraser on some of the finer points of my tests and how to quantify the results. In the process I had to actually devise a method of comparing colorimetric readings of targets to original synthetic grayscale targets. More about that later.
It should also be noted that my tests were done using OS X 10.3.9. I’ve yet to migrate production machines to 10.4 (I’m waiting for 10.4.1) and I did not test the R2400 driver on Windows, although I did review the printer driver and properties to be sure that all of the basic functionality provided by the Advanced B&W Mode was cross-platform. It is.
Printing out of Photoshop CS2, I used the Print with Preview dialog to set up the Photoshop to Epson driver hand off. Since the Advanced B&W Mode operates completely outside of normal color management parameters, in Photoshop you must turn off any color management.
After confirming the Print with Preview dialog, the Epson print driver provides the normal OS X Print dialog. Several settings are critical; the Print Settings where you establish the type of printing you are going to do and the Color Management settings where you control how the Advanced B&W settings are applied.
Under the Advanced B&W Mode, and depending upon the paper type selected, your output resolution will offer the resolution settings. Photo is nominally 1440, Best Photo is 2880 and Photo RPM is 5760DPI. Since the settings will dictate ink load, I tested RC based paper (in this case Epson Premium Luster) at Photo RPM. I also tested with the High Speed option turned off.
Once the Advanced B&W Mode is selected you can optionally select a Color Toning option directly from the drop down menu. If one of the presets suits you, you can bypass the Color Management options in this way. However, I would suggest working with the optional settings adjustments found in the Color Management panel.
From the CM panel, you can alter both the tone and color of the resulting Advanced B&W Mode output. Whether you send grayscale, RGB full color or RGB monochromatic color, the Advanced B&W Mode will render it in a 3 black plus color separation to the R2400 print head. The carbon pigment black inks; either Photo or Matte Black plus Light Black and Light Light Black (don’t ask, I find it amusing that there are two “light black” inks instead of black, gray and light gray named inks, but whatever) are the primary inks used. Little yellow ink is used. This helps keep the metameric effect to a minimum as yellow has a strong tendency towards going magenta/green depending upon the light source. Light Magenta and Light Cyan are used to control the hue of the resulting color tones. The Magenta and Cyan inks are not used at all. The black inks are already a very warm toned hue and this is used to give warm toned prints.
In addition to the color toning controls, there are a variety of tone curve presets as well as tone adjustment settings. Due to the fact that the Adobe RGB color space has a gamma of 2.2 one might presume that “normal” would be the optimal setting. However, the default when choosing a Neutral color setting is actually the “Darker” curve. Don’t ask me why. . .Epson tone and color settings have a long history of having no particular relationship to any known color or tone controls, so I just tend to go towards what works and stick with it.
The additional tone control setting options are also of limited usefulness. Since the preview is not a live preview of your image, the placeholder image will only give very general guidance to what the controls will offer your own image. On an image-by-image basis, with extended testing, I would presume the controls would offer additional fine-tuning that might be useful. If somebody would like to test this and report it, they are welcome to do so. My inclination is to keep things simple. For my tests, the neutral/darker setting produced a relatively close screen to print match. However, it should be noted that since all color management is in effect, turned off, there is no reliable method of soft proofing using ICC profiles in Photoshop. More about this later. . .
For comparing the new R2400 printer with the older 2200 printer it is replacing, I tested the two head to head. To print out to the 2200, I used the traditional printing method of allowing Photoshop to handle color and set the Epson driver to “No Color Adjustment”. I printed out a target of 16×16 grays representing 0-255 Adobe RGB for a total test target of 256 gray patches. You may download the sample target (233KB EPS file). To use, you must rasterize the target into your own RGB Photoshop working space in order to have an accurate 0-255 set of samples.
I printed out the target on the 2200 using a custom profile for Luster paper. The profile was made using an EyeOne and ProfileMaker. For color images this profile is very accurate. However, the Epson “No Color Adjustment” setting is known to produce a very non-linear output so trying to get neutral grayscale output has been a challenge in the past. I generally “punted” and added some sort of color tone to the image to help disguise the hue shifting problems.
I also printed the target on the R2400, again using the 256 grayscale grid. This time setting Photoshop’s CM to off and enabling the Epson driver’s Advanced B&W mode. Both the 2200 & 2400 outputs were set to their highest resolution (2880 for the 2200 and 5760 for the 2400). High Speed was off.
After allowing for dry down (12 hours air dry) I read each of the 256 patches manually using the EyeOne and ProfileMaker’s Measure tool. I checked both colorimetric as well as densitometric readings. I was interested in both the relative neutrality of the prints as well as the maximum density.
To compare the reading to a known neutral reference (and this is where Bruce came in handy-although he didn’t do the copy/paste!) I started with a spreadsheet readout of the R2400, adjusted all the Lab ‘a’ & ‘b’ readings to zero and calculated the actual Adobe RGB luminance readings by using Bruce Lindbloom’s calculations for converting between various color spaces.
The calculated ‘L’ values were copied into the luminance column of the Lab values in the spreadsheet to have a luminance value for each individual level of Adobe RGB running from 0 for black to 100 for Adobe RGB 255, 255, 255. And yes, this was a pain in the arse! It took me 2.5 episodes of Star Trek Next Generation to finish it.
Using the Measure Tool compare function, I was able to compare both the R2400 and the 2200 readings to a known 0-255 Adobe RGB neutral target. The results showed that the R2400 was MUCH more neutral running up the L star luminance range with very little a star or b star hue wandering. The total Delta E difference was calculated as an average of 5.23 with the best 90% being 5.12 and the worst 10% being 6.15.
Compared to the 2200 where the total Delta E was 6.05 on average with the best 90% being 5.79 and the worst 10% being 8.33.
The total Delta E difference for the R2400 was 6.30 while the total Delta E for the 2200 was 9.04.
So, what does this mean? The R2400 is MUCH MORE NEUTRAL than the 2200 when printing in the Advanced B&W mode. The 2200 suffers from considerable hue wandering, particularly between green/magenta, throughout the luminance range from black to white. The R2400 does a MUCH better job of reaching the neutrality of that found in traditional silver gelatin prints.
On the question of D-Max, or maximum density, the R2400 is substantially better than the 2200. The density of the R2400 on Luster paper was 2.39. On Epson Premium Glossy paper it was 2.41. Compare that to the 2200’s rather paltry 2.04 on Luster.
To compare other real world examples I read D-Max of several other printer outputs.
R800 (gloss optimizer off): 2.4
R800 (gloss optimizer on): 2.48
Epson Enhanced Matte Paper
2200 (matt K): 1.51
R2400 (matt K): 1.71
By comparison to traditional silver gelatin prints, I measured a portrait by Greg Gorman (of myself and my wife Becky)
Silver Print: 2.21
Bruce Fraser’s Real World Camera Raw book was measured to determine the maximum density of the web press, the density was 1.47. I even measured the max black of Chris Ranier’s Ancient Marks book, produced using state of the art quad-tone inks at a max density of 1.98.
The settings for all of the readings were:
Filter Standard: ANSI A
Color Channel: K
White Reference: Absolute white
So, what does this tell you? The Epson R2400 is a serious contender to meet or exceed the standards of traditional silver based black and white prints.
Factor in the recently released preliminary results from Wilhelm Imaging Research which shows display permanence ratings of between 34 years on the low end (Epson Velvet Fine Art paper) to over 220 years (Epson Enhanced Matte paper) when displayed WITHOUT glass or UV protection-add UV glass and the ratings go up considerably.
The new R2400 (and pro line 4800, 7800 and 9800) printers with the new Ultrachome K3 inks have made tremendous advancements in the state of digital fine art printing and moved B&W digital printing out of the dog house and into the mainstream.
Several notes of criticism must be offered however. First, while the new Advanced B&W mode with the new K3 three blacks offers a substantial benefit to digital B&W, there are limits to the current driver. One can not produce a split-tone result from the driver. All of the hue adjustments are linear-meaning you can’t tone shadows separately from midtones and highlights. Those people wishing to do split-tone selenium/sepia for example, will be disappointed. Another severe limitation is the complete lack of soft proofing capability. Since the driver uses no user level controllable profiles for the Advanced B&W mode, you can not use Photoshop soft proofing to fine-tune images prior to printing. This is particularly frustrating to me. However, there is hope! Since producing the neutral 256 target and doing readings from the 0-255 R2400 targets provides useful data, Bruce Fraser and I are contemplating producing RGB Grayscale profiles that could be used to soft proof images from within Photoshop to facilitate better image optimizations.
One other limitation of the R2400 and larger printers is that the print head is an eight color head while the UC K3 ink set is nine colors (Photo & Matte black). This means users will need to swap cartridges and thus waste ink switching between optimum inks for matte and photo coated papers. However, Epson HAS made considerable strides mitigating the hassle. For the R2400, you simply swap out the black ink cart and wait for the printer to flush and switch the ink. For the 4800, 7800 & 9800 printers, the ink switch and flush now only wastes the black ink as the line flush bypasses the color inks when swapping. For the R2400, it’s not clear if the flush occurs for all inks or just the black inks, but the amount of ink waste is minimal. So, while Epson has substantially improved the procedure for swapping the black inks, unlike the R800/R1800 or the Epson 4000 8 color head printers which carry both matte and photo black inks, users will need to swap and flush.
One other point, while I believe we have reached a very high level with regards to inkjet printers and inks, there’s still a disconnect from the standpoint of papers. While the fine art watercolor papers can meet or exceed the d-max of platinum prints while offering very good ink holdout and surface appearance, there is still no paper available to produce an exact replication of the old double-weight dry-matte (DWDM) fiber-based papers that traditional B&W printers prefer. While Epson Premium Glossy, Luster and Semi-Matte papers are good, they still look and feel like RC papers, not fiber-based papers.
The good news is Epson has been getting that message from many leading photographers in the field (see the upcoming interview with Greg Gorman when PSN posts it for more info). And Epson is taking the feedback to heart. I would expect to see news about even better papers coming in the not too distant future.
As for now, if you care about fine B&W digital printing, the new printers and inks will please you. Even if you only do occasional B&W, the new printers with the UC K3 inks perform very well. The improved resins in the new inks go a long way to removing gloss differential and remove bronzing almost entirely. The ink color reformation and the additional black ink substantially improves the total color gamut volume of printable colors-extending the d-max greatly helps deep saturated colors.
The question isn’t whether you want one of these printers, the question is how long you may have to wait. I just want to make sure I get mine from the head of the line!