Technical Issues
Revised March 22, 2008

Copyright 2002 - 2008 Clayton Jones
All Rights Reserved
by Clayton Jones
 
Traditional photographic printing is a mature technology.  The parameters are well established and someone can buy an enlarger, paper and chemicals and get predictable results using well documented techniques.  Black and white digital printing, on the other hand, is an emerging technology.  While still being improved, the latest advances have made it easier than it has ever been to get started and make beautiful gallery quality prints with relatively simple methods.  The days of frustrating struggle are over.  It's an exciting time to get involved.

This article summarizes the issues so you can more easily chart a course through the many choices.  Please note that the following statements are a generalization and are meant to be merely an introduction to a complex subject. There are three sections: inks, printers and papers. Before getting started, here are two things to consider:

1) At the time of this writing there is no solution that is perfect for every need or interest.  So do some careful research before you buy anything.  Once you are invested in a system it is difficult and expensive to switch to something else.

2) The best place to keep abreast of the latest products and tests is
this on-line forum dedicated to digital black and white printing:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DigitalBlackandWhiteThePrint/

Here you will find many experienced printers and cutting edge experimenters keeping in touch and sharing their latest test results.  This forum is not dedicated to or associated with any particular product or brand.  All products are discussed, warts and all, and it is a great place to get a broad view of the current state of the art.  You may read the messages without having to join, and there is no cost to join if you wish to post and reply to messages.
 

Inks

Inks are divided into two primary types, Dye and Pigment.  Most printers are sold with dye inks, although more and more specialized models are being designed for pigment inks.  Dye inks generally have more intense colors, but fade quickly.  They are the main reason why inkjet prints have had a bad reputation for longevity (fortunately that is changing).  Pigment inks last much longer but generally have weaker colors, although that, too, is changing.  The newest generation of pigment inks have improved greatly in these areas (Note: The new Epson Claria inks are a new hybrid color technology that does not neatly fit either category; however, these inks do not affect our options for BW printing).  The rest of this article is concerned with pigment inks.

For black and white photographers there are two other issues with these inks:

1) The printers mix small amounts of color inks in with the blacks in an attempt to create the desired black and white tones, and there is often a slight color cast to the prints.  It can be difficult to get convincing tones that really look like a black and white photograph.  Some printers do a better job at this than others.

2) The resulting BW prints often take on a different color cast when viewed under different lighting.  For example, a print can look greenish in daylight, brownish under tungsten and magenta under fluorescent lighting.  This effect is referred to as "metamerism".  As a general rule, this effect is related to the amount of color inks used.

Note: In summer 2005 new Epson printers using K3 inks were introduced which have made significant advances on these two issues.  They are discussed in more detail in the Printers section below.

In order to overcome these problems, three alternative approaches currently exist, all aimed at reducing or eliminating the color inks:

 - RIP software (Raster Image Processing)
 - Toned grayscale inks
 - Black Only printing (as of 2008 there are now several advanced
   approachs to BO printing, as well as the traditional approach - see
   details below)

 

RIP Software

In general terms, RIP software is a replacement for the printer driver that comes with the printer.  It controls the flow of inks to the print head in a different way and gives the user more control over how the inks are applied.  Typical use for a RIP is to control the proportions of color to black inks or to control grayscale ink sets.

One of the problems with the black inks is that they are carbon-based and carbon isn't really black, it's dark brown.   This gives the prints a very warm, chocolate colored tone.  Thus, most RIPs add small amounts of Cyan and Magenta (and some use Yellow as well) to the print in order to  produce convincing photographic tones, from cold to warm (when viewed through a 6x or greater loupe the color ink dots can be clearly seen).  Some RIPs are able to work with grayscale inks, allowing an even greater amount of control.  The better quality RIPs produce beautiful results and offer a range of tones from neutral to sepia.  However, there are several things to consider about RIPs which cause many photographers not to use them:

Cost - Most RIPS are expensive, starting at about $250 and on up to over $1,000. 

Note: There is one exception - a RIP called QTR which can be purchased for about $50.  QTR is available for Windows and Mac.     Information about QTR can be found at this web site

  http://www.harrington.com/QuadTonePC.html

There are frequent discussions about QTR in the Forum mentioned above.  This is a very popular alternative.

Learning Curve - RIPS are generally technical in nature, requiring the use of curves and profiles to control the inks.  They can be difficult to master and can pose a big challenge to anyone who is not technically minded in the way of computer things.

Color Inks - Only the black inks are carbon-based.  The color pigments are made of various other materials.  While they last much longer than dyes, the age testing reports show that they don't last as long as the blacks.  The color inks fade at a different rate than the blacks and the print may color shift over time.  The latest inks have greatly improved the longevity and lessened the issue, but this may still be a concern, depending on the purpose of the print.  For example, it may be a concern if a portrait will be passed down many generations in a family.  BW prints made with the latest K3 inks from Epson are rated at well over 100 years on good quality papers and proper display conditions (more details below).  It is recommended to research the latest test results for any inks you want to use.  The quality is continually improving.

 

Gray Scale Inks

Gray scale pigment ink sets are sold by several 3rd-party vendors.  These ink sets replace the color inks with various shades of gray.  Most of these gray scale inks use carbon as the pigment for the black ink, with the lighter inks being various dilutions of the black.

Note: Carbon is a long lasting substance, almost inert, and is one of the oldest of photographic materials. In the late 1850s carbon was used to make the first truly long lasting photographic prints.  In the modern inks, microscopic carbon particles are suspended in a clear base fluid. 

As mentioned above, carbon is not really black, but dark brown, and prints tend to look very warm.  As a result, various color pigments are often added to some of the inks as toners in order to control the color and allow a range of tones.  Before 2005 these toners caused many problems with fading and color shifting, depending on the type of materials used.  But the modern inks have nearly eliminated this.
 

Some Good News

The newest generation of pigment inks have improved enormously in all of these areas, including color quality and stability.  These include the UltraChrome (UC) and the K3 inks by Epson, the UltraTone series (UT1, UT2, UT7, EZ, UT-R2, UT-3D) and the recent Pro inks by MIS, and the PiezoTone and K7 inks by PiezographyIn 2008 the newest Epson K3+Vivid Magenta inks used in Advanced Black and White mode are rated at, depending on the paper, over 200 years for bare prints and over 400 years framed under UV glass  (see page three of this Wilhelm report).

They all use carbon-based black ink and achieve beautiful results, but the fact remains that they still use small amounts of color pigments to control the tone.  Color pigments are still not as lightfast as the black carbon based inks and the potential for color shifting over time still exists, regardless if the inks are mixed as color dots on paper or added as toners to grayscale inks.  However, as the inks improve this is becoming less of an issue

Note: As of this writing, HP and Canon have both introduced pigment ink printers that produce good looking BW prints.  However, the jury is still out on their ink's longevity qualities.  The Epson K3 printers still seem to be the top choice among serious fine art BW photographers.  But these new printers are worth keeping an eye on.
 

Black Only Printing

In articles 3a and 3b, I discuss the third approach, Black Only (BO) printing, a unique way of printing which has several significant advantages, one famous disadvantage, and a dedicated following.  BO printing is a reliable, inexpensive, and easy way to get started, where you can make beautiful prints with the highest possible archival longevity (using only a single pure carbon black ink) while you hone your Photoshop skills and experiment with different papers.  It allows getting started with the least expense and without committing to a particular system or software.

Note: Beginning in 2007 and continuing as of this writing, several new approaches to BO printing are being developed for various Epson printers.  Ink developer Paul Roark found that by using the MIS pure carbon Eboni ink (the most popular ink used for BO printing) in multiple channels and controlled with a RIP, a much better BO print can be made, one that overcomes the main drawback of traditional BO prints: the grainy look caused by larger ink dots.  There are several variations of these ink sets, depending on the printer, and the research is ongoing.  Check with his web site to catch up on the latest results

BO printing creates its density range by varying the space between the ink dots, allowing more bare paper to show between the dots in the lighter zones.  Because of the 800/1800's much finer 1.5 pl dots, BO's infamous grainy look is nearly eliminated, while still retaining all of the longevity and other advantages of traditional BO prints (in particular, outstanding dmax and luminance).  Only with careful inspection can a small amount of midtone graininess be detected.  This new 3-channel BO approach is considered by some to be the ultimate in true archival BW printing.

While BO printing is mono-toned, some warm to cool variation can be achieved by using different papers, similar to the warm and cold toned papers used in darkroom printing.  Article #5 in this series, "The Great Paper Chase", lists the tonal properties of many matte papers when used with BO printing.

Complete technical details for the 3-channel BO approach (3-MK) can be found at Paul Roarks web site here.

 

Tower Of Babel

The result of all these choices has been a digital printing "Tower of Babel", with no clear best path.  However, things are improving in the area of ease of use.  During the past few years several new grayscale ink sets in the UT family of inks from MIS, which can be used with minimal workflows, were introduced for different Epson printers.  Here is the current lineup:

EZ ink for the C86 (letter size, 4 inks, an excellent low cost entry point for beginners, see this web site for details     
    http://www.paulroark.com/BW-Info/C86-EZ-UT-Readme.htm)

UT-R2 for the R200/220 (letter size, 6 inks, an even better low cost entry system - see this web page for details
     http://www.paulroark.com/BW-Info/R220_R2_Readme.pdf ). 

Also see article #10 in this series for a description of a variable tone version of this ink set.

UT2 for the 1280 (13" printer, 6 inks - http://www.paulroark.com/BW-Info/UT2-Readme.htm)

UT7 for the 2200 (13" printer, 7 inks - http://www.paulroark.com/BW-Info/UT-2200-Readme.htm)

Note: While Paul Roark developed the UT series of B&W inksets sold by MIS, he is an independent photographer and is neither employed by nor receives royalties from that company.

These inks have made things much easier and users are reporting excellent results. 

Also, in summer 2005 Epson introduced a new line of printers using improved K3 pigment inks (3 blacks, 5 colors), with drivers designed for making good BW prints from color inks without needing a separate RIP (discussed in more detail below). 

While it is now easier than ever to make good BW prints, none of these solutions have perfectly solved all the issues.  For the dedicated fine art photographer who wants the highest quality, there are still several choices with each having some compromises.  People have different needs and goals, different levels of technical proficiency and patience, so it cannot be said that any particular ink or system is "best".  It is not uncommon to see a message in the forum from someone having difficulty deciding what to do.

 

Printers

As of this writing, most fine art black and white photographers are using Epson printers, so this discussion is limited to that brand.  Most add-on products are only available for these.  However, Canon and HP are trying for an entry into this market and their newest printers are supposed to be good, and some vendors are preparing products for them.  So it would be good to keep an eye on them.

Note: HP has some new printers that use a special black cartridge which produces excellent prints that look like traditional glossy RC prints with good blacks and 70 year rating when used with their special paper.  However it is a dye ink with lower longevity when used with other papers, and also produces an odd dither pattern which many do not like.  For these reasons it is not considered a good system by dedicated fine art photographers, but seems to be well liked for general purpose use where RC type prints are ok.  It is expensive to operate, however, with users reporting very high ink/paper costs.

Epson printers can be categorized by how many inks they use.  The earliest photo printers used four inks, black plus three colors.  Later they went to six inks, black plus five colors, and introduced variable droplet technology.  Some of the newest models have seven and eight, inks.  Some are made for dye inks, some for pigment inks.  They can also be ranked by their size, expressed in the maximum width of the paper they can use.  Various models handle paper widths of 8.5", 13", 17", 24" and 44" (European models use A4 and other European paper sizes).

There are also differences in what kind of inks can be used, whether 3rd party ink vendors make cartridges for them, and whether there are CIS units made for them.  In addition, with the move to six ink models Epson began putting micro chips on the cartridges which tell the printer software when the cartridges are empty.  So the 3rd party vendors have various products and solutions for dealing with that.  Many models are available as factory refurbished units at greatly reduced prices with full warranties.  So, like the inks, there are many choices and no easy way to determine which is best.

Whichever model you choose, there is one major consideration which must be addressed: the inks are expensive.  There are three ways to use ink:

1) Buying replacement cartridges - the simplest, easiest, and most expensive.

2) Refilling cartridges - used to be a messy problematic affair, with special tools and gadgets (and lots of patience) required.  However, there are now clear top-fill cartridges available from MIS and other vendors for several popular printer models which have revolutionized the whole process.  While still a chore requiring care, it is now relatively quick, easy and clean, and saves lots of money. 

3) Using CIS devices - continuous ink supply products which replace the cartridges with special ones connected by tubes to individual ink bottles which sit in a holder next to the printer.  Can be very tricky to maintain.  Special care is taken when changing bottles not to introduce air into the tubes.  Many users report that over time, the tubes can get clogged with dried out ink, especially the blacks.  Was the best way to go for anyone who prints very large sizes or in volume, but with the new top-fill carts the equation has changed.  If you are interested in using one, there are several brands available, and users report that some are better than others.  Also, apparently some brands are identical to others but sold under a different name.  Not all printers can use one of these.  Do the homework.
 

Epson's K3 Printers

Introduced in 2005, the K3 printers have made it easier than ever to make excellent BW prints with high quality pigment inks.  The driver has an Advanced Black and White mode (ABW - essentially a built in simple RIP) which allows adjusting the color tone from blue cool through neutral black to sepia warm.  The quality is extremely good with much improved longevity for the inks.  There are also improvements in bronzing and other issues associated with printing on glossy papers, so they especially appeal to photographers who used RC darkroom papers.  These were the first printers to produce gallery quality BW prints out-of-the-box, without need for 3rd party RIPS or inks.

Now several years on the market, these printers have revolutionized the BW printing industry.  Many darkroom practitioners resisted changing to digital because of the difficulties and quality issues.  These printers raised the bar in both areas and that summer I predicted that we would see a critical mass of people finally making the leap.  If the message traffic in the BW Forum is any indication, this has happened.  Many new members have joined the forum and gone are the pages of angst-filled messages dealing with clogs, color shifting and workflow difficulties.

However, K3 still has some issues which gives some pause for the dedicated fine art photographer.  The main thing is that it uses color inks to emulate BW tones (essentially doing itself what 3rd party RIPs have been doing).  There are two issues with this:

The look: Until recently, color inks mixed on the paper have not been as convincing as tones made with grayscale inks and even the best have had some metamerism.  However, K3 has improved this enormously, the best I've seen.  I have found that careful adjustments and good quality papers can produce very convincing tones, and metamerism is reduced to where it is essentially undetectable. Whether or not this is an issue is a personal choice.

Longevity: It is openly acknowledged that color pigments are not as lightfast as the black carbon inks.  While many RIPs that use color inks avoid using yellow (historically having the poorest fade resistance), K3  does use yellow, especially at the warmer tone settings.  The issue is not so much over all fading, but the possibility of color shifting, as some colors may change at different rates over time.  Some people use K3 printers with a 3rd party RIP, rather than ABW, in order to eliminate the yellow.

The bottom line: In order to have a variable tone inkset, color inks must be used, either mixed on the paper as color dots or mixed in grayscale inks as toners.  The question has been between these two approaches.  Up until K3, the color dot approach required a RIP and was considered less lightfast than toned grayscale inks.  The K3 printers have closed the gap by eliminating the need for 3rd party RIP software (making it easier and less expensive) and improving the longevity of the inks.  According to Paul Roark,
the advantages of toned grayscale inks over K3 in his tests is so slight as to be insignificant.

Epson is claiming the highest lightfastness ever for color pigments.  Wilhelm Research, at
       http://www.wilhelm-research.com/epson/R2400.html
on
Page 3 of 9, rates BW prints using K3 inks in ABW mode as follows, depending on the paper:

Framed under normal glass: 110 to >205 years
Framed under UV glass: 110 to >300 years
In dark album storage: > 200 years

(and now in 2008 the newest version of these inks are even better - see page three of this Wilhelm report).

With the longevity difference virtually nil, the choice between these approaches must be based on aesthetic, convenience and cost issues.

There is no doubt that the K3 printers have had a big impact, and many photographers are eagerly embracing them.  Vendors of RIPs, inks and cartridges are advertising more products for them.  Some photographers use K3 printers with a 3rd party RIP to eliminate the yellow ink. 
 

Papers

The 100% cotton acid free matte papers are generally considered to give the best longevity.  There are now many brands of high quality inkjet papers specially formulated for the fine art market.  They come in 100% cotton and high alpha cellulose (acid and lignen free wood pulp) varieties, and the latest alpha cellulose papers are said to be processed to such a high degree of purity that they rival cotton in longevity.  Some papers contain optical brightening agents (OBA) and some do not.  There are too many papers to list and evaluate here (article #5, "The Great Paper Chase", contains a review of many papers), but I would like to mention a few which are very popular and offer an advantage when used together.  You can't go wrong with these:

EEM - Epson Enhanced Matte.  This is a wood pulp based paper which has an excellent finish and takes inks very nicely.  However, it is not acid free and does turn yellow after a short time, so is considered to be strictly a proof paper.  Because of it's low cost, excellent dmax and a contrast/density range close to many of the best art papers, EEM is excellent for proofing.  It also has the advantage of being easily available in local computer supply stores, and therefore is widely used for proofing or other uses where archival longevity is not an issue.

PR - Photo Rag, one of several excellent cotton papers made by the Hahnemuhle company in Germany.  Besides being widely regarded as one of the most beautiful papers, PR has the advantage of having contrast and density very similar to EEM.  This means you can proof a print with the less expensive EEM and then print the final print on PR, with few if any adjustments to the image.   This paper has the best dmax with blended grayscale inks and has long been the paper of choice for many fine art BW photographers.

VFA - Epson's Velvet Fine Art also has similar contrast and density to EEM, and is especially beautiful with the K3 inks.  Having slightly better dmax than PR with K3 inks, and beautiful luminance, VFA has become the paper of choice for many photographers using K3 printers.


It is also important to note that inkjet papers come in standard business
sized sheets, and not the usual photographic paper sizes (8.5x11 instead
of 8x10, 13x19 instead of 11x14, although Epson does now have some papers in 11x14).

 

Dmax and Glossy Papers

One of the facts of life about matte papers is that the dmax (maximum density, or how black is the black) is not as good as we are used to with silver gelatin darkroom papers.  The latest glossy and semi-matte papers are producing dmax equal to or greater than silver papers, but they require using the Photo Black (PK) inks that come with the pigment ink sets, rather than the Matte Black (MK). 

Just as in the darkroom days of Fiber vs RC, many photographers prefer one or the other.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.  Unfortunately, the issue is complicated by the fact that different inks are required.  It is usually at least an unwelcome chore to switch, and often very expensive as well, depending on the printer and how much ink is wasted in the switching process.  NOTE: Some new printers carry both MK and PK cartridges, eliminating the need to swap inks.

One of the "holy grails" in the development of inkjet papers has been the look and feel of the air dried fiber based glossy paper favored by fine art darkroom photographers for years.  It has been an elusive goal, but over the past year a number of new papers have emerged (beginning with the Crane paper company's Museo Silver Rag) which are close to the goal.  Innova and Hahnemuhle and others have also released papers with similar attributes.   These papers are having a large impact, however, they do require using PK ink (please see article #9b for a discussion on using Silver Rag with the Epson 2400).

This creates a dilemma for people who have grown to love the non-glare look and feel of the fine matte papers.  They would like the better dmax, but don't want to go back to the glare and reflections of glossy papers.  Also, many are reluctant to use it because it requires switching inks.  So for many, because switching back and forth between MK and PK is not an option, if they like these papers it means completely abandoning matte papers.  Many people use several different matte papers for their various characteristics.

It is going to be interesting to see what effect over time these new papers have, on the inkjet paper market as well as individual photographers.  Clearly this is one of the fastest changing areas in BW printing today.

 

Getting Started

Here are some things to consider before getting started:

1) Do you want to do both color and BW with one printer?

2) Do you have any preference for tonal range created by mixing color ink dots on the paper vs toned grayscale inks? 

3) If you're ok with the color ink dot approach, do you prefer that yellow is included or omitted in the toning?

4) Would you prefer to use only pure carbon inks for greatest longevity and get a limited tonal range by using different papers?

5) Do you like working with curves/profiles and RIPs or would you prefer a simpler workflow?

6) Do you want to use bulk inks with refillable carts or prefer to buy prefilled carts?

7) Would you mind combining inks from various ink sets to create a custom blend or would you prefer using a complete ready-made ink set?

8) Do you want to print on glossy papers with PK ink or matte papers with MK ink, or both?

9) What is the largest size print you want to make?

There are many possible combinations of printer, software, ink and paper being used today, too many to list here.  Answering these questions will help to narrow down the search.  Keeping up with discussions in the BW forum will over time give a more detailed picture of all the possibilities.

 

Closing Remarks

In this article I have attempted to provide an overview of the current state of the technology.  Next in the series, articles 3a and 3b will describe the traditional Black Only printing technique which makes it possible to get started easily at the lowest cost and allow gaining valuable experience and skills while deciding on what else to try.
 

Copyright 2002 - 2008 Clayton Jones
All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced without express permission of the author

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