Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Misery of Printing

I’ve always believed that a photo is not really a photo until it is printed. It’s all very well to see it full-screen on your monitor, but even the best displays cannot begin to show the detail and smooth tonality that modern cameras can achieve. Large prints just have a presence that has to been seen to be appreciated. They give you time to study and appreciate the picture, in detail and as a whole, and are the most interesting and most practical way to discuss work with peers. 

My personal age of digital photography started with the printing, and not the cameras, just after the turn of the century. When I first started out in photography, like everyone else, I sent my negatives away to be processed and printed. Throughout the eighties and the first half of the nineties, I worked in 35mm monochrome, processing my films and printing in my home darkroom. With the arrival of our first child the darkroom made way for my daughter’s bedroom, and my ‘art’ photography was put on the back burner. For a few years virtually all my photos were shot on colour negative film and processed at one of the mail-order labs. 

Peeling Bark, 2011 © Graham Dew
Peeling Bark, 2011
Then in 2000, I needed a new A3 colour printer to replace one that I was using for my self-employed consultancy. By this time printers had rapidly evolved to give photo-quality output. It is always easier to stump up the cash for gear if it can be used for business, and before long I had the means to print my own images. The printer I chose was the Epson 1270 colour printer that used dye inks. The printer also came with a cut-down version of Photoshop, and I already had a PC with a high spec (for those days) so I was almost ready to go. The first films were scanned by a local photo processor, but within a few months I bit the bullet and bought myself a Nikon Coolsan IV and I was up and running. It was just amazing to create your own prints that could be tweaked to taste and printed as large (well, 13”X19”) or as small as you wanted, on demand, in the light, with no smells from chemicals. The quality was good too; the scanner gave 11Mp images which meant no pixellation in the finished prints. 

There were a couple of problems though that had yet to be sorted. It was really difficult to achieve a true black-and-white print without an unintentional colour cast, and the prints were prone to fading. Most of the ink and paper combinations at that time could fade in several months. I settled on Espon’s Colorlife paper that did better than most, but prints from that era have now faded horribly, now showing ugly green shadows and magenta highlight. Back then I still wanted to produce black and white images. Looking back I don’t know why; I’ve worked almost exclusively in colour since I got my first digital camera in 2004. But I guess old habits die hard and I wanted to reproduce some 20 years worth of monochrome images. So to kill two birds with one stone, I ‘invested’ in an Epson 1160 and fitted it out with a set of special monochrome inks imported from the US by Permajet. And that’s when the misery of printing started to set in. For some time now there have a been a wide range of art papers available for inkjet printing, and combined with these inks I could achieve nice, really nice, prints. The papers usually had a matt finish, but had a very clean white. The inks were carbon pigments with very subtle colouration, which meant that when used correctly one could achieve cold tone, neutral or warm tone prints, with very dark blacks. When the printing went well, the prints looked utterly gorgeous; deep detailed shadows and bright, clean highlights. 

Bretignolles Beach © Graham Dew
Bretignolles Beach

Unfortunately, you had to use the 1160 every few days or else the ink would dry in the print heads and block up. Quite often the cleaning cycle could take half an hour or so, and the printer might have ink deposits that would smudge onto the next several prints. After I while, I gave up with the pigment inks and switched over to Lyson dye-based monochrome inks. These worked better, but were still prone to head blockages. I then had a couple of breakdowns on the printers. I dropped the 1160 and damaged the power socket, and the 1270 jammed when printing on canvas due to paper curl. I had two dead machines, both of which were uneconomic to repair. More misery.

If I wanted to carry on printing I would need a new printer, so once more I stumped up for another Epson printer, the R2400. By now (about 2005), printers had evolved some way, and the R2400 was able to give cast-less monochrome and colour prints that would last up to 200 years without fading. Only another 193 years to go to see if they are right! And for a good while, this printer gave me good service, and has produced some lovely prints. I was working with a colour-calibrated workflow, from camera to monitor to printer, and was getting good results. This came, however, at a price, and the price is well over £100 for a set of eight inks. The ink cartridges have a really tiny capacity, and usually during a print session I would need to replace at least one ink cartridges. I would estimate that it costs me about £2.50 to £3.00 per A3 print, with another £1.50 to £2.00 for the paper. I like to print large, because my prints are either for exhibition or for display and discussion at our Arena meetings. At up £5.00 a print this is bad enough, but this is the minimum price only if you can make a print without any wastage.

What Spider? © Graham Dew
What Spider?

Over the past few years the printer has become increasingly less reliable. The first problem has been the colour accuracy of the printer. With the same inks, paper, & profiles I can no longer match the colour on screen. I probably need to get the printer recalibrated, but how often will I need to do this? Making test prints is tedious and time consuming. The second problem has been the time-outs, the incomplete prints where the printer & PC suddenly stop talking to each other. I’ve had this problem on other printers and devices and fixed them, but it has proven impossible on the R2400. It has been so bad on some print sessions that 50% of my prints stopped half-way through, making the cost per print move up towards £10 per print.

I got to the point where I was not sure what to do next. I really could not afford to buy another printer, and I don’t think anything available today would be markedly different. I didn’t want to use 3rd party inks because of potential incompatibilities. It was my Arena colleague Dave Mason who commented that he too had given up on using a desktop printer, and that he now was getting his prints made online for a fraction of the true cost of an inkjet print. He showed me some recent prints of Egypt that he brought along with him. I was amazed by how good these prints from digital files looked – every bit as good as a quality inkjet, with good colour, detail and tonality. He used DS Colour Labs, and since that day I’ve used them too, and I’m really pleased with quality and the service I get. There’s clearly been a revolution in online printing technology that I had missed.

Dandelion and Grasshopper, 2011 © Graham Dew
Dandelion and Grasshopper, 2011

These days, when I’m spending an evening working on my pictures I will edit them in Lightroom (much faster than using Photoshop), and then batch process the images into JPEGS, ready for upload. I’ll then log on to the DSCL website, and do a batch upload. Whilst the images are uploading I’ll go and spend time with the family, or have a beer, or have a bath or anything else I fancy. It’s much more relaxing than sitting by the printer waiting for it to go wrong! The prints are printed the next day, and arrive at my door in the post the day after that. The 18”X12” prints on Fuji Crystal Archive that I order from DSCL provide cost £1.25 each, so about 25% of the cost of my home-grown inkjet prints. The Crystal Archive prints meet most of my needs. However, if I want to produce an exhibition print for sale it costs only £3.75 for the Fuji Pearl Ceramic paper, which looks spectacular and is ideal for special prints.

Dewey Grass, 2011 © Graham Dew
Dewey Grass, 2011
 So for me, printing has gone full circle twice now, and I am back to sending my pictures away to be printed. Unless a new technology comes along that makes home printing substantially cheaper and more reliable, I can’t see this changing for some time yet.


Anonymous said...

7bjoveduGraham - you are an angel and just to think I was about to spend another £600 on a replacement printer. My 2400 has cost me £100 over the past three weeks with no satisfactory result, heads blocked colour balances up the creek etc etc .Thanks a million I am about to try your lab. Harry C.

Graham Dew said...

Hi Harry,

I'm sure you will find modern photo labs give an excellent service. I used to love seeing a print come up in the dev dish, and would stare in amazement at the quality I used to get from my inkjets. But it is rather nice having a little present delivered to your door, of your prints done with no hassle, the next day and for less than the price of bare paper.

Yours, Graham