How I Print

First I talked about how I scan, so I thought I'd write a bit on how I print. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I'm increasingly thinking of a print as the final product of the photographs I take regardless of whether they were shot on film or captured by a piece of silicon. I remember telling my late father to buy an Epson Stylus 670 printer back in 2000 because of how good it's photo output was. Now I wasn't really into photography at the time, so we were printing pictures from our little 1 or 2 MP digital cameras on plain paper. He particularly liked impressing guest by taking a picture and then going and printing it out while they watched.

They were simple times to be sure, but there were problems. The print quality was only ok, the inks were dye-based which means that if you've left any of these photos out in the sun, they're probably barely legible now. It was fun, but certainly not the equal of lab prints from a decent film camera. Oh how times have changed.

As with everything in the digital world, things have changed for the better at an increasingly steady pace. The big change was probably Epson's with the introduction of the first reasonable pigment ink printer that a photographer could afford, the Stylus Photo 2000 in 2002. It had 6 inks, pretty good output quality and perhaps most importantly for us, finally gave us archival prints at home. The early pigment inks though, couldn't compete with the vibrancy of the colors coming out of dye printers of the same vintage, so there was still work to be done.

Most people would concede that there is now a decent parity of image resolution and color quality between pigment and dye. Many people, the more forward thinking of us would also concede that inkjet prints now equal the wet lab prints of all but perhaps the most master printers of black and white.

I'd like to say before I get into the products I use that I have absolutely no connection with any of these companies, and can only speak to my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.

For a few years I used a Canon i9900 13" printer. It's output was pretty good, especially once I had custom profiles made by a guy I met at a party. I especially loved Ilford Smooth Pearl paper which to me felt like a real photograph. However I was concerned with the price of ink, so eventually I started using bulk ink refills by Media Street, which worked suprisingly well. All in all a good experience, but when I started getting serious about photography in the past couple of years I knew that I had to get a pigment printer so that I could sell my prints with the knowledge that they'd be around in 50 years, so I started shopping.

The obvious choice was the latest Epson 13" at the time which was the 2200 I think. However I have a couple problems with it, first I have read many a horror story about clogged nozzles if you don't use the printer for a time, which is a problem that I've hated since the dawn of the inkjet age. I'm not always printing every day, so this was pretty big. The other was that it only took one black cartridge at a time, either matte or photo black. You can switch them out, but you loose a decent about of ink on each swap, and as someone who likes to print on both coated and matte papers, this a deal breaker.

Just when I was getting frustrated, HP announced their competitor, the B9180. It had both matte and photo black inks installed at all times, larger capacity cartridges to keep ink costs lower, and a self cleaning system which kept nozzles from getting clogged. And best of all, it cost less. I waiting for a couple of favorable reviews and jumped in. It wasn't a perfect journey, the first printer I had delivered wouldn't complete its self-calibration (more on this in a second), so after an hour on the phone with a very helpful tech, they sent me another one which is working well to this day.

The B9180 has a pretty neat self-calibration feature which prints a test pattern and then takes readings to make sure everything is within spec, it's pretty cool. It's also built like a tank, and I have to say that I've had no nozzle clogs at all since I've owned it. Not that there aren't a few annoyances. When you use the single sheet paper feeder (which I do whenever I'm printing photos) and have the paper butt up against the side guide rail, it doesn't line up with the guide line on the tray. That is, the print is skewed, until I started to make sure that it was correct by the guide line and to hell with the side. The other issues I have are with the driver, which is really annoying.

You see, as many of you may know, I'm a windows guy. I'm not into the mac cult. And as such I use a program called Qimage to do my printing. And let me just say that I really love Qimage. If you're a windows user (I think it works in Parallels on a mac too) and print photographs, you owe yourself to try it out. Qimage takes a lot of the question marks and grey areas from the process of printing. It helps you lay out your images, it resamples them to the correct resolution for the print size, and makes profiles much easier to use.

And here's where the HP drivers come in. When I used Qimage with my old Canon, the output would be exactly like the layout on the screen. With the HP, it's exactly like the layout on the screen sometimes. Other times it's nothing like it. For example a while back I was printing two 8x10's side by side on an 11x17 slice of paper. For some reason the HP driver thought that I wanted both of them to take up the whole page instead. However when I cut the paper in half to make two 8.5x11 sheets and printed an 8x10 on each, it worked fine. I questioned the author of Qimage, Mike Chaney, on this and he told me that it's a function of the drivers and that the best he can do it send the correct layout to the printer, how the driver interprets the instructions is out of this control. And this guy knows more about printing and drivers and profiles than I will ever know so I trust him on that one.

As for paper, I've come to really love the people at Red River Paper. The quality is as good as I've seen, they're fast to ship, and they're relatively cheap. In particular I'm a user of their Polar Matte and Arctic Polar Satin papers, they're super with the B9180. I absolutely LOVE the Polar Satin, I won't print with anything else at the moment, black and white prints on it are amazing, ink dark blacks and absolutely neutral. Oh and by the way, the Ilford Smooth Pearl I used to love on the Canon doesn't work well at all on the HP. I'm not sure why, because it's supposed to work well with the Epson pigment inks, but I get pooled ink and a mottled photos on the HP. I gave the rest of my stock away last week.

As for custom profiles, with the HP I don't use them. I set the driver to the closest built in paper type and let the printer do it's thing. I let the printer/driver manage the color, and it does a great job. I get output that's as close to my calibrated Eizo screen as I can imagine, very easily. Interestingly enough I've tried to print both within Photoshop and Lightroom with similar "Let the printer control the colors" settings, and get terrible output. Somewhere, something is still doing profile conversions in there, but I don't know what or where. Printing from Photoshop is like a black art to me, it amazes me that people can make it work.

What I've been print mostly lately are 8x12 prints on 11x14 paper. This leaves a nice artsy polished print with enough white space around it. I also printed the full set of 13 portraits of the Red Horse Cafe series on 13x19 Polar Satin and they look great, though I imagine that the dark nature of the images probably chugged a bunch of ink, but it has to be cheaper, certainly more convient, and you have much more control over the output than sending them out to be done.

If anyone has any questions.. I'd be happy to answer them.