The Big Picture
Large Format Inkjet Printers Big prints make a big impact and even A2 format inkjet printers are now comparatively affordable. All have the potential to create new business opportunities for the entrepreneurial photographer.
Big prints make a big impact and even A2 format inkjet printers are now comparatively affordable. All have the potential to create new business opportunities for the entrepreneurial photographer. We look at what’s available from Canon and Epson.
Inkjet printing has transformed numerous areas of photography from proofing right through to the production of commercially saleable products such as limited edition prints and exclusive, hand-made photo books. All the concerns regarding image quality, printing speed and ink stability have been addressed, and the current crop of professional-level printers are also comparatively affordable (and becoming even more so over time). Furthermore, provided that they’re properly matched to the application – most specifically the expected volume of printing – and correctly set-up as part of a colour managed workflow, these printers can also be economical to operate.
The terms ‘large format’ or ‘wide format’ generally apply to printers that can handle media up to 17-inches in width (for A3/A3+ format prints) or wider, up to 44-inches (for B0 format prints). There are even wider models available, but these big machines (and even, to some extent, the 44-inch models) represent a significantly greater investment and so are more commonly purchased by pro labs or design bureaux to provide a commercial printing service. The costs – both the initial purchase price and the subsequent running – are such that many professional photographers may need to carefully consider whether the economics make sense in terms of the amount of usage, the potential commercial returns and any savings compared to outsourcing.
For many, using the services of a professional lab if and when there’s a need for a very large print to be made – such as for an exhibition – may well be the more economical option in the long-term. Conversely, anybody who is planning any sort of business venture that is based on selling printed products may find bringing the production inhouse not only allows for better quality control, but also better management of costs.
A stronger case can be mounted for photographers installing printers in the range of 13-inches to 24-inches or the A3+ to A1 formats. Nevertheless, it’s still important to carefully evaluate the likely usage to avoid, for example, excessive ink costs due to the constant need to replace exhausted cartridges.
For example, Epson’s 17-inch/A2 format Stylus Pro 3880 employs 80 millilitre cartridges – partly to enable a more compact design – whereas the Stylus Pro 4900 (which is the same format) uses 200 millilitre tanks. The A3+ format desktop printers mostly have very small ink cartridges with capacities of ten to 12 millilitres and which are totally impractical for anybody making more than one or two big prints a week. While the bigger ink tanks are expensive to buy initially, they represent the more economical option with higher volume printing. It will also be more economical in the long term to purchase paper in rolls rather than cut sheets, but not all large format printers in the A3-to-A1 class can accept a continuous paper feed so this is an important feature to consider in the light of the intended usage. For example, this is another key difference between Epson’s Stylus Pro 3880 and 4900 models. There’s also over a $1000 price difference between these two
models, but it will be quickly accounted for with a higher volume of usage.
Of course, overestimating your requirements could be equally as costly as the investment in both the printer and materials may not be realised over the unit’s working life. And while the model life cycles of pro-level printers are now much longer as the technologies have matured, there’s always the danger that the arrival of something new – and inevitably better – will devalue the resale value of the previous product. At present, however, typical model cycles appear to be extending beyond two years. Obviously the ideal scenario is to make sure that a printer has paid for itself – and hopefully even made a profit – before it needs to be replaced or its second-hand value is significantly diminished through obsolescence.
Pigmented inks are now virtually universally used in the A2 and A1 format models, but the smaller format A3 (13-inch wide) models are available with either pigmented or dye-based inksets.
What’s the difference? The primary advantage of pigmented inks is greater stability which, in conjunction with archival-quality papers, gives a much longer print life and resistance to fading when exposed to UV light. Typically, dye-based inks have half the lifespan of pigmented inks for prints stored or displayed under the same conditions. This is because, in pigmented inks, the particles of colour are actually encapsulated in what amounts to a protective coating which prevents any deterioration due to exposure to UV light, airborne pollutants or moisture. The key advantage of dyes had traditionally been the richness of the colour reproduction when printing on photo-type papers, and a lot of research has gone into improving the longer term stability. However, considerable research has also gone into enhancing the vibrancy of the colour reproduction of pigments via the addition of extra colours.
“The primary advantage of pigmented inks is greater stability which, in conjunction with archival- quality papers, gives a much longer print life and resistance to fading when exposed to UV light.”
Canon’s Lucia inkset, for instance, comprises a total of 12 colours – cyan, magenta and yellow; light cyan and light magenta; red, green and blue plus four shades of black (i.e. greys).
The expanded inksets with light or ‘photo’ colours, primary colours and extra blacks or greys offer a number of image quality benefits.
Beyond the improvement in colour reproduction – particularly the primaries – the tonal gradation is much smoother and the blacks are better handled. Importantly, too, deficiencies such as metamerism (colour shifts related to viewing under different lighting conditions) and bronzing (tonal ‘drop-outs’ related to the viewing angle) have also been corrected. The multi-black inksets have also greatly improved the reproduction of B&W images to the extent that digital monochrome printing is now accepted as being not only as good as, but often even better, than the traditional darkroom process.
For many photographers, the A3+ format offers many advantages. A3/A3+ size prints are still big enough to make an impact – especially when matted and framed – but also quite manageable in terms of transportation and presentation, in albums or print boxes.
However, bigger is often better, especially in terms of commercial print sales, and this brings into play the 17-inch/A2 models (which, of course, can also make A3/A3+ size prints). Here the choice of both pro-level and enthusiast-level models allows for closer matching to printing volumes (current or projected) and output requirements. Increasingly, it’s the A2 format models that represent the ‘sweet spot’ for professional photographers. For example, Epson’s desktop-sized Stylus Pro 3880 model has proved hugely popular, providing an economical entry-point into the larger format for the photographer with low volume requirements.
Venturing into the world of wider format inkjet printers needs more careful consideration of the potential returns and possible rates of utilisation compared with the initial outlay and the on-going operating costs, but the potential to generate new business opportunities should never be underestimated.
The 24-inch wide (A1 format) Canon imagePROGRAF iPF6400 incorporates an automatic colour calibration function and uses the 12-colour Lucia EX pigmented inks.