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.

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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.

Run­ning 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.

Think Ink

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.

Size Mat­ters

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.

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