September 2, 2008

B&W print quality

Filed under Technical Articles | by Tyler Boley @ 6:09 pm

WARNING! Obsessive discussion about dots of ink follows-

B&W quality

Film Scan _______ ABW 1440 _______ Quad 1440 _______ K7 2880 _______ Silver Contact

From my very first experiences with an inkjet printer I’ve been concerned about how successfully the qualities unique to photographic craft will be carried forward. From NiĆ©pce in 1839 through Adams and beyond light sensitive materials were worked and honed to create optical clarity, continuous tone, and longevity. Master craftspeople learned to work these materials to create works of extraordinary beauty and technical achievement unique from the other art disciplines. Now we are experiencing our materials, the products of over a century and a half of development, marginalized to near extinction before our eyes in a decade. While I love silver, platinum, and other traditional printing, I also love ink on paper, and this writing represents Some of my findings and work on the subject. Let’s face it, we are working with glorified half tone processes and the closer we monitor it’s abilities, the more likely photographic craft will move forward.

Most of us adopted quad tone printing in the early inkjet days as it was literally the only way to get decent B&W prints. While there are now more out-of-the-box ways to make acceptable B&W inkjet prints, monochromatic ink methods continue to evolve. A 9600 printer is used here, as it allows two quad tone hue sets to be used and blended at will in various ways. StudioPrint provided advanced ways to work with these ink sets many of us had been looking for. My friend Nick Wheeler pointed out his objection to serial monochromatic dilutions for B&W at one point showing me how one could see the transitions from one ink to the next, and within those transitions some photographic detail and fine gradations could not be reproduced. The next step seemed to be adding more dilutions for even greater quality, we’ll look at that later. That approach would have eliminated the double hue approach giving such beautiful prints.

So when a new version of StudioPrint came out, with an extreme level of control of each ink, 3 dot sizes per, and amount of each dot size per ink, new possibilities opened up. Expectations dimmed though, as it proved very difficult to linearize multiple density monochromatic ink setups with variable dot sizes. However after way more paper, ink, and months (years?) than can be confessed, the dual quad setup here now has higher dmax, finer highlights, more grays and described image detail, than was previously possible. In the fixed dot size version, you can clearly see the four inks, and widely spaced dots of the next darker dilution come in to create the next darker tones, having to throw out image detail to attempt to maintain accurate density with dot spacing. It’s hard to find one image that clearly shows all these differences, this will have to do.

quad 1440 dpi dot manipulation comparison

quad 1440 dpi dot manipulation comparison

Each one of these improvements, from smoother transitions, more image info described on paper, more coverage, etc. becomes very apparent when inspecting a wide variety of images.

Looking at the Epson ABW driver with Epson inks in direct comparison, it becomes clear that levels of gray, and photographic detail is lacking, and clearly output is dottier. The use of color inks to create grays is apparent, but the pros and cons of that issue won’t be part of this article.

quad vs color ABW output

quad vs color ABW output

So a level of 1440dpi photographic quality not previously possible, with dual hue blending capability, has been achieved here. Even at 2880dpi, the quad tone results are photographically superior.

To further underscore the point of all of this, I am also including a scanned contact print made for me from the negs on gloss RC paper by Panda Lab, the one remaining, and thankfully, very high quality lab remaining in Seattle.

ink systems at 2880 and silver

ink systems at 2880 and silver

It’s clear to me that we have not yet met the level of technical photographic quality our previous methods achieved. Does this matter? Can you see these differences with normal viewing? I think you can, given certain images, and viewing conditions, and eyesight. But I care less about that than keeping the bar high, often we can’t put our finger on a technical reason one print is “better” then another, but adherence to the highest standard at each step of the process clearly yields a higher percentage of stunning prints, every little tweak contributes.

I’ve included output using Jon Cone’s Selenium K7 inkset using QTR as the driver. This printing method is available to anyone, no fancy setup is required. Though I have a test printer here that I use to evaluate these systems, I have yet to make a final decision on what version of this process to offer as a service. I have no underlying agenda for showing this, but I think it’s important to acknowledge Jon’s contribution by continually pushing the envelope, as clearly there is more information from the file written to paper, less dots, less underlying mechanical pattern, more micro levels of gray, etc.. For B&W it is the highest photographic quality I’ve seen from ink. I’ve put up another page with overlaid images of the output methods discussed here, that might make things easier to see as it’s bigger.

Technical notes: Original images were 4000ppi drum scans from very thin emulsion (long discontinued and forgotten brand) 120 B&W negatives. All ink prints were done at 100% full 4000ppi on Hahnemuhle PhotoRag 308 and the silver prints were 1:1 contact, so all were the same size. The Epson ABW prints were made with a 9800, the quad prints with a 9600, and the K7 prints with a 7800. Every attempt was made to tonally match the ink prints to the silver, and all ink output systems were profiled with QTR’s profiler to eliminate as many variables as possible. The scans of the prints were sharpened a touch make the ink dots a bit more visible for comparison, all the same amount. Obviously these are small cropped sections from those scans.

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