fine art printing

Epson Stylus Pro 3880 first impressions

I’ve been thinking about upgrading the printing end of my workflow for years but I’ve had such great results with my older Canon Pixma Pro 9000 printers that I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

I find it interesting that many of my online photographer friends don’t print their work or if they do they outsource printing to a lab. I find the printmaking end of photography just as interesting and enjoyable (and technical) as the picture taking end and getting a handle on this part of the photographic process is useful, even in this world of online sharing of photographs. Yes, in theory one could be a successful professional photographer without ever making a print: licensing, micro stock, etc. but there’s something about making objects, not just files, that’s appealing, at least it is to me.

So, with that in mind, I recently bought an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 Large-Format Inkjet Printer for a few reasons:

1. Pigment based inks and their improved archival characteristics. In theory, given archival paper and a good ink-paper mix and archival framing materials a print made with this new printer can last 200 years compared with the 100 years the (Chromalife 100) dye inks the Canon Pixma Pro 9000 uses.

2. Larger prints: My Canon Pixma Pro 9000 can handle 13″ wide paper (13″x19″), the Epson 3880 can handle 17″ wide paper (17″x22″).

3. More resolution (dots) and wider color gamut from a better print head.

4. Larger ink tanks should mean cheaper printing (I have yet to calculate this but others have and hopefully it will be the case).

epson_3880_printer

First, let me say that this is a much bigger printer than the Pro 9000: it’s wider, weighs more, and is built quite solidly. While there are aspects of its physical design that I find less than perfect, it’s a mechanical upgrade from the older printer: this is a serious tool, probably the lowest end of the high end “professional” ink jet printers. Once out of the box one person can handle it but in the box I needed my wife to help me get it up the stairs to the office.

Setup

Setting up the printer was easy although it was loaded with packing tape as this iPhone photo shows.

Tape from a new Epson 3880

The CD that comes with the printer containing the Epson driver and paper profiles had an installer that wanted to run Rosetta to do the install (an emulator for earlier Macintosh processors). This did not make me feel great about what I’d just bought and its compatibility with my system. Given the number of professional photographers who use Macs and Epson printers this surprised me but these days it’s possible to buy things like this that have been in the pipeline long enough so the software will need updating once set up. Apple certainly sells computers that need an immediate software update once they’re set up. So, I went online to the Epson site looking for answers.

Epson Stylus Pro 3880

Going to the sidebar’s pulldown menu: Get Drivers and Support (terrible web design) I come to this page:

Support for Epson Stylus Pro 3880 Ink Jet Printer

Given that I had no driver installed to update, I opted to download Printer Driver v6.60 which installs a printer driver with version number 6.5. Odd don’t you think? Make note those those of you who know how Macintosh software has been installed over the years, Epson is using InstallerVice which is an older installing technology.

After the driver was installed I connected the computer and printer with a USB cable and chose the printer to see what options the driver had built in. Everything seemed to work fine software-wise so I went on to the next step.

I ran Lightroom and decided to make a test print of one of the pieces I’m working on for an upcoming show and which I have many Canon Pixma Pro 9000 test prints of for comparison. Epson gives you some sheets of what they call Premium Luster but I wanted to print on the same paper I’d been printing on on the Canon printer, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, a 100% cotton rag paper that has a nice feel and which I’ve been using successfully for many years.

Profiling profiles

I went up to the Hahnemuhl web site and found a profile for the 3880 and their Photo Rag paper and downloaded it and dropped it into the folder: richard/library/ColorSync/Profiles where my other self-installed paper profiles live.

For those who simply hit print from any program with any paper installed, then wonder why the color isn’t quite right or is way off, one piece of the equation that is worth looking into is paper profiles. Each high quality paper has a set of profiles, usually made by the paper manufacturer to help each printer print for the particular characteristics of the paper. Each of Canon’s various papers they sell under their brand has a profile and when you install the driver for the Pixma Pro 9000 all of the standard Canon profiles get installed along with it. The names of the profiles correspond to the names of the papers so choosing the correct profile from Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto, and in later systems from Pages and other software is easy. Just learning about and controlling this piece of color management in printing is the difference between frustration and joy in fine art printing.

So, I had experience not only with making prints that looked close to what I saw on my computer’s screen but I also had experience installing profiles for Canon’s printer that come from paper vendors like Moab, Red River, and Hahnemuhl.

After downloading the Hahnemuhl Photo Rag profile but before I printed, I decided to download some Epson profiles for their various papers that did not come with the generic bunch installed with the driver. I went to this page:

ICC Profile Downloads for the 3880

Note that there are two versions of each profile, one for Windows, one for the Macintosh. Why is this? Because instead of just giving you the ICC profile (OS agnostic) to drop into your user/library/ColorSync/Profiles folder, they package them in an OS specific installer which (hopefully) installs them in the right place. Not only does this suck because it takes the user out of the loop, but it sucks because said installer is ancient and as I found out later, messed up my profiles.

All of this downloading and installing just didn’t feel right to me. I don’t like it when installers spray files into my system and don’t tell me what’s going where. My experience with ICC profiles is I download them from the web and they might come with a pdf explaining printer settings for best results, and giving me a place to put them (usually in the aforementioned user/library/ColorSync/Profiles folder.

I put my suspicions aside and decided to make some prints. I have 8.5″x11″ paper from Epson, Canon, Hahnemuhl, Moab, Red River and others so I had enough paper to do some serious experimenting with.

I connected a second USB cable to the Canon Pixma Pro 9000 and printed some tests on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag (using the Canon profile for that paper).

I then used Page Setup and chose The Epson 3880 and the Hahnemuhl Photo Rag profile for that printer, put a piece of paper in the printer and printed.

I must say, the 3880 has a higher quality sheet feeder than the older Pixma Pro 9000 and it grabbed the paper and did its thing.

I took one look at the print and my heart sank: it was so far off the mark it wasn’t useable as wrapping paper.

I went back through my settings and changed a few things and printed again. Same thing, way off the mark.

Twenty sheets of $1 paper later and I’d made no progress and was frustrated.

I decided to print some of the paper that came with the Epson printer, Premium Luster and noted that in order to do this test the inks had to swap from Matte Black to Photo Black. This is a known piece of the process of having multiple types of black ink in the printer and is far better than older Epsons where one had to swap cartridges each time one switched from glossy/luster paper to matte paper. I wasn’t concerned about this because I print mostly on matte paper but a bit of ink is still used in the swap so I did not want to do it often in my now flailing looking for an answer to my question about the crappy prints.

The swap finished and I printed the same image on the Luster paper and it too sucked.

This was not good and I emailed my friends Karin and Brad who have the older version of the printer, the 3800 to ask them to weigh in. I also scoured the web (as did Karin) and we came up with this single piece that gave me hope that this was not a user problem on my part:

Solving Recent Profiling Issues With Apple Computers Epson Printers and Photoshop

I don’t use Photoshop but there are hints in the post that let me know that Epson has issues playing nice with other software, especially later versions of Mac OS. I read the piece and many like it and put it to rest for a few days.

ColorSync Utility to the rescue

On returning to the problem I decided to run a utility which comes with Macs and is in the Utilities folder: ColorSync Utility. To be honest, I’d never run it before. I don’t make my own profiles and don’t know much about color management more than you’re reading here, but I thought it might have some diagnostic feature like Disk Utility and I was in luck.

ColorSync Utility has a feature called Profile First Aid which scans all installed profiles and gives feedback on whether they’re installed and formatted correctly for use on your computer. I ran it and lo and behold the Epson profiles were damaged. I used ColorSync Profile to repair them (it took a few tries) and when they came back clean I quit and ran the print test again.

Amazingly, the Hahnemuhl printed perfectly, looked spectacular and I was happy. I tried each of my papers and then tried the Epson papers and they all printed perfectly.

Then, to attempt to verify the problem, I went back up to the Epson web site and re-downloaded one of their profiles that needed installation with InstallerVice. I re-installed it and then ran ColorSync Utility to see if it had broken things and it had. I repaired things again and was printing fine again.

Bottom line, Epson needs to hire a Macintosh developer who knows how things work to update this process.

I later went up to the Red River Paper site to download profiles for their paper I use, specifically their Polar Matte and Aurora Fine Art White both of which I use to print notecards from Pages. The profiles download fine and were easily installed (by me dragging them) in the user/Library/ColorSync/Profiles folder. Simple. No broken profiles, ColorSync Utility found no problems. Notecards from the new printer are spectacular.

Take a clue Epson. You make a fine printer but you need to get your software chops in order. You owe me two days of time and about $100 worth of paper and ink.

Dye vs pigment inks

For those of you considering something like this I want to warn you, a well processed and printed fine art print from a good printer that uses dye based inks will have a slightly different look from the same image printed with pigment inks.

When I held up my test prints of the same image done with the Canon Pixma Pro 9000 vs. the Epson 3880 many folks (including my wife who sees my work regularly) chose the Pro 9000’s prints. Why? Because dye based inks have a bit more pop, a bit more vibrancy, and while they may not have the color gamut that the pigment inks have, the pop is what some people like in this high contrast/high saturation world of online photography that’s been photochopped to death. I’ve watched high contrast, highly saturated images get pushed up to flickr explore for years. There’s nothing wrong with this but to be fair to a new technology, one ought to reset one’s expectations and consider more than just pop and saturation in a comparison.

Pigment inks may be a very slight bit duller on the surface although when you just look at the pigment print by itself it’s fantastic so this is not a problem, just a point of comparison.

For most people just getting into printing at home, I recommend starting out with something like the Canon Pixma Pro 9000. It makes spectacular prints, is a workhorse, is easy to set up and use and will print up to 13″x19″ paper which is big enough for most people. I have no regrets about getting the Epson 3880 but I doubt many new to printing would want to go through what I just went through getting it up and running in my workflow. If setting it up were my first experience with this stuff I’d sell it and outsource my printing to a lab.

Show announcement postcards

Show announcement postcards

Warren, Connecticut. I printed a thousand (1000) post cards for my friend Joy Brown to announce the opening of one of her shows a few years ago.

Printed on Red River Polar Matte card stock on a Canon Pixma Pro 9000 printer.

I filled my office, our bedroom and other rooms with flat surfaces with these cards for drying overnight and it took three days to get them all printed and dried.

Buying a photo printer

Background
I’ve avoided buying a photo printer for years. I had various early color inkjet printers and they always seemed to have problems and the results in those very early days were not worth the problems. I ended up using online services like Printroom.com and Apple’s iPhoto direct printing (done by Kodak) and have continued to use them for years. I will still use them from time to time even though I can now print at home.

The online services gave me nice looking color photographs in a few days at reasonable expense without the overhead of having yet one more piece of expensive equipment in the house eating ink, clogging, and depreciating in value.

I was doing fine (or so I thought) until two things happened:

1. My friend and long-time photographer Gary Sharp bought an Epson R2400 printer and started sending me prints, not only of his photography but also of mine. The quality of the color, the variety of papers, and the fact that he could experiment with this at home all piqued my interest.

2. I met two professional photographers, Brad and Karin Smith, who live nearby and both of them were perplexed by the fact that I was so far into the photographic process yet hadn’t put much thought into printing. They consider themselves printmakers as much as photographers. To me, this was a new way to think about printing: not just as one of many end-forms of a photographic image (web, CD, print) but as a piece of “fine art.” In other words, the print would be the end product, not just one of many end products.

I knew I was going to have to dig into this and part of me was excited about the possibilities and part of me dreaded my typical, agonizing process for deciding which printer to buy.

As I started doing research on photo printing with inkjet printers I realized that most serious photographers use Epson printers and almost all of these same people have horror stories about clogged heads and expensive ink with their Epson printers. On the one hand, my process could be easy: just get an Epson printer. But, I do not like struggling with problems so it seemed like it was worth a bit of research first.

Then I talked with Ted Roth, another local photographer who recently retired from being the head of technology at a local high school. His perspective was influenced more by serviceability than what other photographers used. He had to maintain numerous printers in a school environment so clogged heads and expensive inks were unacceptable to him. But, he is also a serious photographer who shows and sells his work. Ted got me thinking more about balancing service issues with print quality issues.

As with almost everything I research and buy in the photography area, I decided to share my research task (and agony) with my friend and another long-time photographer Dale Allyn who was also interested in getting started with printing at home. He came up with lots of other ways to approach the issue and together we did much of the background research that I’m basing this article on.

What Dale and I soon realized was that times have changed, and with the popularity of digital photography the big color inkjet printer manufacturers: HP, Epson, and Canon have made printing photographs at home easy, relatively inexpensive and fun. One could easily rationalize buying almost any printer on the market today, most of them produce nice looking prints and work reliably.

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