Photo printing: When inks ain't inks

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Photo credit: HP

The most important part of the whole printing system is really the inks, not the hardware.

In the world of photo printing, the market is invariably moving toward more affordable and better quality outputs. It may come as a surprise, but in a system that's often judged based on the performance of the hardware, the most important part of the whole printing system is really the inks. These little drops of liquid can affect everything from print speeds to something as insignificant as paper curls.

For the desktop world, the affordable, quality photo printing space is really carved up into two groups. The dye-based ink advocates and the pigment-based proponents, namely Epson. Depending on whom you talk to, each will claim superiority over the other. So which one is the right one for you?

Pigment particles adhering to the paper coating, giving surface bumps
Photo credit: HP

Common arguments
In general, dyes bind to paper better than pigments and offer superior colour reproduction and glossiness, yet they suffer from low fade resistance to light and air (ozone). In addition, colours tend to bleed together when exposed to water.

In the case of pigmented inks, the pigments remain in a solid state when mixed with most liquids. These are dispersed throughout the ink with the use of special additives, preventing the particles from clumping together and sinking to the bottom of the liquid. Still, there's a need for the cartridges to be shaken like household paint to prevent the pigments from clumping together and settling at the bottom (ever squinted at the instructions for Epson's DURABrite ink installations?). Also, because the pigment particles are too large to penetrate the paper coatings, you'll find bumps on the surface of the media.

Photo credit: Epson

Fixing the problems
So it might appear that if you want long-lasting prints, you'd go for pigments, while if you're finicky about image quality, dyes might be the way to go. Unfortunately, while the arguments above are correct, it doesn't and shouldn't apply to printers we purchase today. Manufacturers have gotten around each of the problems with various technologies.

For instance, fade resistance is not just about colourants. Paper media is another medium to aid in prevention and we'll be talking about this in the second article of our series on photo printing. On their part, manufacturers have made dye colourants with more sophisticated dye structures to increase resistance and added specialty components -- often proprietary -- to prevent problems like colour bleeds.

For the problem with pigments, Epson's core firing technology takes care of the issue of clumping particles. At the heart of each Epson printer is its piezo-electric elements. These delicate crystals vibrate each time voltage passes through. With a piezo element at each nozzle vibrating tens of thousands of times per second, there is no physical need for you to take the cartridge out to shake it, potentially dealing with messy ink leaks. In terms of uneven surfaces, the Japanese company has introduced an eighth "ink" which is a gloss optimiser to fill in the white spaces on the surface of the paper.

Photo credit: Epson

So what should I pick?
The print industry is very much like any other business. It has everything to do with tradeoffs. When it comes to photo printing, one question to be asked before you make your decision is: How much are you willing to give, in terms of fade resistance, for photo print speeds? Below, you'll find a table which summarises our findings from printer reviews of the top three inkjet manufacturers. The manufacturers were ranked against each other, with "1" depicting first place and "10" being the lowest score. The figures for fade resistance are the best known values from WIR's (Wilhelm Imaging Research) Display Permanence Rating (glass-filtered) tests.

Manufacturer Fade resistance Image quality Speed
Canon (Dye) 7 (38 years) 1 1
Canon (Dye-sublimation) 10 (7 years) 6 6
Epson (Dye) 8 (27 years) 5 8
Epson (Pigment-based) UltraChrome 1 (150 years) 3 7
Epson (Pigment-based) DURABrite 5 (80 years) 9 9
HP (HP57 tricolour)/td> 9 (15 years) 8 3
HP (HP57+HP58 photo cartridge) 6 (73 years) 4 5
HP (HP95 or HP97 tricolour cartridge in 3-colour print mode) 4 (82 years) 7 2
HP (HP95 or HP97 + HP99 photo cartridge in 6- or 8-ink print mode) 3 (108 years) 2 4
HP (HP100 gray photo cartridge) 2 (115 years) - (B&W only) - (B&W only)

From here, it's apparent where the focus lies for each company. You'll find that for the desktop space, fade resistance is of priority to Epson and HP, while speed is with Canon. Although image quality is subjective, we think Canon's latest PIXMAs have that under belt.

There remain a few things to be mentioned with regard to the results. Although Epson's pigment-based inks suggests stronger fade-resisting performance, this was accomplished on the manufacturer's heavyweight Matte paper -- which isn't particularly everyone's cup of tea. With glossy photo media, WIR rates the Epson UltraChrome inks for 104 years and the rankings skew toward HP's favour. There really isn't much to differentiate between pigments and dyes on the upper end of the market when we talk about fade resistance.

Similarly, while we ranked the DURABrite prints last in our image quality comparisons, the outputs were still pleasing. We found that with our Epson Stylus C65, outputs turned out great with little dithering and no banding visible when set to the best-quality mode. As such, we think most users won't have much to complain about those water-resistant prints.

From the results, you will notice a couple of things. When it comes to printers with more than four inks, you'll see that HP pretty much has a grip on everything, giving out the most balanced performance over the three ratings. However, for users looking for four-ink units, Canon and Epson printers present a much better deal, with Canon producing fast prints and Epson optimised for fade-resisting outputs.

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