Table of Contents
The partnership between Nikonians and Epson again offered me the opportunity to test-drive a professional photo printer from the current lineup – the Stylus Pro 3880. Epson Europe was kind enough to lend the printer over a period of several months and I am more than happy to share my experience and impressions with all Nikonians. Therefore, a big fat “THANKS” to Epson Europe!
This will not be a laboratory-style review but a blend of subjective report and tutorial. I intend to provide information and reliable hints as to avoid frustration by duplicating my mistakes; tailored to those who newly own this printer or seriously consider buying one.
The review comes in two independent parts: at first we look at the device itself and how to make best use of it. Part 2 covers the four Epson fine art media “Hot Press” and “Cold Press”, presented at the photokina 2010 trade fair. These are cotton-based media of fabulous quality, albeit burying a slim risk for failure to the inexperienced user.
An extremely condensed summary might read like this: both the Pro 3880 printer and the new fine art media are capable of delivering truly impressive results – provided the user does it all right. Proper preparation is a must and the key to success. Do not expect fully automated perfect plug‑and‑play results. Instead, the printer mercilessly unmasks every mistake made, be it during picture taking, image processing or in printer driver settings. Garbage in, garbage out. As a user of such printer, prepare yourself to apply best practice to all the steps in the chain (use tripod, check light, apply color management,…) because – quality in, quality out.
Allow me to provide some guidance and read on.
Right, it is high time to show the ready-to-work printer.
As you see, all electric interfaces are located on the back of the device and will hardly ever interfere with a wall since, really, the printer demands for quite some clearance in order to be operated conveniently. I strongly suggest – at least for the initial learning phase – to place the printer on a desk, freely accessible as shown for a simple reason: to handle and align the large DIN A2 size sheets (16.5*24 inch), you not only need both hands but also unobstructed view into the feeder. This works best when standing behind the device, having direct view on the paper path. After opening the front lid and folding out the paper support, the stance from the front would be so poor that I consider precise feeding of large media next to impossible. A freshly inserted A2 sheet sticks out the feeder quite considerably and moves slightly back and forth during the automatic alignment, therefore the sheet should be allowed to slide freely, not scratching along wall or furniture; the alignment process does not need any extra friction.
My recommendation is to place the printer on a desk or sideboard large enough to provide space also for the media box as well as restroom for the just printed sheets. Of course, you should be able to handle the media feeder conveniently, this is of prime importance. Like the smaller brother R2880, the transport mechanism requires a gentle two second push-and-hold force before it catches and aligns the sheet.
I was allowed to allocate an unused office at my workplace in order to exercise with the printer and discuss pictures, problems and findings with some colleagues. Therefore this review reflects a mélange of opinions, not just my personal one.
Here you see the printer on a typical steel-frame office desk sized 80*160 cm, about 2.6*5.2 ft. This turned out to be just about perfect for my testing.
Once a location decision is settled, it’s time to start installation. The device provided has been used before and came fully equipped with ink cartridges, therefore no need for me to go through the initial steps of device setup. These are well described in the quick guide and handbook. I would just like to highlight that the vacuum-protected cartridges want a decent shake before installation – every time. We are dealing with complex pigmented ink chemistry. Despite the many smart engineering efforts that went into the ink formulation in order to avoid particle cluster formation, such clusters might develop while resting on the shelf. Shaking the cartridge is a proven countermeasure to dissolve clusters and recover optimum ink state. This effort is little pain compared to blocked nozzles (and subsequently anything between nozzle rinsing and head exchange).
For the sake of exercising I decided to employ both USB installation and TCP/IP network installation. USB for its simplicity; TCP/IP for its versatility. You might know that plain USB cable links should not exceed 5 meters in length. CAT5 network cabling covers much longer distance and, since the printer might require more space than the typical crowded desk can handle, I consider a somewhat remote location the better choice, hence the network link.
Since the Stylus Pro 3880 has the power to generate awesome prints, keep repeating the nozzle check until the pattern is flawless. My method is this: one sheet of plain paper enables four nozzle checks, if there is still a flaw after the fourth run, I invoke a head cleaning and verify the success on a fresh sheet before doing a real print.
Earlier I recommended not to invoke the Windows printer test page print immediately when Windows wants to. This is because the Epson driver installation default is Luster photo paper, which would lead to a spillage of much more ink than office paper can handle. Therefore, as long as you are busy with installing and testing and getting familiar, set the driver to plain paper. For now, you don’t even need to care for what kind of black ink is enabled (since both black inks flow through the same nozzles).
Obviously the Stylus Pro 3880 can handle a large variety of print media and most of them require tailored driver settings. This quickly raises the problem of managing the appropriate settings and it is pretty inconvenient to adjust the driver each time you change media size or media type. Fortunately there are several ways to organize the print options such that custom presets can be created and maintained.
One way is embedded in the Epson driver, where user-defined settings can be stored. Another way is to add “logical” printers to the computer and assign a fixed combination of print characteristics (media type, media size, rendering) along with a self-explanatory name. Both have advantages and disadvantages, as always in real life. The point that I want to make is that nobody needs to be afraid of getting lost in a jungle of printer driver options. Work out your preferences and store them using either method, and even after a year of non‑use you can replicate a certain print because you saved a preset.
Just as an example using the "Windows Add Printer" approach:
From Devices and Printers – add a Printer – add a local Printer – use an existing port – (select appropriate port) – select the existing Epson 3880 driver (no need to reinstall), replace the default name by one that will nicely reflect the application target, e.g. "SP3880 FineArt USFAP Matte A2" as for fine art media of UltraSmooth type in DIN A2 format. You may then apply the necessary driver settings to this “logical” printer and don’t need to touch anything but selecting the device in order to perform a print with exactly those print characteristics which you set and saved.
The Epson printer driver is a nice piece of software. It allows creating numerous “logical” printers, each with dedicated settings which will not raise conflicts. The best feature, however, is its ability to support colour management when called by colour-managed applications like Adobe Photoshop. The improved driver detects the colour manager, so you do not need to be afraid of accidental double colour management any more. If you define “colour management by Photoshop” in the Photoshop print dialog, the Epson driver automatically recognizes it.
Ink consumption and cartridge capacity
Enough said about installation and driver, let me switch to various observations I made as user of the Pro 3880. Firstly, about ink consumption and cartridge capacity.
The large 80ml cartridge capacity provides for many, many prints. When I received the device, most cartridges were drained about half and I still managed to print roundabout 40 borderless sheets of DIN A2 size without a need to replace any of those cartridges. In the course of testing it became obvious that LLK is the most heavily used ink, being employed in both colour and B/W printing.
When the ink level drops below 5%, the printer starts issuing pop-up warnings. You should be able to make full use of the cartridge capacity and continue printing until the printer pauses at Zero ink level, waiting for the operator to replace the cartridge and resume the print job. Since we are not dealing with paper-soaking dye ink, a break of a few minutes should not affect the image quality at all.
As a device constructed for professional print environments, the Pro3880 not only features robustness and stamina but enables detailed analysis of utilization and ink consumption. I have not looked deeper into those options; it just became obvious that one can go as far as to retrieve the exact consumption for a certain print job and bill a customer accordingly, if desired.
Print quality and reliability of Photoshop soft-proof preview
A lot depends on how serious you are about colour management and image data processing. On a colour-managed computer system with calibrated monitor, the similarity between printed and displayed image is pretty darn good. Well treated images yield excellent print results. Period. Anything else would be a surprise. I did not spot any unexpected hues on any of my prints. Have some confidence in the Photoshop proof preview; image sections that appear flawed in soft-proof will print flawed. Tonal separations and colour blotches visible on the monitor will be printed as blotches and separations. A source file containing large amounts of non-printable colours (exceeding the gamut of ink and paper) cannot result in a pleasing print. From experience I can say that highly saturated blue and magenta hues are the Achilles heel of matte print media; therefore I strongly recommend careful inspection of all images containing deeply saturated tones utilizing the softproof capability of your image editing software. Also, carefully check and toggle the possible rendering intents since, depending on the image content, there might be a world of difference between “relative colorimetric” and “perceptual”.
I am quite a fan of employing the gamut warning feature of Photoshop before printing colour pictures, solely because the grey patches raise awareness for possible problem areas that might require further processing. Even though I selected perceptual rendering, one of my sample pictures contained such a large amount of off-gamut colours that it took further processing (careful selective adjustments of hue, saturation and brightness) to yield a print that retained the overall appeal.
Don’t worry too much about the somewhat faded hues while working in proof preview with paper white simulation enabled. I got the strong impression that this is closer to the reality of the final print than the more contrasty regular proof preview. In particular, if you do fine tuning of image data, the paper simulation anticipates the result better and helps expecting too much from a print. It should be clear that reflective media are never as saturated and contrasty as self-luminescent displays.
My recipe for preparing a print is: enable soft-proof preview and check which rendering mode appears to suite best. Usually I toggle between “relative colorimetric with blackpoint compensation” and “perceptual without blackpoint compensation” which is quite easily done in Photoshop once you create user-defined print profiles for your selection of media.
Images containing lots of saturated colours will probably benefit best from perceptual rendering. The principle of perceptual rendering is mapping those colours exceeding the printer or media gamut into the available gamut at the expense of compressing all other hues sharing the same colour range. Imagine the media gamut being like a suitcase which you start filling with cloths until you reach the point where the nominal capacity is used up. If you continue squeezing more cloths into the suitcase, those well-ironed shirts already inside will start to suffer shape and appeal. Something very similar happens to the tones which fit the printable gamut. They become re-mapped and compressed in order to create space for the outbound hues.
Here comes an example: a section of an image that contains strong blue hues exceeding the print gamut, therefore perceptual rendering is the obvious choice.
Above you see the screen capture of a proof preview using perceptual rendering, below the same image with relative colorimetric rendering.
Relative rendering does not re-map the dark blue tones, thus yielding ugly blotches.
The obvious advantage of perceptual rendering come at a price: the reddish strip lines turn towards cold hues. You should be able to see the change between the two pictures. For comparison, here comes the original picture in regular view (proof preview disabled):
Having depicted the side effect of perceptual rendering, you will understand why I consider this rendering mode critical for images where skin tones are involved along with highly saturated colours e.g. in the background of a portrait. Perceptual rendering might easily throw an unfriendly cast onto the delicate skin tones. In such a case I would suggest sticking with relative rendering in order to preserve the skin tones. Carefully adjusting tonality and saturation of the background may help maintaining the overall appeal of the picture. It is best to perform this kind of selective manipulations in 16‑Bit colour depth mode, even if your source image is an 8-Bit Jpeg, because this enables the rendering algorithm creating finer interpolation and remapping of RGB-values, yielding smoothest possible tonal distribution.
Concerning rendering methods, my personal rule-of-thumb is:
- B/W always as “relative colorimetric with blackpoint compensation”
- “perceptual” rendering for colour images containing a noticeable amount of highly saturated colours exceeding the printable gamut
- Colour images of people using “relative colorimetric with blackpoint compensation” to preserve skin tones; this is also my preferred default.
It helps the resulting print quality if you start thinking about the final image presentation already at the time you take the picture. Vivid colours and strong contrast may look great on the monitor but is difficult to print, especially if we are talking about matte media. This type of media just cannot replicate the “Fujichrome Velvia” effect. You may reduce post-processing trouble by adjusting the in-camera settings towards reduced saturation and contrast if it is clear that a vividly coloured/high contrast scene shall be printed on matte media. Increasing contrast and saturation in post is far easier work than rescuing an oversaturated high contrast image (an undertaking that often fails).
Observations concerning the print process
Printing a single sheet of size A2 borderless in highest quality takes about 18 minutes from the launch of printing until the media is ejected. An image file scaled to the Epson-typical resolution of 360 ppi expands to 148 Megabyte volume. The TCP/IP transfer alone takes almost three minutes followed by 13 to 16 minutes of printing action. Hence, in maximum quality you may expect to generate only three prints per hour (!).
Prints in A3 size take about nine minutes which matches very well the expectation since this is exactly half the size.
I consider the Pro3880 a rather quiet printer. In the empty office the printer worked unobtrusive, audible of course but in a positive sense. The sound of print head and paper transport tell quality mechanics at work. The perpetual motion of the print head may excite quite some vibration of the supporting desk; at least the steel frame office desk I used turned out to be rather in resonance while printing the large sizes. Not unexpectedly, it was for this reason that I decided placing the printer aside the worktable.
In standby mode the printer sleeps deeply. There is no noise at all and no illumination whatsoever.
Manual paper feed and centering of media and image
Likewise the smaller brother R2880, feeding fine art media requires the same procedure using the rearmost media path. Align the sheet with the guiding edge and keep pushing gently until you feel the firm resistance, then maintain force for a few seconds until the feeder mechanics catches and aligns the page.
The recently introduced R3000 printer has a distinct advantage with its front-fed mechanism. Since the accuracy of sheet alignment is quite vital for the appearance of prints with framed border, I once again remind you to find a position that allows free view and good feel of the rear feeder while inserting media.
The proper alignment of media is just one aspect of creating neat framed border prints. The greater stumbling stone is within Photoshop. The print dialog gives us the impression that centering the print on the media is a no-brainer but this is not true. It becomes quite obvious when looking at the alignment preview for size A3+ media – there is a mismatch between media size and image centering which indeed results in an offset of more than 6 mm (0.25 inch) for the long axis. Actually, it took me a misprint to detect this flaw and correct it by adding +6.25mm for the long and +0.5mm for the short axis to achieve a properly centered print. According to Epson Europe, the issue is known as a bug within Photoshop. Adobe, there is a bug waiting for a fix!
Epson proves they can do better. Users of the Print Plug-In for Photoshop will be saved from this flaw. Their plug-in is indeed a mighty tool to create user-defined page layouts in addition to numerous predefined layouts for different media sizes. Talking deeper about the Photoshop Plug-In would by far exceed the scope of this review; later on I will just show how to implement additional media profiles.
So, how does the Pro3880 cope with interval and shutdown?
That much is for certain, the print head gets rinsed quite frequently. At the beginning when I exercised solely with different ways of driver installation, not printing at all, I noticed the ink waste container filling up by about 5% within a few days. My only explanation was that the printer performed some sort of head cleaning each time it was powered up. Epson confirmed and explained that this rinsing reflects the lowest possible level of head cleaning. Nevertheless this sums up especially if users switch the device on and off very frequently as I did in order to flush buffer and reset the printer in the course of my trials. I accept that it makes sense to initiate a cleaning after some days of shutdown but doing so even after a 5 minute interval seems a waste to me and I would really appreciate a better solution implemented in a successor device, e.g. a combination of event- and time monitoring.
As for crosschecking I kept the printer on all the time and the waste container did not fill noticeably any further. Eventually I swapped ink waste with power waste. Admittedly, the standby power consumption of the Pro3880 is negligible but it is not a nice solution; in particular with regard to that the print nozzles are not sealed the same way as when shut down. A shutdown covers and seals the print head in order to prevent ink drying in the nozzles. Stand-by protects the nozzles but does not seal in the same fashion. Nevertheless I could not observe any issue of blocked nozzles throughout the two months of operation.
Given that the Pro3880 is positioned as a professional production machine I have some understanding for a cleaning strategy that assumes full day operation followed by a shutdown night rest. Hobbyists and small enterprises will probably not fit such a user profile and maybe Epson engineers find a way to implement a more flexible user-adjustable cleaning strategy in a future model. We all want the valuable ink on paper and not in a sponge. Certainly there has to be some automated rinsing - I am only wishing for more flexibility.
Let me just recall that pigmented ink is a suspension of particles in a liquid matrix. Although I have no doubt that Epson paid adequate attention creating an ink formulation that avoids cluster formation, this is what may happen during periods of non-use. Hence, Epson recommends extracting and shaking the cartridges after a prolonged period of rest (same procedure as for brand new cartridges).
Procurement of consumables
At least in Europe it would be wasted time seeking for genuine ink and media in warehouses. Epson operates an online shop where you find everything for your printer with the guarantee that they do not ship overdue stuff with expired shelf life. The initial deliverable of the Pro3880 contains full 80ml cartridges and they really last a while. A beginner “suffers” more from the luxury problem of deciding which media to purchase and which not. (If you cannot come to a conclusion my recommendation would actually be purchasing one box each of Traditional Photo Paper and Cold Press Bright in size A2; excellent, expensive and forcing a steep learning curve!)
My conclusion on the Epson Stylus Pro 3880:
Oh, it is great fun to create size A2 prints using such a capable device and I wholeheartedly recommend it!
In particular I love the results obtained on matte media. Frankly, I prefer a dye ink system for high gloss prints, but pigmented ink is really hard to beat on matte media. The Pro3880 demonstrates how high the bar has been raised and it also shows how much the print output depends on flawless source data and careful image processing.
Any passionate and skilled photographer who applies decent care to all steps of image creation can be sure that the Pro3880 will not let them down. The same applies to the smaller brothers R2880 and R3000, utilizing the same Ultrachrome-K3 ink system, however the step-up in size makes more of a difference to the viewer than the sheer size figures indicate. Size matters and bigger is better, provided the source data live up to the quality that the Pro3880 can deliver. Most likely you will print a cell phone camera shot only once in such a big size. In turn, a properly processed high resolution DSLR image is something you wish you could jump into. True eye candy. The achievable level of detail is stunning even when viewed from much closer than newspaper reading distance.
You should have sufficient space for this printer and the budget for ink and media and, of course, time for image processing. The Pro3880 wants to be properly installed and fed with top-notch data. Best print results can be achieved from cameras featuring 12 MP or more because each and every mistake will be printed without mercy. This is both a blessing and a curse. I consider it a fruitful challenge – each large size print depicts a mirror of my skills. Size A2 prints exhibit both the full image and the high resolution. This is something no computer monitor can do; due to the much coarser pixel pitch monitors provide either a detail view in full resolution or the complete image in poor resolution. Therefore, large prints provide a quality of viewing that you do normally not experience.
Those being undecided between procuring a Pro3880 or the smaller R2880/R3000 should opt for the larger model. In direct comparison, prints in A2 size look much more impressive than A3+ and provide more for the eye of the observer.
If there is any negative point to mention, than the issue of automatic head cleaning. However, this must be balanced against the price of large size media. At roundabout 8 Euro ($11 to $12 USD) cost per sheet the spillage of ink makes only a fraction of the total cost; compared to the price of office paper it is huge. But, the objective of such a printer is to provide large size high quality fine art prints and not serve as office inkjet. My results achieved with the Pro3880 leave no doubt – it is a printer for artists. My deep respect to Epson’s engineers, they have done a great job.
The following refers to installation under Windows 7 and - I apologize - the computer screen captures are from a German language Windows 7 version. Hopefully this is not too inconvenient for you.
- Driver installation for USB-connection:
Fetch the latest driver version from the Epson support site, power the printer, connect the USB link, wait for Windows signaling the device detection, then invoke and follow the driver installation routine. The Epson driver configures the port and assigns the Pro 3880 as the default printer. Done. Even though Windows recommends it, do not yet print the test page since the driver settings are not yet fully correct. I will come back to that soon.
- Driver installation for Network using Windows 7 tools:
(Hint: in case your device is not factory new it might be a good idea to reset factory defaults)
Look up the present TCP/IP address setting under Menu - Network Setup - IP,SM,DG Setting and either take note or replace it with and address that matches your existing network.
Connect the computer to the printer using a standard CAT5 network cable.
From Devices and Printers – add a Printer – add a local Printer – create a new port – select Standard TCP/IP Port as port type.
Key-in the network address of your printer. Windows 7 should then show a selection of available printer drivers. It is quite likely that the Stylus Pro 3880 driver is not mentioned and now we have a problem: Epson provides drivers as EXE-files which is not immediately compatible with Windows. At this point you need to abort the installation, download and extract the driver and resume the installation process.
The installation routine will ask you for the port address at which the printer ought to be found. The previously typed network address should be in the list. Select it.
The installation routine will do the rest by configuring the port and assigning the Pro 3880 as default printer.
- Driver Installation for Network utilizing the Epson NetPrint tool:
Download the Epson NetPrint software as well as their Network Installation Guide and take the time to read the guide so you know what is going to happen.
Get the printer ready and connect the printer to the computer using a standard network cable.
First install the NetPrint software and allow Windows some time to check the network port. Possibly a network device shows up already at this stage, bearing a cryptic name like EP1ED238.
Start the driver installation only after Windows finished the network port check. You need to help the driver by searching the printer manually, the “EP…” tag should be somewhere in the list of network devices. If it does not show up even after waiting for several minutes, there is probably something wrong in the TCP/IP hardware configuration settings; in my case “Flow Control” needed to be enabled before it worked.
In the port list, you should find a port named e.g. \\Ep1ed238\epson. Pick this one. Do not select "\\Ep1ed238\" without the "epson" appendix.
After a short while the driver installation should finish, leaving the message that the printer has been configured.
When you first access the printer, the Windows Firewall will alert and ask for port access permission for the "SAgent4" tool. Please enable that and consult the relevant documentation to learn more about the technical background.
No matter which method of installation you chose, the printer will show up as a bold symbol in the devices panel. Should you see a faded grey symbol instead, this would indicate an unresolved installation problem. Through Devices and Printers – (Epson Stylus Pro 3880) – Printer Properties – Ports you can look up the port assignment. USB devices should show “USBxyz Virtual Printer Port” while users of Epson NetPrint should see “ClientSiteRenderingProvider” along with the symbolic "\\Ep..." TCP/IP-address.
A good way to test the newly installed printer for full functionality is to invoke a nozzle check from the computer, not from the local panel. This option is provided by the Epson driver. All relevant aspects of data communication and printing become employed at minimum consumption of time and ink and paper. It is totally sufficient to use standard office paper for that exercise. Just select the “plain paper” type in the driver, open and load the multi-sheet feeder and start the test print. If it does not work as expected, e.g. the ink level gets displayed but nothing else happens, just install the driver once again. Sounds weird but helped and saved me a lot of troubleshooting time.
The only side effect of repeated driver installations is that Windows creates multiple device instances. This is nothing to worry about, you can delete them. Instead, I consider the concept of multiple “logical” printers assigned to one physical device very handy because it provides an elegant way of creating print job profiles dedicated to media type and print size and so forth. All easily accessible via the “Devices” panel.
Part 2 Epson's new cotton-fibred fine art media Hot & Cold Press
Some facts about the Epson fine art media based on cotton fiber
At the photokina 2010 fair Epson presented a new generation of top-class fine art media, entering competition with established third-party offerings. It is a quartet of acid-free hot and cold pressed media fitted with and without UV-active brightener. This leads to a two by two application matrix:
- Hot Press Bright: plain white smooth surface with UV-active brightener
- Cold Press Bright: plain white textured surface with UV-active brightener
- Hot Press Natural: plain white smooth surface without brightener
- Cold Press Natural: plain white textured surface without brightener
When I say “plain white” it means a very slightly warm white which has nothing in common with typical radiant white office paper. The whitepoint of the new media is pretty close to conventional wet-chemistry photo paper. The brightener comes into effect as soon as unfiltered daylight hits the surface. This means, in presentation environments where the illumination spectrum contains little to no UV, the brightener is of no benefit. Therefore, if you wish to mount your print in a frame behind glass or acrylic, you might concentrate on the “Natural” media since regular glass filters most of the daylight UV fraction. In the absence of UV light, there is no visible difference in white point between “Natural” and “Bright” versions.
The bright media contain agents acting similar to those in hot wash powders – lift the subjective brightness by converting invisible UV light into visible slightly blue-ish white light. Of course this works only for areas that are not or just very lightly coated by ink. This means, the end user may to a certain degree control the image appeal by selecting “Bright” media for locations where UV components are available in the illumination. A daylight lit gallery comes to mind, whereas under pure incandescent illumination the whitepoint enhancement will not become effective and you will not be able to distinguish “Bright” from “Natural” media.
Besides such technical considerations which certainly have their reasoning, I for one would rate the artistic aspect much higher anyway. For instance, I generally prefer the slightly warm appeal of the natural media over the bright counterparts for black-and-white prints; portraits exhibiting the wealth of human nature printed on cool white paper are not much to my liking. I think the temper of the image should always benefit from the character of the media.
To make life a little easier Epson can provide a neat and very instructive tool for media selection: the Media Performance Guide. This essentially is a swatchbook comprising a set of fine art media samples that enables evaluating the appeal of media under different light or at different locations. You can fan it up and walk through the room and watch how the whitepoint and reflection characteristics of the paper change with location, illumination, wall colour. Very conclusive. In the following picture you see the swatchbook resting on a print of Hot Press Bright which was illuminated by a mixture of daylight and fluorescent lamps. Located next to the media edge is the visibly cool bright sample of Enhanced Matte Paper, counterclockwise followed by CP Natural, CP Bright, HP Natural and Hot Press Bright.
The paper gauge of all four new media is 330 g/m² which are the same as for the existing top-of-range Epson media. For comparison, normal office paper features 80 g/m². Higher gauge media are not just heavier; they retain shape and flatness better and let you feel their value. This is quite of importance for mounting the prints, the better the shape is conserved the better the impression of the presentation.
All four are certified for Digigraphy. They are acid-free and qualified for archival storage. Both surfaces are coated in order to enhance scratch resistance and suppress abrasion. Hence it is possible to print on both surfaces in equal quality. In direct comparison to the established Ultra Smooth Fine Art (USFA) paper the advantage of the coating is striking: USFA feels rough and dusty and is more susceptible to accidental abrasion of black ink. The black UltraChrome ink formulation has been optimized for maximum black point and lacks the adhesion-promoting resin that forms part of the colour and grayscale inks. As a consequence, there is an elevated risk for undesired separation of black ink particles which means you really should carefully inspect and clean your media from dust on the surface prior to printing B/W in particular. This risk is dramatically reduced by the coating, which not only enhances surface smoothness but helps the adhesion of ink droplets. At this point the new media offer a significant advantage over USFA.
The following screen capture depicts the increase in gamut for Cold Press Bright (black line) in relation to Watercolor Radiant White (white line) and AdobeRGB (grey line) expressed in relative colorimetric rendering projection view (a feature of Quato iColor Display 3.6 calibration software):
The three other new media perform almost identical. The bottom line is – they all provide improved gamut.
I observed two remarkable similarities versus media which I had available in the course of the R2880 testing: Hot Press Bright is close to Ultra Smooth Fine Art and Cold Press Bright relates to Watercolor Radiant White, the one I liked most so far. The similarities concern the texture and the appeal. The more you look at the details, the more advance the new media looks over the known ones. For instance, Watercolor is simply too light and thin to seriously compete against Cold Press. Watercolor distorts with ink deposition, Cold Press maintains shape. USFA has a vulnerable surface whereas Hot Press is protected by coating. In my opinion the four Press media provide more than just closing a gap in the Epson portfolio. Everything that I did not like too much about USFA and Watercolor has been overcome. The Press media are superior in every respect.
The one fact that holds true for all kinds of media I have exercised with so far is drying time. Within 24h after printing the ink undergoes some sort of settling which yields a small but visible improvement in details and tonality of shadow areas.
Talking about media selection is of course a walk on thin ice. In conjunction with the Pro3880 and the UltraChrome K3 ink there is only negligible difference in gamut between all four Press media. Hence, media selection may solely be driven by artistic considerations. Whitepoint and Texture are the only “technical” criteria to observe. For myself, I created a simple selection matrix:
- Subjects where bright white must be rendered as bright white: Hot/Cold Press Bright
- Subjects of warm/natural character or display in absence of daylight: Hot/Cold Press Natural
- B/W with cool temper: Cold Press Natural
- Portraits in Colour or B/W: Cold Press Natural
- Night scenes or HDR photos: Hot Press Bright
- Technical or vividly coloured subjects: Hot Press Bright
Concerning the whitepoint, most images are probably self-explanatory. White clouds as seen at daytime want to shine brightly when printed.
|Depth in the limestone stairs|
A portrait shot under available light benefits more from the texture. The print of the Playboy-Model Mia, a candid shot taken during a public stage presentation of photokina 2010, appears very alive since the Cold Press texture enhances the 3D impression.
|Playboy-model Mia at Photokina 2010|
I found that a lot of subjects draw benefit from the texture of the Cold Press media. For instance I printed the above Yosemite landscape picture (courtesy of my colleague Harald Quix) on both Hot Press Bright and Cold Press Bright and choosing one over the other was a draw. Cold Press enhanced the waterfall structure but gave a slightly nervous appeal to the blue parts of the sky whereas Hot Press rendered the sky very naturally but let the waterfall and mountains look flat.
Making the Press media available to the Epson Print Plug-In for Photoshop
The free auxiliary software "Epson Print Plug-In for Photoshop" can serve as a powerful tool to easy print layout work but it is – in the version as of Q1/2011 – not aware of the Press media. Going into the details of that tool exceeds the scope of this review and, frankly, I just scratched the surface of its capabilities. All I want to show is how to embed the Press media profiles.
Once installed, you access the plug-in through Photoshop via File -> Automation -> Epson Print Plug In. It opens in a new window as a separate application. The procedure of implementing media sizes and profiles that the program is not aware of by default is, unfortunately, a little complicated. I assume that you already managed to copy the downloadable Epson media profiles into the relevant ICM profile folder of your operating system, e.g. C:\Windows\System32\spool\drivers\color. Clicking on the wrench icon on the very right of the Print pane opens a window where settings for colour management can be made. Leave the "ICC Profile Management" on Automatic and click on
Select the desired printer and click
Select the desired media profile from the list of installed ICC profiles, check once again that you choose the appropriate media type and close the windows in reverse order until you revert to the window where the ICC Profile Management can be adjusted. Here you can select which rendering intent shall be used by default. A rule of thumb says “relative colorimetric” is relatively often relatively appropriate, so this might be a good choice.
Eventually we are done; the generated profile assignment is recognized by the Print Plug‑In and can be selected from the dropdown menu in the Print pane as indicated in the following screenshot.
|assign the generated profile|
So, given the hassle of profile implementation, why should one deal with the Print Plug‑In at all? Because it allows doing something that the seemingly almighty Photoshop struggles with: precisely printing as defined in the layout. I selected the predefined layout "A3+ 5mm Border" and was awarded with a print that featured precise 5mm borders and exact centering. Bravo! Well done, Epson. Of course this kind of accuracy is vital for a tool that supports layout work; creating fancy print layouts without the confidence that they print correctly would be pointless.
To my surprise I learned that the Print Plug‑In works only for image sizes up to 8000 by 8000 pixel. Since a full 360ppi resolution A2 size picture has 8419*5953 pixels, the optimum native Epson resolution cannot always be used with the Print Plug‑In. Although I did not spot a loss in quality between a full scale A2 size 360ppi direct Photoshop print and a down sampled 340ppi with border (another predefined layout), I do not really understand the size cap. I could agree to 8500*8500 but not 8000*8000px.
Another need-to-know characteristic is the limited transfer of properties between the Layout pane and the Print pane. There is no automatism that prevents from defining a fancy layout for A2 size and then invoking the print on A3 size media because that was the last used print setting. A warning message is issued, though. If you fail to observe the warning and re-check all settings, a fractional print would be the result.
Admittedly, the Print Plug‑In provides lots of messages, e.g. with the launch of each print job you get informed that possibly the black ink will be swapped. This is quite irritating and caused me aborting print jobs several times. Apparently the Plug‑In does not recognize the current print driver setting and issues this message every time even if it is the 10th print in sequence.
The Epson Print Plug‑In definitely is a mighty tool which lacks some tuning. With its present incarnation the operator must work very careful and very concentrated.
Some final words
Once the Press media are fully implemented in your work environment, printing fun is ready to go except for one thing left to be observed: strict tidiness! As mentioned the Press media are coated and dissipate virtually no particles but they are of course susceptible to dust. Pigmented ink does not penetrate the media as deep as dye ink. Dust particles on the media surface simply get printed over and will leave a paperwhite spot if wiped off later. Effectively this may ruin the print. With respect to cost and effort involved in creating a large size print, careful inspection and cleanliness should be understood. I was too careless in two cases and finally binned two prints because overprinted debris came off in dark areas, leaving bright speckles where they did not belong.
My overall impression of the cotton-based Press media is absolutely positive. I am deeply impressed by their performance for B/W photography in particular. The prints I made came out exactly as prepared in Photoshop; no detail or hue were added or discarded. If something went wrong, it was my fault, a statement which refers mainly to improper preparation of colour prints. The surface feel is equally fantastic for all four variants, absolutely in line with the print results. With respect to media selection, there is no reason for technical qualms, you may choose purely emotional since the colorimetric parameters are so similar.
The new quartet deserves highest praise and recommendation. I could not find any weak points. Their haptics and rendering potential are superior over the established Epson matte media. Being an integral part of the Epson printing system, the mechanical and chemical properties of the Press media guarantee full compatibility with ink and printers.
Thanks for reading and forgive my imperfect English,
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