This month I would like to discuss something that many have talked about, asked about and done research on but couldn’t find the information they needed. I’m referring to the tools of the trade. These tools are something that every printer maker needs: printers, color management devices, software, computers, lighting and support. With the right tools you can get any job done successfully, but also in a productive manner. If you are a novice looking to get into the print market, or an industry professional looking for recommendations this article is just for you. We’ll discuss the top tools of the trade and talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
1. Large format Inkjet printers
Soon after the decision has been made to enter the fine art or photographic printing business, the first question always seems to be “What type of printer should I get?” In many cases the common answer is, whatever Joe down the street has…but is there a better way? Since printmakers don’t have a “CarMax” for buying printers, they’ve always relied on forums or word of mouth to make an educated guess regarding this important business decision. I’m here to act as yet another resource to provide empirical information based upon years of experience printing myself and working closely with thousands of printmakers at every skill level. If you are serious about producing high quality fine art prints, the best place to start would be Epson or Canon due to their widely renowned image quality, reliability, and ease-of-use among active printmakers. There are a wide variety of printer types and sizes for each printer, so it’s very important that you understand the market you are printing for. Do you have customers that demand large 40” x 60” gallery wraps? Are most of your clients requesting photos typically not exceeding 13” x 19”? What types of media do you intend to use and offer? Looking at these specific requirements should help you to determine not only which printer to buy, but also what size printer to buy to make your production more efficient.
A great place to start is the Epson Stylus Pro 9900. This is a 44” wide aqueous inkjet printer that can print on canvas, fine art paper, photo paper and lots more. With Epson’s newly formulated Ultrachrome HDR ink, you will see results with a wider color gamut and denser colors (especially blacks) than previous Epson models. It is a 11 color printer (10 inks used at once) that has the ability to print on sheets and rolls, accepting 2” or 3” cores. If a 44” printer is too large or not in your budget, check out the 9900’s counterpart: the Epson Stylus Pro 7900. This printer boasts all the features you get in the 9900 but in a 24” wide version. Epson printers are typically easy to build profiles for and fairly easy to maintain. Some things to watch out for: If you work in an environment with high levels of humidity (60% or higher), you may experience drying issues with your ink depending on the substrate you are printing on. The Ultrachrome HDR ink is a very rich, dense ink and in cases like these it may make drying more difficult. This is most common in swellable materials, such as most glossy canvases. When excess moisture is absorbed into some materials along with the HDR ink it can result in drying issues causing the ink to stay wet for extended periods of time. Be sure to either have a de-humidifier or run this printer in an office space that has a controlled thermostat (this naturally dries out the air and keeps the relative humidity within a manageable range). In discussing the sheet cutter built into the 9900, Epson made big improvements on the speed and strength over previous models. However, while photo and rag papers will cut easily and quickly, one still may have a harder time cutting canvas. At Breathing Color we have always recommended manually cutting your canvas (to save the life of the cutting blade in the printer) and for the 9900 that is no exception. Have a pair of good scissors handy. If you don’t plan on running your printer more than once a week be prepared to perform cleanings on a somewhat regular basis. The Epson 9900 does really well with its automated self cleanings, but with a long period of non use the print heads have been known to clog. The easiest way to combat this is to print regularly and run nozzle checks before your first print of the day. With those simple tips, you should never run into head clogging issues. One last thing to consider with the Epson is that although it contains both Matte and Photo Black (black ink types to suit matte substrates and photo/glossy substrates), they share the same ink line which means you can only use one at a time. Although it only takes 2-3 minutes to switch the inks (this is an automated process), you will consume about 1-3ml of ink when switching (1.13ml from Photo to Matte; 3.34 from Matte to Photo). The best way to combat this is to group all of your print jobs depending on what media you are printing on. In other words, do all of your rag papers and canvas jobs together and make the ink switch when you have your photo paper jobs in order.
Canon’s answer to the Epson 9900 is the iPF8300. At first glance, this printer looks very much like its predecessor: the iPF8100 (also a 44” printer). But there are some vast improvements on the 8300 that are worth noting. First off, it has 12 colors that include Red, Green and Blue for a truly noticeable wider gamut than Epson (density readings were higher in Cyan, Magenta and Black on the 8300 when compared to the 9900). Canon also reformulated their ink and created the LuciaEX pigment ink. While this is much denser then the Lucia ink found in the 8100 (and similar to the high density of Epson’s HDR ink), the Canon allows full control over the amount of ink you fire onto any particular media. This is a huge advantage because you can dial in the exact amount of ink each media requires, and in doing so you will save on ink cost over time by utilizing only what’s necessary. Canon contains both Matte and photo black ink, but they each have a dedicated ink line so there is no need to switch between the two. Furthermore, Canon has included their customized Media Configuration Tool with the 8300 (as well as the 24”iPF6300). This tool allows you to set a configuration for each media you print on, dialing in the head height, vacuum strength, head alignments, feeding adjustments, and maximum ink load. The best part about this tool is the ability to name your media types and see them both on the printer and in the driver. Canon understands that as printmakers, we want to use a variety of substrates and this ease of use and functionality lets you do just that. When cutting quite a bit of materials though, the Canon can leave behind a little more debris and fibers than normal. This is why it’s important to wipe down the printer at least once a week. Canon’s borderless printing allows you to successfully print on any sized roll, or even any sized sheet you have (Epson only allows set sizes for borderless). This can greatly reduce the amount of time spent trimming prints as prints are ready to go right off the printer. Canon also put in a rotary cutting blade, which greatly extends the life of the blade. It is robust and seems to handle even the heavier substrates well. Although it cuts canvas very well, we still recommend cutting canvas with a pair of scissors to further extend the life of the blade. Canon has even included the iPF Print Plug In, which makes using your custom media types and ICC profiles a breeze. Mac users with Snow Leopard or PC users with Windows 7 64-bit can be delighted to know that the Print Plug In will work on their system. When newer systems are released though, be prepared to wait for a software update as this will not immediately be available.
If you are new to color management and profiling, the best place to start is the ColorMunki (by X-Rite). The ColorMunki is an easy to use, all inclusive device that is best suited for the novice user or the user running one printer at a time. The included software makes profiles a snap, and the software even installs the profiles in the correct location on your system for you. It’s a simple, two part process has you print swatches and scan them in using the ColorMunki spectrophotometer. You also have the ability to profile your monitors, even while taking ambient light into account. Photographers should also be interested in the ColorChecker Passport. This allows you to accurately profile each photo shoot so what you see on your camera is what prints. And with a profiled camera, monitor and printer you can experience accurate and consistent color from start to finish. You can even set a reminder for regular profiling so you’re always sure you are viewing accurate color. The ColorMunki handles monitors extremely well, and printers profile very easily as well. I have noticed that with the ColorMunki you do need to profile regularly to achieve consistent results. In some cases you may have to create separate profiles for each printer of the same type (for instance if you have 2 Epson 9900’s), where normally you can use 1 profile for both printers. While color remains consistent and accurate, the ColorMunki does seem to treat each device individually. So its ease of use comes with the need to stay on top of your color. This is beneficial though because it forces the printmaker to pay close attention to output and will help you truly see color.
For advanced users or users with multiple printers and monitors, the Eye-One Pro is hands down the best choice in the industry. The Eye-One can be used with the included software, but unlike the Colormunki, it is also compatible with every RIP software there is. This is a huge advantage in the sense that you are not required to learn a new program or process to profile: you can add it to your existing setup. You also have the choice of a traditional Eye-One, or one with a UV filter. The UV filter effectively blocks out reflective light from media that contain optical brighteners, and the software also includes optical brightener correction. With the Eye-One pro you can also manually edit any profile and boost various color ranges as you see fit. It also doubles as a densitometer which allows you to take density readings of your prints. This is truly a valuable tool as it enables you to dial in the exact ink restrictions needed for each media without sacrificing saturation. The Eye One connects via USB and can also be used with the Eye-One iO automated scanning table. The iO scans your targets for you so you can walk away and come back to a completed profile. Each Eye-One is individually calibrated to its included reference tile (white patch that sets a neutral white point when profiling). With new updates and new software additions, it seems as though the results from the Eye-One are always improving. If you run multiple printers the Eye-One is a dream because you can affectively match output on all printers, all while using just a single profile. It even allows you to re-linearize each printer to keep it running at maximum output. Since the Eye-One has loads of additional features and functions it does require a small learning curve and invested time. But the results in the end are definitely worth it.
Lots of printmakers focus all of their time researching the printers they want to use, but the software you use to send prints is equally important. In the fine art market, software can be broken down to 3 categories: design software, RIP software, and plugins. Design software is the software you use to create your images and edit them. The industry standard has always been the Adobe Creative Suite, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, In Design and much more. You can also look at CorelDraw, Lightroom, Pixen, Photofiltre, Gimp, Splashup, Fotoflexer, and Flauntr (just to name a few). While virtually all of these programs will get you what you need in terms of editing, there may be some key differences in the printing process. It’s important to research the software that you are interested and determine if it provides all the features you need. Another thing to keep in mind is software updates. Adobe regularly updates its software for bugs, errors, additions, and especially improvements. But herein lies the only downside: With regular software updates come new versions as well. These happen quite frequently so be prepared to upgrade often. Most users don’t find it necessary to upgrade to each version (for example Adobe CS4 to CS5), and in most cases you don’t need to. But one scenario where it is vitally important is any production shop that accepts files from customers. A TIFF or jpeg files will work in any version, but if customers send in a psd or ai (Illustrator), they may have a newer version that you will be unable to open. Sure you could ask them to save a legacy format or a different file type, but this work-around may prove to be more hassle than it’s worth.
RIP software stands for Raster Image Processor. This type of software enables you to run multiple printers from one program simultaneously. RIP software will also give you the ability to run multiple files/images together, saving a great deal of processing and printing time. You can now utilize every inch of the roll you’re printing on. And when multiple printers are involved, you can easily profile and calibrate each printer to match output as well as print simultaneously. So if you have 20 files to print and 3 printers to use, send them all at the same time! The top RIP software to consider is Onyx, Colorburst, and EFI Fiery XF. Each software offers extremely good color and consistency, and the ability to profile right in the software. Each offer multitasking and custom job layouts (to print multiple images at various sizes on 1 roll). Each offer great processing speed and high performance. One key difference is that Onyx will only run on a PC whereas Colorburst and EFI will run on a Mac or PC.
When it comes to plugins, I’m referring to anything that performs tasks needed for everyday printing. Some examples would be gallery wrap creation, HDR, specialized filters and more. For starters, take a look at Perfect Resize 7(formerly Genuine Fractals), Stair Interpolation Pro, Irfan View or AVS Image converter. These plugins can create gallery wraps for you, or add bleed, or assist in resizing images with various pixel algorithms. Perfect Resize is most widely used and can be used as a plug in or a stand-alone program. Lightroom is also a great addition to Photoshop, especially if you work with HDR images frequently. You can print directly from Lightroom, reducing the time from swapping back and forth to various programs. And with new software popping up regularly, you should be able to find a program that performs the functions you need. Remember that Adobe Photoshop has lots of filters and actions, but with added software you can have it all.
4. Computers and lighting
This is probably the most overlooked area for printmakers worldwide. In this current age of technology, computers are updated so often that it seems as though a month later a recent purchase becomes “old technology”. This can be quite frustrating, but can easily be avoided if a smart purchase is made. Many printmakers that come from a design background seem to prefer Mac over PC, although both are widely used. The great part about Mac’s is the ability to build a tower with the exact specifications you need. I’d start with a Mac Pro tower (Quad-Core or better) with a minimum or 4GB of RAM (Random Access Memory). Upgrading to 8GB of RAM (or maxing out at 32GB) will tremendously increase your speed and productivity. The Apple Cinema Display is a great addition to the Mac Pro, and is the best monitor on the market in terms of viewing color. But with Apple comes the price tag, so for those PC users you do have a slight advantage. Building a Dell computer can be quick, easy and very affordable. You want to have at least 4GB of RAM, and a Quad-Core processor or better. Since PC technology improves on almost a monthly basis, it’s important to get a tower that has additional PCI slots, memory slots, and at least 1 additional hard drive. SATA hard drives are easy to install and configure, and in some cases you can install up to 5 hard drives on 1 computer! This will not only add plenty of additional file space for archiving; it will also increase your speed since there is more RAM available for processing. Since 100% of design and RIP software will run on a PC and older programs that require 32-bit operation can still be used, you don’t ever have to worry about any compatibility issues. And Along with the computer you should have a good HD monitor. Don’t grab that old monitor in the attic or the old warehouse computer monitor. A high quality HD monitor can be found at most electronics stores at a reasonable price. It’s important to see every aspect of your images on screen before you print as this greatly reduces the need for test prints and proofing in terms of color as well as image resolution and sharpness.
If you really want to go “all-out” in your computer/design station, invest in either a light-booth or a lighting system that can integrate 5000 Kelvin light bulbs. First off, a light-booth will allow you to view color accurately with neutral lighting. It has a neutral gray background so there is no difference in color perception. A light-booth is best utilized for comparing prints and their output, as well as proofing prints for color accuracy. Light-booths come in various sizes ranging from a desktop to an 8 foot tall booth and more. If a light-booth is not something you want to invest in, grab some 5000 Kelvin bulbs and paint your walls gray! Believe it or not: I’ve been in many studios that do this very thing and it works. One thing to pay close attention to is the CRI rating of the bulbs you purchase. The CRI rating (Color Rendering Index) is a rating from 1-100 that is given to each bulb to show its accuracy in representing colors. The CRI is referring to the necessary uniform distribution of wavelengths each bulb produces (Spectral Power Distribution). Colors are more accurately represented when the rating is closer to 100.
Last (but certainly not least) is support. While most of you may be scratching your heads on this one picture this: It’s Friday afternoon. You have lots of prints to complete before the weekend. Then all of a sudden your printer starts acting up, or goes down completely. Or perhaps your ICC profiles are not producing the desired results. Or maybe you are having trouble with a particular media and can’t get it to work. In a perfect world you would have one person you could call that could solve all of these problems. Nowadays that’s really hard to come by, especially when you consider your source for media, printers and supplies. I’m sure some users can relate to the frustration of having to call 3 different people to get something to work. In that process there seems to be no sense of urgency, and the result is you are not printing. Information seems to get lost in translation. What if you could get everything you need from one source AND have those products supported to the very end? What if you could give one person a call and have these issues tackled head on, and not only with a sense of urgency, but with true interest in your issue? What about product recommendations and tools that are specifically geared toward what YOU do, and not of the “cookie-cutter” variety? Well, that’s exactly what you get with Breathing Color.
At Breathing Color, we support our products to the very end insuring that they work well for every user. But more than that, we provide the resources necessary to help keep you well informed, learn new techniques, and assisting in all troubleshooting aspects of the printing process. When you have access to a powerful team with a combined experience of over 100 years (like our archival rating), you have a valuable source of knowledge to help you get through any difficult situation. Since Breathing Color manufacturers all of its products, we have complete control over our products performance. This translates to the customer actually having a say in product development/improvements. Have a suggestion? How about a great idea? What about a product you would like to see in the future? Tell us about it! We can speak directly to the chemists that create our award winning products so no suggestion goes unheard. Combine that with custom ICC profiles, tutorial videos, specialized documentation, and our famous Archival Certificate, you can be sure that Breathing Color will back you and your printing needs. Coming from a production background myself, I always ran into cases that could have easily been handled IF I had someone to call! The old “Trial and Error” method is just that: OLD. Don’t spend any more of your time or supplies trying to figure things out on your own. We are here to help.
At the end of the day, your prints are a reflection of who you are. Great first impressions are everlasting. With the right tools (and help), you can be well on your way to producing quality work that’s backed by industry proven products and techniques. If there is anything that has not been discussed above, feel free to leave a comment below. If you have any additions to what’s mentioned above we’d LOVE to hear them!