Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


 

Printing Insights #039

Monochrome Photographic Printmaking with the Epson UltraChrome K3 Inkset


Long Road Down © 2005

Essay by Pete Myers (© 2005, Peter H. Myers)

 
 
 
The razzle-dazzle of the digital photographic era has centered on digital camera technology. But for me, as a fine arts photographer (www.petemyers.com), my concern has always been about printmaking technology—not camera technology. Why?

I define a fine art photographic print as the following: “an image that is printed to exacting standards, so much so that it cannot be reproduced by any other means.” In other words, a fine art photographic print is special, because it displays an image with such beauty—in resolution, depth, and fidelity—that only the original print quality can support the image quality.

While my print standards may be extremely high, and not necessarily a reflection of the needs of the average photographer, what certainly can be said is that high print quality will bring out the best of any photographer’s images. Further, many photographers end up chasing a merciless series of problems in never knowing if the failure of their images is due to camera, technique, or printer. It’s a dangerous trap for the beginner as well the expert, when the final print does not to match up with their composed image.

Digital monochrome printmaking has been the “Achilles Heel” of digital printmaking technology. While the human eye is sensitive to color in just the upper zonal levels of a print, monochrome images command the entire zonal scale. The battle in digital color photographic printmaking has been in the use of color management and obtaining a good color match, while the battle in digital monochrome photographic printmaking has been in the reproduction of all the zonal values—from extreme black, to specular white, with full fidelity in the middle.

My new image above, Long Road Down, is a great example of a monochrome image pushed to the extremes. Without adequate fidelity in the printmaking process, this image would collapse and appear lifeless to the viewer. Below, is a bit of the detail from the image:


Long Road Down—detail © 2005, Peter H. Myers

My entire career has been in the creation of monochrome images. For the past twelve years, my experience in the digital realm has been disappointing in terms of the final output of my images as fine art prints. I have had no qualms about the use of either film or digital cameras in the photography of my images in the field. I have had few concerns in the post-production of those images in PhotoShop—as computer speed and software sophistication have only gotten better over time. But the one issue lagging in my work has been the means of reproducing my monochrome images to fine art standards.

Over the past decade, I have used virtually every known digital photographic print technology as it was introduced to the market. In 1995, I began my journey making platinum prints from digital stochastic negatives. I went on to do the same with metal vapor on glass. I transitioned to the LightJet, with both Cibachrome and Fuji Crystal Archive prints. I used the ZBE Chromira. I have made Cone Editions K4 Piezography prints. And, I have tested monochrome photographic printmaking on many other systems.

While all of these technologies had some merit, each failed to deliver what I would consider a full-fidelity monochrome photographic print. Many of these technologies were extremely expensive to utilize, and required the services of others to make my final prints for me. Quality control was out of my hands. I found that even in the best of times, the failure rate of the prints I received was more than fifty percent (50%).

In 2005, digital monochrome photographic printmaking technology has entered a triple-vector convergence zone that has finally resulted in printmaking that fully supports my fine art images. I am reporting my findings here. This report is the opinion of one photographer, with a limited view of the world. This article is not intended as a comprehensive test report, but rather as an encouragement to others to explore similar paths of endeavor in their own search for solutions to digital monochrome photographic printmaking.

The first breakthrough of the year was in the announcement by Epson of a new series of professional inkjet printers based on a new ink standard, called “UltraChrome K3.” The “K3” designation refers to the use of three different gradations of monochrome inks, in order to extend the fidelity of gradation for monochrome photographic printing. While Jon Cone at Cone Editions had introduced Piezography and quad tone photographic printing to the market place many years prior, the announcement by Epson carried special weight—not based on Epson’s edition of another level of gradation over its previous inkset—but rather because the new inkset had added a high maximum density (referred to as “Dmax”), microencapsulated, Photo Black ink as the base ink.

Why is this important and what edge does this hold over all the competitors? Simply put, having a high Dmax print extends the dynamic range for the viewer’s eyes and allows the monochrome photographic print to stretch out the fidelity to the lower zonal values. This has the effect of allowing the viewer to see clearly into the shadow areas of the photographic print, to do so in a natural way, and with much greater fidelity. Simply put, the lower zonal values no longer look “blocked up” and flat.

The selenium-toned, high-gloss, silver-based, black-and-white photographic print has been the “holy grail” standard of the monochrome photographic print. The Dmax of these prints often reached 2.2 or even possibly 2.4 on a logarithmic scale—given proper lighting and viewing conditions. In simpler terms, this would translate to a linear contrast ratio of anywhere from 160 to 1, and up to 250 to 1, between light reflecting off the whitest portion of the print in ratio to the darkest portion.

The fact of the matter is that these high Dmax silver prints are truly an illusion to the viewer. Creating such a high contrast ratio on a plain paper print is done by a “slight of hand” trick—a bit of photographic magic.

A normal paper surface, such as fine art paper, is fibrous. If viewed under a microscope, the individual fibers of the paper surface look like a boulder field—and so too, in comparison to the wavelength of light itself. When white light hits the surface of the paper, it reflects back as a “diffuse field,” scattering light in nearly all directions off the fibrous surface, with equal intensity in each direction.

If the fiber paper surface is coated with carbon black, the surface roughness will be much the same, even with the black coating. While the carbon black is a good absorber of light hitting the surface of the paper, it is not a perfect absorber. In fact, it is difficult to get a Dmax of more then 1.5 to 1.7 off of such a surface. That is a contrast ratio of 32 to 1, to possibly 50 to 1.


Radiance © 2005, Peter H. Myers

This low Dmax off of fiber papers with carbon black is basically the scenario we make for ourselves whenever we print with an inkjet system onto fine art paper with a matte black inkset. While some improvement can be made in the fidelity of the process by using a multiple gradation monochrome inkset (be they K3, K4, K7, et al.), in the end, the Dmax will limit out because of the use of the rough surface of the fine art paper and the limits of carbon in the absorption of light.

The silver in photographic black-and-white paper is not any more effective in its light absorption than is the carbon black ink used in inkjet printers. It is a mythology that silver is somehow a better absorber of light than carbon black. It is simply not the case. What makes the selenium-toned, high-gloss, silver photographic print have such a high Dmax is not the silver or the selenium toning, but rather the illusion created by the gloss of the surface.

While a fiber surface reflects light in diffusion, creating an almost equal reflection of light at all angles, a high gloss surface tends to reflect light back like a mirror. That is to say, the angle of incidence of the light hitting the surface will reflect out from the surface at the opposite angle of incidence. Take a flashlight, shine it into a mirror, and watch where the beam goes when it reflects off of the mirror. The beam does not diffuse from the mirror as when it hits a white piece of paper, but reflects back in a single direction.

This is how the illusion of a high Dmax is made off of the surface of a selenium-toned, high-gloss, silver-based print. If one were to take a chunk of black glass (glass filled with carbon black), and polish its surface flat as a mirror, what happens is magic. If light is directed onto the surface from a point source, such as a directional halogen spotlight (as is the common light source in photographic galleries), the black surface will strongly reflect the illuminating light source off of the surface in one direction. If we were to view the surface at the angle of incidence opposite the light source, we would see a strong light reflection, minus the attenuation of the absorption of the carbon black—nevertheless, it would be a strong reflection.

But viewing the high-gloss black surface from any other angle would result in our seeing a very dark black—a high Dmax black. Why? Simply because the residual light that is not absorbed by the carbon black in the glass is shooting off the surface in only one direction. As long as the viewer is not looking from that direction, like magic, the black surface reflects back far less nonabsorbed light. It is an illusion that creates the high Dmax print. The gloss creates a direction for the nonabsorbed light.

Therefore, it is important to remember that a high Dmax photographic print needs to be viewed under ideal conditions in order to perceive the full potential of the print—a point often overlooked in application. The ideal gallery setting is in having a single, point source spotlight illuminating the image, from a high angle of only 30 degrees from the wall. Additionally, the ambient light reflected in the room needs to be minimized, with an ideal value of 18% to 36% reflectivity from the paint of the walls—not stark white walls, as so many photographic galleries are accustomed to using.

Diffuse lighting, be it natural or manmade, is a disaster for high Dmax prints. There is no directionality to the illuminating light, and hence, no gain in the perception of the Dmax by the illusion of the coherent reflection of the nonabsorbed light in a specific direction.

The significance of this knowledge is that a high Dmax print can only be created from an ultrasmooth surface. While the surface of paper may look smooth to the naked eye, it does not look that way in comparison to a wavelength of light. It takes a surface that is nearly optically flat to create the means of constructing a high Dmax print.

If we want a high Dmax print based on inkjet technology, it is only possible to do so based on an ultrasmooth and high-gloss surface. Forget using fine art paper if you want a high Dmax print—it is not possible.


Radiance-detail © 2005, Peter H. Myers

There have been high-gloss surfaces available for inkjet printing for many years. These papers consist of a fiber-base paper, coated with a thin layer of white plastic to smooth out all the bumps of the fiber (resin-coated paper or “RC”). The plastic layer is then coated with an ink-absorbing layer of microceramic receptors, which are extremely white, and have a microsmall and uniform surface structure. When coated correctly, it creates a high-gloss surface that will readily accept the application of pigmented inks.

Unfortunately, even with the surface at a high gloss, we have found along the way that carbon black pigmented ink tends to sit on the surface in a rather awkward fashion. The carbon pigment itself creates a rough surface on top of the high-gloss paper substrate, resulting in light diffusing off the carbon black. Not only does this kill off the highly directional reflection of the residual light off the surface—which is what is needed to create the illusion of a high Dmax—but it also creates “gloss differential.” That is to say, the white areas of the print look quite glossy and directional, while the carbon black on the surface of the paper makes the blacks look diffuse and separate from the paper surface.

The combined effect of gloss differential kills off not only the potential for a high Dmax print, but also creates the effect of “bronzing” from the surface—another way of saying that the light is reflecting off the small carbon particles in a weird way—not only diffusing the nonabsorbed light, but also creating a sheen of color in the diffusion. All in all, gloss differential makes for lousy monochrome photographic printmaking.

Given the problems with traditional carbon pigment ink on a high-gloss surface, most fine art photographic printmakers have tried to avoid the horrid problems resulting from the gloss differential issues by sticking to fiber-based prints on fine art paper. While this has at least allowed them to make viewable prints, it certainly has killed off their ability to support fidelity in lower zonal values in their printmaking.

Faced with the same circumstances myself in recent years, I have printed all of my images using quad-tone monochrome inksets on fiber paper (Cone Editions). For me, the results have been limited. While certainly as appealing as many of the platinum prints I used to make of my images, the lower zonal values collapse into a narrow range of tonality that certainly does not support the intent of my image-making or the fine art photographic print.

The announcement by Epson in regard to UltraChrome K3 inks earlier this year was a quiet revolution. Most photographers noted the addition of the one new monochrome ink to the inkset—increasing the gradation from K2 to K3. Their primary interest was in regard to how Epson UltraChrome K3 performed against quad-tone (K4) or K7 inksets on fiber based paper.

What I noted in the announcement was that Epson was suggesting that it had conquered the issue of Dmax and gloss differential in the creation of its new Ultrachrome K3 inkset. What it said in its press release was that the new Photo Black was going to result in a Dmax of 2.3, rather than the 2.0 of the previous Ultrachrome inkset—moving up the contrast from 100 to 1, up to 200 to 1. The significance of this announcement seems to have been lost in translation to many, and workflows have not been adapted to take advantage of the new inkset.

The new K3 Photo Black ink was designed from the ground up to create a pigment of carbon black, with an outer microencapsulation of resin polymer that would allow the black ink to adhere to the surface of high-gloss paper as though it were “one with the surface.” In other words, the carbon black particle would have enough resin around it so that it would adhere to the high-gloss surface, and blend the surface to itself. This is a major development in ink technology, and one that any aftermarket ink manufacturer would be hard-pressed to duplicate. It is a breakthrough for Epson to come up with both a formula and a practical means to produce such an ink.

But the inkset is only one of three pieces in the puzzle on the road to outstanding digital monochrome photographic printmaking. When my new Epson 4800 arrived in early June 2005, I left it in the box until November—awaiting the other two pieces of the puzzle.

The second piece of the puzzle has to do with the fact that the printer is just a fancy electronic “air brush” for applying billions of individual dots of ink to the surface of a paper. These dots of ink, when carefully orchestrated in application, can form a photographic image. But it is not the printer that creates the image. Rather, the printer only hosts the means of making the image. The true workhorse in the image-making is in the generation of the image in a stochastic raster image processor (known as a “RIP”).

Think about it for a moment; our digital images are truly only giant math equations sitting in our computer’s memory. Represented by numbers, the illusion of an image in our computer is just that. There is no “image” per se in the computer. We have simply described an image in great detail, with a set of numbers.

When we make a photographic print on an inkjet system, we are taking that giant math equation out of the computer and converting it into physical reality. The reality of the inkjet printer is in pico liter dots of inks placed on the surface of a piece of paper. Each dot is binary—either there or not. In its truest form, there is no difference in the size of each individual dot produced by the print engine. Each dot is exactly the same size as its neighbor. How we spread out the individual dots over the surface of the paper creates the illusion of edges, density, color, and ultimately, an image.

The math equation of our image is transformed into a real image in a complex math process that creates a physical reality through the printer and inks. In the case of the Epson x800 series printers, this is done with three gradations of black ink, two gradations of cyan and magenta ink, and one of yellow. Billions of dots of each of these inks transform a white paper into a photographic image. The process of so doing is limited to a great extent upon the quality of the mathematical transform used in the process—the stochastic RIP.

Epson ships its own RIP software with its printers. Its “Advanced B&W” print mode provides a means of creating a stochastic RIP for monochrome photographic images right out of the box. However, I knew from past experiences that Epson’s software application would likely fall short of the full potential for monochrome printmaking—particularly to the exacting standards of a fine art print.

In all fairness to Epson, its job is not an easy one. First, one must understand that Epson is foremost in the ink and paper business, not the printer business. It doesn’t make its money selling you a printer. It makes its money selling you ink and paper—the consumables of the printer. While a number of purchasers find it objectionable to be restricted to Epson’s inkset and locked into the cost, it is important to understand that technological breakthroughs such as the new UltraChrome K3 inkset are extremely expensive to develop. It can be well argued that the heart of Epson’s expertise is not so much in the production of its print engines, but the creation of the inkset that fuels the print engine. Cheap ink is not what we want—we want ink that performs.

While Epson has done a tremendous job in developing the print engine and inkset to drive us all forward in new dimensions of photographic printing, in my opinion, its software for the actual image transformation is not the company’s forte. I would have to give my vote for best image transform technology to a small company in Florida, called ColorByte Software. Its product, ImagePrint, is the turbocharger that takes the Epson printer and inkset to the next level.

Why is ColorByte’s product superior to what a giant company like Epson has made? Simply, because there is an art to the science of technology. What I mean by this is that technology and engineering are simply not enough. The word, art, in the phrase state of the art, is not a coincidence. When technology is on the creative edge of development, rules of the past are replaced by human intuition and creativity, based upon an understanding of the whole, by a few visionary people. Such creative leapfrogging of concepts by those with the gift drives traditional engineers nuts.

John Pannozzo and his colleagues at ColorByte Software spent three years during the mid-1990’s writing computer code for a completely revolutionary method of image transform—converting abstract mathematical descriptions of images to physical reality. In recent times, their work has been further refined and is reflected in their current ImagePrint 6.1 release. Their math work takes the entire digital image into consideration, and builds up an analog in exact detail with billions of drops of ink from an inkjet printer. While this process is not unrelated to what Epson does in its own software, it is the degree of knowledge and polish that sets them apart.

It’s easy to get something to work to 90% of potential—as many non-Olympic athletes can attest. But to obtain a 99% performance level requires vastly greater skill, precision, practice, and knowledge.

And so it is with stochastic RIP technology used in driving the inkjet print engine. Getting the printer to print an image is not that difficult. Getting it to print that image with exacting fidelity is a whole different matter.

I don’t think it should be a big surprise to understand how a few guys in a small company in Florida have the potential to create a coherent technology that outperforms that of a large corporation. It just takes the visionary work of Wernher von Braun, Kelly Johnson, or Burt Rutan to come to mind as examples of the radical change in perspective that they brought to the aerospace industry, to understand that, indeed, creative individuals can revolutionize an entire industry.

Epson has enough problems doing its job. It is not going to be experts at everything. It would be well advised to license ImagePrint from ColorByte for inclusion with its printers and take advantage of ColorByte’s outside perspective. ImagePrint literally makes Epson’s technology look better by turbo-charging its (Epson’s) print system performance.

Much of what ColorByte does in the process with ImagePrint is proprietary. Frankly, even if one could explain it, the details are enough to give one a headache. Which is part of the point. Do you want to have your time absorbed in trying to calibrate your printer to perform properly, and do so with limited knowledge? Or do you want world-class experts to do it for you? For the price equivalent of one full inkset for your printer, ImagePrint can be purchased. Thereafter, you printer becomes a turnkey to a fidelity of image-making on a world-class level.

I own a spectrophotometer. I have color calibration software and linearization packages. I can make ICC profiles. And at the end of the day, ColorByte will wrap rings around me in its performance with ImagePrint. Why? Because it has both the knowledge and equipment to do so, and the software to make it sing. It is not using off-the-shelf technology, but equipment that it designed to do the job the right way—and all the way. Its software is literally taking the image to a new dimension.

But its knowledge of the problem is the key to the art of understanding leading-edge technology. Let me give you one example.

Carbon black ink is not black. It comes as a surprise to many, but carbon black ink actually has a lot of color in it—it is not completely neutral. And it gets worse when you dilute the stuff to make up gradations.

Every monochrome inkjet print has to be neutralized to black—that is to say, the gradation actually has to be “color balanced.” A certain amount of cyan, magenta, and yellow is needed along with the gradation of black inks in order to form an illusion of a completely neutral and “black-and-white” print.

In Epson’s Advanced B&W software that is furnished with the Epson x800 printers, Epson uses a lot of yellow ink in order to neutralize the colorcast in the K3 monochrome gradations. But of all the colors of inks, yellow ink is the one most likely to fade as the print ages and is exposed to light. In fact, yellow significantly fades over time.

On the other hand, ColorByte has constructed a method of balancing its use of the UltraChrome K3 color inkset to use only cyan and magenta in order to neutralize the gradation of the monochrome inks. What this means is that the archival life of the print is greatly enhanced because of the intelligent use of the neutralizing inkset in ImagePrint. Try doing that yourself with your own spectrophotometer and a handful of software. Getting print technology to dance at this level of performance is like balancing the printer on the head of a pin! And the issue of neutralizing the carbon black ink is only one aspect of dozens of considerations in optimizing print performance.

For me, I don’t want to become an expert in printmaking technology. My interest is in making photographs to the best of my ability. I simply want the printer to work. But I want the performance to be fine art-capable. I am finding that capability in ImagePrint 6.1 in making my monochrome photographic images to exacting levels of fidelity—all without me having to worry about a single detail in the process.

It should be noted that a great improvement in the x800 series of printers from Epson, over its predecessors is that the new printers are calibrated at the factory to perform the same from machine to machine. In the past, there was a much greater degree of variation from one printer to the next, which prevented generic calibrations to create exacting results. This is no longer the case. It is not necessary to create a custom calibration for your individual machine anymore. ImagePrint supports profiles for printing on a wide variety of papers, using various print lighting conditions and setup parameters for most types of photographic printmaking. The variances on these new machines keep the errors under what can be visually perceived.

The third element in the puzzle towards digital monochrome photographic printmaking has been in the performance of the “paper” for the image printmaking. And for this, I sought an additional high-tech solution.

There are two requirements for extreme fidelity in monochrome photographic printmaking by stochastic methods. First, as outlined previously, the Dmax is truly linked to the surface smoothness of the image base. Second, the individual dots of ink that strike the surface need to stay as uniform in size as is possible. “Dot gain” robs the image of fidelity. If the individual dot of ink that hits the surface of the paper increases in size by “bleeding” and diffusing out on the surface, significant fidelity will be absorbed in the correction process to compensate for the dot gain.

For my own printmaking, I looked for a nontraditional surface. Paper in my view, is a poor surface for high fidelity photographic printmaking. First, paper has a rough surface. In order for it to be used as a high-gloss surface, the fiber must be filled with a polymer plastic to smooth out the rough spots (resin-coated paper). In essence, the image is contained in the microceramic surface that is sitting on top of a layer of plastic, which is bonded to the paper.

It should come as no surprise that plastic itself can be made in sheets that are much smoother than paper—and that certain types of plastic are far more archival than paper. Why use paper as the substrate?

In traditional color photography, Cibachrome was regarded as a premium material for printmaking. Cibachrome had a base material of white polyester and was ultrasmooth—far smoother then any paper-based, resin-coated, photographic material.

Pictorico Photo Gallery Hi-gloss White Film (PGHG) is an inkjet print material utilizing a white polyester base, with microceramic receptors on the surface. It is ultrasmooth, has extremely low dot gain, and is ultrahigh-gloss (available from Imaging Spectrum). The base material is the same as Cibachrome.

This past month, I have had great success in combining the Epson 4800 with the Photo Black UltraChrome K3 inkset, ImagePrint 6.1, and Pictorico PGHG in creating digital monochrome prints of unprecedented quality. For me, it has been an emotional experience in watching the prints emerging from the Epson 4800 print engine. I simply have never seen my images printed with such fidelity and depth.

All of the zonal values in the monochrome photographic prints produced by this combination of technology show with exacting precision. What I have composed on my calibrated Sony Artisan monitor is exactly what comes out of the printer—tit for tat. The Dmax of the prints is so deep that even under the bright lights of our gallery spots, the prints never wash out—the blacks only look deeper, and the whites brighter. The resolution of the print process has created image prints at 18” width, with more detail than I have ever seen in an entire 30”-wide fiber print. The dimensionality of the print has come to life because of the resolution, precision, and fidelity of this new print scheme.

I have seen my fair share of revolutions in photography over the years. I have owned and shot one of the few digital monochrome cameras in the world (the Kodak DCS 760m). For over a decade, I have been a participant along the path of the development of the digital photographic era. But never before have I been so emotionally affected by a new technology, as has been the case with these three products coming together. There is nothing as important to a fine arts photographer as seeing his or her own work in print, exactly as composed and intended. I can truly say that what I am creating with this body of technology is resulting in making fine art photographic prints—“an image that is printed to exacting standards, so much so that it cannot be reproduced by any other means.”


 


Pete Myers is a master fine arts photographer, residing with his wife, Kathy, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Additionally, Myers is a member of The Authors Guild. He recently completed authoring his first book: "Finding Truth in Beauty: My Life as an Artist".

 

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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