Inkjets Are Not Easy

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As an ancient citizen who grew up in the black and white darkroom era, and who worked, both at a pro lab, and in my own darkroom for a very long time, I tried to embrace inkjet printing as soon as possible. Ah, there was the great potential for excellent black and white prints that could compare with black and white fiber prints. In the darkroom, if I can remember that far back, my paper of choice was Ilford Gallerie Graded paper.

Later, I got lazy and switched to Ilford Multigrade fiber. Prints were air-dried on screens. Everyone talked about the best way to keep fiber prints flat after they dried.

Then inkjets entered the picture (so to speak).

At first I used inkjets (with dye inks) for cards and for testing. I kept my wet darkroom as my business depended on darkroom prints. And when you even spoke the word, Inkjet, your print value dropped.

Then Epson 4800 arrived. It had a built-in driver for black and white prints. Papers were beginning to appear that were especially made to resemble the Ilford Gallerie paper that I compared my inkjet prints with. Eventually, I became convinced that an inkjet print could rival or even surpass a darkroom black and white print. (Heresy at the time, and even now.)

I switched to the digital darkroom and eventually bought an Epson large format printer and managed to squeeze it into my studio apartment and tossed out the Zone VI enlarger. That's right - I couldn't find anyone to rent a van and take it off my hands. It is many years since I made that swap, and I have some conclusions.

Now to the point: the inkjet is going to be looked back on as a primitive piece of equipment. It's primitive in the same way that the Space Shuttle is primitive: it is just way too complex.

The darkroom, even today when paper is exposed by LEDs but go through chemical baths is still more reliable than inkjet printers. You will often run across the acronym term Lambda. Now this means that light sensitive paper is exposed with LEDs, but it doesn't always tell you what exactly the process is. In other words, I've seen it used to mean that color prints and color chemicals are being used; and I've seen it mean that RC silver prints will be produced, and also and this is most rare and the best solution for black and white prints, that the prints will be exposed on true silver fiber paper giving you the best of both worlds.

This Lambda fiber process is best for darkroom prints that normally require a lot of fine-tuning (dodging, burning, bleaching). Once you've got your digital file ready in Photoshop or your post-processing program of choice - you can get have the digital file used to produce a perfect Lambda darkroom print.

And printing processes that rely on "stamping" as opposed to "spraying" are also more reliable.

Think about what that high-end fine art printer is doing. The drivers for communicating with the inkjet printer are okay. That's not the bottleneck. The problem is that the technique depends on micro-spraying drops of pigment ink onto various types of paper, sometimes spraying as many as 2880 drops per inch, and these drops are coming from maybe eight different print heads.

And all that ink spritzing around. It gets on the print head(s) and needs to be wiped off. So something like a windshield wiper (though smaller) wipes off the excess ink and splashes it into a maintenance tank that is supposed to sop it up. But all it takes is a single hair to get onto that maintenance tank, get picked up by the print head - and voila - you are in trouble again.

To make matters worse, and to the surprise of the novice printer, the combination of high-end paper and ink turns out to be more expensive than the darkroom fiber print. That isn't counting labor. If everything is working properly, then the inkjet is the clear winner as a labor saving device. Again - that's if everything is working.

But given the complexity of what is being done when you print a large black and white print, there's more chance for something to go wrong.

Example: last week, an old enemy arrived on the Epson 7800 prints - a small amount of ink splatter on one edge of the print. Didn't matter the size of the print - there it was. Luckily, I have seen this before and suspected that the maintenance tank - the box that keeps the splattered extra ink - was messed up, although the Epson Driver indicators were - as NASA would say - Nominal.

Nevertheless, I pulled a dry maintenance tank from my 4800 printer (which I hadn't used for a while) and that maintenance tank had had a chance to dry out, and I exchanged it with the Epson 7800 print - and voila. The very next 7800 print was perfect, and no more splatters since then (about two weeks ago).

On the other hand, the Epson 4800 which I hadn't used for a while had clogged nozzles and it took every trick in the world to clean them (not to mention all the wasted ink which is more valuable than gold bullion).

So with all the incredible software that has progressed like crazy - I use NIK software for most of my post processing - their still is a bottle neck and it is the inkjet fine art printer which I suspect will one day go the way of the shuttle.

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