Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Photo printing decision - Epson Claria or compatible inks?

Last week I picked up my new A3 printer - an Epson 1500W - and today I used it seriously for the first time. With its Claria inks apparently tested to 98 years light permanence if used with Epson paper and framed under glass all seems fine on the print permanence front. In terms of the actual results I should expect, I am a little concerned about black and white printing but for colour work I should get output up there with the very best.

But.... with a full ink set retailing at £85 or more and a desire to print on papers other than Epson's own (for instance, I like a heavier matt paper than Epson produce), which would mean that the permanence may suffer, I chose to invest in some rather cheaper compatible ink and paper and carry out some tests to see just how things work out in practice.

The compatible ink: For a while I have bought Epson Claria compatible ink from the snappily titled uk (I believe previously known as Abitech). I've used them in the past with an A4 printer and results have seemed fine and now apparently Which? magazine have given these specific Claria compatible inks a 5 star rating.

The compatible paper: Again previous experience with Permajet papers has been good so I bought a box of 50 sheets of their A3 240 gsm Matt Plus photo paper.

On the Epson front I have the cartridges that came with the printer (I hope they are full!) and I have some Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper to help with the testing.

I am printing direct from Lightroom using ICC profiles for Epson Premium Glossy and Permajet Matt Plus, both with Epson Claria ink. I can get a custom profile made up by Permajet for the compatible inks but for this test I stuck with the Claria profile. After all, if the compatible inks really are compatible then should they not give equivalent results?

The questions I am interested in answering are:

1. How do the results from compatible ink compare to those from the Epson Claria inks?

2. Can I get neutral monochrome results, even on glossy paper?

3. How good is the print permanence of these paper and ink combinations, Claria and compatible?

Let's take a look at the output, colour then monochrome.

Left Epson Claria ink; right compatible ink,  both on Epson Premium Glossy paper

Left Epson Claria ink; right compatible ink,  both on Permajet paper

The main thing that I picked up in the colour output is that the compatible ink produced a cooler, lighter result. To be honest it it difficult to say which had the colour which most accurately reflected what I saw on screen, but the compatible ink is definately too light.

Now, as long as this happens consistently, this is easily corrected in Lightroom by making a consistent adjustment to darken prints slightly. Also if I had a custom profile for the compatible ink created I would assume that would fix the problem.

If the colours you see here appear off, don't worry about it! This is more about the match of what I see on the print to what I see on the screen.
Top compatible ink, bottom Epson ink, both on Epson Premium Glossy Paper

Left compatible ink, right Epson ink, both on Permajet Matt paper

The monochrome output is more interesting to me. It is not as pronounced in reality as you see here, but there is a definate colour shift to green or blue on the compatible ink output and red on the Epson premium Glossy output. The shift is less on the Permajet Matt paper than the Epson Glossy paper. The better result on matt paper was something that I anticipated from researching other online articles about the way that dye inks work when printing black and white.

With white balance set to daylight to reflect shooting conditions, I tested the greys using the dropper in Lightroom.

On the Glossy paper, the compatible ink tinted to green while lacking a lot in blue, the Claria tinted towards red while also lacking blue. 

On the Matt paper, the compatible ink tinted blue, the Claria tinted towards red.

Looked at in isolation these tints tend to be acceptable to me, but if placed side by side they become obvious, though not as obvious as you see on your screen.

So on to some conclusions from this not completely scientific test....

1. How do the results from compatible ink compare to those from the Epson Claria inks?

In colour the most concerning aspect is the lighter image. But that should be able to be readily fixed with a proper custom ICC profile which Permajet will provide. If permanence is not an issue then I would have no problem going with the compatible inks.

2. Can I get neutral monochrome results, even on glossy paper?

No! Not even on matte paper!  But personally unless the tint is extreme and unpredictable this would not worry me. I like the steely blue/green tint and as long as a series of prints have the same tint this would not worry me. Greater variations can be introduced by viewing images in an artificial light environment.

3. How good is the print permanence of these paper and ink combinations, Claria and compatible?

We will have to wait and see. The prints are sitting on the window ledge and so are going to be dosed with air and UV rather more than any put behind glass on a wall and I have a control print stuck away in the dark to compare what happens over the coming weeks and months. From what I have read if there is a longevity issue then we will see evidence soon.....


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