Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Epson 7800 Printer Review (& how to make decent prints)

Epson 7800 Review and How to Make Decent Prints

I've been using this Epson 7800 since it came out in late 2005. It is a real beauty of a printer; I am totally hooked. This printer and I have been making art for most of my exhibitions all over the place and I trust my livlihood with it, much like the old days with a darkroom.

It is a 24" wide printer that uses 8 different pigmented ink cartridges. Epson increased the color gamut by adding a third black ink cartridge, light light black. What is a gamut you ask? It is that thingy on a pirate ship that had bad priates tied to it, and when they were whipped back to their senses (much like I do with my own students), they see whatever color you ask them to see. Ar ar. That's why they call it a color gamut. Just kidding. A color gamut just means something like the spread of colors that you can reproduce in a print. Techies love to throw around words like that. Anyway, as anyone who has printed lots of digital prints knows, one of the hardest tasks used to be printing a decent grayscale using the cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. You would often get either a green or magenta color shift because the printer couldn't figure out how to make a good grayscale with the CMYK inks by themselves. Grayscale prints used to look like life after a bad day, but Epson has changed all that; their weakness was turned into a mighty strength and their grayscle images look absolutely amazing.

I give my machine some pretty hard use and it has earned its keep since the first day it arrived. This review is from an artist and not a regular techie kind of person, so maybe there should be a caveat stating that this is written more for other photographers and artists than anyone else. I know that some techies may cringe when they read this review, but I say let them write their own, and if they snivel about it, I'll tie them to one of those pirate color gamut thingys. I would say that my strengths lie in making art, but have been using digital media since 1993. There are lots of more proficient digital technicians out there, but what makes me unique in the world of digital media is that I've been exhibiting and publishing my digital work for well over 14 years. When I first started selling my digital photography, I was pretty much alone and an outcast (the story of our lives right?), because galleries questioned the status of digital media as marketable art. Things are radically different now, thankfully.

My own digital art consists of both color and black & white digital prints and other media, such as hand pulled lithographs, monotypes and monoprints. My color images from all media are both vibrant and subtle with lots of very intricate detail. Same with my black and white images; they have a very wide dynamic range because (especially my large 3'x4' prints) not only are they loaded with intricate detail, but the range of tones are wider than what one could get from a Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera ( DSLR ) for this Epson printer. There are some quirks with this printer too; in my opinion it still doesn't have software that is as intuitive as it could be, and parts of it appear to be thrown in at the last minute, as if to meet a deadline for release. I have some suggestions for Epson improvements near the end of this review.

Optimize Your Input/ Calibration

A critical point that you cannot avoid is that your image file needs to be optimized prior to printing or it is going to look crummy. It's the old photographer's adage, junk in, junk out. All this means is that in order to make great prints, you need to put great images in. All the photography toys plugged into your computer like scanners, cameras & printers need to be calibrated to each other. Much like us, they need common ground in order to communicate well. This translates to calibrating your monitor and getting everything else to match it. If you're not a tech-head (which I'm not), try the age old-Machiavellian technique and find someone who is knowledgeable and bribe them to help you. Think good beer, chocolate, or whatever. Charm sometimes works if you have it. You may as well do this stuff right. In order to make all of this real easy, the bottom line is we want to use the what you see is what you get (wysiwyg) system. It is what will drive everything you do with input, editing and output. Why make life complicated for yourself? It's already complex enough. Man, don't get me started.

Digital Input

The mighty DSLR's are not quite up to the task of what I need for my digital inkjet prints, so I to scan in my 4x5 Polaroid type 55 negatives with a flatbed scanner that also scans in negs. There is no comparison to the amount of detail between both. What this means is that unless you use a high end medium format camera back, one solution is to shoot with large format film and scan it into the computer, which also means that from a quality standpoint, photography is still at a hybrid stage between film and digital media. I can foresee regular DSLR and even point and shoot camera image sensors eventually surpassing the best of what scanned film has to offer, but not yet. I even use a wonderful miniature Leica point & shoot camera that works really great for smaller prints. Eventually we're going to have gigapixel cameras in the point and shoot size, and when that happens, all of these expensive, high powered DSLR's will be obsolete too, not just film. There are millions of digital photographers who swear by the DSLR's and will go on an emotional rant (that can alternatively curl and straighten your hair), extolling the virtues of shooting their way. So what, we don't care. Just use whatever works for you, including one of those cool little point & shoot cameras, or something as funky as a toy Holga camera with scanned negatives.

Epson 7800 as a Black & White Darkroom

In order to make your printing precise and easy, you need to make your image precisely how you want it to look before you print it, and this is where most of your work is going to be, as opposed to much tweaking with the printer. This printer really shines when you optimize your image file, and you get your print to look just like it does on your monitor. This Epson 7800 makes really great black & white photographs that rival anything that could be made in a traditional silver halide darkroom. This is a huge statement for darkroom aficionados, and even the photographic connoisseurs who purchase the work.

I would put forth the argument that if one is really, really good at digital photographic input, that the output end can be pure photographic sumptuousness. I guess a technical term for it would be a print with accurate colors, wide dynamic range, and intricate detail that can rival the most subtle 8x10 contact print. I have argued for years that the best photograph I had ever seen was an 8x10 contact printed print in platinum by Edward Weston. That is the photographic 'gold standard' for digital photographers to aspire to reach. It had a dynamic range, or range of tones that was likely 10 to 20% wider than a silver print, and had incredible sharpness with very minute detail virtually everywhere one looked in the photograph, and was grain free. It was beautiful and I remember the first time I saw it as a student at Brooks and just muttering to myself, Damn, now THAT is a print.

Working in the darkroom consists largely of aiming for a target with your contrast and burning & dodging, which are all a huge deal. In the old days of slogging out prints in a stinky darkroom, you would make test strip after test strip trying to get a result you liked with various contrast grades of paper or contrast control filters. In the digital darkroom you can be exponentially more precise with your contrast controls, not only with the overall print, but also with specific areas of it that you can select down to single pixels if you wish. Not only that, but you can also have unprecedented control over just the shadow, midtone and highlight areas by themselves, something that was only a distant dream in a traditional darkroom. Doing all of these manipulations was what took me a day per negative. I have a lot of digital tricks up my sleeve, like custom-made negative carriers for my scanner. You need to take my Digital Class if you want the details.

There are lots of burn & dodge techniques that lots of photographers have perfected with digital editing. One of the coolest things about digital editing is the large Internet community where you can do a search and find tutorials on how other people have solved technical challenges, like burning & dodging, or making very specific parts of your image either lighter or darker.

Scanning in Medium Format Negatives for Digital Output

It took me almost an entire week to scan and do the manipulations to optimize my Feather Series of five medium format negatives (that I originally shot back in late 1991 and early 1992). It was a mish-mash (this is a highly technical photographic term) of films that I was experimenting with back then. Some using my old trusty stand-by of Tri-X and others were Konica Infrared (IR). To put it simply, the negatives were everywhere on the technical charts. Some dense, some a bit thin, some contrasty and others right on target with a nice dynamic range. The lesson here is that you can have various styles of negatives and still get great scans. The crummy part was getting literally everything in the scan, including lots of dust, even using Digital ICE.

Making a Perfect Print on Your First Try

The bottom line here is that you need to put the vast majority of your time, talent and photographic abilities into preparing your image before even thinking of sending it to the printer. This is true regardless of your visual aesthetic, whether you shoot in color, black & white, DSLR's , high-end medium format, use a scanner, or whatever. All of them need to be optimized as described in the above paragraphs. This will be your saving grace with this Epson printer. Your image is very likely to come out perfect on the first try, and you can save money with less waste of expensive inks and papers. There is something decidedly cool about having a perfect print chug out of your printer on the first try.

ICC Profiles = Easy Printing

Epson has gone through a lot of trouble to make what are called ICC Profiles. ICC stands for Interesting Cool Components. Oops, sorry, that was my camera. It really stands for International Color Consortium. Their intent is to start a new world order and dress all the intellectuals in fluorescent pink shorts so we can identify them easily and print out an accurate dossier on them. Oh, uh, sorry, that was the government file. It really does mean International Color Consortium, but they don't have any ulterior political manifestos, they just want to standardize color between devices and documents, nothing more, nothing less. All it means is that devices and documents interpret color the same. Color Profiles are written in software for various devices, including this Epson Printer. Epson came up with some very accurate, easy to use profiles, which means that in a real world application that you get accurate color for a whole spectrum of various papers and inks. You're able get accurate color with various papers, and often on your first try without a lot of fuss. As a black & white photographer I was enormously surprised and satisfied with what some of us call the canned profiles from Epson. They're canned because they were made at the factory and either came with the printer or are easily downloadable from lots of places, including paper manufacturers. Their color profiles are really great too, surprisingly so because there are so many variables for getting an accurate print. If you feel inclined, you can also make your own profiles for various materials and images. I like the no fuss canned stuff right off the shelf because I generally don't have to dink around (another technical term) with profiles.

Various Papers & Inks

You will probably find yourself partial to particular papers, profiles and inks for your visual aesthetic. Some of my prints look better with what are called the flat black inks when used in conjunction with matt or watercolor papers. When I use glossy or luster paper, I switch back to the regular photo black inks. Epson's inks have improved dramatically with their UltraChrome archival inks. One of the best resources for scientific evaluations of papers and inks is at the venerable Wilhelm Imaging Research. They offer more free research than you have time to absorb, and you can generally find a paper or ink combination that has been tested for archival durability under various conditions. When I have museums asking nosey questions about my art, inks and papers I just tell them to buzz off and mind their own dang business. Just kidding. I forward them to the Wilhelm site, hold their hands and tell them slowly that the prints I sell them will not vaporize if they sneeze on it, and that I use high quality papers and inks that will last a long time.

Fussy Stuff

I don't really care for how non-intuitive the firmware is designed. It needs to be much faster and easier to operate. Some of the operations don't really seem to make much sense and you need to consult the user manual over and over again until you finally figure it out, almost by chance. Epson should take a cue from how clear Nikon writes their firmware for their scanners where everything is simple, clear, uncluttered and elegant . Their scanners are a joy to use not only because they're so simple and fast, but because they do what they were designed to do so impeccably.

When making your prints you first go into the Page Setup in your image editing software. This is fairly straightforward, but you need to be overly diligent with how you make your custom settings, especially with the user defined margins. This threw me off and wasted a bit of the pricey inks and paper before I was able to figure it out. If you don't do it just right, your prints will come out the wrong size. Making prints the wrong size is startlingly easy to do; they're usually just less than an inch off, but that is a lot when you're being precise about exhibition prints that also need to be framed.

After that, you go into the menu bar and navigate to the Print With Preview setting. This is a window that has a preview of how your print is going to look. I found that the preview window is much too small to be useful with only the crudest view. You cannot see the nuances of how your print is likely to be unexpectedly cropped sometimes, if only by mere inches. After trial and error, you can start getting the print to the accurate size you input earlier. The Page Setup and Print With Preview settings don't work as well together as they should and it drove me bats sometimes. Epson needs to design their firmware so that a user can easily enter the dimensions that they want in one window (not two) for both the image and borders. This part of the printer has the most awkward design and is not befitting such a cool machine. I got the impression that this part of the printer was designed by slackers who were getting their revenge on users by making this part of printing as much of a nuisance as possible. I do this for a living and ‘almost sizes' just don't cut it. Epson needs to design one window that is large and has rulers that the user can see and manipulate easily.

The print catcher is a bad joke. When your printer is finished with a print, it is nice to have a built-in mechanism that catches the prints so as to keep them from getting damaged. Epson's solution has a wire-like flimsy thingy and fabric that collapses in fright if you look at it too hard. It is pure junk. I can't tell you how many times I had to put it back together after it collapsed for the gazillionth time. Come on, Epson, this is pure crap (this is another high tech term, by the way) on an otherwise really great machine.

There needs to be a heavier duty paper cutter built right into the printer too. The existing one is way too puny for professional use and the optional print cutter was overly expensive at almost $300.00 for what amounts to a small metal bar with a blade. This was a real rip-off on top of a crummy design.

Epson has come a long way with the quality of their inks with regard to longevity, but they need to go much further. Their inks need to be way more archivally durable than what they have now, because like mentioned earlier, a lot of us make a living from the prints we sell to museums and galleries. We need to be able to assure our buyers that their digital print is going to last longer than 50 to 100 years. I am able to tell buyers that my lithograph inks are going to last well over 500 years if stored and presented properly. We need something comparable with the digital inks we use in order for them to have long-term value.

Four Star Professional Status User Rating (out of five)

In spite of the fussy things listed above, this Epson 7800 has earned a four star professional status user rating from me, which means that it makes technically proficient prints on a regular basis and there are generally a minimum of surprises with how the print looks, with the exception of prints whose size is sometimes a bit off. Epson is exceptionally good at making accurate color profiles, no small feat. This simply means that the resulting prints look really great. I would challenge anyone to try and pick the digital print next to a high-end print made in a darkroom. My digital prints looked better than the darkroom prints because I was able to manipulate them so precisely prior to printing them. There is an ever-growing contingent of fine papers for everyone's tastes, from the more traditional glossy and luster to the more eclectic papers with various fibers and textures, to more unusual requirements such as printing on a clear substrate in order to make things like digital negatives, or even materials like various fabrics.

The printer is still a bit quirky to learn how to use properly and the suggested firmware upgrades can fix that. The ideal solution would be to follow our good friends at Apple Computer, where their sophisticated computers work precisely and easily right out of the box without messing around with a lot of junk.

If you take the time to do all of your image corrections and manipulations prior to printing, you can get the most beautiful prints quite easily. My own printer has been humming along efficiently all week, making awesome prints. The vast majority of my time has been spent doing scanning and image corrections. Very cool, Epson.

(This review is copyright Larry McNeil, 2007, All Rights Reserved. If you wish to post any of this essay anywhere else, please get permission first, and credit me properly. I also teach digital photography, just take my class, man.)

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