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I hate ink jet printers (a rant)

July 15th, 2009 | 10 Comments

I hate ink jet printers (a rant)

A million years ago, like around 1997, I bought an Epson Stylus 740 so that I could make some nice little cards and booklets. All the cool illustrators in San Francisco had them and I thought that they made some pretty nice prints. As my first ink jet printer and while I was reasonably satisfied with several of the prints I made with it, it drove me crazy. It was my first dive into what we know now as color management, and it wasn't pretty. I still have a lot of the prints I made then, and they look like crap. Too orange, fades, too magenta, over-saturdated, pixely, etc. I printed a lot of portfolio pages and cards with this thing and I spent the GDP of a small country on ink. In 2004 I finally replaced it with an Epson Stylus Photo 825. The software was an upgrade, for sure, but for the most part the results were the same. Will it print? Will it print well? Will the yellow clog? It seemed to need a deep-clean of the nozzles every other week and again, my kids went barefoot several winters while I invested in ink. In all, it was probably a worse experience than the 740, if for no other reason than I had higher expectations. But hey, what do you expect for a $100 printer, right?

So finally this last winter I started selling prints on Etsy, as well as wanting a way to create decent prints when I need them. My studio-partner Barbara had a Canon Pixma Pro9000, and I really liked the results. Other print geeks I know used the high-end Epsons, like the 3800. But I didn't really want to invest $1200 into a printer. I found the step up from the 9000, the 9500 which uses pigment inks, on Craigslist and snapped it up. I bought some Hahnemuhle Photo Rag paper and made some fantTAStic prints. Really swell. Great. I was happy.

But then I noticed a couple of things. If I didn't use the printer for a couple of weeks, which is all time, the printer went into a cleaning process when I turned it on that used a ton of ink. Second, as you can see above, while it's effective at making prints on fancy-pants paper like the very expensive Hahnemuhle with it's custom ICC profile, it seems to really suck at making good prints on Canon's lower-end Matte Photo Paper. Thirdly, and related to the above, it's nearly impossible to use from Adobe InDesign and Illustrator.

The above prints are all from the 9500 on the 4×6 inch Canon Matte Photo Paper. The cards with the words are from InDesign with a placed Photoshop PSD file (Adobe RGB). The illustration is the closing illustration from the just-completed book three of Brownie & Pearl, written by Cynthia Rylant. The cards without the words are that same exact file printed straight out of Photoshop. I have ten more cards, which all look various degrees of different from those pictured, but you get the idea. The differences come from little variations in the print dialog boxes, such as arcane choices like "ColorSync" vs "Vendor Matching" and whether Photoshop/InDesign manages colors or the printer does. Now if you know anything about printing, I know you have a path That You Think Works Best. And I hope that you gather from the above screed that you know that I know something about color and printing. This isn't the first time I've gone through this kind of crap, but it's the first time in a while that I've had such a ridiculous range of color off-ness, with not a single one of the prints being even close. The one that comes the "closest," in fact, was printed with the "let the printer choose the colors" option selected, which is basically the one thing that all the information I can find online agrees that should not be done. Go figure.

In this particular case, after conferring with one of the friends that uses the Epson 3800, my friend Jon, and for whom a good day is spent with eighty different papers and sixty different ICC profiles and printing various combinations, keeping track of which and which. That's not a good day for me. But we think it comes down to the ICC profiles that Canon provides — in particular the one labeled MP1, which stands for Matte Photo Paper. Jon suggested I try some of Canon's other ICC profiles and just find out what works. His other suggestion was to sell this printer and get an Epson 3800, or at least the 2880 for a little less. I might, but I have a feeling that everyone has pretty much the same complaints. I just can't believe that the technology is such that one can't just press "print," select which printer, tell it what paper you're using, and it prints. Prints nice.

The image below is how the image looks on my screen, and what I'm aiming for. My last caveat is that I don't have a color-calibrated monitor and don't need one. I make my illustrations on my 21" Cinema Display in Adobe RGB and when they go to print, whether it be in children's books from Simon & Schuster (as this one is) or in Nickelodeon Magazine or to Snapfish for prints, they're spot on. I don't worry about that. This is an ink-jet problem through and through.
Any thoughts?

23-colorcard1

10 Comments

  1. Sacha says:

    That cat is cute!

  2. Adam says:

    I concur with Sacha–my thoughts are, "Awwwww, witsa iddle kitty."

  3. Bobby.N says:

    I know what you mean Brian. I gave up on inkjets because of the maintenance of it and the clogging if it sat for more than a week-or-so.

    I basically bought a colour-laser printer, tried to make sure my colours looked right on screen, and used the laser for proofing before it went to a printer. At least you can then get THEM to fudge around with 'test runs' until your happy, and then do your print runs.

    I know it's probably a different kettle-of-fish since your working mainly in colour while i only use it on covers, but I think you end up spending so much time & money on the technology (which gets upgraded within months anyway and you have to keep up), and then your printer's cartidges become 'old-school' and you can't find them anymore, yadda, yadda…

    Keep it simple, and get copy shops and small printers to do it for you. I think in the longrun it works out better. The only thing you'll lose (i know) is that texture you feel when you print it yourself. I know I love Jordan Crane's silk-screend covers to his books, but hey, you can't end up investing more money that you ought to and having no money for bread.

    -Bobby.N

  4. Brian says:

    Well funny you mention Jordan's covers. I'm thinking of investing some time and $ into a small screenprinting set-up so as I can do some stuff like Jordan (well, I dream of such) and some two/three-color posters now and then. But as I bump my head against the wall a hundred times with this ink jet crap I start thinking that registration and emulsion timing and ink mixing and all that… I don't know. I really don't know. I maybe just should draw more pictures and leave time for biking and kids and synthesizers…

  5. frank daenen says:

    Hi Brian,
    As I understand from your explanation you use an illustration in Adobe RGB-mode. I think that's the problem: you have to convert it to CMYK-mode, 'cause the printer prints in CMYK-colors. You probably already tested it…
    I always print my illustrations at a professional printingshop. They do Digital-printing. I pay like 5 €/print (A3-size). That's a lot, but the colors are great.
    Let me know if it works.
    grts,
    Frank

  6. Bobby.N says:

    I suppose if you're silk-screening, then you'll have good control over the colurs since what you see is what you get – which is a different problem to the ink-jet dilema (so that was a bad example on my part)… but I just recon, as you said -B, to leave the precision (and consistency) of the final printed page largely to the professionals. You're better served spending your time producing the finished art than worrying about consistency of colour reproduction across different print runs, papers, etc, ad-nauseum…

    It'll probably cost you more in the long run chasing that 'perfect' consistent print in-house, than it does sending it out to be printed.

    -Bobby.N

  7. Brian says:

    Frank, I hear you and it seems that would make sense. But these ink-jets actually have ten different colors: CMYK yes, but also two different greys, a green, and colors called "photo" magenta, cyan and yellow. So whether it's a CMYK file or RGB, it's still converting the colors.
    For instance, if I make my illustration in RGB and use the Adobe RGB profile, then I send the illo to an offset printer, that printer converts my file to whatever they use to make their plates. In the case of the "Workbook" illustration directory, that is the standard sheetfed CMYK profile. Some printers have their own — if you get cards printed online you might have seen these.
    Ink jet printers aren't much different. No matter what mode I created the illustration in (the source space), it has to be converted to the printer's profile (the destination space). And it doesn't make any sense to create it in the destination profile from the beginning, since it will likely have several destinations. My ink jet being one, the offset printer for the publisher another, maybe a poster, a website, etc and so on. Therefore, when making an illustration, it makes sense to use the best color profile with the widest color gamut. The de facto standard for this is Adobe RGB.
    Another way to look at it is following the methods of photographers. Many of them print right out of Lightroom or Aperture or even off their cameras, none of which even recognize CMYK.

    Again, all the options kill me. Whether it be me, or a photographer, or my kid printing his pokemons, everyone wants the same seemingly simple thing: a print that looks like that what we have on screen. Whether it's the application choosing colors, the printer, whether black points are compensated or paper is simulated, I don't care and I don't know why we must have these arcane options. In the end, they're all to get a more accurate print. If Black point compensation gets a more accurate print, just include it — don't give me a choice! Just let me pick my printer, what paper I'm printing on, and make a freaking print for gods sake. Epson, Canon, hello?

  8. Brian says:

    Frank and Bobby, there are really good digital output as well as screenprint places here in Philly as well and I should make more use of them. In both cases, I plan to for really nice specialized work for which I plan a schedule around. But often I need a good print today, or else I just want a nice print of an illustration I just made for any number of purposes. And I guess I'm not yet of the mindset to plan ahead and source this out. More days like yesterday and this might happen pretty fast.
    And I think the same goes for screenprinting. I have plans for many posters, many of which will be four, five or six-color screenprints. I have neither the desire nor capability to print these myself. I'll happily go to the guys who know what they're doing for these. But I would like to have the set-up here to make a small run of two-color prints, and things of that nature. I like the physicality of actually making things rather than always working digitally. However, I've got enough children's books lined up back-to-back-to-back for the next three years that I don't know when I'll be able to take a week or three and get this going…

  9. kris dresen says:

    Brian, I so feel your pain. I was recently looking into buying a higher-end printer and just couldn't find anything that anyone could whole-heartedly recommend. I used to like Epsons but it seems like their quality regresses rather than progresses with each new generation of printer. Like you, I just got tired of wasting money on ink and endless head-cleaning. Now, I don't print in color all that much, but I want to. I just can't justify throwing money at a device I will just want to throw out of the window in a few weeks.

  10. This is the first time I've ever mentally compared your writing to Virginia Woolf. Stream of consciousness… over my head… blah blah blah… :-)

    Sorry I have no useful suggestions. I'm lining up some folks for a beat-down, want to add your printer to the queue?? Did I spell queue correctly???

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