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I hate ink jet printers (a rant)

July 15th, 2009

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?