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Optimum output

The quality of output available from digital printers has improved enormously over recent years. Some photographers find they actually prefer the print quality produced by high end bureau machines. I see two reasons for this: The ability to finely control the colour output yourself and the wider choice of paper bases available, compared to RC plastic matt or plastic glossy.

When a computer is instructed to print a document, graphic or photograph, the data has to be converted into a digital language the printer can understand. Cheaper Mac colour printers use Apple's 'Quickdraw' - the same language that describes how documents appear on the monitor. This internal processing method has its drawbacks, chiefly the incredible length of time it can take to print out even a medium sized colour picture, plus we're talking basic inkjet machines here which are hardly capable of delivering photographic quality. A better method is to process all the information either via a separate computer, or using the printer's internal memory - a process known as Raster Image Processing (RIP). For example you'll notice many printers come supplied with Postscript (level 2 is best). This is the page description language developed by Adobe. Once processing is completed the document is ready to print in one smooth operation. Printing speed is therefore dependent on the type of print driver software the printer uses and the amount of RAM memory installed in the machine. Too little memory and either the document will take ages to process or won't print at all.

There are so many Postscript printers to choose from in the under £10,000 desktop market - which one you should go for depends on the type of colour work you do. Inkjet, thermal wax or laser printers are useful to graphic designers where the low cost of consumables such as paper and toners is a major consideration. For professional imaging purposes though, the best solution is to buy an A4 dye-sublimation printer, prices of which vary between £1,500 - £10,000. Dye-sublimation is an RGB colour process in which a specially coated receptor paper is overprinted with three transparent colour dyes which diffuse into the surface. Better machines such as the Kodak XLS 8600 (basic price £6,500) are capable of delivering excellent near photographic quality, glossy colour prints in under 75 seconds. Higher specifaction models such as the XLS, allow more control over the final print size with a full A4 imageable area. Dye-sub prints can't match the archival permanence of a conventional colour print and are known to be unstable. The print dyes may react when they come in contact with soft plastics such as transparent portfolio sleeves or are heat sealed. Kodak have addressed this problem by introducing a special 'Extra-Life' printer ribbon which will coat the print surface with a transparent protective layer.

I'll briefly mention the Fargo Fotofun A5 dye-sub printer - this little gem attracted a great deal of attention at the recent Apple Expo and with a price tag of £300, it's easy to see why. The results I saw were quite reasonable and with the A5 paper costing less than a sheet of polaroid, this might make a useful intermediate proofing device with several useful applications.

Many colour labs and bureaux also provide a dye-sub printing service for both A4 & A3 formats, but there are also other types of print output available which use hardware normally beyond the budget of a small studio. First there is the A4 Fujix Pictrography process which most experts agree gives a true photographic finish. Instead of three passes (as in the dye-sub process), exposure is made with a thermal laser diode once onto a silver halide donor paper, followed by a thermal development transfer to the receiving print, which Fuji claim has the permanence of a conventional colour photograph. Admirers of the New York based photographer Raymond Meier, may be interested to know that he supplies all his editorial clients such as Harpers Bazaar with pictrographs as finished artwork. Fuji have plans this year to release a desktop machine which uses a similar process to Pictrography, known as Thermal autochrome. Expect the price to be around the £5,000 mark.

Digital prints

For blow-up prints, poster inkjet plotters are capable of printing up to A0 size. These outputs are suitable for all commercial purposes. Inkjet technology has improved to the point where very fine resolutions of 300 dots per inch are now attainable. The inks are more colourfast and can be guaranteed to last longer than before. One of the latest and best models is the Hewlett Packard 755CM Designjet. For exhibition quality work you should consider looking at fine art Iris prints. Richard Mathews (AKA Harry) of Quicksilver in Covent Garden has spent the last two years testing and refining the process on various archival quality paper surfaces. The results I saw showed Iris's potential to capture delicate colour tones on different types of fibre base. Iris proofing has taken off in the states as a medium for exhibiting and selling art photography - whether manipulated or not. David Byrne's recent exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery were all Iris prints. You'll need a pop star's income if you're thinking of having your own portfolio reprinted because they can be very expensive (up to £600 per print). Though prices start at £70 up to A3 on art paper and prints on normal stock will cost about the same as an A3 dye-sub.

Colour laser copiers can be linked to a computer via an image processor such as the Efi Fiery. They are ideal for producing intermediate proofs and short run printing. Metro for example offer a composite card design service with colour laser run ons from as little as £1.05 each. If you supply your own layouts on disk to be printed seek advice on preferred page layout applications, file fomats and print resolution. Depending on how you supply your work and the RIP used by the bureau, image processing can take anywhere between 5 minutes to half an hour for a single A4 page and some bureaux charge their computer time by the minute!

Having outlined the range of services available from colour bureaux, which is the best removable drive media to transport your digital files there? Syquest EZ and Iomega ZIP drives are highly rated for their reliability and because they are cheap to buy. However, most bureaux still only accept the Magneto Optical and older Syquest formats. These drives are more expensive to buy, though of course this may all change in the future. It's just that with so many different media formats about these days, itÕs worth checking which ones your bureau uses.


Calibration is important. There will always be variations in colour output between different printers and the only way to guarantee consistent results is to run a test, and then adjust your Gamma control monitor settings by comparing the printed result with the screen picture and saving these for future reference. Metro Imaging and Joe's Basement will supply their customers with a test transparency and its original on a floppy disk to help you to make a comparison. Colour laser copies direct from disk always print a lot darker than you might expect. Once the screen is calibrated you can overcome this problem. Where a printer is connected direct to your computer you can also adjust the print transfer functions via the 'Page set up menu' to achieve good colour and tonal matching with the monitor.

In conclusion I would say that at the very minimum you should buy the best desktop dye-sublimation printer you can afford. If your budget will stretch to £13,000+, you could purchase the Pictrography 3000 or wait to see what the new Fujix Thermal autochrome process promises. If these are all beyond your means, then stick to transfering your files to a good bureau. I firmly believe that photographer will always be best served by the processing houses which provide bureau facilities such as Ceta, Sky, Tapestry or the others I mentioned earlier. These companies specialise in electronic imaging for photography and will be far more sympathetic to your needs. They've certainly been patient enough to answer all my questions over the years.

Copyright - Martin Evening 1996

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