By Geoff Wittig
About 15 years ago I saw an exhibition of Jim Brandenburg’s remarkable nature photographs. Many were printed very large, about 24x36". One image in particular (Oryx-Africa; M452 on his very nice website) just stopped me dead in my tracks. I probably stared at it for a good 15 minutes, with my kids tugging on my sleeves urging me to move on.
That's the kind of impact I wanted for my best photographs. Certainly, some images work best as modestly-sized prints. A poor photograph printed large merely shouts its shortcomings. But a really good large photograph can be a wonderful thing. Back then, a decent quality large color print required the services of a darkroom printer or custom lab with a very specialized skill set. I was very disappointed with the large darkroom prints I got from several custom labs. With a wide format inkjet, I’m now getting the prints I always wanted. So; you just buy a wide-format inkjet printer and hit control-P. Right?
Ummm....it’s not quite that simple. Last week I unboxed and set up a new Canon iPF6300, my third 24" inkjet since 2003. I’ve now had the dubious distinction of setting up and using 24" printers from all three of the major manufacturers. I’ve learned a few things that might be useful to folks contemplating the leap for the first time.
If you’re generally happy with prints up to 12x18", and only rarely need something bigger, it’s far more economical to use a service bureau for the occasional 20x30" or 24x36" print. They’re likely to be more skillful at it unless you spend a lot of time and effort learning the craft. But if you feel a passionate need to produce excellent large prints with your own skills, if you’re driven to proof and tweak and perfect until you have the ideal print, there’s a lot to be said for owning your own wide format printer. It can also be a potential moneymaker if you have a head for business, ruthlessly control your costs, and market aggressively. Me, I’m just happy to sell enough prints to pay for my ink and paper so I can print some more.
To state the obvious: the physical size of an inkjet printer escalates in tandem with its maximum print size. If you’re happy with 8x10s, you can use a printer that’ll fit in your briefcase. Inkjets capable of 13x19" prints will occupy most of a desktop. But if you want a 24" paper path, you're talking about a much bigger piece of hardware. The current models from Epson, Canon and HP weigh between 143 and 222 lbs., and are the size of a large desk. They arrive at your door in a ginormous box lashed to a wooden pallet. This issue alone requires a bit of planning.
My first wide format printer was an Epson 7600 I bought in 2003. Completely clueless about the shipping weight and dimensions, I stupidly had it delivered to my office. My first hint of trouble was a perplexed phone call from the hospital next door. A delivery truck had dropped off a huge box on their loading dock with my name on it, and what the hell were they supposed to do with it? I walked over to the loading dock and was dumbstruck by this gigantic box mounted on a wooden shipping pallet. "Idiot" was the only muttered word I caught from the receiving clerk as he looked up from his desk. After my initial panic subsided I measured the box and realized that it might just barely fit in the back of my wife’s station wagon for the seven-mile trip home. And indeed it did; with my son’s assistance I was able to wrestle it into the back of the car, with about three millimeters to spare. I think the shipping clerk was disappointed.
I figured I was smarter three years ago when I traded up to an HP Z3100: I had it delivered to my home. Unfortunately I failed to allow for the fact that we live at the end of a 700' gravel driveway. You can see where this is headed. The printer was delivered by a lone bored-looking guy driving a tractor-trailer; he cell-phoned me from the end of the driveway to say "Yeah...this is as far as I’m going. Come and get it yourself." This time the box was definitely too big to fit; we got about 2/3rds of it inside the station wagon, and (very slowly) drove it to the house.
I finally learned my lesson. Last week I gladly paid the extra $50 to have two large guys with a van carry the latest printer into my house.
When you buy a desk-top inkjet, setup is pretty simple. You take the thing out of the box, load the driver onto your computer, plug the printer in, load the ink cartridges, and Bob’s your uncle.
Not quite so simple with a wide format printer. You need to budget at least half a day for setup and assembly, and you’ll need at least one other person (preferably large and strong) to help. Fortunately the assembly/installation instructions from Epson, HP and Canon are excellent. First you open up that gigantic box, and make sure everything’s there. As you unpack it you’ll eventually have massive amounts of Styrofoam, plastic wrap, tape and cardboard scattered all over the place, so make sure you don’t misplace anything. Nothing’s more frustrating than having a shiny new $3,500 printer sitting inert next to your computer because you can’t find the driver CD. Just sayin'.
Next you assemble the printer’s stand and place it where you’ve decided the printer will go. Only then do you unwrap the actual printer, and place it on the stand. The printer body weighs well over 100 lbs. all by itself, and it’s computer-fragile. You definitely don’t want to drop it. My son and I carefully heaved the Canon iPF6300 up a narrow winding staircase to my library/digital darkroom. Then we took a break while our hands stopped shaking. (The bulkier HP Z3100 required three of us to get it upstairs.) Once you have the printer (securely!) bolted to the stand, you can load the appropriate driver software on your computer. Next you power up the printer, and load the ink cartridges (also the print heads for HP and Canon printers) when it tells you to. With up to 12 separate ink cartridges, this can take a while. After about 20 minutes of funny noises, the printer finally announces that it’s ready, and you can hook it up to your computer. If all goes well, your system recognizes the printer, and you can then do a head alignment and calibration. (Things have come a long way in this regard; the Epson 7600 required you to print out a large array of test stripes, then use a loupe to eyeball which ones were correctly aligned, and convey that information to the printer. Current printers automatically align their own heads by "reading" the test pattern with a sensor.)
Getting started with printing
I know, I know; you’re just dying to start cranking out those huge prints. But now you really need to spend some quality time with the manual to figure out how the printer works—from paper loading to media settings (such as print head height) to the logic of the driver software. (Trust me on this. The first time I made a print on the Z3100 I inadvertently chose a media setting commanding a low head height, loaded a thick paper, and promptly got a head strike that ruined one of the $79 dollar print heads. !@&%$!?) Yes, you can load the included sample roll and try making a few prints with the default (i.e. "dummy") settings; but you didn’t spend all this money just to print JPEGs at some lowest common denominator sRGB setting. You’ll need to figure out the correct workflow for your chosen paper; whether you’re using matte black or photo black ink, and how to switch between them; how to tell the printer what kind of paper is loaded...drudgery, I know, but it’s critical to getting great output. And then there's....
This probably causes more grief than everything else put together. Color management for wide format printers is no different in principle than for small desktop printers—but screw up the color on a 24x36" print on cotton rag paper, and you just wasted about $20 in paper and ink. You’ll want to learn exactly how to print using a good profile, without letting the driver insert its own clumsy attempt at color management. You may be satisfied using the printer manufacturer’s branded paper, for which they usually provide pretty decent "canned" profiles. Some third party paper manufacturers like Hahnemühle or Ilford provide fairly good profiles on their website. If you’re really particular, you can have custom profiles made for $60–$100 each by an expert. Or, you can spend lots more time and money on a profiling device and software, and learn to make your own. HP's Z3100/3200 models actually incorporate an iOne spectrophotometer, and will produce quite good (though not custom quality) profiles with minimal user effort. My personal sense is that current generation printers are so consistent (with their built-in calibration systems) that canned profiles are good enough for most uses. If you’re extremely persnickety, or if your color vision and judgment are better than mine, you may want to have custom profiles made for the papers you use for your best work.
Okay, you’ve puzzled out color management, picked your favorite paper, and started cranking out some gorgeous huge prints. Now you need some dedicated space for storing those rolls and giant boxes of sheet paper waiting to be turned into art. You don't want to store $150 rolls of fine art paper in a damp moldy basement. Probably best if they’re not baking in direct sunlight, either. And what do you do with those big beautiful prints you make? My solution has been large acid-free storage boxes for regular prints, while long panoramic prints are gently rolled up inside acid-free tissue and placed inside empty roll paper boxes until they're mounted or delivered. I also have an upright print rack for photographs I want to live with for a while. Whatever solution you choose, you’re going to need a lot more space than you thought.
There are two reasons to print frequently. First is simply a skill issue; the more you print, the better you get at it. Some of the skills are "fugitive"'; you start forgetting some of the tricks and fine points to getting an excellent print unless you employ them regularly. The other reason is a quirk of the hardware. Pigment-based inkjet printers produce gorgeous color prints with remarkable fade-free longevity. But unless you print with some frequency, that pigment ink may start clogging up your expensive machine. Epson printers with their piezo heads are particularly prone to this, especially in dry environments. HP and Canon printers with their heat-based ejection nozzles do a good job keeping themselves clog-free if you leave them plugged in, with minimal waste of ink. Epson printers can blow through a lot of ink running through repeated cleaning cycles to clear a clog. They're happier if you print frequently, at least weekly.
Once you start making large prints, all the defects and flaws in your images become blindingly obvious. Only a really excellent file with oodles of resolution, thoughtful processing, cunningly judged sharpening and careful attention to the perceptual artifacts apparent only at large sizes will make the grade. You may become depressed looking at some of your photographs, the ones that you previously thought were pretty good, because they just don’t measure up at 20x30". On the bright side, This will quickly compel you to get a lot better. I’m currently making prints that are far better than anything I was doing even two or three years ago, and having more fun doing it. Which is the whole point of the exercise, at least for me.
Send this post to a friend
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ed G.: "Well, that was quite interesting. And now I know why I was afraid to ask! You're a braver man than I."
Featured Comment by Mike: "'Don't underestimate how much room a 24 inch printer and paper and output and spare ink and...will take up' Never a truer word—that has stretched my very patient and beloved wife's patience quite a lot!"
Featured Comment by Thomas Osborne: "Amen to 'print frequently.' I don't. My infrequent sessions usually begin with my Epson 4000 asking for a 'power clean' cycle."
Featured Comment by David: "I had to laugh at your experience with the large printer. I had a similar experience but on a much smaller scale. I had an A3 Canon printer up on my desk-shelf for many years. I think it was an S4500. Recently, after upgrading to Win-7 64-bit and not having a driver for this printer, I decided to upgrade. The S4500 was old enough to throw in the bin without qualms and so I purchased a newly released you-beaut (Aussie slang) Canon iX700 a few months ago. I intended the new one to sit in the same space as the old one.
"So there I was in the sales room of the computer dealer, waiting my turn, and watching everyone collecting their hard-drives and printers and new PCs and I see this guy walking down the isle from the store-room with a huge box on a trolley. I'm thinking what has someone bought that is so big, a UPS maybe. You guessed it, it was the Canon. So while I'm paying for this thing the misgivings started to take hold. Anyway I consoled myself with the thought that it was probably packed quite well with a lot of air-space in the box, etc. etc.
"I was allowed to use the trolley to get to my car, an SUV. The box filled up the SUV behind the back seat almost completely, and it wasn't that light either. So returned the trolley and back home, I park in a below-ground garage. I had to lug this huge box up a couple of flights of stairs, through two fire-doors with door-closers fighting me and eventually into my unit to my little office. Now, my 'office' happens to be a walk-in robe, so it is about 5 ft. wide by 8 ft. long. In it I have a desk and there is a shelf thing that sits on the desk. Opened the box and started taking the packing material out and, Oh boy!, where the hell am I going to put this printer? There was no way it was ever going to fit on the shelf. There was another book-shelf near the door of my office, so I had to re-arrange everything on the five shelves to clear a whole shelf just for the printer. Now I can squeeze past it to get into the office, but I have to leave the paper tray out and perched on top, as it sticks out into the doorway.
"So you would think this is the end of the saga? Not so. The printer malfunctioned, (duplexer wouldn't duplex), so it had to go back! Fortunately I hadn't thrown the packing away, so re-packed as best I could and back to the supplier. They had another in stock, so I had to repeat the whole thing again. After setting up and testing the second unit, I had exactly the same problem with the duplexer. Now I'm thinking, am I doing something wrong here? Checked the manual thoroughly and ensured I was setting everything just as the paperwork said. Still no luck. So what do I do now, go back to the supplier or back to Canon? I thought I would go to Canon and vent my feelings.
"So packed up the unit again, (by now you can imagine I am becoming an expert in packing/unpacking this printer: could have got a job at the Canon factory without any training!). Off to Canon and as soon as I walked in the door, I was told they don't service printers at head office, take it to a service agent. By now I'm getting a bit pissed off with carrying this beast around the place. So I find a Canon service agent: they keep the thing for two days and when I go back I am told they won't fix it because the whole print mechanism has to be ordered and replaced and since it is so new, take it back to the supplier. So re-pack the thing and go back to the supplier. No problem they say, we will replace it, but nothing in stock, it will take another week to get a replacement.
"Finally, I get version number three and back home to unpack and re-install again. (Now I'm really an expert at packing an iX7000: I think I'll make up a certificate to hang on my office wall). Version number three worked first time and hasn't given any trouble since.
"So the moral of the story is when a new product comes out and you want it, wait quite a while until some other sucker(s) have ironed out the production problems for you, before you buy it."