Written by Ctein
[Note: This is going to be longer than your usual TOP post. There's a lot to talk about. If you feel it's “longior, non legi,” don't say I didn't warn you!
P.S. Two important illustrations were missing from the first post of this article (under the nighttime snow photograph). If you didn't see'em before, refresh and scroll down. —Ctein]
The new Epson SureColor P800 printer (currently specially priced at $995 from B&H Photo after the mail-in rebate) is the 17-inch wide model in Epson's new line of printers that run from 13-inch wide through 44-inch wide. The print quality should be similar or identical on all of them. I reviewed the P800 because it's the direct successor to my current standard printer, the Epson 3880.
The big deal about the Epson SureColor P800 (hereafter simply referred to as the P800) is Epson's new Ultrachrome HD ink set. It's the same set of colors as in the x880 series—MK,PK,LK,LLK,LM,M,LC,C,Y—but they've been reformulated for an increased density range. More density range means richer blacks, more tonal range to work with in the print, and higher maximum saturation in the colors. This, of course, is what got me most interested in this printer. More on this anon; much more.
There are couple of other new features to the printer that I liked. You can tether it to your computer with the standard ethernet or USB cables, or it can connect over your Wi-Fi network. I didn't relish stringing another cable across my office, so I gave the Wi-Fi option a try. All of my testing was done on my 27-inch 5K retina iMac running the most current versions of Mac OS X (Yosemite) and Photoshop CC (2015). Wi-Fi worked perfectly. I performed the usual setup dance: first install the printer software on the computer, then turn on the printer. I next selected wireless connection from the touchscreen on the front of the printer. The printer looked for the Wi-Fi network, configured itself appropriately, and that was it! The printer was installed on the iMac and also accessible from any other computer in the house that was on that network. Easiest setup I've ever had.
Another feature I especially liked was that you can tell the printer whether it should be able to automatically switch between matte black and photo black inks depending on the print medium, or whether it will require you to manually initiate the switch (in which case the software will prompt you that the printer needs your attention). Why do I like this? Because I have, on occasion, accidentally chosen the wrong print medium, or decided to, say, print out an invoice that just came in while I'm in the midst of working on photographs, forgetting I'm set up for the latter. With the “convenience” of automatic ink swapping, I am rewarded by wasting five or more minutes of my time switching between inks, not to mention a few dollars worth of ink going down the drain. The first time I made this mistake with the P800, which happened pretty quickly (in my defense, I was making a lot of test prints under a lot of different conditions) I switched the printer over to manual. It's pretty good proof against the particular kind of fool that I am.
No doubt that there are a bunch of other features that will matter to other people. I didn't use them, so I won't report on them.
One negative change: the printer ships with smaller starter ink cartridges. Oh, they're not a whole lot smaller, probably 20%. The printer seems to require less ink to charge the system initially, so I'm likely getting close to the same amount of usable ink from the cartridges that ship with the printer as I did with the 3880. But, really, it feels kind of cheap on the part of Epson—would it have killed ya to have given me the full 80 ml cartridges? Really?
There, I got in my gripe. On to the prints, which is what we all really care about.
The first thing I looked at was the ink droplet pattern, because that was really easy–– one test print. I was curious to see if the P800 was a big improvement over the x880 series the way the x900 series is. The pattern didn't look substantially different from the 3880, not in the league of the 4900. But, my particular review unit checked out at the high-end of the quality/uniformity range of 3880 printers that I tested a while back.
The dot pattern was very uniformly spaced, invisible to my eye even under the closest inspection. That is not true of my 3880, which falls in the middle of the quality distribution. I don't know if this is typical of the P series or if I just got lucky on this test unit. This could be a case where “your mileage will differ;” no way I could say without testing a couple of dozen of these printers. The P800's sharpness was slightly better than 3880, but that might just be due to more uniform dot pattern. (Any Epson people reading this, feel free to chime in with observations, on or off the cuff. Hint, hint.)
So much for ink droplet patterns and print sharpness. Let's talk about density range, what the fuss is about.
The short version: it is consistently better on all papers, both matte and gloss/semi-gloss, than the 3880. I don't have a reflection densitometer; to my eye it looks like about a 0.2 density unit improvement in the shadows. There is distinctly better separation in the lower tones (below value 20) but pretty much no difference in the midtones and highlights. It's an extended shadow range.
This is my standard grayscale test target:
You can download a variant of this for your own tests.
The following illustration shows an enhanced version of the lower half of the rightmost column in my test prints, which prints values from 0 up to 32, just the darkest shadows. I kicked the brightness and contrast way, way up in the scanner software, so there are lots of scan artifacts and blotches.
These comparison prints, on Canson Baryta Photographique (my preferred paper) give you an idea how much further down the blacks extend with the new printer. The black arrow shows the matching steps between D-max on the 3880 print and the P800 print (around value=15). The darkest steps, down to the last 2 or 3, are visually distinguishable in the P800 print under strong illumination, even though they merge together in the scan; the printer does hold separation in the shadows.
The improvement in density is especially noticeable with a paper like Epson Ultra Premium Matte, a lower grade matte paper with relatively weak D-max. A P800 print on this paper has better blacks that a 3880 print on Epson Hot Press Bright, a much better quality of matte paper. Of course, a P800 print on the Hot Press looks better still, but this printer is a great equalizer among matte papers.
What does 0.2 d.u. mean, visually? With a semi-gloss paper like my Canson, a typical high-end inkjet print has about the same density range as a high-quality darkroom print. A dye transfer print, the gold standard, would typically have 0.4–0.5 d.u. more density range than the best darkroom print (that can vary). The P800 pushes well beyond what one can get in a conventional darkroom print; it's about halfway to the density range of a dye transfer print. It's going to encourage me to try digitally printing some of my photographs that simply don't print well without the density range I could get out of dye transfer, notably my "Jewels of Kilauea" series.
The higher density range also means you can print richer colors and a larger color gamut. The maximally saturated primaries can get more saturated. Understand that this does not mean that your print, overall, is more contrasty or more saturated. It's about the range you have to work with. Think of it as like getting a new digital camera with a longer exposure range than your old one had. Your photographs aren't more contrasty, overall, but you can capture more of the extreme brights and darks.
Will you see this in your prints? It'll depend upon the kinds of photographs you make. The improved density range has only a minimal impact on photographs that don't have important shadow detail. If you mostly photograph high key, you'll never see a difference. Similarly, unless your photograph has colors that push the limits of the color space or of saturation, the extra range this printer provides will be less important. In some of my photographs, I could see very little difference between the 3880 and the P800 unless I looked very carefully. In most there was some improvement.
In some, the difference was profound. Photographs like this one:
and especially this one:
...printed much better with the P800. When I made that series of nighttime snow photographs, I remember telling Mike that I had to work very hard to hold separation in the shadows and still print the photo down dark enough that it looked like a night scene. I was hoping that future printers would let me do a better job. This printer does. I was satisfied with the rendering I achieved on the 3880, but I like what I can do with the P800 a lot better.
I've brightened the image and enhanced the contrast the same way I did with the gray scale scans, so you can see the difference in the shadow rendering between the 3880 (upper) and P800 (lower) prints. That is a subtle improvement in the print, but it makes a big difference in conveying the fine detail and producing a sense of depth in the shadows.
Am I going to go back and reprint my whole portfolio now that I have a better printer? Hell no. Better may or may not be the enemy of good, but it is certainly the enemy of deadlines and of making new work. I'll be selective. But, I will be reprinting some of my portfolio. It's worth it.
Now I move on to a more controversial subject (cue ominous music):
Color management and profiling
The main reason this review took so long to get done is that Dave Polaschek, Andrew Rodney and I continued our investigation of color management and profiles, and it turned out to be rather more complicated than expected.
Well, some weeks and well over 100 prints later (whew!), I've reached my conclusion. Printer-managed color is the way to go with an x880 or P-series Epson printer running under Mac OS. A majority of the time it produces better results than Photoshop-managed color with a good custom profile. Sometimes it's massively better. Otherwise, it's usually a tossup. A very small fraction of the time, the custom profile works better, but never fantastically better.
Why is this so? I have no idea. I can spout all sorts of logic and theory that says this should not work anywhere as well as it does. But as I repeat, ad nauseum, “Data trumps theory.” I've got an awful lot of data now.
If you're really obsessive, I suppose you can run out a bunch of test prints of each and every photograph you do, to compare printer-managed color to custom profile color (remembering that you need to try out both relative colorimetric and perceptual rendering intent). Am I going to do that?
Naaah. It'll be printer-managed color and that's that, unless I look at the print and decide something is wonky.
I will likely explore this topic in more detail next week in a column. I would prefer to not, repeat not, argue about it in this one, especially if it's a rehash of what we discussed before.
Here are the settings you need to know. When you pull up the printer control panel, choose “Printer Manages Colors” under Color Handling. Then click Print Settings… . Select the Color Matching submenu and click “Epson Color Controls.” Click the Printer Settings submenu and under Color Mode choose “Color Controls > Adobe RGB.” Choose the paper type that most closely matches the one you're using (it doesn't matter if there's an exact match—I rarely use Epson papers).
I reprinted one of my recent favorite photos on the P800 using printer-managed color. This photograph looks great with my usual custom profile on the 3880, but it's got a lot of out-of-gamut color (including pretty much the whole “sun” lamp) and it pushes the brightness range per print. Wow, was there ever a difference! It's hard to find a way to put into words (and it is, of course, impossible to illustrate here) but the P800 print is much more alive. The color is more accurate, there is separation and texture in the extremes of tone and color that's missing in the 3880 print. The latter looks flat, compared to the new print. I loved the old print. I love the new print.
Printer-managed color won't be good under Windows. Windows limits you to sRGB color space when printing in this mode, and that's just not enough. Stick with custom profiles for Windows. What about other printers, models and makes, on the Mac side? I have no idea; you have to run your own tests. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances.
I've put in a request to buy my review unit. Not because I'll necessarily save much money buying it that way, especially with Epson's current $200 rebate through the end of October, but this printer is performing well and, noting my earlier comments on product variability, I'm getting a nice tight dot pattern out of this printer. I don't want to leave that to chance. And I don't want to have to pack up and return a printer and then unpack and set up a new one. Because, really, I am replacing my 3880 with a P800 either way.
Don't misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with the 3880, and if the P800 hadn't come along I'd still happily continue to use it. If you can grab one (new or used) for, say, 50–60% of the price of a P800, do so. Otherwise, there's no question in my mind that the P800 is worth the extra money.
[The P800 from B&H Photo is currently $995 after the mail-in rebate. The smaller 13-inch P600 is around $570 with the rebate. IMPORTANT! The P800 rebate offer is good through October but the P600 rebate offer ends September 30, so you've only got a week on that one.]
Ctein is TOP's Technical Editor and a longtime professional custom printer.
©2015 by Ctein, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bill Mitchell: "What is 'printer managed color'?"
Ctein replies: Bill, when the Print Settings control panel in Photoshop comes up, under "Color Management" there is a "Color Handling" setting. You can choose either "Printer Manages Colors" or "Photoshop Manages Colors" The latter lets you (well, requires you) to use a printer profile selected from the menu below that. The former shuts down Photoshop's control of the color and leaves it all in the hands of the Printer Control panel that pops up when you click "Print Settings...". In other words, it's a completely intuitive interface. Not.
Craig Arnold: "A wonderfully timely post. I've decided it's time to retire my older Canon dye printer. As my favoured print size is A3+ I don't have to have the P800, but it's not much more than the P600 and the bigger ink tanks make it a bit silly to go for the P600. However I am somewhat conflicted over the choice between the P800 and Canon Pixma Pro 1. Do you have any experience of the Canon?
"Also, there is much Internet angst over 'pizza wheel' marks on the P800 prints. I presume this is only with certain papers, but have you seen such a thing?"
Ctein replies: Craig, Sadly, no recent Canon experience. However, I just made a usage agreement with them for four of my photos, so I'm hoping they'll send me sample prints over time.
I've not experienced pizza wheel marks with any of my 3880's or the P800. I'm pretty sure the technical explanation is that the gods favor me and punish others because they are not so pure of heart and noble of spirit as I.