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Running the colour gamut

The announcement by Fujifilm US at the IPIC conference in Las Vegas last month of a new silver halide paper with (fairly vague) claims of a broader colour gamut prompted us to ask leading independent supplier of photographic paper, iPhoto, how the various photo printing technologies stack up in terms of colour range performance.

Their response included the chart below, showing how the premium Kodak photo paper, Endura (Fujfilm doesn’t make its premium AgX papers available in Australia), stacks up against Epson Surelab inkjet and Indigo digital press printing:
Colour gamut chartWe followed up with a few questions, and received the following replies, with this caveat from iPhoto managing director, Stuart Holmes: ‘Naturally these are our opinions only, but are based on a combined knowledge base in the photographic industry of over 200 years, so I would contend they would be among the best available on the subject in Australia, if not internationally’:

Inside Imaging: Is there any possibility that the current colour gamut of AgX paper could be improved, or is this as good as it can get?
iPhoto Technical Managers: AgX research & development probably reached its peak many years ago. With the overall decline in photographic print output following reduced consumer demand, newer drylab technologies have provided a more ‘sustainable’ system for high quality photographic printing. Further R&D in improving AgX wetlab printing would simply not be viable in today’s reduced ‘economies of scale’ environment, particularly with the increased costs surrounding the sourcing of raw chemicals for the manufacture of dangerous goods (DG) liquid photo chemistry required for processing light-sensitive wetlab media.

These DG chemistry products are also being regulated out of some world markets now due to environmental concerns surrounding the shipping, storage and distribution of hazardous chemistry, increasing the costs on an already sunset technology.

At the same time, wide format printers and minilab drylab equipment is relatively inexpensive compared to complex wetlab minilab equipment, at around one-third of the setup costs. In fact, compared to the initial setup costs of, say, a Fuji Frontier Digital Wetlab some 15 years ago at in excess of $240K, today’s drylab technology could be fully fitted out for less than $40K! And the quality of the output will arguably match and exceed traditional AgX in many regards. Its ability to do this at a fraction of the cost on hardware and at similar consumable rates is why print professionals are choosing new drylab technology over the old wetlab AgX hardware.

For these reasons alone, it would be difficult to imagine any further AgX R&D investment could be considered economically viable going forward.

The relatively large colour gamut of Indigo printing might surprise some readers – by the chart it looks to perform better than AgX – any comments on how that relates to ‘real world’ printing? 
iPhoto: The gamut chart does not tell the whole story: It is a measurement of the gamut at the midpoint of lightness only. Other factors influence how the print looks. The Indigo has relatively wide gamut at this point but may fall off more at low or high lightness values. Contrast may be lower as well. That would explain why Indigo prints lack ‘pop’.

Many screen display devices now are capable of ‘soft display’ of a much wider gamut (matched with a high contrast ratio). Apple has adopted the wide-gamut ‘Display-P3’ standard for iPhones and computers: See more info at https://appleinsider.com/articles/16/09/09/apples-wide-color-screen-on-the-iphone-7-will-lead-to-more-faithful-color-reproduction

Android has followed suit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DCI-P3

Display-P3 and AdobeRGB have a similar gamut and are significantly wider than sRGB, which has been the default standard colour space until now. Today’s customers will expect prints to have the same bright colours that they see on their smartphone and tablet screens now.

The Epson Surelab D700 and D3000 inkjet printers have a gamut that closely matches the AdobeRGB/Dispay-P3 colour spaces. Silver halide has a gamut closer to the sRGB colour space. As you will note, AgX is particularly limited in the red region, whereas AdobeRGB and P3 extend well into the red area.

Of the three printing technologies, which do you think has more potential for improvement?
iPhoto: 
Investing to further develop AgX technology is somewhat risky considering the shrinking user base, and rapid development of inkjet and other dry technologies. It’s sort of like why fewer companies want to invest in coal-fired power stations – they can see that new, more eco-friendly technology is coming.

What was seen in at Kodak R&D in AgX film and paper in the 1990s produced diminishing returns as the technology reached its limits. Inevitably the focus had to be on reducing costs rather than improving performance, as digital technology started to have an impact in the market. AgX probably hit its limit around the release of the Digital LED/laser exposure technologies in the late 1990s/early 2000s (replacing optical enlargers in minilabs) and is limited by the ability of emulsions and chemicals to produce a greater gamut and finer grain.

So, it is certainly not AgX that has more potential for future improvement.

Colour gamut1
Epson Surelab D3000 inkjet ‘drylabs’ daisy-chained to create a high volume photo printing installation.

Inkjet technology that would have to have the most potential, considering the recent advances. Inkjet printhead nanotechnology is still developing, so higher dpi is still possible. We still see inkjet breakthroughs such as ‘full print width fixed heads’ that are starting to enter the market. As this technology is further advanced the quality and reliability will improve to the point where it will be applied to higher quality imaging applications. The side-benefit will be a smaller equipment footprint, much higher speed and fewer moving parts, resulting in improved duty cycles.

On that point inkjet technology, or more specifically dry minilabs, could still have a potential card up their sleeve should companies like Epson ever choose to add Light Black (L/bk) or Light, Light Black (L/lbk) ink cartridges to expand and improve monochrome tonal performance. In that same vein there is always a potential to add even more colour cartridges.

There are currently six inks in the Surelab system – Cyan, Light Cyan, Magenta, Light Magenta, Yellow and Black. Significant print quality improvement lies with the addition of the Light Cyan ‘LC’ and Light Magenta ‘LM’ inks, which allow for subtle tonal gradations in both colour and black & White printing. Including six colours allows the Epson SureLab to rival continuous tone (AgX) print outputs for smoothness in skintone whilst not compromising sharpness in text. (In fact, the micro piezo head produces droplets as small as 1.5 picolitres for sharper text than is possible with AgX technology.

So why do professional wide-format printers run to eight or 10 or more colour cartridges if four or six are adequate?
iPhoto: Traditional pigment-based inks tend to have a lower gamut than dye-based inks, so more individual colour inks are required to attempt to cover the same or similar colour gamut. The latest pigment inksets for the Epson SureColor P10070 (44-inch) wide format printer, for instance, include the following 10 colours: Light Grey, Photo Black, Cyan, Vivid Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan, Vivid Light Magenta, Dark Grey, Matte Black & Grey.

 

8 Comments

  1. Trevor Trevor May 7, 2019

    I am not sure but from what I understand that while a fresh print will have a slightly larger colour gamut when printed on the Epson Suresolor D3000 drylab, that is not really the whole story. Once the print is displayed in a typical home or office environment with both light and dark conditions, with an average level of 5PPB of ozone, the larger print will begin to deteriorate substantially and the overall image quality will degrade quickly.
    compare that with silver halide (agx) paper, that has lasting image quality without noticeable degradation weather measured on day 1 to greater than 36, 500 days (100 years) in a typical home environment.

    Inkjet may have its uses but it does have some severe compromises, so you need to be careful what use you are putting the print to.

    • Keith Shipton Keith Shipton Post author | May 7, 2019

      Thanks for that contribution, Trevor. We’ll see if we can’t get the iPhoto technical people to follow up on your observations.

  2. Al Al May 10, 2019

    Our lab has been weighing up the benefits of both technologies for about 12 months now.
    As tempting as the ease of inkjet seems, we are still yet to be convinced about image longevity.
    IPS have shown us all the stats from Epson, but as Trevor mentioned, the defining factor seems to be exposure to Ozone and Epson/IPS seem to be a bit grey in this area.
    We have seen comparisons done by Kodak where the silver halide prints look a whole lot better than the inkjet ones after exposure to Ozone, but obviously there are 2 sides to every story. It would be nice to see the same test performed by Epson.

  3. Paul Atkins Paul Atkins May 10, 2019

    We don’t use the D3000’s lustre paper, as we prefer the Ag lustre (Kodak Endura E surface). We do so because we prefer the image to be well within the emulsion of the paper and not on the surface. It is effectively ‘laminated’ compared to inkjet printing. Small prints are for being handled, and we want to give them the best durability as well as image stability.

    We do have D3000 and like it for the cut art paper finish, but prints are delicate, but not as delicate as Epson pigment ink (Ultrachrome) prints which we also offer.

    As far as UV stability, I’ve visited the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Image Permanence Institute (https://www.imagepermanenceinstitute.org) several times to nut these issues out, two key ‘take aways’ were gleaned:

    1. papers that are not coated or the colorant sits on or near the surface, are very susceptible to atmospheric contaminates which are common in big cities, and effect image stability hugely even when the levels of contamination are not harmful to humans.

    2. statements about the archival nature of prints rarely involve durability, and the reality is, durability is critical.

    Besides the considerations of archivalness, the consistent supply of quality paper, great colour gamut and reliable skin tones reproduction, is why we still use Ag production as part of what we offer.

  4. Alan Alan May 10, 2019

    Keith.
    As you know we recently replaced our 3202 wet lab with a 3901G wet lab.
    We looked at inkjet very closely with the Epson and Noritsu units, and yes, they looked good.
    What I found impossible to find was a longevity comparison of AgX and inkjet using the SAME testing criteria.
    It does not seem to exist.
    Whilst t is easy to say that AgX is at the limit of its technology, I’m not unhappy with where it is at now.
    Who knows, Agx might have more room to improve.
    AgX is also an easy product to work out print speeds and costs – you are not trying to do extra head passes and use more ink to get better detail.
    We are used to mixing chemistry, so it is no challenge to us, and the dark loading is simple.
    The quality, and consistency of our prints is better than it was on our old lab, using the same Kodak Professional Digital paper.
    I also endorse Paul’s comments about “image depth” in the prints. Having had a number of old Kodak image magic prints where the color has “lifted” off the paper makes me happier to be using Agx product.
    I’m more than happy to be using AgX paper for the next 5 years.

  5. Jacky Brooks Jacky Brooks May 29, 2019

    There are a couple inkjet negatives other than longevity that should also be considered by labs.
    While paper is a fixed cost, ink is a variable. Manufacturers estimate ink coverage at well below the 100% that a given area of paper can hold to keep cost estimates down. They also do not account for the regular nozzle cleanings, nor the manual nozzle cleanings that use a substantial amount of ink. I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced excessive waste as nozzles clogged mid job and weren’t noticed until the job was fully printed.

  6. Michael Gellert Michael Gellert July 2, 2019

    Some interesting points on discussion here. From the perspective of the school printing market that constitutes the majority of our photographic printing, extending the colour gamut hasn’t been a factor for our customers. Far more important are the strengths that AgX paper provides, namely consistency, handleability, volume output capacity and realistic skin tones. Cost effectively and with a proven track record.

    If you were starting out the dry labs would appeal in avoiding dealing with chemicals anda parent scalability – start with one machine and add extra as required. However every other lab we’ve spoken with here and in the US who also offer dry lab printing keep 50-100% redundancy in machines so that production volume is maintained while dealing with heads with blocked nozzles. Their experience is that uptime is quite different from AgX processes. At the end of the day reliability is what we provide more than any other aspect and AgX helps us maintain this. While dry labs have their place I can’t see them overtaking AgX in our business any time in the near future.

  7. Paul G Paul G July 3, 2019

    We tested a Surelab D3000 for over 12 months and decided that it is not the right machine to put into a professional lab.

    While the imaging was good, most of the improvements to the prints were a result of the software and we could replicate the result on silver halide by pumping up clarity and saturation.

    We respect that professional photographers prepare their files to a known outcome and the sure lab massaged the files, not giving the predicted result.

    There were also concerns being a dye-based machine the prints would be adversely affected by light, heat, humidity and ozone and after reading the results from an image testing lab, there is a significant loss of quality in inkjet prints even when kept in dark storage due to ozone.

    Another interesting snippet is that in the brochure it states “Epson does not guarantee the permanence of prints”.

    As a community we print photographs to preserve memories of our life, the emotional value of the photograph increases with time.

    As a professional lab we need to provide our clients with archival products that will outlast their careers and their clients lifetime and that is why our preferred printing process is silver halide.

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