You won't find any marketing photos or gamma plots in this review, just the subjective results of a real-world image comparison. No browser image would adequately communicate the subtle visual differences I found; words alone will have to do.
I was a little sleepy Friday morning as I pointed the car North towards Palo Alto and my camera dealer, Keeble & Shuchat. I'd finished a series of test prints on my Epson 4800 sometime around 2 am for a 9 am appointment to see how they stacked up against the same files printed with Epson's most advanced ten-color printer, the 7900. Large-format printers are like divas... they can be high maintenance and temperamental but there's no arguing with the jolt you get from their output. The Epson 4800 was announced mid 2005 - I think I purchased mine early in 2006.
Overall it's been a good match for the volume and size of the prints I've wanted to produce but new opportunities to display and sell larger prints have me considering an upgrade. To justify a new purchase I wanted to see improved output, better media handling and general usability. Other reviews have concluded the new printers pay dividends in these areas but I wanted to use my own images and draw my own conclusions. Most of you still reading are familiar with the basics. The eight-color 4800 prints cut-sheets or roll paper up to 17" wide; the ten-color 7900 up to 24" wide (and the larger 9900 model up to 44" wide). This morning with the able assistance of Keeble's Bill Graham we put the 7900 through it's paces. By the way Bill is a car buff and has some really nice automobile photography in his own portfolio.
I selected three sample images for the test; two B&Ws and one color. The first image of the S-Works McLaren Venge was photographed in the sci-fi labyrinth beneath McLaren's Woking HQ. The matte-black bike in an all-white hallway was lit with a combination of facility lighting and a dual-speedlite strobe firing through a 39" Elinchrom Deep Rotalux. The resulting falloff, subtle tonalities and thin highlights seemed perfect to gauge B&W performance. The second black and white of Garmin Cervelo's Gabriel Rasch minutes after the finish of Paris Roubaix was a gritty portrait set against a diffuse dreamy background. The third and final color image of Thijs van Mil from last summer's Tour for Kika, featured vibrant green and orange in its background... tailor made I thought to assess the impact of the additional green and orange channels that bolster yellow printing in the 7900's HDR inkset.
I chose Epson's Exhibition Fiber (EEF), a beautiful low-gloss coated sheet that's been my go-to paper for some time as the medium. Each Lightroom-processed image was opened in Photoshop, sharpened with PixelGenius's PhotoKit Sharpener 2.0 (using resolution-appropriate-inkjet output sharpening), flattened and saved as a tiff. The black and whites were printed from Photoshop CS4 with the following settings: Advanced Black and White mode (printer manages color); 2880 x 1440 dpi; high-speed off; fine-detail on; color toning neutral; toning normal. For the first print I worked up to these settings with a couple of smaller tests, then output the final on a 17 x 22 sheet of EEF. For comparison I also printed an alternative with Photoshop managing color via a PixelGenius icc profile for Exhibition Fiber. Turning off color management in the Windows7 Epson dialog proved to be a chore; gone was the obvious, front-and-center "no color management". It took a Google search and several forum threads to eventually find it behind an ICM selection (shades of mirror lockup). The only discernible difference in the resulting print was a cooler black. Since I preferred the neutral carbon look of the Advance Black and White print, I stuck with ABW mode for the second image of Gabriel.
The final color image was Photoshop managed with the EEF PixelGenius icc profile. Resolution and other settings for high speed and detail were the same as the black and whites. I used the very useful "job settings" option to print these specs on the top of each print for easy identification later. Try as we might, Bill and I could not find this job settings option in the Epson dialog on the mac when printing to the 7900, nor does it seem to be documented in Epson's manual under mac printing. If anyone knows the what or why of this, please let me know.
The morning's reprints on the 7900 went smoothly after a couple of early misfires. I can confirm that you'll get a decidedly strange result if you print on the back of Exhibition Fiber ;-) Chalk that one up to sleep deprivation. The second attempt revealed a clogged Light Cyan printhead, which was quickly resolved with a cleaning cycle. Clogged print heads have been Epson's Achilles heel over the years. The 7900 was engineered to reduce clogs, but this just shows it still can happen. I did appreciate the fact the cleaning cycle on the 7900 was much quieter than the cacophony cleaning sets off on the 4800.
With the fog and clog behind us the three files were printed without further incident. For the color file Bill used Epson's own Exhibition Fiber profile rather than the PixelGenius profile I'd used on the 4800. I wouldn't expect this substitution to skew the color-print comparison. Both are very good profiles from authoritative sources, but it's a variable worth noting.
Results and Impressions
As expected the 7900 is much faster (2x), quieter and solid on it's stand. There's only the tiniest indication of rocking as the carriage moves back and forth in the printer. Weighing in at 187 lbs it sports a lot more metal than the plastic-looking Canon ipf6300 sitting nearby. It looks built to last, except for the gangly, print basket out front. Now to the heart of the matter.
Six years is a long time for any digital product to remain relevant far less competitive with its successors so I expected the two generations between the 4800 and 7900 to show up on paper, but I was truly surprised when the side-by-side comparison was almost a dead heat in the Advanced Black and White prints. The 7900 ABW was a little cooler, the 4800 ABW had more contrast. On close inspection you could see small improvements in the deep shadow and highlight detail of the 7900 prints. In print one of the S-Works McLaren Venge the 7900 held the thinnest highlights on the floor between the wheels, on the 4800 there didn't appear to be any ink there but the surface texture and low gloss of the Exhibition Fiber made it invisible at normal viewing distance. I actually preferred the contrast level of the 4800 prints and would probably push the 7900 tonality to "darker" outside of this test. If I had to quantify the ABW tonal improvement in the 7900 I'd peg it in the neighborhood of 5%.
The performance gap was definitely wider in the color file. Again with the same output settings, overall contrast was reduced, shadows and midtones in the rider's face more open in the 7900 print. Skin tones looked better on the 7900... and as expected the 7900 rendered the orange bloom above Thijs' left shoulder smoothly, the 4800 rendering of the same area showed minor banding. Score one for the HDR inkset. In terms of usability I really appreciated the single-sheet, straight paper path handling of the 7900. Inserting single sheets of EEF in the 4800 results in an annoying number of misfeeds. The new system on the 7900 couldn't be simpler... drop the sheet into the slot with complete freedom to move the sheet laterally to the right-edge alignment mark. Push a button on the control panel and the printer takes the sheet in.
Summing this all up I think it's apparent Epson inkjet technology matured a couple of generations back. The current state-of-the-art 7900 has made another small improvement in B&W printing, and with the expanded HDR inkset, a larger improvement in color output. With smaller and smaller opportunities for print improvement, the engineers have concentrated on production speed, reliability and usability. To make things even more interesting Epson released the 7890/9890 series which combined all of those 7900/9900 production advantages with the K3 + Vivid Magenta 8-color inkset that preceded HDR inks. Two inks forward one step back. If I only wanted to print black and white images I'd definitely go with the 7890/9890 series.
Final thoughts. From a purely fine-art perspective the 7900 or 7890's 24" width is sufficient for anything I shoot or composite today. Thinking in more graphic terms, which potentially includes the ability to RIP vector-based artwork with the available Designer Edition of these printers, the 9900 or 9890's 44" width becomes more attractive. I'd definitely like to have that capability for Rêve Grand Tour signage in 2012 (an update about Rêve to follow soon). Epson has substantial rebates on all these models through the end of June which means I've got to make the call one way or another soon. I'll let you know what I decide.
I'll be in Switzerland at the end of the week for an assignment, can't wait. If you happened to catch today's F1 race from Montreal you saw an incredible last lap victory by McLaren's Jenson Button. Congrats to the team and a very happy VeloDramatic regular, Steve Cooper on the win. Both the Grand Prix and LeMans races today were fantastic.