Solving the Digital Dilemma

For decades now, we've been promised that "digital" would solve our problems: from ebooks to email, from online bill paying to e-filing your taxes, computer connectivity was supposed to solve all those pesky forms and piles of paper. But it hasn't happened.

The digital promise was a lie. Although it's true that I don't use postal mail anymore (using email almost exclusively), I now print out more material than ever before. Where once I relied on published books for reference, I now print more specific articles and papers from the internet. As I write this I have no less than four laser printers and two inkjet printers in use. I've never bought so many books or printed so much material as I do today, despite the computers, the iPad, the mobile devices.

What the promise of the digital missed was the human need for interaction. As we've written about elsewhere, humans need haptic feedback: we need touch and texture, varied reflectivity and contrast, and a sense of the physicality of a thing in order to make full use of it. This is no less true in the use and display of photographs than in the reading of a long book.

One of my primary motivations in adding film photography back into my workflow was its organic nature—its physicality. Handling negatives and making prints is part of the entire process, and brings an entirely different quality to the artistic loop of creation and presentation. It's always been a frustration not to have easy access to printing my digital images in the same way that I could trot down to the darkroom and have prints from my negatives in relatively short order.

Technology hasn't provided any great solutions to the digital dilemma for photographers. Printing images on canvas, or having a lab print giclées, is great, but it's too far removed from the photographer's involvement. Getting images printed at a camera or drugstore has the same issues, with the added problem of standard sizes being imposed.

For a long time, the best solution for a photographer to maintain control over the final phase of the creative process was the color inkjet printer. With incredibly precise ink nozzles and a variety of paper sizes made from everything from art paper to glossy plastics, these printers could do a nice job of making color prints while allowing the photographer to maintain control over the development process. I have one of these printers and for the occasional color prints I do, it's fine.

But that's the problem for me: I'm an achromatic photographer. Color is a rare event for me, and color printers don't have the kinds of blacks needed to make an achromatic print. Instead, my images come out in shades of blue on a color printer. Accordingly, I stuck with giclée for digital prints, and silver halide for my film prints.

Digital has benefits that film doesn't, however—most notably in low-light capabilities. Because so much of my work is of people indoors, low-light is a constant problem and I wind up shooting digital quite often. I thus have many images I like which had to be shot on digital, and the costs of giclée printing is too excessive to liberate them into a haptic form.

There have long been inkjet printers that could produce black and white prints, but their quality was relatively low and their cost too high. For my eyes, nothing less than the equivalent of a silver-based print is worth doing. And so I went without digital prints, trapped in the lie of the digital promise.

The R3000 is not a small printer—the Leica M6 is hard to spot! But the built-in wifi means you can hide it.

That all changed this year. This December, Epson had a deal I couldn't pass up: a $250 rebate off the R3000 printer. (As of this writing, the offer is still available at Amazon.) Able to prints 13 inches wide of various lengths (up to 44 inches), the R3000 features Epson's archival UltraChrome K3 pigment inks. But for me the selling point was it's nine-color inks which include Photo Black, Matte Black, Light Black and Light Light Black. I kept a skeptical mind about Epson's promise of "gallery-quality black-and-white output," but I placed the order.

I started with a sample pack of various Epson Fine Art papers and was floored by the results. The prints are phenomenal. The detail is incredible, and even on the 100% cotton papers, there was no bleeding. They're easily mistakable as darkroom prints, but have even more tonal range. I've printed a variety of complex achromatic images, all with results that are not only satisfactory, but impressive. Very surprisingly, I have not wasted a single sheet of paper yet: every print from Lightroom to the R3000 has come out true to the digital development.

That last point is extremely significant, especially to me. I only care about the image, and I do not have the patience nor the inclination to play with settings, profiles, and test strips. I develop an image in Lightroom to its final form, and I really don't have any interest to modify it a second time for a particular printer setup. So far, I have not encountered an image that looked good on the screen that didn't print extremely well, and I couldn't be more pleased about that. It makes a cohesive process from digital image to completed print which is much more akin to developing negatives. It also makes the development process more pleasant, knowing that the time and attention put into the development will reflect in the print.

The R3000 is not a small printer, nor is it light. It's not particularly pretty to look at, either. Luckily, however, it has built-in wifi, so you can find a location out of sight. 

I only print on fine art paper, which is heavier than the standard papers. This requires the paper to be manually fed through the front in a non-intuitive process. However, the printer has a small color screen on its front with instant help which provides step-by-step prompts. 

I've been impressed with the quality of every image that the R3000 has made, color or achromatic.

Printing at maximum resolution is not quick. 13x19 prints at the highest quality settings take about 56 minutes. But since I'm used to making prints in the darkroom, this seems reasonable--and doesn't require any trays of chemicals. 

The paper is packaged very nicely, with the corners protected. Nice touch, Epson!

The only factor I've had to struggle with is the selection of paper. For now, I'm sticking with Epson papers. Epson has a variety of fine art papers with different textures and brightness. The texture and brightness affects the rendition of the highlights in the print. I highly recommend starting with a sample pack so that you can see what paper looks best for your images. I find that my images are fairly consistent in how I capture highlights, and have settled into Cold Press Bright and Hot Press Natural

I was very impressed not only with the heft and hand of the paper, but with the packaging which protects the corners of the paper. The paper is not inexpensive, and it's nice to see some respect being paid to the photographer buying it. 

I don't pretend to understand how the technology works, but Epson claims that the pigments fuse into the paper, giving a 200 year archival life. They also claim scratch and water resistance (neither of which I've been tempted to test). Paired with the fine art paper, I certainly expect the digital prints to last as long as darkroom prints, which is as much as I could ask.

If you've been looking for a way to complete the creative loop with your achromatic images, I strongly recommend taking a look at Epson's line of printers.