Musings on Photography

HP Z3100, part the second

Posted in equipment, hp z3100 by Paul Butzi on March 2, 2007

lab_test_page.jpg

My friend Rob has now had a week to play with his new Z3100.  In that time, he’s updated the printer firmware, generated a raft of profiles on the various papers he has on hand, including both of the papers I routinely use – Epson Enhanced Matte and Epson Ultrasmooth.  He also went out and bought a roll of Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl, generated a profile for it, and has made a number of prints with it, more on FAP anon.

Of primary interest to me was how the Z3100 stacked up, print against print, against my now aged Epson 9600.  The 9600 is still cranking along without complaint, and it’s time for me to either take the gamble and let the service contract expire or else pay to extend it for another year.

So I was quite excited when Rob proposed making prints of a test image (shown above) on different printers (including Rob’s Z3100, my 9600, and Bryan’s Epson 7800) on a variety of papers, and then sitting down and comparing the prints.

One thing that became obvious at the outset is that the test image (which I think came from HP) has been tweaked to really push the envelope in terms of having colors that fall outside the gamut of normal reproduction.  The green sub-image with all the ferns, for instance, is incredibly saturated.  Even photographers addicted to Velvia would not print this image like this – it goes beyond surreal.  So in some sense, you have to observe that they only way to produce images where the image reproduction differs between printers is to produce images which are really wildly saturated.

That said, what we noticed was that, when printing on matte surface papers, the Epsons seem to outperform the HP on reds.  Not a lot, but some.  Apparently this difference can be reduced by increasing the amount of ink the HP printer lays down by lying about the paper type; Rob hasn’t experimented with that.  (Rob does report that the Z3100 does not drink ink in great gargling quantities like my 9600.  Good news on comsumables cost for that printer, then!)

What surprised me was the excellence of the profiles generated by the Z3100 for the various papers Rob experimented with.  Each profile was really great, without obvious glitches or nonlinearities.  Monochrome photographers are going to love the ability of this printer to automatically crank out a perfectly neutral profile, and it seems the printer can do it on anything ranging from HP’s own branded papers to a roll of paper towels.

On different papers, sometimes the HP would win the visual dmax award, on others, it seemed the Epsons had the edge.  In the end, I’ve sort of concluded that the great Dmax debate is more of a marketing checklist issue than something that really matters in a hugely important way.  Let me word that a little differently – all three printers produce quality prints.  The fact that two successive generations of printers have now reached the stage of base level competence means that we can start to look at other issues when choosing printers.

I think we’re now at the stage where every printer in the top level category (the HP Z3100, the Epson 7800, the Canon equivalent) are all beyond just producing competent prints that have long term stability, etc.  For any given image, one or the other of the printers will beat the others by a slight margin. Pick a different image, and the winner might well change.  Pick a different paper, and the winner might change again.  The difference between printers is no longer on the scale of religious revelation, but is now much more subtle.  Everyone can produce a good black.  Everyone can produce smooth tone.  Issues like consumables costs, printer speed, and the mechanics of running the printer day to day are increasingly going to hold sway in buying decisions.

My conclusion: comparing prints made on the same paper in different printers, I didn’t see enough difference between what I’ve got (an Epson 9600, now three years old) and what I could buy (say, an Epson 7800, or the HP Z3100) to make me whip out my credit card and cell phone and order up a new printer.  Instead, I’ll renew the service contract on the 9600, and start focusing now on making a leisurely decision on what to replace it with. 

Postscript on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl:

Wow, gorgeous stuff.  It has many of the color performance properties of barrier papers like Epson Premium Luster, but with much better object properties – it feels good in your hand, the surface is nice, the base color is nice.  If I hadn’t given up trying new papers for Lent, I’d have taken Rob up on his offer of some paper to experiment with.

2 Responses

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  1. Pat Cooney said, on March 2, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    The test image you were using was made by Bill Atkinson and is available at his website

    http://homepage.mac.com/billatkinson/FileSharing2.html

    as a large (51.2 MB) download set of “Profile Test Images.” It is indeed a wonderful test image. It was not created particularly to show the HP printer to best advantage, to the best of my knowledge.

    –Pat Cooney

  2. Billie said, on March 3, 2007 at 7:14 am

    Paul, thanks for the report. The HP is definitely the more expensive printer but the one thing that it does that the others don’t is make profiles. For my personal printing, I’d never be able to justify that additional cost. One area that does interest me is the monochrome capability of each printer. If you have more to say on that issue, I’d be interested in hearing it.


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