Musings on Photography

A Bit About HP Z3100 Profiling

Posted in equipment, hp z3100 by Paul Butzi on April 1, 2007

Howard Slavitt raises an interesting point when he commented

The profiling capabilities of the HP sound great, but really, how many different papers does one need to use? Isn’t the paper chase thing something of a waste? Aren’t we all better off getting to know 2 or 3 or 4 papers really well and using those papers to the limits of their capabilities? It’s relatively easy to use different papers in the digital age, much easier than it was to get good prints out of different papers in a darkroom, but isn’t it a trap? Given the way one can see I’m leaning, then the Epson 7800 may still be better than the HP (other than not having the capability to easily change between matte and glossy inks, but no doubt the replacement will address that issue). Because with the Epson 7800, one can use the Bill Atkinson profiles. Also, the Epsons are reputed to have much better machine to machine consistency, so “canned” profiles, like Bill Atkinson’s should work better across different machines with the Epson than the HP.

I wrote about these issues some in the post Paper Chase, but now that I’ve seen the profiling capabilities of the HP Z3100 used in anger, it’s worth discussing again.

I agree with Howard – I think that, from both an artistic and pragmatic point of view, it’s worth settling down on a small set of papers and coming to terms with them completely, rather than constantly switching from one to another and searching for ‘the magic bullet’.  But part of the problem is this: how do you decide WHICH of the 27 bazillion papers that are out there are the three that you’re going to settle on?  Because some papers are great, and others are just lousy.

The problem here is this: with gelatin silver paper, it didn’t matter what brand of enlarger you used, nor did it matter what sort of easel or trays you used.  Ilford Gallerie and Dektol, toned in Kodak Rapid Selenium Toner – it looked pretty darn good coming out of my darkroom, and about the same coming out of another darkroom.

But Crane Museo Max produces fundamentally different results when run through an Epson 9600 from the way it looks when run through an HP Z3100, in the way that Gallerie looks different in Dektol and Ansco 130.  So really, when you buy a new printer, you’re going to go through the paper chase all over again.  The paper I preferred on my Epson 9600 (Epson Ultrasmooth) is not very likely to be the paper I prefer if/when I start printing on an HP Z3100.

And to make matters worse, there are good profiles and there are bad profiles.  I’ve had a friend get a profile done, find it to be inadequate for monochrome printing, and then  having to do another round with the profiling shop before getting a good profile.  Profiling technology has improved, but it’s still the case that you have to carefully choose where you have your profiles done if you’re doing critical work.  But the amazing thing about the Z3100 is that the profiles seem to be outstandingly good – perfectly neutral, no weird glitches.  Because there are many controls and selections to be made in the printer driver (or rip), and the controls are fairly opaque, it may be necessary to print test targets with three or four different sets of settings to find the setting which produces the ‘best’ results.  If you’ve paid someone to profile each of those tests, this raises the cost substantially.  But with the Z3100, not only have HP described what the controls do, but each test costs about ten running inches of paper and half an hour of letting the printer do its thing.

I’m a big fan of Bill Atkinson’s profiles for the 7600/9600 and the 7800/9800.  By making them available for free, Atkinson moved inkjet printing forward by a huge amount – I’ved used his profiles on my 9600, sticking to papers that he had profiled, and as a result, I’ve neatly done an end run around the whole profiling thing.  But this has meant ignoring several papers that held great appeal, and sticking with the ones that Atkinson had profiled.  In retrospect, this might have been a good thing, because it forced me to concentrate on learning to print to the strengths of inkjet printing, rather than spinning my wheels searching for the magic bullet.  And, three years ago, we had only a few combinations that had ‘proven’ longevity, and so our choices were much more restricted.

But now there are more manufacturers in the game.  Desirable papers are sometimes easily available in some locales and impossible to get in another.  Because of the way combinations of printer/paper work out, it’s not the case that the relationship ‘is better than’ is transitive when applied to paper/ink combinations.  Paper A might be better than Paper B, and Paper B might be better than Paper C, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that A is better than C.  It depends on what work you’re printing.  That was true in the traditional darkroom, too, but learning a new paper well was such a monumental task that as a practical matter, most darkroom workers didn’t go down that path very far. 

But when you can generate a profile for a new paper in half an hour, and when you can then use the generated profile as a tool to compare its capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses to other papers you know well, and then use that knowledge to help you select some images where test prints will show those differences, you can come to grips with a new paper very quickly.  Giving a new paper a serious try used to be a task that could easily take a man week (and hundreds of dollars) spread across two or three weeks of calendar time.  With the HP Z3100, it just turned into a task that might take one man day of time, and that one man day can also be one calendar day, AND the cost of doing the evaluation just dropped from hundreds of dollars down to tens of dollars.

This substantially improves the odds that when you settle on two or three or four papers, and learn to use those papers to the limits of their capabilities, you’ll have picked the right two or three or four papers.

As for machine to machine consistency – if you can profile your Z3100 so cheaply, and I can profile mine cheaply, does it matter if my profile matches yours?  No, it doesn’t.  And, for some time now, I’ve been hearing rumblings that people are seeing drift with their Epson printers, as humidity changes, temperature changes, etc.  I haven’t personally experienced those issues, but I’d observe that I’m not really a super-critical color printer (just learning, thanks) and the environment in my studio is very consistent, particularly with respect to humidity.  But with the HP Z3100, if you hit a snag, you simply reprofile.  If HP release new firmware that improves the capabilities of the printer on some papers, you install the new firmware, reprofile, and you’re on your way (note that this has already happened once, with the latest firmware release).  Any other printer manufacturer, though, is limited in how they can change printer performance with firmware upgrades, because if the change requires reprofiling, their customers will promptly refuse to upgrade because of the huge cost involved. 

I think built in profiling will be a huge step foward, and that if Epson doesn’t have some similar technology up their sleeve, they’re going to see a huge chunk of the market go to HP as people upgrade to the next generation of printers.

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  1. Ed Richards said, on May 27, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Another plus for the built in profiling, or linerization as on the Designjets, is that it allows the HP machines to have cheap, replaceable print heads. In theory, HP could even improve the design of the print head, slip stream them in, and you could get the benefit automatically as you replaced the heads.

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