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A "Universal" Inkjet Paper?

Review by David Etchells
(Original posting date April 24, 2000)

Over the years, I've owned a succession of inkjet printers, although (strangely enough) not yet a true photo quality one. (I'm looking real hard at one right now, though...) In that time, I've tried literally a dozen or more different third-party papers for my printers. Some worked reasonably well with one manufacturer's printers, but horribly with another's. Some didn't seem to work well with any printer. Some worked ok, but not as well as that from the printer manufacturer. As diligent as I was in trying different papers (an expensive and time-consuming process), the plain fact was that none of them seemed to be as good as the manufacturer's own product, so I've until now been a staunch believer in keeping printer, ink, and paper all with one company.

At Spring PMA 2000 though, I saw some black and white prints that absolutely amazed me with their depth of tone, razor-sharp detail, and beautiful finish. They were printed on an Epson Stylus 750 printer, but not on Epson's paper. Not only that, but the exhibitor claimed that the same paper would work equally well with any inkjet printer/ink combination out there. This was so contrary to all my prior experience that I decided to investigate more closely. I was surprised (and pleased) by what I found, and so wrote this article to share it with our readers.


Inkjet Paper: What can go wrong...
Before getting into the wonders of the new paper I discovered, it might be useful to look at the sorts of problems I've had with non-manufacturer papers in the past. Here's a brief list of ills, with an occasional illustration.


Ink Clumping

I'm sure there's an official industry-approved term for this, but "clumping" describes the effect pretty well: In areas of heavy ink coverage, the ink doesn't lie smoothly on the some papers, but rather clumps up in globs, leaving white areas in between. The result is almost an orange-peel or "crackle" finish effect. Definitely not the desired effect for your precious memories!

This problem was probably one of the most persistent and objectionable I encountered with third-party papers. The photo at right shows a greatly enlarged view of a paper (to remain nameless) that produced this effect in an Epson printer. The area photographed should be a smoothly varying region of dark brown, but instead looks like a pockmarked piece of rusted sheet metal. The same thing can happen even in text documents, where ink can together in the large black areas of solid type.

The cause of this behavior is a poor chemical bond between the paper and ink: The ink doesn't wet well to the paper, and so clumps up due to surface tension. Regardless of the cause, the results are easy to see and quite unappealing.


Muddy Colors

Ink clumping is caused by the ink not soaking into the paper well enough. The opposite effect often happens too: The paper absorbs the ink too well, with the result that the dots of ink wick along the fibers of the paper and spread out into each other. When the colors of ink spread into each other this way, the resulting color is muddy and unattractive. Colors are less intense, and the overall image just isn't as bright and "clean" looking.




The photos above show microscopic enlargements (shot with my Olympus C-2020 camera, with a 24mm wide-angle lens from my 35mm Nikon SLR reversed on the front of it) of two prints on two different papers. Believe it or not, these are shots of the same area of an image, printed by the same printer! (And no, the blurry one isn't out just out of focus: If you look closely, you can see the individual paper fibers and some dust specks on the surface.)


Poor Surface Texture

Manufacturers have tried a lot of different things to control how their papers absorb ink. Some papers have a grainy coating on the surface that helps the paper hold the ink without clumping. The end result feels a little like sandpaper though: Not a good tactile experience for sharing your photos around...


Waterfastness

Normally, I wouldn't even include this in a list of paper properties: I mean, everyone knows inkjet prints will run at the least hint of moisture, right? Well, some manufacturers are starting to improve this with different ink/paper formulations that chemically bond the ink to the paper. This depends on special inks though, matched with equally special papers. The paper I'm writing about today though actually conveys a pretty significant degree of water resistance to *any* inkjet printer. It does this with a multi-layer structure that traps the ink in a layer under the surface film. When water splashes on the print, it mostly stays on the surface, and you can blot it away without disturbing the picture underneath.


Mystery revealed: The winner is.... Pictorico
Er, Picto..who? I hadn't heard of these folks before seeing them in the Olympus booth at PMA this spring (February, 2000). Pictorico is actually a brand name of AGA Chemicals, who among other things are expert with unusual ceramic formulations. The reason I was so interested in their paper was not only because they claimed that their paper was universal (lots of companies claim that), but because they also claimed to have a unique technology for making inkjet paper.

The key to the Pictorico paper appears to be that it's coated with a special microscopic ceramic powder, held in place beneath an overlay coating. The ceramic particles absorb the ink quickly, holding it in place and preventing the dots from spreading out. Their shape and orientation tend to confine the ink into vertical channels in the paper, avoiding the wicking along paper fibers that plagues conventional paper, leading to fuzzy dots. What's more, either because the particles do so well absorbing & holding the ink, or because the ink-holding particles are one layer below the surface, the resulting prints are very resistant to water damage: You can actually splash water all over the print and just wipe it away, without any ill effects.

I wanted to get more details on how this all works (being the inveterate techno-tweak that I am), but AGA Chemicals is understandably a little reticent with some of the finer details. They did provide the illustration and photomicrographs shown below though (click for a larger version), depicting the surface of a typical inkjet paper, compared with their own. (Actually, I'm not sure what these prove, other than that the two coating types do indeed look very different. Not being an expert on ink dynamics, I have not idea what a good ink-holding surface should look like... Also note, too that these are from a company marketing presentation, not our own work. As such, we can't verifiy the information presented, or vouch for its accuracy. Still, the two photos at least look different enough that you'd expect radically different ink absorption.)

 


Perhaps a little more illuminating is the set of pictures below, that show how the Pictorico paper keeps the dye from the printer inks closer to the surface, producing more intense color. Again, these illustrations were provided by AGA Chemicals, so may be of limited value: We have no information as to what papers are being compared. (Its entirely possible we're looking at images here of the Pictorico film vs. conventional clay-coated "standard-quality" inkjet paper, which wouldn't really be a fair comparison. On the other hand, the photomicrographics shown above that we shot ourselves, certainly do show a great deal more ink spreading in at least some other glossy papers.)

 


Of course, the bottom line is how it looks. Here's a little more meaningful comparison, at least one where it's easy to see how the different papers might affect your final picures: These are the same two papers used in the dot-spreading photo above, Pictorico Gloss Film on the right, CompUSA house brand on the left. In this case, the two prints were scanned at the same time on my UMAX S-12 flatbed scanner, at a resolution of about 200 dpi, then resampled down in Photoshop(tm). By scanning the two prints side by side at the same time, all the scanning parameters were the same, so you can get a good idea of the difference in brightness and color between the two prints..

 



Paper Types
The final icing on the cake is this last pair of shots, comparing a print on Gloss Film to one on the Pictorico Watercolor Card Stock paper. (Click to see a larger version (240K).) I've seen "watercolor" papers for inkjet printers before, but usually they've absorbed the ink so heavily that the resulting color was rather dull and unattractive. With the Pictorico "magic ceramics" though, the resulting print is clear, sharp, and vivid. (The only noticeable effect is that the warm ivory color of the watercolor paper shows in the colors of the photo, but that's to be expected, and in fact is probably desireable for achieving a warmer "mood" to the photo. The watercolor stock also produces a slightly softer look to the image.)

We did most of our testing with the Pictorico "Gloss Film" material, which has a plastic base. Brilliant white, very tough, tremendous contrast and tonal range, but also relatively pricey. Pictorico also makes several other types of media, including a more conventional (and conventionally priced) gloss material with a paper backing, transparency film, even an adhesive-backed substrated.

Finally, Pictorico even has a fabric "paper" that you can run directly through your inkjet printer. Called "PolySilk", this is actual sheets of cloth, the fibers of which are coated with the special ceramic particles. The cloth is stuck onto a paper carrier sheet, to hold it flat while it's fed through your printer. Once the print is made, you peel away the backing paper to reveal a piece of cloth with your photo on it. The resulting print has a somewhat diaphanous look (the cloth is translucent), and I doubt it would stand up to washing, but it's still pretty unique. (Photo lampshades? Photo napkins?)



How Universal?
OK, so at the outset, I said that Pictorico claims their papers are pretty much universal, capable of being used with many different printers and ink sets. Is that claim true? Never one to take such things at face value, I imposed on Pictorico for a goodly quantity of paper (mostly their gloss film, but I did run quite a few pieces of watercolor paper through the printers as well, plus a few samples of their PolySilk) to use for testing. Just in case things had improved from the bad old days, I also visited the local CompUSA, and bought a pile of inkjet paper by a variety of manufacturers. From there, we did two things (helper Mark assisted with a lot of the testing):We ran samples of all the paper through our own printers, an Epson 750, Epson 850, and HP Photosmart printer, making multiple prints on each. We also made up kits of paper with one sheet of each type in them, and visited a local Best Buy store that had an unusually well-maintained printer department. (That is, all the printers were plugged in, were charged with ink, and had "press for a sample print" gadgets attached to them.) There, we ran the paper samples through a wide variety of printers, from Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark.

The result? The manufacturers' own papers seemed to work well in their own printers. (No surprise there.) They also worked with varying degrees of success in the other manufacturers' printers. The third-party papers were very much a mixed bag. Some did poorly in most of the printers we tried them on, while most were hit-or-miss, working fairly well in one printer but not another. The clear "winner" was Pictorico, which performed brilliantly in every printer we tried!

We did note that a couple of printers had a slight yellowish cast on the Pictorico film. Since the paper itself is a very bright white, we attribute this to the fact that the lower dot gain (spreading) of the ink resulted in more of the yellow ink being visible than as if the darker colors had spread over it. A minor tweak on the printer's driver software, dropping the yellow intensity seemed to correct for this. Overall color was excellent though, and the prints had a great tonal range, with blacks reproducing as the jet black that so caught our eye at PMA.

Now, this really can't be taken as any sort of absolutely conclusive test of the Pictorico paper, since we only tried it in about a dozen different printers. Still, there seems little reason to doubt the claim that it truly is a "universal" inkjet paper, given how well it did in all the printers we did try. Not only that, but in many cases, the gloss film actually outperformed the printer manufacturer's own paper, in terms of color and tonal range.


Where to get it

Needless to say, we were pretty impressed by the Pictorico paper: As far as we could tell, it really does work well in any inkjet printer. It's pretty new on the US market though, so it might take a little while to find it in your local retail outlet or mail order catalog. As of this writing, AGA Chemicals had struck a deal with Olympus to distribute the paper in the US, so any dealer who carries Olympus products should at least be able to order it for you. There's also an on-line store, at www.pictorico.com Check it out, I think you'll be as impressed as we were.
 

 

 

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