Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I occasionally send files to a print lab (WHCC) when I need prints larger than I can make at home (Epson R1900). They use a process where they expose the image from a digital file onto chemistry-based photo paper, which is then developed in the traditional manner.

I recently did a shoot at Portland's Rose Test Garden and got some nice images of roses. When I went to soft-proof the images in Lightroom 5, using WHCC's ICC profile, the results were really muted in the reds, oranges and yellows.

I keep my monitor well-calibrated (dE between 1 and 2), and for prints on my Epson R1900 the soft-proofing display looks really close to the resulting prints.

I decided to send WHCC two of the images, ones that soft-proofed much worse than my R1900, expecting that I was seeing the effects of a bad profile (I re-downloaded and reinstalled the profile anyway just to be sure). The files were in the Adobe98 color space, with an embedded profile.

The resulting prints look almost exactly as displayed in the soft-proof: unacceptable desaturation of reds/oranges compared to the original images and inkjet prints. It appears that WHCC's digital-to-photo-paper print process has significantly narrower color gamut on the red/yellow side. This does not appear to be the case for blues and greens.

I'm confident that my color-management setup is correct, as I always get consistent soft-proofing on prints from my Epson inkjet, and the soft-proof display for WHCC's profile matched their prints to the same degree (i.e. almost perfectly).

I've always believed that chemistry-based photo paper would have a wider gamut than inkjet printing, but this conclusively demonstrates that I was wrong.

One possibility is that the R1900, which has red and orange inks in addition to CMYK, is just naturally going to be better at that end of the spectrum.

Here are screenshots (from Lightroom) of the three soft-proof images (original full-gamut from raw file, R1900 soft-proof profile, WHCC soft-proof profile). Since the soft-proofs mirror the printed results well I'll assume they can be a proxy for the prints. I have no idea how these will appear on other monitors in absolute terms, but you should be able to see a slight difference from the original to the R1900, and a large difference between the R1900 and WHCC soft proofs.

Original Image

Original Image

R1900 Soft-Proof

R1900

WHCC Soft-Proof

WHCC

So, the question is: Is it true that chemistry-based paper prints have been surpassed by inkjet prints in terms of color gamut?

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I had an almost similar experience to this. soft proofing was great, test prints were great, but photo lab print was terrible. At first I thought it was me, then I found out that the photo lab technician was doing his own color correction to my image. That's when i discovered the phrase "print as is". hehe. –  ides Jun 28 '13 at 4:50
    
Well, in my case the soft-proof and test prints were both unacceptable, I was just unwilling to accept that my "intuition" about chemistry-based paper was that flat-out wrong. And WHCC specifically does not do any color correction unless you ask for and pay for it. They are used to dealing with people who understand color management. –  Jim Garrison Jun 28 '13 at 5:00
    
Are you getting out-of-gamut warnings on your soft proofs, or are you just not correcting to the proof (which is sort of the whole point of soft-proofing)? –  user2719 Jun 28 '13 at 5:46
    
@StanRogers Good question. I assumed that the profile was showing me the gamut limits and the maximum possible saturation. I will try adjusting the proof tonight but I don't expect to be able to improve it much if the proof is already showing me the deepest red/orange possible. –  Jim Garrison Jun 28 '13 at 15:48
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1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, the color gamut of a high end dye printer is generally superior to pigment and pigment ink is generally superior to chemical photo paper. In longevity pigment ink and good archival papers can actually out endure chemical photo paper now as well. In general, you actually see it the most with the depths of black, but when comparing anything pigment to dye, the dye is going to be much more saturated.

I am a little surprised to see such a difference between what your printer can render (since it is pigment ink) vs the chemical photo version. I would expect the chemical process to be less saturated, but not quite as much as it is there. Might just be that my local pro-lab has one of the best chemical process printers around though, but my Canon Pixma Pro-1 still easily beats it.

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I would agree, dye tends to get much more saturated initially, however it does fade faster. Pigment gamut is actually really good these days if you use UltraChrome HDR or Lucia EX, both of which cover over 98% of the AdobeRGB gamut, and over 90% of the Pantone Solid Color palette. –  jrista Jun 28 '13 at 22:20
    
Yeah, dye fades much faster. That's why the pro inkjets are still mostly pigment. Longer lasting beats a slight loss of saturation up front. And yes, they are have come a very long way recently. I <3 my Pixma Pro-1. –  AJ Henderson Jun 28 '13 at 23:28
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