Dye inks or pigment inks for photo printing
Dye or pigment inks – which are best
What prints are best for what sort of printer ink?
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Recently, Keith has had a wide range of printers to test, Some used pigment inks and some used dye based inks.
Is there a simple way of finding which might be best for printing your work? Keith looks at some features and issues that might help you make a choice.
He has also produced a short video looking at the dye/pigment ink choice to go with this article.
Pigment inks and dye inks
Over the last few months I’ve had quite a range of printers to review. With new printers from Epson and Canon in 2020, a question I’ve been asked about is whether pigment inks or dye based inks are better.
At one level I can point to the fact that all large format photo/art printers and more expensive models use pigment inks and consider the question answered.
However, amongst the printers I’ve looked at recently are the Epson XP-15000 and Canon PRO-200, both using dye based inks. It’s as a result of this that I’ve found reasons to question the ‘pigment is best’ orthodoxy.
As with most such questions, the answer is “It depends…”
Inkjet photo printers shoot small droplets of ink at paper – this ink is a carrier (water and solvent mix) with a colourant added.
The two choices in general use are dyes – normally dissolved in the ink, or pigment particles, suspended in the ink.
The printer companies put a lot of R&D money into making inks that have the needed characteristics and you can see this partly from the changes in ink set names over the years.
it’s quite possible to mix in a bit of dye with pigments, but in general they just get called dye or pigment based. There is also a gloss or colour optimiser ‘ink’ found in some (pigment) printers. This is a clear coating usually designed to address some of the effects seen with pigment inks on some paper surfaces.
I personally steer well clear of 3rd party ‘replacement’ inks. I’ve no desire to create new custom paper profiles or wonder how long they will last on a particular paper. Some prefer the economy – I avoid cheap…
How long a print lasts is a much debated topic, since you can’t wait 200 years to check the results.
Print life is due to a combination of factors that just starts with the characteristics of the ink. It depends on the paper used, and then how that print is stored/displayed. If you’re interested in this do check out the great work at Aardenburg Imaging
Some papers may use the term ‘archival’ to indicate that they with last longer and won’t yellow or degrade in some other way. Be aware that ‘archival’ is used as much as a marketing term as it is to relate to any measured characteristics.
In the past (and still with some cheap 3rd party inks) dye based inks had a reputation for prints fading after only weeks of being displayed. A lot of progress has been made in this respect and with modern papers and inks it’s perfectly possible that dye based prints could outlive any individual.
Part of the ‘selling’ of pigment inks is that the pigments can potentially last hundreds of years on the right paper and in the right storage conditions.
Does this matter?
I will sell prints on archival media and with pigment inks if it matters to the client and they pay for the privilege. It is largely marketing from my own POV. My prints have a lifetime guarantee, and that’s a day less today than it was yesterday…
Think carefully if knowing your prints are more likely to be in good condition in 150 years matters to you – opinions differ widely.
How many inks
Once you get to cheaper printers they tend to come with just four inks: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. (CMYK)
I regard this sort of printer as an office printer, rather than something I’d pick for printing photos. Yes, you can print some nice looking images (usually limited to A4 or similar), but I tend to limit my reviews to printers with more inks, which are aimed at photo printing.
I did a short review of Karen’s 4 colour Canon MG3650 office printer, and yes, whilst you could produce photo prints, I’d not choose to.
Since printed images are built up through a combination of different colour ink drops and the background paper colour, pale colours need the coloured spots spreading out quite widely. This increases the likelihood of the dots being visible. One solution to this is to add lighter colours – these are often diluted versions of the main colours.
The two most common are pale/light cyan and pale/light magenta – yellow is already quite light.
This gives a six colour printer or CcMmYK (lower case for lighter).
A pale/light black becomes a grey ink, whilst further dilutions create light and ‘light light’ greys.
Add to this the fact that black pigment inks can settle differently on different types of paper and you may see two blacks in the form of ‘Photo’ and ‘Matte’ black (Pk and Mk or BK/MBK – names differ)
In an attempt to expand the gamut, or range of colours, that an ink set can achieve, some printers add other colours to the mix. One or more of Orange, Green, Red and Blue are found in some ink sets.
It’s important to note that the extra inks don’t just expand the gamut, they also benefit the smoothness of tone that the printer is capable of.
As an aside, I’d note that I tested the Canon TX3000 for a review a while ago a CMYKK 36″ pigment ink printer with MK and PK inks. It is aimed at the graphics/CAD market.
Proof that CMYK can give acceptable results for large photo prints, but not up to the standard of the similar (12 ink) Canon PRO-2000 I had here to test.
A six colour dye based photo printer?
Just to show the one pro level dye based printer I’ve found and had a look at – this is the Epson SL-D700. It’s meant for photo labs, takes roll paper at up to 210mm wide. It has a cutter and is meant for volume printmaking.
If you need lots of ‘standard size’ prints then it’s rather good. Being dye based ink it has the same pro’s and cons that I’ll cover in a bit, but is an interesting print option.
Pigment ink printers cost more.
So, for the similar looking Canon PRO-200 and PRO-300, the 200 (dye) is currently listed in the UK at ~£450, the 300 (pigment) is ~ £700
From my PRO-200 or PRO-300 video
Different inks work differently with different papers. Based on my testing over the last few months I’m happy to give these general guidelines, but remember they are limited to papers I’ve been able to try here in the UK.
Glossy prints look glossier with dye based inks.
These examples (on a PRO-200) are using a glossy metallic paper PermaJet Titanium Metallic Gloss and almost glow in the lit areas.
They look good with pigments but with dye inks they have a mirror finish that is difficult to show here.
At its simplest, this is because dyes sink into the paper and you are seeing the full gloss sheen of the surface, whilst pigment inks tend to sit on the surface, and you see a combination of their natural glossiness and the paper sheen.
One thing you can see with pigment inks on glossier papers is what’s known as gloss differential where at a shallow angle and with the right lighting, the density of ink is visible (note the ‘A4’ which is black).
It’s very dependent on the ink set and paper.
It’s one of the reasons some printers have a clear coat – that rarely eliminates the issue but can make a difference on some papers.
This example of a dye ink on a glossy paper shows no sign of the ink at all.
Dye based inks can give deeper blacks on some glossy papers.
The wider gamut of many pigment based ink sets gets a chance to show more on lustre/semi-gloss papers, whilst the gloss differential issues are much less common or obvious.
Dye inks work well, but you need to take care in paper choices to get the best results.
Some of my own ‘default’ papers for printing with pigment inks are classed as ‘lustre’. These are not dissimilar to RC coated darkroom papers.
Surface gloss differential is there, but you do have to look for it.
I note that this example was from some testing in 2008 – papers and inks have improved since then, but you do need to test new printers carefully with any new paper.
Never assume that your favourite paper on your old printer will still be the best with a new printer
Although more obvious with B&W prints, some pigment ink sets have a more obvious issue with surface reflections.
It’s rarely this obvious (it takes some care to show in a photograph) but some coloured inks can take on a different colour reflective sheen.
This is once again less of an issue with modern ink sets and printers.
Here we have a category that includes some of my favourite papers for colour and B&W prints.
Many of these papers are designed for pigment inks and can show distinctly lacklustre performance with dye inks, which rarely achieve the density (depth of colour/black) possible with pigment ink sets.
These paper tend to be heavier with pearl or lustre finishes – this is the sort of paper I choose for many prints I’d sell.
I’m not saying they won’t work with dyes, just it’s the weakest performing area in dye based printers I’ve looked at.
Art papers (matte)
This category covers a wide range of papers from a plain smooth photo matte paper through to a textured surface thick cotton rag based paper. Matte papers tend to have a lower tonal range/contrast than lustre/gloss papers.
The papers vary in how they accept different ink types. For pigment inks the black ink needs to be a matte black ink (Mk) since photo black inks tend to look a little washed out. The black ink needed is usually set with choosing the media type for the printer.
Dye inks can give some very impressive deep blacks on such papers, with a density exceeding most pigment inks.
This depth of black with dyes can give a depth to some prints that combined with the matte surface produces prints that have a very solid 3D feel to them.
This shot from when creating a custom profile for the dye based XP-15000 gives a very good feel for the strength of colour I might not normally associate with matte art papers.
In my normal (pigment ink) printing I like matt papers for my B&W and less intensely coloured images.
With any printer/paper the choices of what images work best are personal ones. I like the reduced contrast I get comparing art papers with baryta ones and choose accordingly. That said, the results using dye based inks have led me to look at some different images.
Black and white and lighting
When I produce a black and white print I want a default of a neutral looking print from paper white to the darkest black.
Many printers have a specific black and white print mode – this often gives better and more consistent results compared to printing with an ICC profile, as I would choose for colour.
The biggest problem with dye inks is that our visual system is very sensitive to slight colour tints. Now that can be addressed in fine tuning the images sent to the printer, but for dye inks there is the problem that any residual colour cast is dependent on the lighting you are viewing under. This effect is there for colour images, but much more difficult to spot.
Take this photo of B&W prints (dye) viewed under daylight and ‘warm’ LED interior lighting.
First up, note the relatively poor performance of the baryta paper – with pigment inks I’d expect a more contrasty look to the print.
However, there’s also a magenta cast I don’t want to see.
Moving indoors the colours have changed a bit, but the art paper is still superior.
When you add the differences of lighting and the whiteness of the underlying paper, getting good results for dye based B&W images needs experimentation. It can be done, but if B&W is important, then it’s the strongest pointer to using pigment inks, if longevity is not so vital to you.
As I mentioned – most visible on B&W pigment ink prints. The HP z3200 printer I looked at in 2009 had a gloss coat. Without it, on some papers, it was truly awful.
Turn on the gloss coat and the prints looked fine.
Inks have improved, but it’s not gone. I noticed it in some B&W prints with the Epson P700/900, avoided by picking different print settings or a different paper – remember, you choose the printer first and then the paper.
I like the option to create large prints. There are no dye based printers available from manufacturers wider than 13″.
You can print long panoramic prints (here on a PRO-200) but 13″ is your maximum width.
A similar maximum width for the XP-15000
Here we have pigment ink – for B&W and 24″ width on the P7000
When dye does well
I deliberately decided to review the Canon PRO-200 and Epson XP-15000 since it’s been a long time since I seriously used a dye based printer and I wanted to see what I could produce that met my standards for printing.
Dye based printers are cheaper too, so I wanted to see what sorts of prints I could make that I’d be happy to put my name on.
So, if I had both sitting on my desk…
- Pigment ink would be my choice for black and white and any prints using baryta style papers.
- Pigment ink for any photos where their ‘archival’ status had some effect on their salability or profitability.
- Dye based ink for ultra-glossy ‘presentation’ colour prints where I wanted an immediate ‘wow’ factor – especially on specialist papers (metallic or high white gloss film).
- Pigment for my B&W work on ‘fine art’ papers.
- Dye or pigment on matt art papers, depending on the contrast range and gamut required.
- Dye for Christmas and other greeting cards. The pictures have more impact and bigger pigment ink printers handle small cut media less easily.
- Dye for small (6″x4″ or 7″x5″) prints – gloss looks good and I’m unconcerned about long term archival properties.
And the winner is…
No, really, there is no ‘best’. It’s what matters to you, your budget, and the sorts of photos and paper choices you want to make.
Recent printer reviews
Many reviews have additional articles looking at B&W or some other aspects of using the printer.
Keith has produced a short YT video looking at the dye/pigment ink choice to complement this article.
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