INTRODUCTION: The importance of choosing the right ink for your EPSON Stylus Pro Printer
Epson Stylus PRO printers are intended for the serious professional who requires high quality printing results. When considering the high cost of ink supplies for these printers, professionals are highly motivated to try to either refill or use compatible cartridges. This guide will clarify the important ink characteristics to consider in order to choose the best ink for your professional application. If you have tried to refill or use cheap compatibles in the past but have been disappointed with the results, then you really should read this guide. There is a wide variety of ink products available on the market today. Understanding the type of product you need will ensure that you will be able to save a great deal of money on ink supplies without compromising the high quality of your valuable work.
How this guide is organized
This guide follows a logical order of describing important ink characteristics, how they affect print quality and how to choose the best ink for your application. The reader may proceed to the comparison chart and recommendations at the end of this guide and then refer back to the characteristics sections if more details are required.
Important ink Characteristics and how they affect the quality of your work
Color Gamut: This is the entire range of colors that can be reproduced with an ink set. In General, dye based inks tend to be cleaner than pigment based ink and thus can produce wider color gamut. It is also important to note that your printer would need to have a proper color profile in order to achieve the full color gamut potential of the ink being used.
Colorant: Inks are generally defined by the type of colorant used in their formulation. There are two basic types of colorants, pigments and dyes. Pigments tend to be very resistant to UV light while dyes produce cleaner, brighter, more saturated colors and improved photo quality. Note that some high quality inks contain a combination of both dye and pigment in order to achieve optimal performance.
Drying Speed: Many factors in the formulation of inks contribute to how fast they can dry. It is quite obvious that an ink that can dry faster can have many advantages. A faster drying ink can increase productivity (less time wasted drying), reduce risk of smudging and can be used with wider variety of substrates (media). Other advantages include reduced feathering, increased clarity and reduced spreading (dot-gain).
Adhesion: How well an ink can adhere to various media (substrates) greatly depends on the ink's resin formulation. The resin is basically the ink formulation less the colorant. Most inks are based on polymeric resins such as acrylics which tend to work best on specially coated or treated substrates. Some higher quality inks are based on more complex molecular resin formulations that exhibit better adhesion properties not only with a greater variety of substrates (media) but also within the ink itself. This means that inks formulated with complex Resin formulations can produce better adhesion of pigments and dyes within a mixed formulation thus achieving the longevity similar to a pigment ink with the wider gamut of a dye based ink. Best of both worlds performance, pigments that behave like dyes.
Resin Type: Polymeric such as Acrylic or Complex Molecular. See Adhesion above. In addition to the above, Complex Molecular resins are essential for creating inks that offer higher color concentration, increased surface tension and lower viscosity. These are parameters that give an ink superior performance and contribute to clog-free operation.
Black Density: K3 inks have been formulated to increase resolution of the black in order to achieve a wide range of grey colors while also achieving deep black color. Three black inks are used to achieve this goal and yet some people still find that the blacks are still not as dense as they would like. Some high quality inks have been formulated with enhanced black density performance thus producing deeper black than can be achieved with the OEM EPSON inks.
Bronzing: This effect, also known as gloss differential, occurs when an ink does not absorb very well within a substrate, typically glossy photo paper. The ink tends to stay on the surface and not absorb evenly. Therefore, when observing the prints from different angles it is possible to see a strange surface effect that looks like metallic blotching with a bronze tint, especially in areas of dense black. This Effect is so highly pronounced that EPSON recommends switching between Matte Black and Photo Black when using glossy media. Of course if a higher quality ink is used so that bronzing would not occur, there would be no need to switch blacks when switching from matte to glossy substrates.
Photo Black: As explained above, in order to minimize bronzing effects, Epson recommends the use of photo black ink on glossy photo media. This ink is pigment based, with low tinctorial strength so that it can be better absorbed on the glossy media. This only partially solves the problem but produces typically weaker blacks. Higher quality inks with Complex Molecular resins do require the use of photo black thus saving switching time and producing deeper blacks with highly durable pigment inks.
Clog-Free Operation: EPSON printers tend to get clogged print heads more often than most users would want. Every time cleaning cycles are required this wastes both time and ink. Therefore, productivity is reduced and costs quickly go up. If not careful, the savings from using lower quality ink can very quickly be overtaken by higher operating costs, down time, repairs, etc. Higher quality inks have consistent, stable formulations that minimize or eliminate pigment sedimentation thus reducing clog risk. Higher quality inks also undergo a very slow filtering process that eliminates potential clogs caused by larger than 1 micron particles. Furthermore, higher quality inks with Complex Molecular resins further minimize sedimentation and further reduce clog risk.
Dot Gain: When an ink particle hits the surface of the paper it will have a tendency to spread as it is absorbed. This gives the effect of the dot getting larger, thus gaining width. The lower that gain is then the sharper the images produced by that ink will be. Lower dot gain leads to sharper, highly focused and very clear photo reproduction. Higher quality inks minimize the effects of dot gain by having faster drying properties with higher surface tension (holds together better) and lower viscosity for more rapid penetration into the media.
Light Fastness: Also known as Fade Resistant, Fade Proof, UV Resistance, etc. This is a measure of how well an ink performs under the influence of Light. When ink is exposed to light, especially the higher energy and frequency of Ultra-Violet (UV) light, all colorants in the inks exhibit color changes. These changes take the form of color shift and loss of intensity. Eventually, given sufficient time, all inks will fade away completely. The ONLY difference is whether this process will take many years under very intense UV light or just a few days under normal lighting conditions. Obviously, most inks being sold for use in EPSON Professional printers have been formulated to have some form of fade resistance. However, one should be careful not to be misled by meaningless marketing advertising such as: "Good for 100 years" or "200 years" as can be often observed in product advertising. This type of specification is meaningless. If one specifies a period of time then one must also specify to what level of UV light the prints are exposed and how much fading has occurred in that period. Since no one will be around in 200 years, how do you know if the ink will last that long? Ink manufacturers often submit their inks to accelerated fading tests under extreme UV light for several months. They then classify their inks in terms of being suitable for a particular use or meeting a specific maximum amount of fading in some number of years. Since the required information is hard to find, we can only compare relative light fastness based on the fact that most pigments exhibit fairly good light fastness. However, modern dye formulations have UV resistant formulations that give them excellent longevity although they are typically not recommended for archival work.
Ask the right questions before you buy ink for your EPSON Stylus Pro Printer
If you are not sure about the characteristics of the ink you are buying then you should ask the supplier to provide you with the relevant information so that you can make an informed purchasing decision. Just because an ink is said to be compatible with your printer does not mean that it will perform to your expectation or meet your needs. All compatible means is that it will work in your printer. Performance is an entirely different question which can only be addressed once your needs are understood.
Comparison of typical inks for EPSON Stylus Pro Printers
DISCLAIMER: In order to make a comparison chart, the author has selected inks that he has worked with or evaluated based on his own experience. The reader should not conclude that these are the only available options. This chart illustrates the differences between ink types and is intended to guide a buyer to ask the right questions so that purchasing decisions can be made from a sound technical foundation.
The following ink types have been chosen for comparison:
OEM Cartridges: These are genuine branded EPSON cartridges designed for your printer. This is by far the most expensive printing solution but it is the safest in terms of meeting expectations and quality. However, OEM inks have their limitations and are by no means the highest performance inks available. Furthermore, some applications call for inks which have different characteristics than those offered by the OEM inks.
Compatible Cartridges: There are many different manufacturers of compatible cartridges using many different types of inks. Often these cartridges are manufactured in Asia and the specifications of the inks used are uncertain. It is very difficult to obtain technical data and answers to questions from these foreign manufacturers. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing if or when a manufacturer changes the ink formulation used to build their cartridges.
Compatible Ink: There are many ink manufacturers that claim to have EPSON compatible inks. Typically these inks have been formulated to match as closely as possible the characteristics of the OEM inks. Compatible inks may vary from one brand to another but they are inherently by design close matches to the OEM. For purposes of comparison, InkOwl brand Compatible Ink has been chosen.
Wide-Gamut Ink: There are many applications, such as proofing for the printing industry, that require a wider color gamut or a more accurate color reproduction. In such applications better than OEM color reproduction is required. These inks tend to be dye based with very clean color definition. This ensures that a wider color gamut is obtainable. For purposes of comparison, InkOwl brand Professional Wide-Gamut Ink has been chosen.
Wide-Gamut Archival Ink: For Applications that require both very accurate color reproduction and longevity, inks that use an optimum mix of pigments and dyes have been formulated. These inks are very high performance for art reproduction and other high end applications. For purposes of comparison, InkOwl brand Professional Archival Ink has been chosen.
EPSON Stylus Pro Printer Ink Comparison Chart
Gamut Colorant Speed Adhesion
OEM Cartridges: Normal Pigment Normal Normal
Compatible Cartridges: (unknown) (unknown) (Unknown) Poor-Normal
InkOwl Compatible Ink: Normal Pigment Normal Normal
InkOwl Pro Wide-Gamut: Very Wide Dye Faster High
InkOwl Pro Archival: Wide Pigment/Dye Faster High
Resin Black Photo
Type Density Bronzing Black
OEM Cartridges: Polymeric Normal Yes Required
Compatible Cartridges: Polymeric (unknown) Yes Required
InkOwl Compatible Ink: Polymeric Normal Yes Required
InkOwl Pro Wide-Gamut: Complex Molecular Higher No Not Required
InkOwl Pro Archival : Complex Molecular Very High No Not Required
Clog-Free Dot Light
Operation Gain Fastness Archival
OEM Cartridges: Very Good Low Excellent Yes
Compatible Cartridges: Risky Med-High Risky Maybe
InkOwl Compatible Ink: Good Low Excellent Yes
InkOwl Pro Wide-Gamut: Excellent Very Low Very Good No
InkOwl Pro Archival: Excellent Very Low Excellent Yes
Cost per Cost
OEM Cartridges: $500 0%
Compatible Cartridges: $275 45%
InkOwl Compatible Ink: $145 70%
InkOwl Pro Wide-Gamut: $145 70%
InkOwl Pro Archival: $175 65%
Which type of ink is best for your application?
OEM Cartridges: OEM Cartridges reliably provide the specified printer performance for most applications. However, using OEM cartridges is by far the most expensive ink at roughly $500 per liter or $14 per oz. Furthermore, it is also the most recommended and easy solution as long as you are satisfied with the performance of OEM ink and do not mind the high price. However, if you require improved performance such as better adhesion, wider color gamut, faster drying speed, deeper blacks, lower dot gain and other features of advanced inks then you may need to consider using refillable cartridges with an ink that truly meets your requirements. It is important to find a supplier that will work with you to determine the best solution for your application. Keep in mind that inks, cartridges and substrates are not all the same. Therefore, you must be willing to dedicate some effort to finding the best solution for your needs.
Compatible Cartridges: At best, compatible cartridges will have a performance that is similar to the OEM. At worst, anything is possible with the wide variety of cartridges available on the market today. Compatible cartridges will save you approximately 45% of the cost of buying OEM Cartridges but you must be very careful not to compromise the quality of your work. If the work you produce does not require light fastness or accurate stable color reproduction then most compatible cartridges will work just fine. However, if you need high quality you must be very careful when selecting a brand of compatible cartridge. Ask the right questions to ensure that the technical specifications of the ink are adequate and do not assume that the next time you order you will get the same product. Manufacturers often change their formulations without informing their customers, importers or distributors.
InkOwl Compatible Ink: Manufactured in the USA, this ink is formulated to meet or exceed OEM specifications. When used with refillable compatible cartridges, performance similar to original EPSON cartridges can be expected. This solution is recommended for users that are satisfied with the performance of OEM inks but would like to benefit from 70% cost savings that comes from refilling your own cartridges. The EPSON compatible refillable cartridges are basically large transparent ink tanks that can be very easily refilled with a funnel which is usually supplied with the cartridges.
InkOwl Pro Wide-Gamut Ink: Manufactured in Canada, this ink is formulated for maximum color gamut capability. It is recommended to perform a color profiling of the printer using the target substrate in order achieve those hard to match colors such as Reflex Blue. These Wide-Gamut inks are formulated with very clean, high quality dyes with good but not archival light fastness, and a Complex Molecular resin. When used with refillable compatible cartridges, improved performance over OEM inks can be achieved with cost savings of 70%. This solution is recommended for users that are not satisfied with the OEM inks, need higher performance results without the longevity of Archival inks. This ink is ideal Non-Archival applications such as proofing for the printing industry or photo reproduction proofing.
InkOwl Pro Archival Ink: Manufactured in Canada, this ink is formulated for maximum color gamut capability with Archival durability of the best pigments available today. It is recommended to perform a color profiling of the printer using the target substrate in order achieve those hard to match colors such as Reflex Blue. These Archival inks are formulated with very clean high quality pigments and dyes with a Complex Molecular resin. When used with refillable compatible cartridges, improved performance over OEM inks can be achieved with cost savings of 65%. This solution is recommended for users that are not satisfied with the OEM inks and need to achieve "no compromise" highest performance results. This ink is ideal for high quality photo reproduction, art reproduction or any application which requires Archival durability with wide-gamut color reproduction.
Not sure which type of ink you need?
If you are still not sure about what type of ink is best suited for your application then you should do the following:
1) Review the characteristics section above and take note of which ink parameters are most important for your application.
2) Refer to the Comparison Chart to find the best match.
3) Ask questions to your potential suppliers to ensure that your most important concerns are being properly addressed.