Inkjet photo printers today are good – darn good – at printing in colour. Modern colour inksets are excellent – both for printing on glossy media and fine art matte papers. We have very little to complain about (except, perhaps, the price of ink which for desktop printers with small cartridges can be very expensive).
For monochrome printing, things aren’t quite so rosy (despite being much improved over early printers) but even so, with the best dedicated photo printers with multiple grey inks, it can still be excellent.
In most cases, with the best printers there seems to be very little reason to consider moving away from OEM inks, with all the attendant messiness that goes with it. And certainly, if you are the kind of person who prefers off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box, effort-free solutions, it is difficult to argue against OEM inks and in favour of 3rd party monochrome inksets.
So why this article?
I think for some people there are still some compelling reasons to go down the dedicated inkset route and I’m going to make the argument here.
But first, before we get to the nitty gritty of the argument, what is a dedicated monochrome inkset?
Your typical inkjet printer ships with cartridges containing colour inks. A minimum standard for a high quality photo printer is 6 ink channels featuring black, cyan, magenta, light cyan and light magenta ink. The printer mixes these inks in different proportions to produce the full colour gamut it is capable of. High end printers usually include additional inks for medium and light grey. Some have different colour ink mixes with colours like orange and blue as well – the intention being to extend the gamut.
There are two types of ink in common use: dye-based ink and pigment based ink. Dye-based inks use a liquid colourant while pigment based inks use solid particle colourants suspended in a liquid. Typically, dye-based inks give the most vivid colours, especially on glossy materials, but tend to be the more unstable and fade prone. Pigment based ink usually resists fading better at the cost of some gamut and vibrancy. Modern ink formulations have helped to ameliorate both ink types’ failings but as a general rule those characteristics are still there to some extent.
A dedicated monochrome inkset uses the same number of ink channels and cartridges but instead of filling the cartridges with colour inks, they are all filled with grey ink in different densities from deep black to the lightest grey. Sometimes one or more of the channels may include a very faint colour/grey mix instead of pure grey – the idea being that this permits toning of the monochrome print to be cooler or warmer than a pure neutral grey. In the early days of dedicated inksets there were a number of vendors providing both dye-based and pigment-based monochrome inksets but these days all the dedicated mono inksets I’m aware of are pigment based (mainly using carbon pigment).
Why might I want a dedicated mono printer and inkset?
Given that modern OEM ink and high end photo printers can produce such good monochrome results and still print excellent colour, why would I want to bother with a dedicated monochrome solution? Back in the days of the Epson 1270/80/90 class printers, mono results from OEM inks were quite poor: they tended to have colour casts (green being my particular bugbear) or even split-tone effects with different casts in different parts of the picture and the dye-based inks of that time were susceptible to rapid fading. Most of those problems have been solved by OEMs but there are still some reasons to look at dedicated monochrome inks.
OEM inks such as the K3 family can provide excellent image quality, easily good enough for most photographers. But for those who obsess about ultimate printing quality, dedicated mono inks in combination with software like QuadtoneRIP, still offer the most potential for fine tuning that last drop of quality.
For fine art photographers who sell their work, long term permanence can be an important issue. No one wants to sell works that fade or change significantly in a short period of time. Modern consumables are much better in this respect than they used to be but there are still issues. A dedicated inkset can be designed to better OEM inks in this respect (although there are never any guarantees).
There are a number of pigment colourants used in OEM colour pigment inks. These pigments tend to be more light-fast and stable than their dye-ink equivalents but no colour pigment yet is perfectly stable. The most stable pigment we have is a black pigment, pure carbon pigment. This is made of finely ground carbon and can be made into excellent dedicated monochrome black ink and with suitable dilutants, a range of grey shades. Carbon pigment has been used widely in different forms for art for thousands of years. Ice age cave paintings have been found that may be tens of thousands of years old made with carbon pigments. If you want archival permanence, pure carbon is your best bet but only for monochrome printing.
Freedom from colour casts under different lighting
Many colour inksets, even those with additional grey inks, can sometime exhibit metamerism or different colour casts under different lighting. This can make it tricky to decide on the correct neutral balance if a print is expected to be viewed under different lighting. For example, a print that looks perfectly neutral in daylight, may look slightly greenish or magenta under certain kinds of artificial light.
Pure carbon pigment based dedicated inks are free from unexpected colour casts under different lighting.
Flexibility with a wide range of Epson printers
Epson print engines are piezo based unlike some other brands that use thermal heads. Piezo based heads are flexible about the ink type they can use. The majority of Epson printers are quite happy printing with dye-based and pigment-based inks, irrespective of how they are marketed. Many Epson models (cheap or expensive) have 3rd party re-usable cartridges and continuous inking systems available on the aftermarket. This makes Epson printers a flexible choice for third party solutions such as monochrome inksets. No matter what your budget, there are a lot of possible Epson printers that will work happily with dedicated mono inksets. With other brands it is not so straight forward, unfortunately.
OEM inks are expensive, there is no getting away from it. The massive 3rd party replacement ink market is a testament to this fact. It’s bad enough if you are using pro grade printers with huge cartridges but the small desk top printers can use cartridges with only 10ml of usable ink and this can work out to be outrageously expensive. The 3rd party replacement inks offer an economical alternative but many of them sell simply on low price rather than quality.
Fortunately, for dedicated monochrome use, the carbon pigment inks can provide both economy and top of the range quality. If you go down the DIY route of mixing your own dedicated inksets, the ink price can be as low as 1% of the OEM price. I don’t know about you but in a digital online world where printing is becoming less common, anything which motivates printing has to be a good thing and the combination of archival permanence and extremely high image quality with the lowest available ink prices seems a good motivator to me.
DIY experimentation and formulation
OEM inks are standard formulations in sealed cartridges and you can’t do much to tweak the results. Dedicated mono inksets can also be purchased as ready made off-the-shelf products and the same constraints apply. However, carbon black inks can usually also be purchased in bulk bottles for refilling your own cartridges or for use in continuous inking systems. You can also buy or DIY your own base solutions so you can purchase only the pure black bulk ink and mix your own grey dilutions to your preferred formula. You can add colour pigments for toned prints or just to adjust the overall print warmth to your taste. There are a lot of options for those prepared to experiment and tinker, much as there was scope for perfecting your own developer or fixer mixes in the wet darkroom days. Some people will enjoy the flexibility and control these options provide.
A case study – or why I decided a dedicated mono printer was for me
My needs are just one special case and everyone will have their own needs but this will show at least why and how it works for me. Perhaps you find something here that informs your own needs.
I used to own an Epson R2400 printer which used K3 inks. This was an excellent photo printer. However, we live in a small house with little spare space and the R2400 took up quite a bit of room and when it eventually expired, in the interests of domestic harmony, I settled for a cheap all in one convenience printer. Unfortunately, this gave such dismal results with photos I eventually stopped printing altogether.
For a long time, I have wanted to get back into photo printing, but I have been unable to find a compact photo printer. The days of A4/letter equivalents to state of the art large photo printers seem to have gone. However, there are still lots of small All-in-ones that use 6 channel Claria dye inks. And most Epson print engines are perfectly happy with dye or pigment ink. Which set me thinking about the idea of converting a cheap All-in-one Epson to be a dedicated pigment ink mono printer (6 channels is more than enough for mono printing).
There are several pure carbon inksets commercially available. I know of Piezography, MIS Associates Eboni and Farbenwerks Carbonprint Museum. There may be more.
The one that caught my eye was the MIS Associates Eboni ink because of the writings of a fine art photographer/printer called Paul Roark who is an advocate for dedicated monochrome carbon pigment printing. He designs inksets based on MIS Associates Eboni ink on an open source basis (publishing his formulae for anyone to use) and as a consultant to MIS who package and sell his inksets under various Eboni brands. MIS also sell the basic Eboni ink and Paul’s dilution bases in bulk to anyone who wants to mix their own ink. Paul’s articles on his website got my attention and I was particularly attracted to what he calls his Carbon-6 formulation.
Carbon-6 is an open source formulation (also available from MIS under a different name as a commercial offering) designed to work with 6 channel Epson printers. This appealed to me because there are a lot of 6 channel Epson printers, many of them very cheap, and many of these printers have 3rd party refillable cartridges available (check Ebay or Amazon as a starting place). Paul’s recommendation for carbon-6 is the 1400/1430/1500w series of A3+ printers but the same ink and methods work fine with small printers, too.
Carbon-6 compatible printers
Epson have and continue to make a lot of 6 channel printers with different model numbers but similar (or identical) print engines. But for my initial experiment, I bought an ancient Epson R300 from Ebay for £15. After finishing my initial tests, I opted for a new inexpensive Epson XP-55 which has worked very well so far. The R300 is still going after a reset of its service interval shutdown and is employed now as a colour printer. I intend to replace it with an XP960 because it shares the same “elephant” carts as the XP-55 and it can also do A3 despite its small footprint. The XP-55 and XP-960 ought to be stackable, hence domestically acceptable. The R300 can look forward to retirement and I can get my dining room chair back.
Sourcing carbon-6 ink
I obtained my Eboni MK ink, plus Roark’s dilution base in pint bottles from MIS Associate’s website inksupply.com. I got a set of refillable carts from Ebay with syringes included. I also picked up a box of empty 100ml plastic bottles with screw tops to mix my inks in (any suitable container will do, if you have something lying around).
Mixing the inkset
Paul Roark publishes the Eboni MK to dilution base formula on his website under the carbon-6 name.
It’s straight forward: 100% Eboni MK in the black channel. The other channels are mixed as:
- Cyan = 30% Eboni, remainder dilution base
- Magenta = 18% Eboni, remainder dilution base
- Light Cyan = 9% Eboni, remainder dilution base
- Light Magenta = 6% Eboni, remainder dilution base
- Yellow = 2% Eboni, remainder dilution base
Using 100ml storage bottles makes the ink to base calculations easy.
I am naturally clumsy; I knock things over and spill stuff all the time but even so, even for someone as cack-handed as me mixing the base and the Eboni ink was not a problem.
Once you have mixed your inkset in storage bottles, the next step is to fill the carts. If you haven’t done this before, it is easy but can be messy. The kitchen sink is a good place!
Most refillable carts require you to pull out a couple of rubber bungs, inject the ink in using a syringe (usually supplied) then replace one of the bungs leaving the breather hole open.
Installing the carts
This is similar to installing OEM ink carts. Sometimes it works first time, sometimes you have to remove and re-seat a cart to get it to be recognised. Epson printers get annoyed when you use 3rd party ink and display warnings but you can safely ignore the warnings. Occasionally, you might get a bad chip on a cart but usually just re-seating the cart or switching the printer on and off gets it to accept the foreign cart. So, far I have not had any problems with refillables.
Once installed, you may need to do one or two head cleaning cycles until you get a clear test print.
How to print with dedicated mono inksets
The most basic way is to use the Epson printer driver colour controls. The carbon-6 dilution mix gives a reasonable print with default settings. If you not fussy, this will do but if you are not fussy why would you use carbon-6? My initial tests looked ok but the shadows were quite dark. This is a common problem with OEM ink printing as well. Possible solutions include adjusting the printer driver contrast and brightness and colour sliders until you get something you like or adjusting the source file in your editor until you get a reasonable match with the printer. In an ideal world, if you have a calibrated monitor it should be easy to get an accurate match to the print but it rarely seems to work like that in practice. Often monitors are set too bright.
Linearising with ICC monochrome profiles
All this fiddling around with print drivers can work but my printing experience suggests you get much more reliable results if you use ICC profiles to control the printer through your editor of choice.
Many printers these days are supplied with ICC colour profiles or generic ones are available for download. You can get specific ones made for your particular printer for a modest fee from suppliers but ideally you make your own using a print spyder reflection colorimeter device if you have one. This provides the most flexibility if you use different printers, inks and papers.
Normally, ICC profiles are meant for colour printing but these are of no use for monochrome inksets. Instead, you need to do a process called “linearising” the printer. This means controlling the printer so that each patch in a grey step wedge prints with a smooth increase in density from white to dark. You linearise the printer using a monochrome ICC profile. You can’t get mono ICC profiles off the shelf, you’ll need to make your own. The easiest way is to use a tool that ships with the Shareware program QuadtoneRip. You’ll need a print spyder device of some kind to do this (beg borrow or buy). I have a Spyder Print SR model but there are many others available at different price points. Use Google for the details of making a profile (Northlight images have an article and there is useful instructions in the QuadtoneRip manual). I may write a follow up post of my own on how I did mine.
Once you have your mono ICC profile, you use the profile just the same as you would use a colour profile and it ensures you get smooth, linear tones.
I get the best results using the ICC mono profile I made. It lifts the shadows and smooths the tones across the range. Even with the profile, I still had to make the shadows a little lighter in my editor than I was used to do doing for screen viewing. Not a massive adjustment but necessary. If you can’t make a profile, you can still get decent prints using the printer driver controls but it may require more trial and error to find good settings.
Carbon-6 Print tone
The big challenge with monochrome printing is the print tone. The eye is extremely sensitive to colour casts in monochrome images. We expect mono prints to be grey, not colour tinted. However, achieving a neutral grey is not so easy. OEM inks like the K3 inkset from Epson, mix grey and colour inks to cool or warm the image. You can’t do that with a 1oo% mono inkset. Carbon pigment has a naturally warm tone – it looks dark brown rather than neutral grey. Paul Roark chose to work with MIS Associate’s Eboni ink because he found it the least warm carbon ink. The final print tone is dependent on the paper used. Roark recommends the papers that naturally work with carbon-6 to give a neutral or near neutral tone. For other papers, you need to experiment to decide whether you like the tone. With my favourite Permajet matte paper, I find the out of the box tone very much to my taste. It isn’t neutral, it has a small amount of warmth similar to how I tended to tone my prints with the OEM ink, but it is nothing extreme like sepia.
If you wish to have a completely neutral tone or even a cooler, more bluish tone and your paper doesn’t give you what you want, you will need to add some cool toner to your ink mix. Roark’s neutral carbon-6 solution is reasonably simple. He replaces the 2% Eboni dilution in the yellow channel with a 10% mix of Canon Lucia blue and cyan. He uses these particular inks for colour stability and a graceful long term fade profile but if you are mixing your own inks you can experiment yourself if you don’t like his recommendations. I’ve not tried adding a toner yet, so at this point I don’t have much to share on this – see Paul Roark’s website for more information.
QuadtoneRIP (QTR) Shareware
QTR is a shareware program developed by Roy Harrington. QTR is a Raster Image Processor or RIP. It replaces the Epson print driver and takes control of the printer directly. RIPs have been around for years but they tend to be very expensive. QTR is a low cost and effective solution dedicated to monochrome printing with Epson printers. It is available for Windows and Mac. It is free to test and costs a very reasonable one off fee to register. It also includes some useful utility programs such as the ICC mono profile creator.
QTR can be userful when you need more control over your printing than is provided by the basic Epson print driver or an ICC mono profile approach. It allows you to create special profiles that control all aspects of the printer including how much ink is put down by each channel or even switching channels off. You can use it to obtain complete control over your monochrome printing. It works with a wide range of inksets from Epson OEM to dedicated inksets like Eboni and Piezography. QTR takes time to understand and master but for the modern Ansel Adams types out there who want total control over results it may be worth the investment.