Recently, I’ve been adding a number of new posts intended for intermediate users of the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 or Epson SureColor P800, most specifically those who want to create museum-grade prints at higher quality. This post will help complete that process by showing how to adjust and calibrate the print feed on the 3880; I’m hoping to get my hands on a P800 soon to test this process there as well. Here I want to give you a more detailed look into how I prepare a print for museums and permanent collections, like the final iteration of “Horses and Gathering Storm” as it is printing on the left.
As I wrote in my banding post last week, there is little room for error when you’re creating prints that are going into permanent collections or museums, since those venues expect nothing short of exceptional quality. Take a look at the example to the right. For the left 4″ x 6″ copy of “Leif and Claire,” I de-calibrated the printer, while the right image is printed in a calibrated manner; notice how grainy and banded the image is in the un-calibrated print, while the calibrated is exceptionally smooth. Keep in mind, these details are on a small 4″ x 6″ print—image how egregious the problems would be on a larger 24″ x 16″!
The point is, unless you’ve calibrated your Epson Stylus Pro 3880 or SureColor P800 printer, you’re not getting the absolute top quality out of your images. Good news, though—I’ll show you how to perform that calibration next.
I try to give credit where credit is due at all times, and in this case, I want to make sure my good friend and master printer Bob Korn gets the nod for convincing me that hard proofing is the only way to go. When I am doing museum prints larger than the 22″ x 15″ my Epson can handle, Bob’s my go-to guy; considering he’s printed images that are in the Smithsonian, MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m not sure anyone could do better than him when it comes to large-scale images.
What’s “hard proofing,” you ask? When we print, we do two types of proofing: soft and hard. Soft proofing is digital: you see the simulated image on your monitor. The problem with soft proofing, though, is that the monitor can only approximate the look of the final image based on the .ICC profile you assign to the image. In my experience—and Bob’s—soft proofing just isn’t very accurate. Hard proofing is done by actually printing the image for each change you make, putting each print under good museum lighting on an examination table, and scrutinizing the print with a >10x loupe (I use an inexpensive Peak 15x, which is available at B&H Photo).
I’ll ask one favor, though, in exchange for this lesson: Show your appreciation for these posts (which take many, many hours to produce) by use this link to purchase when you buy paper from Red River. Red River papers are a large volume of paper in my stock, and the manufacturer I’ll use for this exercise.
Let’s get started.
Stage 1: Prepping Our Materials
We’ll use several 25″ x 17″ sheets of paper during this process. I prefer to buy bigger sheets and cut them into varying sizes, as it allows me to keep my paper stock a bit smaller (the studio just doesn’t have enough storage space). If you prefer to buy pre-cut paper, that works fine, too. If you choose to cut like me, I use a Dahle 556 trimmer; don’t scrimp on cheaper products, as you will indeed get exactly the quality for which you paid (Rotatrim is also outstanding, but more expensive than Dahle). During this lesson, we’ll use 8 4″ x 6″ sheets, 3 5″ x 7″ sheets, and the final 25″ x 16″ large print sheet.
You’ll also want to make sure all your ink tanks are full. While 4″ x 6″ prints don’t use much, having at least 25% to 30% minimum ink levels will ensure you don’t get to the final stage and suddenly realize you’re out of K3 Ultrachrome.
Other items you’ll need are an 8″ x 10″ manila envelope, some packing tape, a fine-point Sharpie pen, and that loupe I told you about earlier. During the process we’ll use here, on screen I’ll substitute 600 dpi scans for the loupe examination, as it shows better for the Web. However, if you take a class from Bob Korn or me at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, you’ll see us use the actual loupe process and learn how to do it yourself.
Stage 2: Producing the Control Print
It’s very difficult to know how much of a difference the calibration process has made unless we have a control print for comparison, using the paper on which the final print will be made. With that in mind, I suggest visiting my banding lesson here and creating a 2880 dpi control print first in a 5″ x 7″ size. After you’ve printed the image, take the 8″ x 10″ envelope and label it for the paper you’re using (see Figure 02 for what I’m suggesting).
Once you’ve labeled the envelope, now label the back of the print with the paper name and the word “CONTROL” on the back with the fine-point Sharpie (see Figure 03). For the time being, drop it in the envelope.
Stage 3: Calibration
Here’s where the proofing process starts. Before we begin this phase, I’d recommend printing out this post; during part of the process, you’ll need to close all applications for safety sake (unless you’re hoping to break your printer). Open the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 panel, click the Settings icon, and under the Utilities tab, click Open Printer Utility (see Figure 04).
The initial printer utility panel is shown in Figure 05; you’ll need to click the EPSON LFP Remote Panel icon (shown by the green box in Figure 05).
When the LFP panel opens, you’ll have four options: Firmware Updater, Printer Watcher, Paper Feed Adjuster and Custom Paper Setup. We’ll be using Paper Feed Adjuster first (see Figure 06). A warning box will tell you to close all open applications and stop all other print jobs, and you should do so at this time. This is very important, because an interruption or power failure at this juncture can corrupt the printer system, and then you’ve got a nice, long service appointment ahead of you. A “Please Wait” dialog will pop up, and it will take quite a while for it to disappear—don’t be impatient!
After a time, the Paper Feed Adjuster dialog will appear (see Figure 07). You’ll need to make the proper settings for your paper, and this needs to be done first (the Paper Feed Adjustment dialogs need this for proper calibration). Set the following elements:
- Media Type (Ink Type should set itself automatically for the media type you select)
- Paper Source (choose Sheet Feeder)
- Print Quality (choose Super Photo – 2880 dpi Advanced B&W Photo)
Once you’ve completed setting the details, load your 4″ x 6″ paper samples into the sheet feeder, and click Details in the Paper Feed Adjustment A section of the Paper Feed Adjuster dialog. A new window will open (see Figure 08), but you’ll see the “Please Wait” window for a while first.
This dialog allows you to print a series of five test images showing a square, which consists of 3/4 grey area, and 1/4 black. It allows us to examine (with the aforementioned loop) each area and check the consistency and ink saturation of each. I don’t recommend altering the Testing Range or using the Custom Image option, as the Epson’s range and Standard Image are nicely suited to this task.
Now, click the Print button below. At this point, a Printing Samples alert will show, and if you click your Epson 3880 icon in the Dock (see Figure 09), you’ll see the five samples in the queue (see Figure 09). This stage checks the main body of printing consistency in relationship to the feed speed. As each test print emerges, take each out of the tray as it prints, and stack the five images in order from -25 to 25. Click the Close button.
Now we’ll print the B adjustments. In the Feed Adjuster window (see Figure 08), click the Details button under the Paper Feed Adjustment B heading. A different dialog will now appear (see Figure 10). Load three more 4″ x 6″ samples in the sheet feeder, and again click print. Follow the same process as during the A printing: stack the three pieces in order, then click the Close button.
So now we have eight sample prints (see Figure 11). We’ll use these in a moment, but for now, close the Print Feed Adjuster by clicking the Close button, so that we return to the LFP Remote Panel. Then, on a well-lit table (and I do mean WELL-lit; a strong desk lamp no more than 14″ above the viewing surface will suffice), order the Print Feed A prints in the following way, starting from the upper left: -25, -13, 0, 13, 25.
Use the loupe to look for the most uniformity and consistency of tone in the grey area, narrowing it to the best two prints. Don’t do this without the loupe–you won’t see any difference overall. If you look at Figure 12, I’ve provided two, in color, overlapped for easier comparison. Note that in Figure 12, the sample printed at 25 shows white banding, while the print sample at -13 doesn’t; in a real application, I would compare the -13 and the 0 samples to gauge which was cleaner. In the case of “Leif and Claire,” -13 and 0 were on the inside edges of an acceptable result, so I averaged them at -6. On the best sample, write down that Print Feed A optimal number.
Now look at the Print Feed Adjustment B samples. These tell us what the optimal setting is for the tension wheels as the end of the print is being produced; remember that we printed at -25, 0 and 25. Using the loupe, look for the smoothest texture in the square, and write down the resulting value. Keep in mind that paper can make a big difference here, as glossy or luster papers can be much more finicky than matte papers, which tend to show less detail overall. In the case of “Horses and Storm,” which I print on Red River Aurora Art White, there is little discernible difference in the A adjustment between the -13 to 13 range; as a result, I have recorded this paper’s optimal feed settings as “A: 0, B: 25.”
Now we have our values, and it’s time to enter these into the fourth option of the LFP: the Custom Paper Setup (see Figure 06: Click the button below the highlighted area).
Stage 4: The Custom Paper Setup
Once you’re back in the LFP Remote Panel, click the fourth option, Custom Paper Setup. A new dialog will pop up (see Figure 13); enter the same paper details as before, and then load a 5″ x 7″ sheet in landscape style. Now click the Thickness Pattern button, and the printer will print a 15-element pattern on the 5 x 7.
Now let’s examine the resulting print and enter our overall values from our calibration testing.
Figure 14 shows the thickness pattern we’ve printed; examine each numbered item and find the one that shows close lines, but clear separation between the two. In the case of this print on Red River Aurora Art White, number 5 shows the best separation. Enter that number into the Paper Thickness field. Now, if the number is over 4, select “Wide” for the Platen Gap; if the number is over 7, select “Widest” for the Platen Gap. This will ensure the print head and rollers aren’t likely to make contact with the paper during printing. Next, enter in the two numbers we recorded earlier for the Paper Feed A and Paper Feed B. Finally, enter 5 for the Drying Time/Print Head Pass; this allows the pigment time to set between passes and minimizes the chance of smearing.
Select #1 from the Custom Name pulldown, and then click Save at the bottom of the Dialog; after the saving has completed, click Activate to enable the new profile. Important: This profile will override any dialog changes you make from the standard printing interface in Lightroom or Photoshop, so you’ll need to use the Epson’s on-machine menu to disable the custom profile.
SIDE NOTE: You can disable the profile by pressing Menu > Custom Paper > Standard. This will return the Epson to its default settings. Don’t do this until you’re ready to return to the default settings.
Stage 5: Printing the New Calibrated Print and Conclusion
Now open Photoshop, load a 5″ x 7″ in the sheet feeder, and print using the new settings. Once it’s done, use the loupe to compare the control print we made earlier to this new improved print (see Figure 01). There should be a noticeable improvement in smoothness for most papers, as well as detail. Turn the new master print over, and use the Sharpie to record all your settings (see Figure 16). Drop all the sample prints into the manila envelope and archive it to ensure you have kept your data.
One last note: Remember to use the Manual-Front feed when making the final museum print, since the “Pizza Wheel” problem on the Epsons (small marks made on the surface of the print) is alleviated by this method.
You can see my final print of “Horses and Gathering Storm” for its upcoming MONA Biennial on the left. I hope this helps you make prints worthy of pride! It has been my process since the earliest days I’ve used my Epson for permanent collection work, and I wish you the best in making your first archival SuperPhoto print.