The cost of inkjet printing is one of the most controversial, confusing, and unresolved questions in the digital photography world. Buy a printer? Print at home? Go to the local drugstore’s photo department? Contract with a professional printer? The head spins with the possible options.
“But what are the costs?” you might ask. That’s a tough one.
In this post, I’ll conduct a basic investigation of the ink usage patterns of two printers: the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 (now called the SureColor P800), and the Canon PRO-1. Both are very capable printers (I use both in different situations), but I wanted to know what the cost comparison would be between the two. I’m grouping the Epson 3880 and P800 together, as there is no difference in their actual printing specifications in terms of ink.
Personally, I print my students’ work at the college on a Canon PRO-1 (we have been a Canon-affiliated school for a number of years, through the generous help of Chuck Fortina at Rockbrook Camera in Lincoln and Omaha). I use an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer in my studio, Epson Stylus Pro 3880, and soon an Epson SureColor P800 at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. I’ve been happy with the prints from all these machines. And for formats larger than my 3880 can handle, I work with Bob Korn, who many regard as one of the best printmakers in North America.
Printing decisions are usually economic decisions. When Bob prints for me, I know the general costs up front, and since the pieces he makes for me are headed for museums or private collections, I know I’ll usually recoup those costs. Moreover, many of the prints I make at home are headed for shows or customers, so those costs are also recovered. In the case of hobbyists, printing at home is seen as cost-effective and fun, so there are both tangible and intangible benefits. But what ARE the costs?
So this post is about the actual cost of printing on the Canon and Epson, albeit using my own informal method, since I have ready access to both. Red River Paper uses a very scientific method, which you can view using this link; however, even their methods are not always accurate. Because photographs are infinitely variable in their tones, ink usage is, quite literally infinite, in its usage patterns. So while Red River uses capable methodology, I developed my own in order to compare the costs on the Canon PRO-1 and the Epson Stylus Pro 3880/Epson SureColor P800, which are based on the usage patterns of the most-often-utilized single ink tank: Epson’s Ultrachrome K3 Light Black 80ml tank (list price $62.95), and Canon’s PGI-29 Dark Grey 36ml tank (list price $41.99). That boils down to $0.70 per ml for the Epson, and $1.17 per ml for the Canon (see Table 01). Notice that Canon offers a PGI-29 Color Ink Value pack (list price $359.99), while Epson offers no value pack price, so I’ve adjusted for the Canon’s less expensive option.
There are some measurement issues in comparing the two printers. Epson’s on-printer panel provides an fairly accurate percentage ink remaining level, but since each percentage produces multiple prints, it’s a bit of “guestimation” on their rounding algorithm. Canon’s software utility only gives approximates in 30 percent increments.
I mitigated these problems by 1) printing the Epson across 5 percent of the tank, then averaging the usage across each percent value; and 2) printing the Canon until it had an empty Dark Grey tank, then—like the Epson—averaging the usage across each percent. The images I used for the Canon were students’ black and white photographs as part of a college class; the images used for the Epson were a variety of my own black and white images. Both groups showed strong black areas and wide tonality ranges. For the test, I used Moab Entrada Rag Bright 300/gsm paper.
Since the Canon cartridges are 36ml versus the Epson’s 80ml, I standardized the results by multiplying the Canon’s 1 percent result by 2.22 (36 x 2.22 = 79.92).
For printer settings, the Canon print quality was High Quality, and the Epson quality was Full Print Density and 2880 SuperPhoto.
Keep in mind that this test is approximate, too; depending on the image being printed, there may be slightly more or less demand on the tanks noted above. My square inches print count results are in Table 02; since I measured the results in square inches of printing, I have formatted those results into the number of 5″ x 7″ prints by 1 mL usage.
My results showed 1 mL of the Epson ink in the light black tank makes 420.25 square inches of printing, while 1 mL of the Canon makes 146.17 square inches of printing. That equals 12.01 5″ x 7″ prints from the Epson, and 4.18 from the Canon; a 5″ x 7″ print has 35 square inches.
Thus, if we assume a full color image will take the same amount of ink from each tank, the maximum cost of printing a single 5″ x 7″ print on each printer is $2.39 for the Canon, and $0.53 for the Epson. I calculated this figure by using this formula:
(Cost/mL x No. Tanks) / Printable 5 x 7s per mL = Max Cost per Print
When I first installed the Canon PRO-1 printers in our department, I was concerned about the small tank size (about 1/3 the size of the Epson) and the high cost ratio (33% the ink amount for the Canon compared to the Epson, but 65% percent of the cost per set of tanks). I originally decided to undertake this comparison when I noticed printing my students’ work at the college was burning through a large amount of ink, and became concerned about our printing budget allowance. The results supported my concerns: the Canon takes a much larger amount of ink than the Epson (about three times as much).
Suffice it to say, I’m not unhappy with either the Canon printing quality or the longevity of the print; an archival print from the Canon has more than a 100-year fade-proof lifespan, while the Epson is rated for about 60 years before fading (without the protection of glass). We can conclude therefore that Canon’s inks have a much longer lifespan, justifying some of their increased cost (See the Wilhelm Research Report on Canon Ink Lifespan v. Epson Ink Lifespan using Canson Papers). Both printers make exceptionally nuanced prints, and the Canon shows outstanding depth of blacks. That fact may also account for some of the Canon’s high ink usage.
Furthermore, few prints will exhibit maximum ink usage, and paper type matters for ink consumption. On the Epson, we can decrease the optical density of the print in the Advanced B&W Printing dialog, and while I’ve found no superior method of decreasing density directly in the Canon dialog, the Color Options > Intensity slide can have some effect on the Canon’s thirstiness. Since I print mostly black and white images, I use matte papers frequently, which tend to soak up more ink.
Frankly, $2.39 seems very expensive for a 5″ x 7″ print, so I suggest there needs to be more investigations of this issue. I cannot imagine that Canon would expect consumers to be happy with that kind of printing cost, and that leaves me dubious of the results from this test. But at the same time, I’ve been concerned about how fast the PRO-1 burns through ink when I’m printing student work.
So, here at the end of the test, I fully admit this test is anecdotal at best. I’m certain that other test results will vary. For another investigation that uses different methodology, take a look at Red River Paper’s results for the Canon and the Epson. My own experience has been that Ink usage and printing cost is a hotly debated topic.
Please take time to weigh in respectfully with your own experiences in the comment section. What have you found concerning ink usage in these two top-of-the-line machines?