Giclée Prints Part 2: Printer and Ink

Giclée is a high-quality archival inkjet print. Printers vary in dot size, and inks vary in longevity. Be careful because even the best printer can be run at a more economical setting resulting in a soft and dull print. The key is to ask a lot of questions if you're buying prints, and provide a lot of information if you're selling prints. 

Ink Type

Inkjet printers use either dye or pigment ink. When giclée printers were first used to make fine art prints, they used dye-based inks that were able to print a small dot size and wide color gamut on uncoated paper. Dyes are absorbed into the paper and are considered archival because in the right conditions they can last 50 years or more. Five years ago some debated that dye based inks were the best. Today the color range in pigments has now surpassed dyes and the added longevity now makes them a far better choice than dyes. Pigments require a coated paper stock that is compatible with the printer. The right combination of paper, printer and inks will produce a print that will last up to 200 years if stored and displayed properly.

In an attempt to save money, some printmakers have switched out the manufacturer’s inks for a third-party’s low-cost cartridge-refilling system, usually sold in bulk amounts. Ink in bulk can get old and clog print heads, affecting printer performance. Some photographers switch out colored inks for black and gray tones, when looking for a true black and white photograph.

Print Permanence Ratings

Wilhelm Imaging Research evaluates print permanence ratings (or longevity) for nearly every printer. Before buying a printer or investing in a print run, check out the testing done by Wilhelm.

Luminous Landscape is also known for comprehensive reviews of printers. More print permanence information is available on the DP & I website.

Dot Size

You've probably heard of DPI (dot per inch), which refers to density, or the amount of dots per inch. DPI can change based on the printer settings. The printer also has an actual dot size that is measured in picoliters (1 picolitre (pl) = 0.000000000001 liter) that cannot be changed. Some printers use variable size ink droplets, meaning that various inks will print with different drop sizes. Smaller dot sizes result in finer detail, smoother gradients and less graininess. Five years ago a 6 pl dot was considered small. Today’s printers have dots as small as 1.5 pl. Some will argue that anything smaller than 3 pl cannot make a difference in print quality.

Printer Settings and Color Profiles

Dot size will mean nothing if the printer is not used to its highest capability. There are various print modes, such as "normal" and "best", in the print dialog box that control the density of ink. Bi-directional printing, another option in the printer dialog, means the printer will lay down ink in both directions. Bi-directional can save time, but in some cases can decrease quality and put extra stress on the printer.

The right color profile in the printer settings is one of the most important things to get right. Printers like the HP Designjet Z3200 allow the user to make and install their own custom profiles. If you don’t have a printer like this you will have to use a spectrometer and other expensive color measurement equipment to make a profile unique to your printer, paper and environment. If this is beyond your means, most paper suppliers provide profiles they have made. Color profiles are complicated and can be hard to understand. Just remember that everything has its own profile and in order to get a good print you need to ensure they all work together - your monitor, Photoshop, the image, the paper and the printer.

You can have the smallest dot size and greatest longevity, but printer and ink are only part of what it takes to make a great print. In Part 3 I will discuss paper and other substrates. 

Giclée Prints Part 1: A Great Giclée

Giclée Prints Part 3: Paper and Other Substrates