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Epson Stylus Photo R800

Darkroom In A Breadbox

Peter Kun Frary

This is a casual user report on the R800 and not an exhaustive review. There are plenty of techno spec infested reviews on the 'net if you crave the gritty details.

When I was in junior high and high school I spent untold hours in my bedroom closet developing and printing black and white images. The burning and dodging, watching images magically appear under the safe light, washing, drying, mounting and framing were time consuming but extremely rewarding and satisfying. I enjoyed the process as much as the product. In my adult life I had either the space or time to use a darkroom and, sadly, greatly missed that aspect of the creative cycle. I was rarely happy with lab prints. Even custom prints from a pro lab lacked the personal control I craved.

Epson Stylus Photo R800 (c. 2004). Inkjet printer with 5760 x 1440 resolution and seven-color Ultrachrome High Gloss pigment ink cartridges (Magenta, Cyan, Yellow, Matte black, photo black, red, and blue) plus Gloss Optimizer cartridge. The R800 is a looker. The sliver-gray and black finish would complement an iMac or Mac Pro nicely (probably look nice next to a black Dell too).

The release of the Epson Photo in 1996 promised to return the precise control of prints to my bedroom. Nevertheless, my first Epson printers, Photo and Photo 1200 (c. 1999), were a far cry from lab quality: I could see the dot pattern on close examination, fading was a constant problem and prints were fragile. The many faded inkjet prints on my wall bare witness to these unfortunate facts. Eventually I gave up on inkjets and took my print jobs to Fuji Digital Frontier labs. And, yes, the results were excellent. However, Epsons's promise of increased print longevity and image clarity seduced me again. Does the R800 deliver as advertised or is it all marketing hype?

Fremont Street Grill • Canon EOS 20D, EF 17-55 2.8 IS USM

Ultrachrome ink

Epson claims fade resistance and durability for the R800 is comparable to or exceeds lab prints. How can these claims be true? First, the R800 uses pigment based Ultrachrome ink. Ultrachrome has a higher fade-resistance than previous Epson dye based inks and does not exhibit metamerism. The R800 also has a Gloss Optimizer cartridge. The Gloss Optimizer applies a "clearcoat" over the surface of glossy prints. The clearcoat prevents bronzing and toughens up the surface. Thus, an image printed on Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper looks, feels and smells like a traditional photographic print--even close up.

A few years ago, inkjet prints aren't as durable as photographic prints. Hand a stack of inkjet prints to a friend with sweaty mitts or drooling problems and watch your images melt away. In contrast, photographic prints are fairly waterproof and can withstand much more handling. I've washed and ironed photographic prints with good results. However, the R800 is surprisingly resistant to light moisture and abrasion. I wouldn't wash and iron one, but R800 prints can take light handling with ease. Although Epson Premium Glossy paper does fingerprint, I found a swipe or two with a microfiber cloth removes it. In fact, fingerprints are removed more easily than prints on traditional lab prints.

Ultrachrome ink, a bottomless money pit

Ultrachrome inks are expensive, $115 a set. And they go fast. Really fast. Of course you can replace individual cartridges as needed, but, if you mainly print photos, they tend to all go at once. Also, like prior Epson inkjet models, ink can and will dry on the heads. After 3 weeks of printing mostly 5 x 7, I started getting lines and dropouts due to clogged heads. I used the R800 several times a week so sitting idle for long periods wasn't the cause. I was only 1/3 through the ink cartridges so I figured an auto-clean would solve the problem with ink to spare. Auto-clean makes 5 cleaning passes and prints a test sheet. Unfortunately it wasn't good enough so I enlisted manual clean mode. After 4 or 5 passes I got a low ink warning and was out of business. Needless to say, head cleaning uses a lot of ink...

In fairness, these ink cartridges were made in 2003 and were near the end of their useable life (Epson claims a storage life of 2 years). It was also extremely humid that week--80-90%--and humidity may have impacted ink behavior. Hopefully new sets of cartridges will be less prone to clogging. I will check expiration dates carefully from now on.

Update (Fall 2006): my second set of cartridges lasted much longer than the first and were far less prone to clogging. I can only assume the printer shipped with "half empty" cartridges as a cost cutting measure. Shame on you Epson!

You won't save much over Kodalux or one hour labs by printing your own images. In fact, it costs more per print compared to Costco or Wallyworld. A set of cartridges runs you $120. If you make nothing but 8 x 10 prints, it goes really fast. A few dozen prints and you're done for. Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper is about $.45 per 8 x 10 sheet. So, not considering the cost of equipment or your time, each 8 x 10 print costs about $2.00 in consumables. However, if you're skilled at PS tweaking and printing, your quality will rival a custom lab and save lots of money. Of course, you'll also have fun tweakin' and printing.

Koolau Moon • Canon EOS A2, EF 28-105 3.5-4.5 USM, Sensia 100, LS-1000 Scanner

Print quality & paper

Epson improves the resolution and durability of their prints with every new model. Nevertheless, the longevity of prints made with my 1996 Epson Photo surprised me. I have eight year old framed prints that still look good. Of course, I printed them on Epson Photo Paper and they're displayed away from direct light. Unfortunately, prints from my Epson Photo 1200 faded quickly, turning nearly blank after several years.

It appears print longevity for the R800 is not an issue. Epson claims 100 years of longevity under optimal display conditions for Premium Glossy Photo Paper and Enhanced Matte. Matte Paper--Heavyweight is said to have a display life of 150 years while Premium Luster Photo trails the pack with 64 years. Well, so far so good as my R800 prints still look dad burn fine after a month! Update (Summer 2010): And still look great 5 years later...

Yes, the grain structure on true photographic prints is finer, but you need a loupe to tell the difference. Only folks that use a loupe to decipher small details such as street signs may be disappointed. Magnify an inkjet print and you'll see a half tone pattern (like a magazine picture), but no additional visual detail. In contrast, an optical print reveals a surprising amount of hidden detail with high magnification. Incidentally, the dot pattern of the R800 is ultra even and fine compared to Epson printers of a few years ago (the 1.5 picoliter droplet size probably has a lot to do with this trait). To see the dot pattern, you need a 6 to 8 power loupe.

The dynamic range of R800 prints surprised me. Both highlight and shadow detail are considerably better than my old Photo 1200. In fact, dynamic range exceeds that of my 20" Cinema Display (which blows away my old CRT monitors). And, yes, the monitor is carefully calibrated. To give the prints a little more bite I can bump up contrast/level to the point of just blowing out the highlights and the print looks perfect.

I'm extremely pleased with the quality of R800 prints for display of 4 x 6, 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 inch images. I'd prefer to print a full frame 8 x 12, but Epson doesn't sell that paper size. The R800's largest print size is A4 and legal. Unfortunately, none of the Photo Papers are produced in those sizes. The R800 can also produce borderless 8.3 x 44 inch panoramic prints (using Premium Glossy Photo Roll Paper), but I haven't used that feature yet. However, this is one way of forcing a full frame 8 x 12.

My only complaint is the print driver renders images a little darker than expected. My Mac is calibrated for 2.2 gamma and, if I set the driver to 1.8, the prints are fine. It's an easy fix but Epson should do better.

4 Queens, Las Vegas • Canon EOS 40D, EF 17-40 4L USM

Older Epson papers

I have a big stack of Epson Photo Glossy left from my prior printers. According to Epson, Photo Glossy paper is not compatible with the R800. They're right. I tried it and the results were terrible--flat and nearly monochrome. Maybe a custom paper profile will make it useable? So, not considering custom paper profiles, you pretty much have to stick to Epson approved paper if you desire photo quality: Premium Glossy Photo, Enhanced Matte, Matte Paper--Heavyweight, Premium Semigloss Photo and Premium Luster Photo.

Printing On Optical Media

Amazingly, the R800 can print on DVD and CD media. I probably won't use this feature much as it's a waste of expensive ink. But for one-off demos and resume material, it's a welcome feature. You need printable CD/DVD media and must manually load each disk on a special tray. The supplied program, Epson Print CD, is easy to use and more flexible than LightScribe software, albeit useful only for basic designs. Printing is lightening fast (less than a minute) compared to LightScribe labels (20 minutes!). Image quality is much better than LightScribe and in full color. Nevertheless, few will mistake your CD for a professionally silk screened product. Why? Colors are rendered rather pastel and washed out. In fairness I've only used normal printable disks. Premium printable disks are said to be more vivid.

Roma • Fontana di Nettuno in the Piazza Navona • Canon EOS 40D, EF 17-55 2.8 IS USM.

Printing speed

The R800 sports two other improvements over my Photo and Photo 1200: printing is much faster and extremely quiet. Plus, the Firewire connection uploads image information into the printer in mere seconds. I tried the USB 2.0 connection and, although peppy, seemed slower than Firewire. Epson claims the R800 works with USB 1.1, but I couldn't get it to dance.

Software drivers

My main complaint is the print driver interface is chunky--really chunky. Did I mention it is chunky? You have to use both "Page Set Up" and "Print" dialog boxes to print. You must make sure the print sizes and printers agree in both dialog boxes. Moreover, to select the borderless option or panoramic option you must select a new printer in the print dialog box. Selecting options via radio buttons would be both more apparent and intuitive. It's too easy to screwup with so many steps.

Finally, Epson supplies drivers for Mac OS OS 8, 9 and 10.x. Frankly I'm surprised they support OS 8 and 9, but kudos to Epson for supporting older Macs. Of course, they support all manner of Wintel PCs as well.

Coconut Palm and Sky • Haleiwa • Canon Elan 7E, EF 28-105 USM, Kodak Elite Chrome 100

Fit and Finish

The handsome sliver-gray and black finish is conservative but would complement a late model Mac G4, G5 or MacPro tower nicely (probably look nice next to a black Dell too). It also matches perfectly with Epson Perfection scanners. The workmanship of this made in China printer appears excellent. I could see no blemishes, misalignment of parts and, other than occasional head clogs, it functioned perfectly each time I fired it up. My prior Epsons were made in Japan and Oregon. Epson managed to maintain high manufacturing standards with cheap offshore labor. Of course they didn't lower the price so their profit margin must be hefty.

Final thoughts

Unlike other Epson printers I've owned, the R800 does not ship with cables or sample paper set, so have a USB or Firewire cable and paper at ready. It does have a real paper manual, and a reasonably good one at that.

The R800 is a kickass photo printer that delivers lab quality prints in spades. Like many inkjet printers--especially Epsons--you must use it regularly or the ink dries on the heads. Use the on-off switch to power down so the head cleaning routine is executed. You won't save any money over lab prints, but the quality and control are worth the toil and expense for a serious hobbyist. If you mainly make modest sized prints, e.g., 4 x 6, 5 x 7 and 8 x 10, you'll be very happy. My problem is I'm running out of wall space! If you need larger prints, e.g., 11 x 14 or 13 x 19, the Epson R1800 has most of the features of the R800 in a larger format. It even shares the same ink cartridges.

October 23, 2005 • Edited June 08, 2010

Ivory Carvng • Rome • Canon EOS 40D, EF 17-55 2.8 IS USM

©Copyright 2005 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved


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