Epson Exhibition Fiber Review

Over the past couple of months Mark Dubovoy and I have been printing with Epson’s latest fine art paper – Exhibition Fiber. We both are quite taken with this paper, though Mark more so than me.

This report contains Mark’s detailed observations on this new paper, as well as where it fits within the current paper Pantheon. It concludes with some additional comments of my own based on a month or so of using Epson’s Exhibition Fiber paper.


Observations by Mark Dubovoy

The choice of a printing paper is a deeply personal issue. In the days of the traditional darkroom the choice of commercially available materials, particularly in color, was rather small: Usually two or three papers from three or four manufacturers, and that was it. The choice used to be a bit more extensive in black and white, but generally speaking there were maybe a dozen or so papers available for Fine Art printing.

One of the major changes with the development of Inkjet technology has been a veritable explosion of choices in printing papers (and other printing materials). Taking a quick look at the catalog of one of my favorite retailers, I count well over 200 different types of papers to choose from!

I do not mean to be repetitive, but I think it is worth repeating my first sentence: The choice of a printing paper is a deeply personal issue. Why is that? There are many reasons. Basically, the paper has to match the style and the look that the photographer is trying to achieve; in some cases, the tactile feel of the paper is paramount, while in others it is completely irrelevant; the way the image is going to be mounted, framed or displayed is also a key factor in the choice of paper, as is the expected longevity of the image and the paper, and so on.

Furthermore, some photographers may not want a high D-Max, may not want a huge color gamut or may not want a very sharp material for certain images, while another photographer may be looking for exactly the opposite. As I have already said twice, this is a personal choice.

Therefore, I believe it is important for the reader to understand where I am coming from in my choices of paper. Generally speaking, I shoot landscapes with a Linhof View Camera, Rodenstock HR lenses and a PhaseOne P45+ back. This alone should tell you that I am always looking for maximum sharpness, maximum color gamut and maximum D-Max. This is indeed the case, but there are several other criteria I utilize in my choices of paper.

I am now old enough to have seen a large number of my color images fade badly. In spite of the manufacturer’s claims at the time, most color materials have lasted only a small fraction of the advertised longevity. This includes all common type “C” materials, type “R” materials, Ilfochrome and Dye Transfer. This is the main reason that I switched to hand made emulsions to make 4 layer Carbon Pigment prints for a number of years. Unfortunately this process is brutally difficult, the required materials are practically impossible to procure and it is prohibitively expensive (one can easily spend over $1000 for the first test print!).

So, from a practical and a quality point of view, I believe that inkjet printing is the current clear choice, but I do worry a lot about the expected life of the prints. Because of this, I have always stayed away from RC or plastic materials. There simply is too much bad history with these materials and I am not willing to take that risk. I have printed extensively on Fine Art type papers, but until recently there was nothing available that had a deep black, a wide color gamut and was at the same time sharp.

You can imagine how excited I was when Innova, Crane and Hahnemuhle finally introduced papers on a Fine Art type base that had a glossy or semi-glossy surface that could accept the Photo Black ink (as opposed to Matte Black).

My workhorse printer is an Epson 9800. I ran a number of tests on these papers and I finally settled on a paper / ink combination as my standard.

Before disclosing what it is, it is important to mention that I typically do not follow the paper or printer manufacturer’s recommendations for the printer settings. Like most things in life, a manufacturer has to make some recommendations, but these are only a starting point. They need to recommend something that is a good compromise between speed, cost and quality. I am not after a “compromise”, I am after the best quality I can deliver. In this vein, I find that if I deliver more ink, and the paper can handle it, I get a much deeper black (higher D-Max), better shadow detail, better saturation, a more linear response in the highlights and hopefully a longer life, because there is more ink and therefore more pigments in the print. This obviously requires custom profiles, but I always make custom profiles anyway.

Fine Art paper bases are not all the same. Some are made of pure 100% acid-free cotton rag, some are not totally acid-free, some are buffered, some are not, others are made of Alpha Cellulose extracted from wood pulp and then processed to try to get rid of all the chemical compounds (particularly Lignin) that might affect the longevity of the base. Again, if you do not want to take a chance here, you are always better off choosing a pure 100% acid-free cotton rag base. The issue of buffered versus non buffered is still an open topic with lots of discussions by experts in the field.

Finally, there is the issue of Optical Brighteners or OBA’s. Again, I am now old enough to have seen prints on papers with OBA’s after a number of years, compared to prints of roughly equal age that were printed on papers with no OBA’s. And here again, contrary to the manufacturer’s claims that as the OBA’s deteriorate the prints would look the same, the prints that I have seen from papers with OBA’s look much worse when the OBA’s fade than the prints that were originally printed on papers without OBA’s.

Call me paranoid, but I am very suspicious of accelerated aging tests. They are a good comparison tool, but I do not think they really can tell us how long a print will last. What we do know for a fact is that mold made Fine Art papers that are 100% acid free cotton rag are still with us after 500 years (some of these were actually made by companies like Hahnemuhle and Arches, who now make photographic papers) . We also know that oil paintings which are pigments suspended in oil can last many hundreds of years. So good pigments properly adhered good papers will hopefully last a long time.

Therefore, I finally settled on a paper with a 100% acid-free pure cotton rag base, and a semi-glossy coating that allows me to use Photo Black ink. This is also a paper that has no OBA’s and is very thick (344 gsm) with a wonderful tactile feel. The paper is Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl. The advantages of this paper are clear. On my Epson 9800, I use the “Ultrasmooth Fine Art” media setting to deliver a lot more ink to the paper. As a result, I can get an outstanding D-Max of 2.4 (measured with my Macbeth TD 1224 transmission/reflection densitometer) and a very good color gamut.

The main disadvantages of this paper are that the back is a little rough and the vacuum hold in the printer sometimes does not have enough strength to prevent the printer head from hitting the edge of the paper. This is a problem that happens only with sheets, not rolls, and is solved by curling the sheets using aBienfang D-Rollerprior to insertion (I find it ironic that I am using a device designed to get rid of paper curl to do the opposite and induce curl!). Another major disadvantage is that I have never been totally in love with the surface of this paper. It has too much texture and too rough a stipple for my taste, and it is not as sharp as I would like it to be. Finally, even though as far as 100% cotton rag bases with no OBA’s goes, it has a very white paper base, it is not as white or as bright as I would like it.

Enter the Epson Exhibition Fiber. This new paper from Epson has rattled my world.

Perusing the Epson site I found out that the Pixel Geniuses group had developed a set of profiles for this new paper. I was very happy to find out that they use they same software and the same preferences in the software that I normally do. They also used a Spectrophotometer made by the same company as the one I own. I was surprised and glad to find out that they use a different media setting to deliver more ink to the paper, just as I do (“Premium Luster 260” instead of the factory recommended “Premium Glossy”). After working with their profile, as well as my own custom profile, I can say without hesitation that at least for my Epson 9800 printer, the Pixel Geniuses profile is truly excellent and it allows most users to download it and start printing right away. We should be very thankful to all those involved for being kind enough to post these profiles for free.

This new paper finally has a surface to fall in love with. It has just enough stipple and just enough gloss to make it look very much like like an air dried “F” surface paper of yore. To my taste, it is actually nicer. It looks beautiful from every angle.

As soon as I started printing on it, I immediately noticed that all my prints looked significantly sharper, much more so than I had anticipated. I am sure that this is partly due to the smoothness of the surface, but I believe that there is something else at work here. The prints look as if the interaction of the inks with the coating is such that it produces a higher accutance than I have ever seen before in an inkjet print. This paper delivers without question a new and heretofore unseen level of sharpness and snap.

The same comments apply to the color gamut. I have not performed detailed scientific tests, but there is no question that this paper delivers the widest color gamut I have ever seen. This is easily verified with the Photoshop soft proofing gamut warnings versus other papers. I have read (but not verified) claims that the color gamut of this paper with the latest generation of Epson inks is about as wide as Adobe RGB. If this is the case, it establishes a new benchmark in color gamut. Ditto for D-Max. I am consistently measuring a D-Max of 2.5, which is the highest I have ever measured.

So, what is there not to like? Well, several things:

–    It is not a pure 100% acid-free rag paper. It comes from wood pulp. How pure or how Lignin free is the Alpha Cellulose? I do not know, and Epson is not sharing this information. I also do not know if there might be other chemical contaminants in the base.

–    The paper has OBA’s. I spoke to several people at Epson and all they would say is that the OBA’s will last as long as the best modern OBA’s, but that there are no breakthroughs for them or anyone else in OBA’s. They say that as the OBA’s fade, the prints will look the same as papers without OBA’s, but I have heard that claim before and it turned out to be false. I have no way of knowing if it will be true or false this time.

–    The base is so incredibly white and so incredibly brilliant, that frankly I think it is a bit too much. It can look almost blinding. I wish they would tone it down a little.

–    The paper is available in a limited number of sizes and only in sheets. The largest sheet available is 24×30 which is too small for many photographers. I cannot understand why Epson would not make this paper in larger sizes and rolls, since it is aimed at the very people that use large sizes and rolls the most.

–    Last, but not least, this paper is incredibly expensive. I do not believe there is any way to justify its cost based on R&D, production and marketing/distribution costs alone. This is clearly a marketing decision to push the price envelope as high as possible.

So there you have it. Here is a paper that produces the sharpest prints, the blackest blacks and the best color gamut ever, but is a bit over the top in the whiteness and brightness of the base, way over the top in price and with some worrisome characteristics in terms of archival permanence.

You can clearly see why it rattled my world. I am now addicted to the image quality, but quite concerned about the rest.

Is this the paper for you? Only you can answer this question.


Further Thoughts by Michael Reichmann

In December ’07 I published an article titledBattle of The Barytaswhich looked at three new papers;Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta 325 , Harman Gloss FB AI, andIlford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk. Each of these, likeEpson Exhibition Fiber, uses Photo black ink and is an attempt to provide us with a so-called fine art paper with the qualities of an air dried F surface paper from the chemical darkroom days. All three succeeded to one degree or another, and my favourite of the three is Ilford’s ill-named but otherwise beautifulGalerie Gold Fibre Silk.

As Mark has written above, in a sentiment that I completely subscribe to, that a choice of printing paper is highly subjective. No one can tell you what you will or should like. The only way to chose a paper is to buy samples of what you think might interest you and then make prints.

My first exposure to Exhibition Fibre was an 8.5X11" sample pack about 4 months ago, and I was very impressed. I had expected to print my Madagascar gallery exhibit on it, but when large sheets didn’t arrive in time I ended up printing on the Ilford Galarie.

But a quantity of large sheets of Exhibition Fiberdidarrive in early January, and now, after several weeks or printing and comparisons, I feel that I have a good sense of where the paper fits in.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mark that it is the whitest, sharpest paper that I’ve ever seen. In fact, its whiteness is, for me at least, so intense that it is over the top. I simply find the papertoowhite for my taste. I have always preferred neutral to slightly warm papers, so while I appreciate that Exhibition Fiber may give a tonal range and dMax that is as good if not better than any paper we’ve yet seen, I don’t find it as esthetically pleasing as does Mark.

I do though share Mark’s concerns about the presence of OBA’s. Other paper makers have started to use Baryta to create a white and bright paper base able to support Photo Black ink on fiber paper, in large measure because of concerns by some in the community about the archival characteristics, as well as visual changes over time that take place to papers which use Optical Brighteners. For this reason I am somewhat dubious about selling prints using Exhibition Fiber with any degree of confidence that they will have extended archival characteristics in keeping with the capabilities of K3 inks and more traditional fiber-based papers.

Finally, I too am somewhat put off by the high price of Exhibition Fiber. When selling a large print for many hundreds of dollars the cost of the sheet of paper, or the ink used, really isn’t a significant factor. But when it comes to photographers printing for non-commercial projects, or in high volume, the cost of this paper may well turn out to be an impediment to adoption.

February, 2008