Third-Party Printer Inks

Many of my friends make hardcopy prints of their photos, but I have too many images and almost never print them. But three years ago I felt an almost panicky need to buy a color printer. I found some treasured photographs and printed glossy 8×10’s so I could surround myself with framed reminders of a lost loved one.

The printer was an Epson PHOTO R340 (now discontinued). The prints were utterly stunning – I can’t tell the difference bewteen them and a Kodak enlargement. And they are a great comfort and source of happiness to me. Since then, we can bring in a camera card or USB thumb drive and order all the color copies and enlargements we want, at Long’s, Walgreen’s or elsewhere, on a few hundred thousand dollars of professional image printing equipment. Mostly these services promise 1-hour printing. This might have been a better option for me.

But the old R340 is down to 20% ink supplies. Time to re-order? OEM, or inexpensive third-party ink? Some of you may remember this controversial topic has been a favorite of mine for a very long time.

The August 2008 PC World had an interesting lab report on our choices (I was unable to find Jeff Bertolucci’s article “Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?” online). We all know that ink cartridges are outrageously overpriced – the industry gives away the printers below cost, and makes it up on aftermarket ink resales.

Basically, you can still save some money with the third-party “generic” inks. Walgreen’s even refills old cartridges that customers bring in. But the chances are very good that you’ll notice image blemishes, or color degradation, or loss of sharpness. Worse, many of the cheaper inks fade rapidly with time. You would have to research and experiment to find out which third-party cartridges are acceptable for your purpose – and they are all different. It’s a crap shoot out there. Is this what we want for our most irreplaceable images?

Generally, manufacturer’s cartridges give visibly better prints. In fade tests, the results on some generics were deplorable after heavy UV exposures.

I have fished out old film prints from the 1960’s and 1970’s that were so grossly faded and washed out that there was no point in even trying to scan them. I did not have a lot of money for prints in those days, and feared exactly what happened, decades later, when I searched for and found them. Even then, I wondered if premium printing services (Kodak, for one) was really worth all that extra money. It would have been.

Whether on photo paper or digital printer, the quality of the ink pigment and binder is everything. Coarse or poorly ground pigments can cause clumping and jams. Unstable pigments are more sensitive to the aging effects of UV, heat and the ravages of time. Binders, the “glue” that fixes pigment particles in place, control the color flow (in the ink-jet), color creep and blur, and of course the durability of the finished print.

Given the irreplaceable value of some prints over time – particularly if you lost the negative or image – why would you choose the ink that promised the least long-term preservation value?

For my money, I’ll replace the Epson cartridges with Epson replacement cartridges, and milk those for another three years or until the ink dries up. But, next time I find that really precious image that I want to hang on the wall (and have room for), I’ll probably send it to Kodak.

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