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Print quality and durability – effects of paper

Issue #1103 – Do you reckon to try and save money by buying third party photo paper? Do you reckon that there’s no difference between original printer manufacturer photo paper and third party photo papers? Think carefully; experiment; you are probably mistaken!

When we’re printing, for many of us there may well be the thought in the back of our minds, “should I be saving money by buying third party inks?” We know what the printer manufacturers tell us about the need to use original supplies and, while many choose to stick rigidly with original inks, many others ignore their advice and take the third party route, filling our inkjet printers with third party inks. For some, the ink quality is an issue, for some it isn’t.

But, how many of us stop and think about the paper we are using?

Because most office papers tend to be branded by a paper manufacturer rather than a printer manufacturer, and most of the office paper we use is probably not printer branded, it is very easy to forget that there are printer manufacturer branded papers to select as well. This approach can then easily translate to glossy photo papers and we assume that a glossy photo paper is a glossy photo paper and that’s all there is to it.

Well, I’d like to disagree with that premise and show you what to expect if you choose third party papers instead of original papers from the printer manufacturers – usually referred to as the OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer.

In this article we will look specifically at photo papers rather than office plain papers.

Used to produce these print samples just happens to be one of the Brother A3 series business inkjet MFCs. Now, Brother is not generally known for its photo printing and has not achieved household name status as a printer manufacturer in the way that others have – rather as a sewing machine manufacturer.

This makes the choice of printer very fitting however. If we’d used a Hewlett-Packard, Epson or Canon printer, the obvious reaction would be, “this printer has been designed specifically to print photos, so the OEM supplies have had a lot of money thrown at them.” But, Brother is frequently underestimated. Our testing has shown that photo print quality from a Brother printer is every bit as good as from other manufacturers and, for many people, preferable.

Enough of the preamble. There are three elements we will investigate:

  • Print quality
  • Water fastness
  • Light fastness

… and for all elements, we are comparing prints made with OEM inks only. This article is about paper and NOT ink.

Firstly, Print Quality
Looking at a photo print in isolation, we might very well be pleased with the result and this is where a large part of the problem lies – we never get the chance to make a sensible, unbiased comparison.

So, check these out. Note: This is a single image, scanned in one pass of the scan head, so there is no difference in the way the individual images have been handled by the scanner.

Print Quality - OEM inks on various papersPrint Quality – photo papers

First response? No difference, I’m sure. Look more closely.

It is difficult for a small scanned image such as these to truly represent what the paper original actually looks like. However, note that the Cyan block (in particular) in the two lower images is actually rather grey by comparison with the two upper images. Similarly, the Magenta blocks are duller in the bottom images and the Yellow blocks tend to be slightly stronger. Finally, the black blocks are distinctly less dense and take on a reddish hue. The result is that the two lower images are flatter, with lower contrast and tend to be darker, with a slightly increased Yellow content (incorrect colour balance).

To a certain extent this may be purely academic because, at the end of the day, all four images are acceptable as photographic records of the subject. So, you may have to take my word for it that there is a difference and, making a choice between the four, the lower images are rejected.

But, which is the OEM paper and what is going to happen to the image from here on?

Brother’s BP71 paper is at the top left and the other three are third party papers. The main difference between the paper at the top right and those below is that it is from a well-known photographic brand – Ilford. To my mind, I would expect a paper from Ilford to be capable of producing a very high quality image. The other two papers (bottom row) are from third parties known more for their inkjet products on the one hand (Inkrite) and their office media products on the other (Verbatim).

Once an image is printed by a user, it will be viewed, stored, displayed, transported, handled and probably be generally mistreated. So what effects will we see if that print is mistreated?

Secondly, Water Damage
It may not be very common for prints to be subjected to water. But, it does happen. Some years ago, extreme weather conditions caused the air conditioning units located close to the CharisCo Printer Labs offices to burst over the winter holiday period. Many boxes of papers and printed materials were soaked in the ensuing flood. So it does happen. Rather more recently, it was only a few days ago that I was sent a scan of a letter that had been sitting in the kitchen of a colleague in the industry for several weeks. This letter had been splashed, rendering a portion of image significantly damaged – just legible but severely spoiled and with a chunk of the ink soaked onto a clean portion of the paper as a large grey splodge.

What we did in our test was to soak the photo prints in water for 24 hours, place them between tissue paper under a weight for 10 minutes to draw most of the water out of the paper and then let them dry naturally. The results are interesting. Here again are the four samples side by side.

Water Fastness - photo papersEffects of water – photo papers
Water Fastness - Cyan colour blockEffects of water – Cyan colour block

Brother’s inks are actually so good that there is far less difference in the images above than is the case when we compare inks instead of papers. What it is, unfortunately, impossible to see in the scan of the image bottom left above are some areas where Cyan ink in particular has leached its way into the paper, most noticeable around the black text.

What is clearly noticeable though, is that the Cyan ink had distinctly broken up in the two lower images. To emphasis that, the image to the left shows just the Cyan blocks, enlarged.

In fact, only the Cyan ink block printed on Brother BP71 paper appears unaffected by the water – and this goes for the print as a whole. Although the image on the paper from Ilford (the photographic brand) had fared pretty well, with the Cyan ink breaking up just a little, the ink on the Inkrite and Verbatim paper has suffered badly, both breaking up and becoming darker.

There is then also the issue of the mechanical strength of the paper. While Brother and Ilford papers remained sound, the Verbatim paper was in danger of disintegrating (and tore extremely easily) when wet and both Inkrite and Verbatim papers buckled badly and inconsistently, also taking on an eggshell appearance.

Thirdly, Light Fastness
Much more common is for prints to be exposed to light, ranging from being displayed behind glass in a corner of a room where no direct light falls on it, through display on a fridge in a well-lit kitchen right up to being left lying around in direct daylight or sunlight.

We placed print samples into a lightbox and exposed them to an intense light source for an extended period of time. The images below show each of the samples before (left) and after (right) exposure.

What we notice is that all images have degraded, including the sample printed on Brother’s own BP71 paper (remember, Brother original LC1100 ink throughout).

While the image printed on Ilford paper has degraded slightly less than the image printed on Brother paper, the images on the other two third party papers have degraded rather more.

Before exposure After exposure
Light Fastness – Brother BP71 paperLight Fastness - Brother BP71 paper
Light Fastness – Ilford 1146567 photo paperLight Fastness - Ilford 1146567 photo paper
Light Fastness – Inkrite PPIPG2606450 photo paperLight Fastness - Inkrite PPIPG2606450 photo paper
Light Fastness – Verbatim #45012 photo paperLight Fastness - Verbatim #45012 photo paper

In fact, the image on Inkrite paper has degraded 40% more (average CMY) than the Brother sample, while the image on Verbatim paper has degraded just 10% more. The reason the Verbatim looks every bit as bad as the Inkrite image, despite having lost less of its image on average, is partly because the original image was worse in the first place but also that there was a bigger loss of Magenta compared to Cyan, affecting the colour balance more.

Cyan -32% -24% -31% -19%
Magenta -42% -36% -72% -60%
Yellow -16% -13% -23% -21%
Average -30% -25% -42% -33%

Because there has been less degradation of the Yellow ink on the Inkrite paper, there is a resulting Yellow colour cast in the exposed image.

Also note that the Verbatim paper has suffered mechanically from the exposure. The paper has become brittle, causing fracture lines in the image that have caught the scanner illumination, resulting in highlights and shadows.

To bring this to conclusion, printer manufacturers rarely claim to be the best at absolutely everything and are more than willing to admit to needing to improve in particular areas. In this instance, Brother’s paper does not perform ‘quite’ as well as the Ilford paper in the light fastness test – but it should be remembered that Ilford is a photo manufacturer that has decades of experience with producing the highest quality photographic processing materials. So, for this paper to exceed the performance of the Brother paper is no indictment of the Brother paper at all. Brother’s paper has, after all, significantly outperformed this third party paper in every other respect.

Perhaps your reaction to this is “so what?” Tests show that sticking rigidly to original inks is a far more important factor in achieving the highest quality and most durable prints than sticking rigidly to the manufacturer’s original paper. We’ll prove that categorically in a further article – watch out for it.

But, one fact cannot be disputed. That fact is – the overall performance of third party papers cannot match the chemically balanced ecosystem of the OEM inks and papers because OEM inks and papers are designed to work together, with considerable investment being put into their development.

A further fact – Inkrite is a brand that sells both inks and papers, not only claiming that they match or surpass the quality of the OEM supplies but that they are specifically developed to work together to enhance the quality of the users’ prints.

Again, we’ll prove that this is totally incorrect – this combination of ink and paper performed even worse than Inkrite ink printed on any of the other three papers.

To come almost full circle, these tests were run with Brother OEM inks on a Brother printer. While it cannot be guaranteed without specific testing, general experience indicates that these results should translate closely for other OEM supplies when pitched against third party supplies.

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