September 01, 2011 — The newly designed Epson Stylus Pro 4900 17” printer is literally built from the ground up, and exceeds all expectations. Although it uses the same top-notch technology as the Epson Pro Stylus 9900 series, less than 5% of its parts are shared with its big brother.
Epson has succeeded in developing a thin-film Piezo element referred to as their TFP Print Head technology providing, “One-inch wide high performance print head with 360 nozzles per channel capable of handling 10 separate ink channels (3600 nozzles at 360 pixels per inch). Low vibration meniscus control provides highly accurate dot shape and placement with ink repelling coating dramatically reduces nozzle clogging.” The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 uses this variable size droplet technology between 3.5-12 picoleters; depositing larger droplets in the lower quartertone and smaller droplets in the midtones, especially skin tones, for smoother gradations.
After three weeks of downtime, I checked the nozzles and found no clogged heads. Because of this new technology, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 has a much greater density than the 4880 and is twice as fast as the 4800, with the same output speed as the 9000 series.
Printer setup is simple and straightforward. Load the 80ml starter ink cartridges, run the head alignment, Uni-D first and the Bi-D last, letting the printer self-adjust. Once these alignments are finished, hardware setup is complete.
For the price of the printer (MSRP: $2495), Epson should include the standard 200 ML cartridges. Do the math: Eleven cartridges at $100 per unit equals a great buy.
The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 ships with a built in 10/100 Ethernet. Once the software drivers were installed, everything came into focus. Unfortunately, if you are using the Ethernet and not the USB port, you can’t automatically download firmware updates from the Epson Printer Utility Panel.
Unlike the 4880, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 uses a total of 10 +1 colors per print job, depending on matte black or photo black with the new Ultrachrome HDR Orange and Green. These two additional inks, accompanied by Matte Black/Photo Black, are the same HDR ink set provided with the 7900/9900 series printer. The two black inks can be switched automatically or manually, using the printer’s front display, depending on which option the user chooses in the software. Even though only the black lines are purged, I still prefer the manual mode, eliminating operator error with the wrong paper choice.
The primary maintenance tank is located inside the right ink cartridge compartment, acting as a waste trap for initial charging as well as print head cleaning. A secondary maintenance tank is provided for ink overflow when printing borderless images. It’s located behind the removable output tray, and released by the tank lock. Unfortunately, the tanks cannot be interchanged as they can in the 9900 series because they are different sizes.
Paper handling on the Epson Pro Stylus is in a league of its own, providing four different ways to feed paper: the roll feeder, cassette feeder, front manual feed slot and the rear manual sheet feeder. In the past, I’ve always thought that the tray feeder was a little flimsy on the 4000. Although I did not make an actual physical comparison between the two units, I really abused the 4900—slamming the extended tray home and repeatedly misaligning the cassette tray and cover—without any issues. I was able to put in a stack of 17 x 22-inch sheets of Epson Premium Luster 250gsm and walk away from the printing job. Although not recommended, I also loaded Canon’s 310gsm Platine Fibre Rag, and Baryta Photographique into the front cassette without any problems. These papers were also loaded via the rear manual sheet feeder without any misalignment issues.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the 4900’s paper feed system is the ability to manage the paper cassette (which holds sizes A4 -17 x 22-inch sheets) and roll feeder on the fly from your computer. Being able to automatically switch back and forth between roll feed and tray feed is an amazing departure from the cumbersome workflow of having to always remove the roll paper from the paper feed. Also introduced from the 9900 series is the same high performance rotary cutting blade, providing precision cuts on fine art papers, and especially on canvas.
The front control panel is straightforward, with options for Printer Setup, Test Print, Paper Setup, Maintenance, Head Alignment and Network Setup. Within each of these folders are subfolders for additional personal tuning. Pressing the PK/MK button will bring up additional folders, such as auto and manual cleaning, Nozzle Check and of course black ink change command that takes approximately 2’20” to execute. These folders also have subfolders, so that, for example, rather than choosing “All Color” for head cleaning, one can choose pairs to remedy any clogged nozzle.
Turning off the printer also accesses a hidden menu. Simultaneously hold down the option button (Trash Button) and turn on the power button. Wait until the screen illuminates, release power button, and then the option button. You’ll be rewarded with the hidden Maintenance Mode. Perhaps too much information isn’t a good thing, but once you are in this folder, you have access to Auto Cleaning Times, Sleep Mode, Power Management, and Maintenance Alert.
The indicator light that sits above the front panel is a new time-saving feature that turns orange when an error occurs prior to printing. In my printing environment, I only have a partial view of the top of the printer assembly, blocked by the 9900 in front of it. You can override this feature, but I chose to leave it on to let me know when a media mismatch has occurred.
As I was working on this evaluation, X-Rite released their new i1 Professional Color Management Solutions. This software is available in i1 Basic Pro, i1 Photo Pro and i1 Photo Publish. When creating profiles, I use the i1 Photo Publish with an iSis XL, combining the best features of i1 Match and Profile Maker. Although i1 Profiler supports i1, iO, and iSis, this software doesn’t work with X-Rite’s Color Munki. I also created profiles for the Epson Pro Stylus 9900 to verify my results with the 4990.
When I created the profiles for the 4900, I scrambled a 2000 square test chart, printed on an 11 x 17 sheet. Selecting the “scramble” box will measure any inconsistency within your printer’s output averaged over the entirety of the patches, reducing the possibility that one color or grouping might be proportionally adversely affected because it happened to fall, unscrambled on a part of the paper where that particular inconsistency occurred. For this review, I didn’t compare the difference between the default chart arrangements with that of the scrambled array.
After I determined if the paper being profiled had any OBs via my black light (purchased at a party outlet store), I chose the OBC folder, activating a second test chart consisting of grayscale patches. The chart was viewed inside a GTI Softview light box and then compared with the i1 Profiler software patches on the New Eizo Color Edge CG275 (27”) monitor. Once comparisons were made and loaded, the profile was created.
I made two profiles, one with OB correction, and one without. Although the profile that I created without OBC provided customary results, the introduction of an OBC workflow provided the elusive five percent, that small numeric value that takes your prints over to the exceptional realm without having to spend excessive time and money. This feedback not only tells the user that there is more information that can be gleaned from your digital files, but that the accompanying software and the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 can deliver these subtleties without effort.
I decided to get a sampling of Canson papers to review along with the Epson Stylus Pro 4900. Printing on the Canson substrata revealed subtle nuances that I never achieved in my days of printing on Agfa’s Portriga Rapid and Brovira papers. With a subtle adjustment in Epson’s color wheel, I quickly found the 1:31 selenium tone that protected my silver prints. The Epson driver lived up to the task, creating beautiful black and white prints that rivaled the finest RIPs available. The Epson black and white prints in default mode remained neutral. I still find issues of “darkest, dark, normal, light” in determining output density in their drivers without live view feedback, but the finished results are amazing, rich quartertones, with deep, saturated blacks.
When prints from both the Epson 9900 and 4900 were viewed in the GTI Softlight, they were indistinguishable as revealed in the accompanying graph [INSERT FIGURE 1]. Profiles for Canson’s Platine Fibre Rag mirrored each other, exhibiting smooth gradations in the lower and upper quartertones, while saturation and neutral colors in the midtones revealed superior output. This is all moot unless you incorporate “Soft Proofing” in your post editing workflow.
Earlier, I mentioned the five percent syndrome, where photographers seek that boost in quality without having to break the bank. The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 is not a panacea for poor files, either captured or printed, but a necessary tool that is capable of providing the photographer with that elusive five percent.
The only variable is the end user. Will this new Epson make you a better photographer, while improving your post editing skills? It will reward you with great output, but you must be willing to invest the time to become a better photographer. The Epson Pro Stylus 4900 will not stand in your way, but will recede into the background, allowing you to concentrate on technique, craft, and your ultimate interpretation of life.
Steven Katzman, a self-taught photographer, established Steven Katzman Photography, LLC in 1990. His recent book is The Face of Forgiveness, Salvation and Redemption. Mr. Katzman has been on the faculty at the Ringling School of Art and Design since 2003. He is a Lexar Elite Photographer, a Gretag Influencer and is sponsored by Bogen Imaging. Visit his Web site: www.stevenkatzmanphotography.com