I have some family photographic prints made before the First World War. They have been stored out of the light at room temperature for the past 100+ years and, except for the clothes and home furnishings, they look like they could have been made last year. If, by some chance, my great great grandchildren come across a box of my photographs in 2118 I hope that the prints will have held up as well. Printing with pigment inks in black and white on 100% cotton paper makes that more likely to happen. The costs in this post are based on that approach.
The cost of an inkjet print depends on a number of things: the choice of printer, the choice of ink, the choice of paper, the size of the paper, the size of the image on the paper and the printing mode. For this discussion I’ll start at the end of that list and work my way backwards.
With one interesting exception, all photo quality inkjet printers make black and white prints the same way. The range of tones from pure black to very light gray is produced by a mixture of black (and gray inks in some printers) mixed with colored inks (typically magenta, cyan and yellow). The printer software uses the color inks to control the hue of the print and compensate for the fact that carbon based black inks are not really black but dark brown. In every instance, the printer pretty much covers the entire surface with ink except for the areas of pure white.
The one exception to the above is that some older printers from Epson, and possibly other manufacturers, have a black ink only option for photo quality prints. They produce the range of tones from pure black to very light gray by dithering the tiny droplets of black ink so more and more of the white paper base shows through as the tone gets lighter and lighter. The individual droplets of ink in the light areas of the print can be clearly seen with a loupe. Clayton Jones calls the effect “digital Tri-X.” He also suggests that black only prints may use as little as one third of the ink of prints that use black + color inks and my experience seems to bear this out. One limitation of this approach is that the tone of the print is entirely controlled by the ink and the paper. No other user control is possible. The other limitation is that, as far as I know, no pigment ink printers in current production have a black ink only option.
Clearly, the cost of the ink for a print is directly related to the size of the image on the paper. Red River Paper did some interesting tests concerning the cost of the ink for prints of different sizes with different printers. Their data is based on prints that fit standard inkjet paper sizes. Few of my prints larger than 4×6 fit any of the standard paper sizes but it is simple to work out the cost per unit area for any size image, e.g., 7×10.5, which is one of my favorites.
But the size of the image on the paper also determines the size, and cost, of the paper. I make 7×10.5 prints on 8.5×11 paper. If I want to increase the size of the image to 8×12, a 14% linear increase, I have to use 11×14 or 11×17 paper which costs roughly twice as much as 8.5×11.
100% cotton inkjet paper is more expensive than the more common alpha cellulose based paper. The benefit is that it essentially lasts forever. I also try to avoid papers with optical brighteners, none of which are archival. This further limits my choices and increases my cost. My current favorites are Southworth 100% Cotton White Business Paper (which does have optical brighteners), Moab Entrada Rag Natural and Red River Paper Aurora Art Natural. I could easily double or even triple my cost with paper from other manufacturers.
There are alternatives to OEM ink. Inksupply.com and InkjetMall.com sell one-for-one replacement inks and cartridges that work with the printer’s native print driver or alternative inks and cartridges that work with other black and white printing solutions like Quad Tone Rip or Piezography. So far I have managed to avoid going down those paths. The costs here are based on OEM inks.
The Red River Paper ink cost data does show significant cost differences for different printers. For people who make a lot of big prints this could be a serious consideration. I make very few prints, most of them small by today’s standards, and many of them black ink only, so my next printer purchase, whenever that happens, will likely be based on other considerations.
Finally, a few examples.
I print a contact sheet of my scans of every roll of film I shoot. I print these on 8.5×11 Southworth 100% Cotton White Business Paper (10¢) using the black ink only photo mode of my Epson Workforce 30 printer with OEM ink (25¢ guestimate) for a total cost of about 35¢. Not bad for a print that should last 100 years. Because this paper has optical brighteners it will gradually approach the neutral white appearance of the other papers I use, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
My standard “big” print from a 35mm negative is a 7×10.5 image printed on 8.5×11 Aurora Art Natural paper (62¢) using the ABW mode of my Epson R2880 printer with OEM ink (70¢) for a total cost of $1.32.
My standard “big” print from a MF negative is an 11×11 image printed on 12×12 Aurora Art Natural paper ($1.16) using the ABW mode of my Epson R2880 printer with OEM ink ($1.06) for a total cost of $2.22.
The black and white prints I make most often are a 3.75×5.75 image printed on 4×6 Moab Entrada Rag Natural (34¢) using the ABW mode of my Epson R2880 printer with OEM ink (21¢) for a total cost of 55¢. This is also the only size color print I make. The colors are a little muted because of the matte surface and natural color paper, but people seem to like them.