Third Party Ink?

The Promise Of Cheap Ink Is Seductive

Posted: 22 Sep 2020
Author: Les Picker

If you’ve not downloaded your free copy of the comprehensive guide to fine art printing with Lightroom, get it now!

Saving Money on Inks

Twice in the past year we were contacted by members of this website with issues that resulted in horrible prints. In both cases it took some detective work and several back-and-forth emails to solve the problem. And in both of these cases the issue came down to their printer inks.

The Issue With Inks

We all know that inks are expensive, as in very expensive. What many people don’t realize is that our fine art printers are arguably the biggest tech bargain on the market. They are marvels of engineering. Our twin Canon ProGraf 1000 (17”) printers, for example, have been workhorses in our studio for years now, generating thousands of flawless prints without a mishap. Ditto for our 24” and 44” machines.

But, oh those inks! A full set of Canon inks for our ProGraf 4000 costs about $2,300!! A set for the ProGraf 1000 about $650. This is the classic case of the razor and razor blade. No one makes money selling razors. It’s the blades that are profitable.

Making matters worse, inks expire. While we believe that the expiration dates are a bit on the conservative side, we surely would not take a chance on printing a client image or one of my images for a gallery show with a long expired ink.

Enter the Devil

It’s understandable that someone faced with a $500+ ink bill might think that succumbing to an ad for third-party inks is a great idea. Think again!

In both of the cases I mentioned, the problem prints were traced to substituting a few ink cartridges with non-manufacturer’s inks, in one case for a Canon printer and the other an Epson. In our opinion, based on years of experience and tens of thousands of prints, it’s a bad idea to use non-OEM inks.

Manufacturers’ inks today are highly technical. They are made to exacting standards and include proprietary ingredients that allow for permanence, solubility, easy flow through the tiny nozzles of today’s printers, and quick drying. Additionally, they are rigorously color matched. This is not only critical for the primary color of that cartridge, but also for the mixing that must occur to obtain the graduated colors in your image file.

Third-party inks simply cannot match the color gamut of original manufacturers’ inks. The result is what we saw in these two cases. Reds were coming out orange and blues looked like someone had spilled a bottle of off-color blue dye in the sky.

We fully recognize that there are cases where non-OEM inks work well. For example, in our office multi-function inkjet machine I use non-OEM inks to save a few dollars. Remanufactured inks, which fill existing cartridges with non-OEM inks, can be beneficial to the environment. But for subtle work like fine art prints, you should stick exclusively with OEM inks.

Why OEM?

The rationale for sticking to Original Equipment Manufacturer inks boils down to these primary reasons.

First, consistency. After all the trouble you went through capturing your image, then post-processing and finally printing it, you don’t want variations in ink batches to ruin all that work. With OEM ink, you are assured of consistent high quality.

Second, the use of non-OEM inks can void your warranty, resulting in major repair bills or significant investments of time as you troubleshoot fixes with tech help online or on the phone.

Third, using bad inks can mean throwing out nearly full cartridges and draining entire lines of ink in your printer, a costly prospect.

Fourth, non-OEM inks can clog the nozzles. One thing you do not want to do is replace a print head with its attendant downtime and steep costs.

Fifth, the specific paper profiles you download from paper manufacturers assume that you are using OEM inks.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, OEM inks are precisely matched to the manufacturer’s print engines.

Personal Experience

We once had an Epson 44” printer that was nearing the end of its useful life. A paper company we worked with had co-developed a line of high quality non-OEM inks and they urged us to try it. We did. That experience advanced our purchase of our Canon 44” printer by several months. The prints with the non-OEM inks were absolutely horrific. Reds were orange, greens were all over the place, in short it was a disaster. Worse still, when they sent us replacement cartridges, the bad results were not even consistent! You simply cannot develop an accurate, color-managed workflow when every batch of inks is different. Rather than drain all the lines and install OEM cartridges, we got rid of the printer and bought a new Canon.

Some Tips

Here are a few tips to keep your OEM ink costs in line.

Buy only the inks you need. We rarely purchase a whole set of inks. We replace as needed. Most online retailers do not charge for shipping, so why not just buy the two or three inks that are running low?

Run your printer. Print nozzles will clog if unused for lengthy periods of time. If you are away on vacation or anticipate a printing lull, run the printer before you leave and as soon as you get back. Even one or two 8.5x11” prints will move ink through the nozzles and prevent future clogging problems. Put aside a few dozen images that you’d like to print in a computer folder and print them when your printer hasn’t been used for a few weeks.

Proof. In our studio we never print anything 13” wide or larger without first generating an 8.5x11” proof print. Soft proofing can help, but there is no substitute for a hard proof to detect issues that must be addressed before printing large. This policy alone will save you ink that would be wasted on a problematic large format print.