EXCLUSIVE: Epson output fades

Contrary to ads promising fade-resistant, long-lasting photos, colour prints made with several Epson Stylus Photo ink jets turn orange in locations with heavy concentrations of ozone in the air, Epson officials in the US have confirmed. The company offers to buy your printer if you're not satisfied with several recommended fixes, including using new types of paper Epson will introduce this autumn. "This is a problem," said Robert Clark, UK product marketing manager, "but I must stress this is just a tiny percentage of users. I'd say the number of cases in the UK is in the tens, not hundreds, and one one or two people have felt the need for us to refund their purchase." The problem occurs when Epson's new Premium Photo paper for the 870 is exposed to airborne contaminants, according to Clark. "If users follow the guidelines on the paper, which say it should be protected from airborne contaminants such as ozone, then they will have no problem," says Clark. He also stresses that the problem is with the one paper type, and that any complaints will be treated sypathetically on a case-by-case basis. The problem came to light when some owners of Epson's Stylus Photo 870, 875DC, and 1270 reported photos they printed were turning orange. Sometimes it occurs after a day or two, sometimes after a few weeks. But the problem didn't occur at all for many printer owners. The printers shipped in May and were touted as economical alternatives to professional photo developing and printing. The complaints initially puzzled Epson, which had hired a well-respected lab to torture-test the specialized inks and papers for the new Stylus Photo models. Based on those tests, the company was so confident in the results that its ads boast photos printed using the 870 "[would] be beautiful and fade-resistant for years to come - as long lasting, in fact, as traditional colour photo lab prints." Other ads described the 1270's prints as "fade-resistant media rivaling anything you've seen on standard colour photo lab prints." Why did some customers' real-world experiences fall so far short of Epson's test results? The lab, following proper procedure to test any ink and paper designed for indoor display, kept the test sample prints under glass while bombarding them with "accelerated" lighting. But the glass also protected the prints from air - and Epson now believes free-floating ozone is the culprit. The gas apparently destroys the dye in cyan (blue) ink and leaves behind the magenta (red) and yellow. That creates an orange cast. The orange shift only occurs where there's enough ozone at ground level. Weather, other natural and human-generated chemicals in the environment, indoor air quality, and other factors can affect ozone levels. That probably explains why many Stylus Photo users haven't seen the orange shift. Ironically, in smoggy areas with high levels of atmospheric ozone, the problem can be less severe since other pollutants may interfere with the ozone's ink-eating ability. One Web developer, who asked not to be identified, wrote that in his work - developing Web sites - he photographs many products, and "it is standard practice to send higher resolution prints to the clients for their own use". He says prints that turned orange in transit have cost him several clients, adding, "The sad thing is, the Epson 1270 delivers absolutely spectacular prints - until the ozone attacks them. I guess I'm really hoping that they come up with a real solution." The ideal solution would be an ink that won't break down from ozone exposure. But a change in ink isn't as simple as it sounds, says Greg McCoy, Epson's US senior product manager for consumables (ink and paper). The printer software that controls the ink mix to look right on each type of paper would have to be rewritten for a new formula. And there's no way to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people who own the affected models will download and install the new software. "With any change to an ink it would be impossible to maintain the overall quality of the printer," says McCoy. "It would be a catastrophe." So what should you do if you own one of these printers? Epson in the US makes several suggestions. First, the company recommends protecting photo prints from air in glass frames or acid-free, archival photo sleeves. However, that could be inconvenient. Also, if you're using Epson's Premium Glossy Photo Paper, you may want to switch to a different type of paper for now. The Premium Glossy Photo suffers more from orange shift than Epson's other papers. It produces its bright, rich look by trapping ink on a surface barrier - where it is most exposed to ozone - instead of letting it soak in, which would mute the colours. Several photographers using Epson's 870 and 1270 report the same orange-shift with other brands of high-quality barrier paper. Less glossy papers delay the fading. Epson recommends its Matte Paper-Heavyweight or Photo Paper. However, photographers also find the orange-shift occurs on these more porous media, though more slowly. Finally, if you can't live without glossies, Epson in October plans to release a Premium Glossy Photo paper that has an antioxidant to block the ozone's effects. McCoy says photos printed on the new paper "will last four to six times longer." Four to six times longer may satisfy some users, though not all - particularly those who live where the orange shift occurs in days or weeks. Those alternatives are why Epson has not recalled the 870, 875DC, and 1270, which the company maintains are fundamentally not flawed. "It's a usability issue," says McCoy. He insists the printers "work as stated." In other words, Epson views the orange-shift only as an inconvenience that doesn't render the printer unusable. However, Epson realizes that convincing 870, 875DC, and 1270 owners to change papers or protect every print is as impractical as releasing updated drivers. Instead, the company is willing to buy back the printers. As McCoy says, "If you're unhappy, I'm not going to argue with you; I'll refund your money. We will do what it takes to make you happy."

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