The Kodak Professional 8500 Digital Photo Printer
The Peoples Dye Sub Fast And Affordable

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Installing the delicate color ribbon couldn't be easier. It snaps into a plastic cradle and then installs into the printer. That's it--add some paper and you're ready to roll.

For most of us digital types the clouds parted and the light was revealed to us with the advent of good, cheap photo quality ink jet printers in the
mid-1990s. The difference in image quality on the printed page from a four-color business printer on copy paper to a six-color photo printer on glossy stock was just jaw dropping. Now we were finally able to take those film scans we had and do something with them besides send them out for expensive Iris prints.

I've been through lots of photo printers since then. I've bought every new photo printer practically the second it hit the shelves, and then stocked up on pricey proprietary ink cartridges and special heavy photo stock. While the quality has improved steadily over the years, the time to make a print and the general hassles of color management and ink jet head cleaning have continued to plague me on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong--I use these printers every day for client use and couldn't live without them, but nothing's perfect.

Here's the process for printing: after the printer spools up from your computer, the paper is drawn through. The first pass lays down the yellow ink.

Pro Quality Prints
In an effort to get some really nice looking pro quality prints that I could bang out quicker I've laid out the big bucks for other types of printers over the years. I've owned a Fuji Pictrography photo printer and several Kodak dye sublimation printers. While the Fuji is an absolutely killer machine I found the Kodaks to have a better per-print cost and an easier workflow. Of course, the issue was always the up-front cost of the machine and the size and weight--they're big boys! The beauty of the dye sub is that it has a real photo lab quality, and of course the back of the print says "Kodak" on it, which clients like!

As event imaging using digital cameras has expanded in the past few years, a few manufacturers have gotten into the game with fast, portable, inexpensive dye sub printers. While most are aimed at small print sizes, they've been incredibly popular. Well, Kodak recently hit the market with a printer that seemed almost too good to be true. The specs are a studio or location photographer's dream: continuous tone 314dpi color prints, a true 8x10" finished print size, amazing 75 second print times, a stunning 27 lbs for true portability, drivers for Windows XP and Mac OS X, parallel and USB interface, and a US street price of only $999! Hey Kodak, send me one of these!

Ssecond pass lays down magenta ink.

The 8500 Arrives
Once the printer arrived in my studio I was puzzled--unlike my big beast Kodak 8650 dye sub printer, the 8500 has a plastic bulge in the back and a plastic hood in the front. Once you fire off a print you can actually watch the paper jog back and forth using those plastic areas, applying each color separately, and then the final XtraLife UV coating in either gloss or matte. It's fascinating to watch and reminds me exactly of the Olympus P-400 printer. While the P-400 opened the door for this type of machine, its slightly smaller than 8x10" print sizes and nearly $3 each cost of consumables made it a bit less desirable. Of course this Kodak printer really does operate like the Olympus, and Kodak admits that it has partnered with other companies for some of its products, and there is that exciting 4:3 Olydak product with Olympus... Hmmm.

Third pass lays down the final color, cyan. Now you have a full color image.

The Dye Sub Difference
Whoever did the engineering on the box, it seems pure Kodak in operation. The special Kodak paper loads easily into the front paper tray, which is see-through so you always know your paper level. Dye sub printers don't use ink cartridges--they use heat to apply color from thin sheets of ribbon material. This material comes in rolls that look like some bizarre third-world flag--solid bars of magenta, cyan, and yellow mate to a clear patch. (The clear patch contains the UV coating, which Kodak calls XtraLife.) The installation routine couldn't be simpler. The ribbon roll is snapped into a plastic carrier, which is then inserted into the printer. That's it. Power up and go.

Print Driver Ease
The print driver, used both in Mac OS X and Windows XP, is pure simplicity. While there is an excellent calibration utility and a full complement of color and brightness controls, feel free to simply click "print" and watch the printer do its thing. In fact, my first print with the 8500 with no color controls or calibration whatsoever produced one of the best prints I've seen in a while. Kodak really, really knows how to dial in color for portraits, and if flesh tones have been a problem for you in the past, then you need one of these. I defy you to produce a bad print on this printer. I tried it on four different computers, all with different color profiles applied in Adobe Photoshop. Every machine produced excellent color quality and a warm, natural color sense. Using this printer will spoil you very fast--effortless color is now a reality.

The final pass lays down the UV coating, in either gloss or matte, according to your ribbon type.

Print Speed
Print speeds are also a revelation. While the quoted time for a print is 75 seconds, that does not include the spool times, which can vary according to the complexity of the file and the processor power and RAM of the host computer. I routinely found that the machine would deliver the first finished print in about 2 minutes flat, and then produce about four prints every 5 minutes after. That is supremely fast if you're used to ink jet printers, and is a bit faster than my very expensive 8650 dye sub.

The print feel and finish is also an eye-opener. While the 8500 does not produce the glossiest dye sub prints that I have seen, they have a beautiful even shine that rivals any lab "C" print. The matte finish prints (which are accomplished by changing the ribbon--the paper is universal) also have a very nice even feel, and really look like they were produced in a pro lab processor. When I went to reorder materials I found that 100 sheets of paper along with enough ribbon to produce 100 prints was $180. That's a fixed print cost of $1.80, which compares very favorably to super high quality ink jet glossy paper at roughly $1 a sheet plus those pricey cartridges in ink jets.

Traveling Companion
While I had the printer for review I landed an assignment that required me to travel, and the client needed on-site 8x10" prints. That's kind of a unique situation for me but in the past I would just pack an ink jet printer, cartridges, and paper. It always worked fine but making the client wait nearly an hour for seven photo quality prints made me look bad and created the kind of tension on the shoot that I just didn't need.

I packed up the 8500 in a large Leitz projector bag I had around the studio and set off for the shoot. I brought a 2GHz P4 laptop running Windows XP with 1GB of RAM. I shot my stuff with a Canon EOS-1Ds camera and we reviewed our images on screen using Photoshop. When we had narrowed down our image selection the client asked for 10 prints of one image for his use that day in a corporate meeting. No problem. Or so I thought--I had forgotten to pack the Kodak software disk and could not print. Yikes!

Luckily for me the wireless card in my computer was picking up an 80211.b wireless router somewhere, and in seconds I was on Kodak's well-designed web site downloading the latest driver. Not only is the driver available online, but there's also the full complement of materials including the calibration utility and manuals. It's this level of support that pros have come to expect from Kodak, and it's nice to see that even a price-conscious product like this receives the same level of support.

Once the driver was installed I simply clicked print and set up "10" as the quantity. Rather than the customary 1 hour and 20 minutes of ink jet printing I was handing off genuine dye sub prints with the Kodak logo on them in about 13 minutes.

Some Nits To Pick
The 8500 is a wonderful machine, but it's not perfect. While the color, saturation, and especially the finished surface of the prints is stunning, there can occasionally be a slight "digitalness" to the printed images. On very high key areas of contrasting colors--especially Caucasian skin against blue sky--you notice a slight stairstep pattern that seems about in-line with the machine's 314dpi. On practically everything else the prints are smooth and continuous tone. I also find it odd that Kodak does not offer this machine, even as an upgrade, with a network port. In my studio the ability to print from any computer in the shop is a critical aspect of any new printer's specifications, and the USB or parallel only interfaces limit this printer to a single computer installation.

Evaluation
The Kodak 8500 is a wonderful printer. It produces warm, realistic color effortlessly, in record time for an unheard of purchase price. The ability to instantly change from a high-gloss UV coating to a nice satin-matte finish on the fly is wonderful, and the very reasonable cost of consumables make this a machine that is within the reach of any serious digital photographer. I used it daily for a couple of months and charged clients for the prints I made with this printer. A few years ago this level of speed, color quality, and sophistication would have cost many thousands of dollars. The Kodak Professional 8500 Digital Photo Printer provides a real pro rival to photo ink jet printers, and should become a fixture in many serious photographers' digital darkrooms.

For more information about the Kodak Professional 8500 Digital Photo Printer, visit Kodak's website, www.kodak.com.

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