Lost in the ozone: Epson photos fade

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 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 specialised 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 color photo lab prints." Other ads described the 1270's prints as "fade-resistant media rivaling anything you've seen on standard color photo lab prints."

Lab didn't mimic life

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.

Altering ink not an answer

One Web developer, who asked not to be identified, wrote PC World 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 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."

Epson offers work-arounds to fading photos So what should you do if you own one of these printers? Epson 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. As another PC World correspondent writes, "Imagine a family vacation photo-shoot of a hundred pics, all requiring being framed or placed in a sleeve!"

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 colors.

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.

Buyback, but no recall

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 realises 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."