As we explained in Output Equipment, different types of printer require different types of inks. The only way to guarantee you obtain the best-looking, longest-lasting and most colour accurate prints is to use the inks supplied by the manufacturer of your printer.


As we explained in Output Equipment, different types of printer require different types of inks. The only way to guarantee you obtain the best-looking, longest-lasting and most colour accurate prints is to use the inks supplied by the manufacturer of your printer. Three printer types dominate the home printing market: dye-sublimation (also known as ‘dye-sub’) and two types of inkjet (thermal and piezo-electric). Each type requires different inks and, sometimes, paper.

Dye-sublimation printers, which are normally limited to producing snapshot-sized prints, use thousands of tiny heating elements to release coloured dyes from a donor ribbon, which is placed in contact with receiving paper. Media for these printers are supplied as ink-plus- paper packs. The ink cartridge is inserted in a dedicated compartment in the printer, while the paper is stacked in the feed tray.

A similar system is used for some snapshot inkjet printers, which are more economical to use than dye-sub machines, because overall media costs are lower and media are often sold in higher-capacity packs. Prints from inkjet printers are also more fade-resistant, with many manufacturers boasting lightfastness ratings in excess of 100 years. This technology is now being offered in some retail printing kiosks for snapshot printing.

A4-sized and larger inkjet printers are defined by the type of ink they use: dye or pigment. It’s important to understand the differences between them – and also understand why you can’t use dye inks in printers designed for pigment inks – and vice versa. Thermal inkjet printers need inks that can maintain a specific viscosity range through repeated cycles of heating and cooling, while piezo-electric printers require inks with highly specific viscosities.

Use Genuine Inks
Don’t be tempted by the low prices of the ink cartridges you see in the supermarket. Cheap inks can’t be manufactured with the necessary degree of quality control and there’s no way to ensure they are suitable for a specific printer. The cartridges may also be susceptible to leakage, allowing inks to spread inside the printer’s electronics and mechanical components. This can damage cables, circuit boards and associated mechanical parts.

Inks that do not meet the print head’s requirements can either leak through the nozzles and produce large droplets that reduce resolution or clog the print head. Although you may be able to clear blockages with repeated cleaning cycles, this will use up a lot of ink and, in the end, the damage to the print head may require it to be replaced prematurely.

The cheapest long-term solution to preventing any potential problems is to buy the inks that carry the manufacturer’s branding – and match them to your printer. Details of which inks go with which printers can be found on each printer manufacturer’s website. This strategy ensures you will be using an ink that exactly meets the requirements of your printer.

Long-Lasting Prints
Over many years we’ve come to expect colour photographs to fade with time. This is particularly true for traditional media, where colour changes could occur in less than 20 years. The same was also true in the early days of inkjet printing – but today’s media can deliver prints that can be passed through several generations yet retain all their brightness and vibrancy.

The main factors affecting print stability are the ink/paper combination and the handling and storage conditions after the print has been made. A printer that produces long-lasting prints on one paper may not deliver the prints with the same stability when a different brand of paper is used – even though the two papers look almost identical and both claim high longevity.

Certain paper/ink combinations are highly sensitive to ozone, which is common at low levels in urban environments and reaches high concentrations around devices like refrigerators and air conditioners. This is why you should never display unprotected inkjet prints on the fridge door.

Cheap ink cartridges are particularly vulnerable to fading (and also produce inaccurate colours). In addition, you can’t guarantee the fidelity of the colours or ensure repeatable colour accuracy from print-to-print, regardless of how long it was since the original print was produced. These factors make cheap inks a more expensive choice in the long term than inks from your printer’s manufacturer.


This illustration shows the results of accelerated indoor light stability tests on different inkjet inks. The top line shows the results from inks produced by a reputable printer manufacturer. The second line shows the results from a set of refilled cartridges, while the third line shows the results from a cheap supermarket brand of ink cartridges. (Source: Wilhelm Imaging Research.)

How Many Inks?
In theory, all colours should be reproducible by combining varying proportions of cyan, magenta and yellow. However, in practice, it is impossible to produce inks with totally pure colours and full saturation so printer manufacturers have developed different ink sets to cater for the needs of different types of printing.


A typical four-colour ink set containing yellow, magenta, cyan and black inks.

The simplest printers use only four ink colours: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Printers with this ink set are known as ‘CMYK printers’, with the K standing for ‘key’ and representing black. While it’s possible to create most colours with this ink set – and there are ‘photo’ printers using it, the subtlety of hues and tones that can be reproduced is limited.

To improve tonal reproduction and provide greater colour accuracy, manufacturers introduced two additional inks: light cyan and light magenta. These six-colour inkjet printers were the first step towards photo-quality inkjet printing and the first inkjet printers to match the quality of traditional photo prints.


A typical six-colour ink set with light cyan and light magenta added to the basic CMYK set.

Subsequent additions have aimed mainly at fine-tuning colour palettes. The typical eightcolour ink set contains cyan, magenta, and yellow inks plus black and two levels of black ink. In some printers separate black inks are required for printing on glossy and matte papers. You often have to take out the Photo Black cartridge and replace it with the Matte Black cartridge before you can swap from glossy and semi-gloss media to matte papers.


A typical eight-cartridge ink set with cyan, magenta, yellow, light magenta, light cyan and three levels of black ink (black, light black and light light black). For printers using this ink set you may change between Photo Black and Matte Black inks when you swap from printing on glossy papers to matte papers.

Black-and-white printing has been radically improved by the addition of light black and light light black inks (as shown in the ink set above). By filling in the deficiencies of the standard ink sets they remove residual colour casts. Photographers who enjoy printing monochrome pictures should always choose a printer with three black inks.

Red, blue and green inks have been added to some dye ink sets to increase the brilliance of these colours in prints of landscape and product shots. Orange has been added to improve the accuracy of skin tones and Epson has recently introduced a new ink set with more vivid magenta and light magenta inks to further improve overall colour accuracy.


One of the newer ink sets that includes red and orange in addition to the basic CMY colours. The additional Gloss Optimiser (GO) cartridge overlays a resin coating on prints on glossy media to provide a smoother surface.

Recently, Canon and Epson have added 10-colour printers to the professional end of their ranges. In each case, the additional cartridges are used for different types of black or grey inks, which are added to the standard eight-colour ink set.

Paper Choices
If you have a dedicated photo printer you can choose from a wide range of inkjet papers. Aside from the standard glossy and matte surfaces, there are semi-gloss, ‘lustre’ ‘silk’, ‘velvet’, ‘satin’, ‘soft gloss’ and ‘pearl’ finishes (all requiring Photo Black ink) and standard matte papers are complemented by ‘fine art’ papers with surfaces like watercolour, linen, silk and canvas.
Make sure you choose the correct paper thickness for your printer as some printers (notably the cheaper, A4 models) can’t handle heavyweight papers. Even the more sophisticated A3+ desktop printers are limited in the paper thicknesses they can handle and some require sheets to be fed in one by one via a special feed chute.

Be guided by the ‘weight’ of the paper, which is usually expressed in grams per square metre (gsm), which provides the best guide to how heavy the paper will feel (heavier papers have a higher-quality feel than lighter papers). It’s also a good indication of the thickness of the paper, although for some highly-textured papers, thickness is an important criterion because the paper is actually thicker than the weight measurement suggests.

Photo printing papers should be at least 170 gsm in weight; preferably 190-250 gsm, although some glossy papers are available with 300gsm weight. Paper thickness is usually expressed in millimetres. The table below provides some equivalents for popular photo papers.

Paper Type



Glossy Photo

260 gsm

0.25 mm

Semigloss Photo

255 gsm

0.27 mm


192 gsm

0.25 mm

Smooth Fine Art

325 gsm

0.46 mm

Velvet Fine Art

260 gsm

0.18 mm

Photo Rag

310 gsm

0.5 mm


340 gsm

0.52 mm

For general-purpose printing, look for papers that can withstand surface abrasions and those that can tolerate exposure to water and humidity. Papers that dry quickly have an advantage over those that take minutes or hours to dry – especially if colour changes occur during the drying process.

If you wish to make poster-sized enlargements which is easy and very affordable with an A3+ printer), consider using a ‘fine art’ paper. These papers are usually more expensive than regular printing papers, partly because of their heavier weight (more fibre is involved in their manufacture) but also because they are made to higher standards than normal printing papers. The payback is that your images can look much better when printed on them.

Try to match the paper’s surface to the type of photograph you plan to print. Some images – for example, portraits – look best on matte papers or soft, textured papers with a slightly warm tone. Others, like landscapes, buildings and product photographs, look best on glossy media.


Portrait prints often look best on matte papers, which provide a softer, more tactile appearance.

However, landscape images printed with pigment inks can often reveal their full vibrancy on flat matte papers, while snapshot prints are often best printed on glossy papers that look bright and appealing.


Colourful landscape photographs can benefit from the wide colour gamut and excellent sharpness that characterise glossy papers.

Other Media
As well as printing on paper, many inkjet printers can print on a variety of different media, including OHT (overhead transparency) film, stickers, coated CDs and DVDs and transfer paper for putting images on fabric items like T-shirts, placemats and canvas bags. Special media are required for items like OHTs, stickers and transfers and optical disks must be coated with a white, matte surface to accept the inks. Special inks are not required.

The receiving media should be prepared beforehand. Make sure the printing surface is clean and free of grease and dust. Fabric items should be pre-washed and ironed and then stretched to ensure there are no creases on the area where the transfer will be applied. Printed fabrics should be washed by hand to prolong the life of the picture.

The following websites provide additional information on the topics covered in this article. for tips on many aspects of digital printing. for articles on fine art inkjet printing.
This is an excerpt from Mastering Digital Photography Pocket Guide 2nd Edition.
Click here for more details on this and other titles in the Pocket Guide series.


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