There are so many different printer options it’s not easy to decide which one best suits your needs. Essentially, it boils down to three decisions…

1. The printing technology;
2. The versatility of the device, and
3. The output size.

Printing technologies

Inkjet printing dominates for photo printing because it provides the best combination of output quality and durability at an affordable price. Two types are available, distinguished by the type of ink they use: dye or pigment. Both work by placing tiny droplets of ink on the surface of the printing paper.

Inkjet printers are the most popular for printing at home.

Regardless of ink type, inkjet printing reproduces the greatest detail and the widest range of colours and tones as well as the longest-lasting prints. Dye inks are absorbed into the surface of the paper, while pigment inks sit on top of it. This makes pigment inks a little more vulnerable to surface abrasion than dye inks.

Dye-sublimation printers use thousands of tiny heating elements to release coloured dyes from a donor ribbon, which is placed in contact with receiving paper. In most cases, these printers have cyan, magenta and yellow dye ribbons, although some also include black. The amount of heat from each element dictates the amount of dye that is transferred to the paper. The end result looks like a photographic print.

Dye-sublimation printers like Fujifilm’s Instax models, have an instant fun appeal, but they have limited value for printing photos because of the small output sizes supported and poor fade-resistance in the resulting prints.

Most models can only produce small prints that aren’t razor sharp. Because they’re quick and convenient (the paper and ink ribbon are supplied and loaded together), dye sublimation technology is commonly used in photo booths. The media packs containing both ribbon and paper, are rated for an exact number of prints which yields a fixed cost per print.

Laser printers perform relatively poorly when printing photos, so they are used mainly for office work. The process uses an electrically charged powder toner that is fused to the paper with heat. Specially-coated paper is required. Small prints can be curved by the fusing rollers.

Choosing a photo printer

If you’re serious about photo printing you’ll want a dedicated photo inkjet printer. People who only print photos occasionally can use a multi-function printer, which can also scan and copy photos and documents. But the results won’t be as good because these printers only use four inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) and lack facilities for fine-tuning ink delivery.

Four-colour multi-function printer/scanner/copier devices can be used for occasional photo printing but they won’t produce results as good as printers with printers with six or eight ink tanks.

Photo quality inkjet printers are the most economical to use and produce the best-looking, longest-lasting output. You also have the widest choices in the papers you can use and the print sizes each printer can produce.

The importance of inks

Whichever printer you choose, make sure it uses enough inks to deliver the output quality you expect. While multi-function printers use four or five inks, their main value lies in the inclusion of scanning and copying facilities. Most include both wired and wireless networking, the latter making it easy to print from smart devices.

Five-ink printers may add an extra black ink for printing on glossy papers or a grey ink to cover the intermediate tones between black and white. The latter type will produce better tonal gradations and cleaner-looking monochrome prints. Depending on the printer driver and ink set, output can vary between acceptable and borderline quality for photo printing.

While there are a few models that can handle papers up to A3+ size, most multi-function printers are restricted to A4 output and their scanner platens are either A4 or ‘Letter’ (220 by 280 mm) size. Typical scanning resolutions are around 1200 x 2400 dpi (dots per inch), which is good enough for copying snapshots.

Photo printers that use six inks normally add light cyan and light magenta inks to the basic four-ink set. This enables them to reproduce colours with greater tonal subtlety. But it won’t prevent colour casts from appearing in black and white prints.

Desktop printers that use eight to ten inks can output prints as large as A2 size with very high quality and excellent durability.

Desktop printers for serious photographers are designed for larger paper sizes; typically A3+ (329 x 483 mm) or A2 (420 x 594 mm). Most use between eight and ten inks, among which you’ll find at least one grey ink (many add two) along with light cyan and light magenta inks. Some models include red, orange or green inks in to provide better reproduction of skin tones and/or scenic images.

Some include a ‘Gloss Optimiser’ cartridge that overlays a film of transparent resin on the print to ‘fill in’ the white and near white areas and provide an even level of gloss across the paper. This feature is only needed when you want to print on glossy papers with a pigment ink printer.

Refillable printers

Epson was the first company to introduce printers with refillable ink tanks under the ‘EcoTank’ banner. These printers are designed primarily for office use and normally come with four tanks that hold cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. Sometimes an extra black ink tank is added for longer-lasting pigment ink, since the dye inks used in these printers are not long-lasting.

Printers with refillable ink tanks are ideal for general office usage but their limited ink sets and relatively short-lived inks make them unsuitable for photo printing.

Most EcoTank printers are printer/copier/scanner devices and the majority are restricted to A4 output. There are also a couple of models that can print on A3 paper, although their scanning is restricted to A4 size.

While they certainly save money for normal office printing and fit in well with a home office environment, we don’t recommend them for printing photos. For starters, the four-colour ink set makes it difficult for them to encompass a wide enough colour and tonal gamut.

In addition, the limited amount of lightfastness data for the inks used suggests a maximum of 18 years of fade-resistance. While this would be fine for greeting cards and calendars, it’s inadequate when long-lasting prints are required.

Multifunction Ecotank printers are economical to run and provide all the functions needed for everyday home office printing.

Paper handling
Smaller, lighter printers can’t be used for printing on thick, ‘fine art’ papers. Nor can they produce prints longer than the standard size they were designed for. So, if you want to make panorama prints that are longer than a standard sheet paper size you should look for a printer that can handle roll paper.

While most inkjet paper is sold as cut sheets, some high-featured printers can handle rolls of paper, which come in a variety of widths from 13-inch (329 mm) up and lengths starting at 10 metres. Printers that can use roll paper either come with a dedicated paper holder or require a paper holder as an optional accessory.

Photo printers with roll paper capabilities make it easy to produce panorama prints to display in your home or office.

Article by Margaret Brown

Excerpt from Photo Printing pocket guide