How to choose the right set up for printing your photos.
As outlined in Setting up a digital darkroom, your choice of a printer depends on set-up space, print size, and whether you prefer the ‘look’ of matte or glossy media.
A preference for glossy or matte prints can affect your choice of printer. Canon’s Pro Platinum paper is considered one of the best glossy papers available, while Epson’s Velvet Fine Art paper is among the best of the papers with smooth matte surfaces.
Although some A4 printers can do a reasonably good job of printing photos, most have limited ink sets. The best results come from A3 and A2 printers, which use more inks. These printers can also print on smaller paper sizes.
All colour printing requires at least four inks: Cyan (C), a greenish blue; Magenta (M), a purplish red, Yellow (Y) and Black (K – for ‘key’ as it adds a contrast ‘key’ to bring out the other colours.) Simple CMYK printers use only these four inks. They’re fine for everyday office printing but can’t reproduce all the subtle hues and tones in images.
Photo printers normally add light (‘Photo’) cyan and magenta inks and also at least one grey ink (‘Light Black’). Some printers add red, green or blue inks to further expand the printer’s tonal range.
Separate ‘Photo’ (PK) and ‘Matte’ (MK) black inks are usually provided, the Photo inks for glossy media and the Matte inks are for non-glossy surfaces. In older printers, swapping between Photo and Matte inks would take a few minutes and use a millilitre or so of ink to ‘purge’ the ink lines. The latest printers have mostly overcome this problem.
A typical A3 printer can print on papers up to 329 mm wide and has a 639 x 379 mm ‘footprint’ on a desktop. (Source: Canon)
A3 printers are affordably priced, can use a wide variety of paper types and will produce attractive colour and black and white prints. An A3 printer can print snapshots as well as posters, calendars and photo books. Many can also print panoramic images on user-specified papers and a few include special holders for printing on roll paper.
This A2 printer offers most of the capabilities professional users and serious enthusiasts require, including the ability to print on media up to 420 mm wide. Its ‘footprint’ measures 615 x 902 mm with output trays extended, as shown in this illustration. (Source: Epson.)
Most A2 desktop printers are designed for photographers, graphic designers, fine art producers and illustrators who require high quality output. The printer shown here can output prints up to 1.5 metres long and is able to print on roll paper or canvas when equipped with an optional roll media holder.
Generally, the more individual cartridges the printer uses the wider – and more subtle – the range of hues and tones it can print. When selecting a photo printer, make sure it uses at least six inks.
Dye or pigment inks?
Your media preferences will influence the type of printer you choose: dye or pigment (no printer can use both types). While both types can be used with glossy and matte papers, each works better with a different range of media.
Dye inks are liquid, which allows them to be easily absorbed by the coated surfaces of glossy and lustre (semi-gloss) papers. Pigment inks consist of microscopic particles of solid colours in a quick-drying carrier liquid. When the ink dries, the particles remain on the paper’s surface which is roughened to keep them in place, although they are vulnerable to abrasion.
Dye-ink printers reproduce the greatest detail and boldest colours on glossy and papers. The resulting prints are also more robust because the dyes are absorbed into the paper’s surface coating. Although they can be used for printing on canvas, the prints from dye ink printers are not as good as those from printers that use pigment inks.
Pigment ink printers work best with matte and lightly-textured papers but they are also ideal for heavier ‘fine art’ media, including canvas. But even prints on textured media will require careful handling to prevent the pigments from flaking. Spraying the surface of the print with preservation lacquer is recommended.
Pigment inks normally offer superior fade-resistance and are preferred when long-lasting prints are required. Interestingly, under optimal conditions the latest dye-based inks from Canon (Chromalife) and Epson (Claria) come close to the durability of their pigment-based counterparts.
There’s no ‘right’ printing paper for every image and every situation, but you can match your paper choice to the end result on the basis of the following criteria:
Size: This is the easiest to quantify since it is partly dictated by the output size of the printer. Apart from that, the choices are also straightforward: large prints are best for framing, while A4 size is ideal for books and smaller prints are best for sticking in albums.
Photo quality papers come in a wide variety of sizes, from A4 through to A2 and also on rolls of different widths to suit different printers.
Thickness: This can also be dictated by the printer as many consumer-level printers can’t handle thicker, heavier papers. Check your printer’s specifications to find its limits.
Paper thickness is usually specified in millimeters (mm) or as ‘weight’, which is defined in grams per square metre (gsm) – and there’s no accurate correlation between these measurements. Some manufacturers use gsm, while others use mm.
Heavier papers have a more substantial and tactile feel that implies higher quality, while lighter papers are more easily bound into books. The ideal paper weight for books is between 170 and 230 gsm, depending on the page size. At least 260 gsm is recommended for A3+ prints and 310 gsm for A2 prints that will be framed.
Surface: Paper surfaces range from high gloss through semi-gloss, lustre, pearl and satin to smooth matte. Textured papers are also available, along with ‘metallic’ papers with a special surface that contains particles of mica to reflect light with an iridescent sheen. Other options include ‘baryta’ papers that simulate the surfaces of traditional photo papers, canvas, linen and silk media and papers that simulate the ‘hand-made’ look of traditional Japanese ‘washi’ paper.
Independent manufacturer Ilford has a range of different papers.
For printing an image with a lot of detail, papers with smooth surfaces will reproduce details better than textured papers. Heavy textures can distract the viewer’s attention from the image, although they can work well for images with broad tonal gradations and areas of high contrast.
Tonality: Inkjet papers are usually classified as ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ tone. Warm papers retain the pale buff colour of their source materials (usually wood pulp). Cool papers are as close as possible to pure white in colour, often because they contain optical brighteners, although sometimes because cotton rag is used in their production.
Most landscape photos look best on cooler toned papers because they make colours appear livelier and highlight clouds and brighter areas. Portraits and shots of autumn colours usually look better on warmer paper, particularly when the subject contains warmer hues and subtle tones.
Speciality photo papers include ‘baryta’ surfaces, which replicate the surface appearance and tonality of traditional black and white photo papers.
Optical brightening agents (OBAs) are added to the coatings on inkjet media to make them look whiter, usually in papers made mainly from wood pulp. These chemicals fluoresce under ultraviolet light, emitting visible light at the blue/white end of the visible spectrum, which overpowers the paper’s natural buff tone. Prints made on papers with OBAs appear to have a wider colour gamut, increased saturation and denser blacks, although the full benefit of OBAs only shows under light with high levels of UV, such as sunlight or fluorescent lighting.
While bright white papers work well for photo books (where they receive limited light exposure) and some short-term projects, OBAs lose their fluorescence over time, especially when exposed to bright light, making the paper revert to its natural buff. As this takes place, the printed image will show colour shifts.
OBA-free papers are available for archival work but they are usually more expensive because they contain a high percentage of cotton rag. These papers may not reproduce the original brilliance in printed images, but many fine art photographers prefer them because they maintain consistent colour over time and their natural surfaces complement the printed images.
Many manufacturers sell sample packs in A4 or similar sizes to give photographers a low-cost way to try out their papers. Where the brands themselves don’t make up sample packs, some professional re-sellers like Image Science make up their own packs, usually containing one or two A4 sheets of each paper type within a particular range of between three and eight different papers. Prices range between $12 and $35, depending on the type of paper and the number of sheets in a pack.
Sample packs provide an easy and affordable way to see whether you like the look, feel and tonal reproduction of a paper before you buy it.
Once you’ve chosen a suitable paper, you should be able to find a related ICC profile for the paper that matches your printer on the paper manufacturer’s website. If you can’t find a profile, use the closest match in your printer’s canned profiles and make a test print on a small sheet of the paper. You may need to produce several prints, making small adjustments between them to tweak colours and contrast levels before achieving a satisfactory result.