In this article we’ll focus on meeting your output needs; in other words, choosing a printer. It’s essential to choose a printer that matches your output requirements in terms of print size, quality and longevity and also, perhaps, versatility and printing speed. Different photographers will place different priorities on these characteristics because no printer on the current market can provide an all-in-one solution for every camera user.


In this article we’ll focus on meeting your output needs; in other words, choosing a printer. It’s essential to choose a printer that matches your output requirements in terms of print size, quality and longevity and also, perhaps, versatility and printing speed. Different photographers will place different priorities on these characteristics because no printer on the current market can provide an all-in-one solution for every camera user.

However, because all photographers want the best print quality for their money, we’ll begin this article by explaining the main factors that influence the output quality from all inkjet printers.

Factors Influencing Print Quality
Today’s photo inkjet printers can produce prints that look as good as – if not better than – traditional photo prints. This is true for both colour and black-and-white photos. When choosing an inkjet printer, be guided by the following factors:

a) The type of ink the printer uses.
Two types predominate: dye and pigment. Dye inks are usually capable of producing slightly brighter colours, particularly on glossy paper. However, because they are liquids, they can be susceptible to degradation by air-borne pollutants (such as ozone) and exposure to bright sunlight.

Pigment inks are less vulnerable to airborne pollutants because they contain solid particles of colour. Some manufacturers add a coating of impermeable resin for extra protection to ensure the longest-lasting prints. The resin coating also enables the pigments to become embedded in the top layer of the paper and makes them more abrasion resistant than uncoated pigment particles.


Adding a resin coating provides pigment inks with even more protection against airborne pollutants. The diagram above shows how the coloured pigments become embedded in the resin in the top layer of the paper.

Droplet sizes are usually smaller for dye inks than for pigment inks, which means prints made with dye inks may be able to show finer detail. However, dye inks may also tend to spread as they are absorbed into the top layer of the printing paper. It’s essential to match the ink to the paper for best results.

b) The size of the ink droplets produced by the print head.
Printers that use dye inks can deliver ink droplets as small as 1.5 picolitres (one trillionth – or 10-12 of a litre) because dyes are liquids, whereas pigment printers usually deliver a minimum droplet size of 3 picolitres because pigment inks contain solid particles.

Because the size of the droplets affects the printing speed, most photo printers produce droplets of varying sizes. The largest droplets are used in the areas of the image that are all one colour, such as clear blue skies. The smallest droplets are used for the finest details. Between these extremes, different degrees of detail are printed with different sizes of droplets. The diagram below shows how this system works.


To print the picture above, the printer will use large ink droplets for the areas of plain blue sky and a mixture of differently-sized, smaller droplets for the rest of the image, with droplet sizes dictated by the amount of detail in each section of the picture.

Variable-sized droplet technology optimises two factors: picture quality and printing speed. By using large droplets in areas that lack detail and tailoring droplet sizes to the amount of detail in the image, high-quality prints with plenty of fine detail can be produced without requiring snailpaced printing speeds.

c) Output resolution and viewing distance.
The degree to which your prints are sharplooking and detailed depends on the output resolution the printer can deliver – and the distance from which the print is viewed. In general, the minimum resolution for a photo printer should be 4800 x 1200, particularly if the printer will be used for making prints larger than A4 size.

The printer should be able to place each droplet of ink accurately (and precisely) on the printing paper. The design of the print head, coupled with the printer driver (which controls printing) account for these factors.

However, different sized prints require different resolutions. The higher the printing resolution the more ink is deposited on the paper. This means ink cartridges become depleted faster – and that will cost you money. Photographers must learn how high to set the printer resolution for the ideal balance between detail reproduction and ink usage. For prints smaller than A4-size, the recommended resolution setting is 300 dots/inch (dpi). Larger prints can tolerate lower resolution settings because they are viewed from greater distances. By the time you reach A3+ size (483 x 329 mm), which is the largest output size for non-professional printers, you can drop the resolution to 150 dpi without seeing any loss in picture quality.

d) Colour reproduction.
Colour reproduction is the most complex factor affecting print quality, partly because it involves many different parameters but also because we judge colour subjectively. One photographer might prefer strong, brightly-coloured prints while another favours subtle tones and hues and yet another is happiest with black-and-white prints.

Another common factor relating to dye-based inkjet printers is the need to allow time for ink colours to stabilise. This phenomenon is known as ‘short-term colour drift’ and it varies with different printers and ink sets. In some cases, stabilisation takes only minutes; in others, prints must be left for several hours until you can be sure the colours are stable. Newer printers usually have shorter stabilisation times than older models and printers from leading photo brands are better than those from manufacturers of office printers.

The ability to reproduce all the colours in an image can also affect output quality. This factor is known as the ‘gamut’ of the printer and higher-quality printers can reproduce a wider colour gamut than cheaper printers. The more ink colours the printer uses, the wider the colour gamut it can produce.

Photographers who make black-and-white prints need printers that can produce neutral greys across the tonal range from black to white. This means having at least two levels of grey ink as well as deep, rich black. If only one black ink is used in the ink set, grey tones in prints must be created by combining coloured inks. It’s almost impossible to create a true, neutral grey in this way so prints from such printers will show a range of colour casts.

e) Media choices.
The printing paper you choose can influence both the appearance and the longevity of your prints. It will also be determined by the end use you have in mind for your prints. We cover these factors in Media Choices and Image Sharing, Display and Preservation.

Choosing a Printer
Answering the following questions will help you to find a printer that will match your requirements most of the time:

1. How large do you wish to make your best prints?
We emphasise ‘best’ because, with today’s printers, any reasonably competent photographer should be able to produce goodlooking prints from almost any photo quality printer. However, some camera users only want snapshot-sized (6 x 4 inch) prints, while others won’t be happy unless they can make postersized enlargements.

Printers that can produce A4-sized output will suit photographers who prefer snapshot-sized prints for most images but would like to make the occasional A4-sized print for framing or displaying in an album. A4-sized prints can make excellent gifts and look great when framed. This size is also ideal for coffee-table photo albums.


Snapshot printers, like the Epson PictureMate series, are easy and convenient to use and produce long-lasting prints for an affordable price. They are ideal for snapshooters, photographers who only want 6 x 4 inch prints and anybody who requires a highly portable printer.

Photo enthusiasts often enjoy making poster-sized prints of their best pictures for displaying in their homes or offices – and some even compete in photography contests or participate in exhibitions. An A3+ printer will be the best choice for these photographers as it allows them to create their own works of art at home.


Photo enthusiasts who wish to make large prints will find Epson’s Stylus Photo R2880, which uses eight ink cartridges, can deliver superb black-and-white prints and colour prints with a wide gamut.

No printing service can print your images to reproduce the subject you photographed because they weren’t there when the shot was taken. Only you can recall the colours and tonal nuances you observed at the time. The best a printing service can do is to produce a print that meets an average standard.

Stepping up to an A3+ printer may require a fairly steep learning curve. But the results will be worth your efforts. There are few things as satisfying as looking at the large prints you have made of images captured on a special occasion, framed and displayed for all to see.

2. Are you prepared to pay more for higher image quality?
Cheap printers can seldom match the output quality – or longevity – of more expensive, dedicated photo printers. To simulate the appearance of a photograph, where one tone merges seamlessly into the next and fine details are recorded faithfully, a printer must be able to deliver tiny droplets of ink to the paper and the paper must be able to take up the ink without allowing it to spread.

Modern technology can deliver excellent results in both respects – but not at bargain basement prices. The print engine (which controls the size of the ink droplets and the way they are delivered to the paper) will also influence image quality. A more sophisticated print engine will have better control and, therefore, will make better-looking prints. More informtation on the factors controlling print quality can be found in What to look for in an Inkjet Printer and Dye or Pigment Ink.
3. Do you have any special printing requirements?
Modern inkjet printers often include some useful features that can enrich photographers’ lives. The ability to print on specially-prepared optical disks has become very popular in recent times as more people produce copies of their digital photos on DVD for archival storage. The popularity of video has also created a market for printable DVDs – and printers capable of label printing.


Photographers who are serious about image quality and wish to create panorama prints and print on optical discs should look for a printer like Epson’s Stylus Photo R800.

Another function coming under increasing demand is the ability to print panoramic photos. With more digital cameras offering this feature, even snapshooters are becoming aware that printing a panorama on paper smaller than A4 size is not worth the effort. The solution is to buy a printer that can accept roll paper. This will allow you to print panoramas as wide as 210 mm – and as long as the image demands.

4. Do you need an all-in-one-printer?
Although dedicated photo printers usually produce the highest quality prints, some photographers will be frustrated by their limitations. If your work area is small and you require a scanner and copier that can print documents and also produce good photo prints, a multi-function printer (MFP) may be a better option.

When you buy an MFP you are buying a device that combines three or more functions. Some compromises are always required to accommodate each capability offered. However, on the positive side, multi-function printers represent great value for money and they take up much less desk space than a separate printer, scanner and copier/fax would occupy.

Many recently-released MFPs have similar resolution to photo printers and some can scan 35mm negatives and slides and produce photoquality prints from the scans. You may also find memory card slots for direct printing from camera memory cards.


The latest multifunction printers come with high-resolution scanners and long-lasting, photo quality ink sets and memory card slots to satisfy photographers. But they also include excellent document printing facilities plus faxing and support Ethernet and Wi-fi connections.

Direct Printing
Direct printing systems have become commonplace in consumer printers and are popular because they simplify the printing process for novice users. Two types of interface are offered: memory card slots and PictBridge technology. A third type of interface involves wireless printing from a mobile phone or other handheld device. Bluetooth and IrDA (infrared) are the most widespread technologies.

Printing from a memory card is very easy. You simply remove the memory card from the camera and plug it into the appropriate card slot on the printer. Most printers with card slots provide an LCD screen to help users select images for printing and control the printing process.


In the latest printers, two memory card slots can cater for all types of cards, although some may require adapters.

Most consumer printers have a PictBridge interface that allows a digital camera to be connected. This eliminates the need for drivers that allow the camera and printer to ‘recognise’ each other.

If you aren’t able to print your own photos at home, there are plenty of options available through your local camera shop or minilab. As well as providing services for making snapshot-sized prints. these specialist shops are ideal when you want to make larger prints than your home printer permits.

Specialist retailers can also provide services like canvas printing, photo books and gift items like personalised mugs, mouse mats and T-shirts.

The following websites provide additional information on the topics covered in this chapter. for reviews of printers and printing equipment. for information on printing and storing digital photos. for tutorials on many aspects of 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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