As a photographer, making prints not only allows you to turn your digital images into a tangible asset; it also provides you with a great way to display them. Compared to the facilities our parents had, today’s photo printers are light years ahead in convenience, economy and durability.
Choosing a Printer
The ‘Look’ of the Prints. Does the printer deliver a full and evenly-distributed tonal range from highlights to deep, rich blacks? Check for highlight and shadow detail and avoid printers that block up tones at either end of the range. Examine the surface of the print for smoothness. Discontinuities are created when different densities of ink are applied, and give the print an obvious ‘inkjet’ look. Watch for signs of surface bronzing – another telltale ‘inkjet’ sign. How do the prints look on glossy, semigloss or matte papers?
Colour Accuracy. Does the printer reproduce the hues in the image accurately? Does the colour balance in the print change in the first 10-15 minutes? Do its colours look ‘right’ in all types of lighting (daylight, incandescent and fluorescent)? If the print takes on a colour cast under one type of lighting and this cast changes under different lighting, the impact of the print will be affected by the lighting in which it is displayed.
Paper Handling. Can the printer handle the paper sizes and weights you wish to use? Note: many desktop printers can’t be used with some of the heavier ‘fine art’ papers that are ideal for enlargements that will be framed.
Speed. Some printers are fast; some are slow. If you need prints in a hurry, a fast printer will deliver the goods. But check the way the ink is laid down, looking for signs of banding and blotchiness as these may be sacrificed at the expense of speed. Fast printers may also produce less colour-stable prints.
Paper Range. How wide is the range of papers offered by the manufacturer for the printer? The wider the range, the wider your options of ‘benchmark’ papers catered for in the driver and the more likely there will be additional ‘out of the box’ support, such as ICC profiles.
Robustness. How resistant are prints to damage under normal handling conditions? Look for papers that can resist surface abrasions and withstand 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.
Try to match your choice of printer to your output requirements, lifestyle and the desk space available to accommodate it.
Lifestyle suitability. How well does the printer fit in with your lifestyle and the environment you will use it in? Will a single-purpose printer be adequate or would you be better served by a multi-function device? Do you require a portable printer that can be taken with you on family occasions or are you happy with a printer that can be left set up on a desk? How much desk space is available for the printer?
1. Snapshot printers are designed to produce 15 x 10 cm (6 x 4 inch) prints, although most can also print smaller pictures, often by grouping several on a single sheet of paper. Two printing technologies are in common use: inkjet and dye sublimation (also known as ‘thermal’ or ‘thermal dye transfer’). At between 25 and 50 cents per print, inkjet printers are cheaper to run than thermal printers (which normally cost $1 or more per print). Prints from inkjet printers are also usually longer-lasting with at least three times the lightfastness of the best thermal printers and twice the fade resistance of traditional photolab prints.
Many snapshot printers are ‘go-anywhere’ models that can be plugged into mains power or battery driven.
Multi-function printers with scanner/copier facilities are becoming increasingly popular for families.
2. A4 printers all use inkjet technology. This market sector is split into three categories: office printers that can also print photographs, dedicated photo printers and multi-function printer/copier/scanner devices. There are several ways to identify models that are capable photo printers. Where the manufacturer doesn’t use the designation ‘Photo’ to identify them, the number of ink cartridges the printer uses can help purchasers to determine their photo printing capabilities. More cartridges usually means better picture quality.
3. A3+ printers are designed for photo enthusiasts and professional photographers who want to make large prints for display. Almost all models in this category use at least six ink colours; some eight or ten.
A3+ printers use between six and ten ink cartridges, all of which are individually replaceable.
How Many Inks?
The typical ink set of a six-ink printer has only one black ink cartridge. (The illustration shows the monitor that appears on the computer screen when a print is in production.)
The status monitor for an eight-ink printer. Note the three levels of grey ink: black, grey and light grey, which are essential for truly neutral black & white prints.
Dye or Pigment Ink?
Colour stability – both short- and long-term – is an important reason why professional photographers prefer pigment inks over dyes. Not only are pigment inks more durable, their colours do not change once the print is made. In contrast, dye inks can change in the minutes, hours or even days after a print is produced.
Without these sureties, printing with dye inks is not economical for professional photographers. Pigment inks are also much less reactive with the receptive layer on the paper, which makes printing on matte ‘fine art’ papers practical. Dye-based inks – including the new Claria, Lucia and Vivera inks – can be seriously destabilised on those papers. Waterfastness is another area where pigment inks excel and they are not affected by high humidity.
Although pigment inks still offer superior lightfastness (i.e. resistance to colour changes over time) than dye inks, some of the latest dye inks are closing the distance between them. Wilhelm Imaging Research (www.wilhelm-research.com), the world’s leading independent photo media testing authority, regularly publishes lightfastness ratings for new photo printers, using a variety of inks and papers. Some results of recent tests are presented in the table below to illustrate the differences in lightfastness between pigment and dye inks.
The table below gives some print permanence ratings for popular ink/paper combinations from the major inkjet manufacturers.
Money-Saving Tips for Digital Printing
1. Control the printing process with the driver software. This allows you to ensure you print with the correct settings and match the driver settings to the paper you use. Most drivers provide two settings for photo printing: Photo and Best Photo (or similar designations). In many cases the difference between prints made at each setting is negligible. However, since more ink is laid down with the higher quality setting your ink cartridges will be depleted sooner.
The table below provides print permanence ratings for two popular traditional media and a typical dye sublimation printer.
Third-Party Inks & Papers
The results of accelerated aging tests by Wilhelm Imaging Research showing the difference between Epson’s DURABrite Ultra pigment inks on Epson Premium Glossy Paper and Calidad-branded ‘pigment’ inks on Calidad Inkjet Glossy Photo Paper. Both seets of prints were made on an Epson Stylus C87/C88 inkjet printer. The Epson ink/paper combination has a WIR Display Permanence rating of 40 years, whereas the Calidad ink/paper combination has a WIR Display Permanence rating of less than one year. (Illustration supplied by Wilhelm Imaging Research.)
Test Strips for Inkjet Printing – a Step-by-Step Guide
2. Using the Crop tool, select a strip that runs through a critical area of the image where you want detail to be fully resolved. The strip should be rectangular but it can be almost any size you want – as long as it covers the key ‘exposure’ area. Do not change the size of the image as this could change the print quality. (There is no need to save the ‘test strip’ unless you wish to use the same area subsequently. If this is the case, tag the file name with ‘test’.)
3. Load the printer with an A4 (or smaller) sheet of the paper you will use for your final enlargement and re-set the paper size and orientation accordingly. Set the paper size and orientation to match the paper you’re using. Uncheck Centre Image and use the Position settings to position your test strip on the sheet of paper.
4. Print the test strip using the settings you plan to use for the final print. Now assess the test strip, checking colour, brightness, sharpness and any other adjustable parameter that is relevant. Make the required changes to the saved image file you plan to print from and, if you wish to check them again, get ready to make a second test strip on the same sheet of paper as you used for the first.
5. Repeat the steps above until you reach the point where you position your second test strip. Use the Image > Image Size control to see how large your cropped test strip is (re-crop it if necessary to ensure it fits on the sheet of paper). Measure the distance from the top (or side) of the page and adjust the Position settings to make the second test strip fit in either below or beside the first one.
6. Load the paper in the printer again so the second test strip is correctly printed. (Most printers work from the top of the page downwards, which means you should load the paper top-downwards.) Print the second strip and evaluate it as outlined above.
When you have a test strip you’re happy with, use the Page Setup function in the File menu to set the paper size and orientation to match the output size for the final print. Then open the image and adjust it to the correct size for printing. You may need to refer to the printer driver page to match the image Document Size to the Scaled Print Size. Checking the Scale to Fit Media box in the printer driver will ensure your picture fits the paper and is placed centrally on the sheet.
Exceed your vision with Epson.