you shoot with a digital camera or scan photographs, printing can be one
of the most rewarding aspects of photography. In the past, you needed
a darkroom and a great deal of expertise to make beautiful color or black
and white prints. Today, anyone can make prints that are suitable for
framing, without working with caustic chemicals. The prerequisite of course,
is a printer designed to produce optimal results when outputting photos.
If you do not yet own such a printer, or if your machine is more than
a couple of years old, you're a candidate for one of the latest
models. But which type of machine is best for your specific needs? And
what features are worth looking for and which are merely bells and whistles?
After testing many Canon, Epson and HP photo printers, I can offer the
high quality photo printer is an integral part of the
digital darkroom. Most brands use heat (thermal technology)
to force ink droplets onto the paper while Epson's
printers employ vibration (Micro-Piezo technology.)
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved
sublimation printers are also highly desirable because they
make durable, high-resolution, continuous tone prints with
rich color saturation. However, most models cannot make
prints larger than 4x6" or 5.8x3.9". It's
worth paying extra for machines that can make 8x10s, such
as the Kodak Pro 8500 ($969, street price, reviewed October
2003) or the Olympus P-400 ($469, street) if you appreciate
the benefits of dye sub prints. Courtesy Olympus America.
Although dye sublimation printers
are very popular among those who want only small prints, ink jets are
more practical for 8.5x11" or larger outputs because they're
substantially less expensive. The ink jet printers force ink onto paper
to make prints comprised of individual dots. Consequently, a print is
not continuous tone like a conventional silver halide photograph or a
dye sub print. However, if you make a 1400dpi print from a high-resolution
image on high quality photo paper, the ink dots should not be visible
to the naked eye.
Primary Ink Jet Printer
If you're planning to buy an ink jet photo printer, you'll
want to fully appreciate the primary features that are available, as well
as other factors that differentiate one machine from another. This information
will be valuable when you're reviewing the specifications of several
models in your price range.
Ink Droplet Size: The size of the ink droplets fired by the print head
determines overall print quality, particularly the amount of fine detail.
The droplet size is stated in picoliters or pl, a millionth of a liter.
A 4 pl size is common in current ink jet printers, but some newer machines
can spray 2 pl droplets that are 33 percent smaller in spherical volume.
The smaller the droplets, the more subtle the gradations of color, the
more detail that appears in the image and the smoother the overall appearance
of the print.
the future, expect to see more letter-size photo printers
that use incredibly small 1.5 pl droplets, such as the new
Epson Stylus Photo R800 that generates archival (lightfast
for 80 years) prints using
Hi-Gloss pigment inks. Courtesy Epson America, Inc.
In a letter size printer, 4
pl droplets produce excellent results while smaller droplets are even
better. Large format (13x19") printers generally produce 3 or 4
pl droplets but some new models (like the Canon i9900) can spray 2 pl
droplets. The difference is noticeable under close scrutiny but it's
not significant in large prints that will be viewed from a distance of
about 6 ft.
Number Of Ink Colors: An ink jet printer combines the
various ink colors to produce a wide range of hues and tones. The more
individual ink colors the better the photo quality will be, with less
white space between the dots for a smoother look. Color quality will be
higher too with superior color nuances, as with skin tones that are slightly
different, richer saturation, and better gradation (transitions) through
a full range of tones and colors.
ink jet photo printers employ six ink colors, while a few
models (such as the Epson Stylus Photo 2200) use seven inks.
Eight color printing may become more common in the future,
and is already available with the Canon BubbleJet i9900,
a machine that generates ultra-fine 2 pl ink droplets to
make a 13x19" photo in three minutes, with a lightfast
rating of 25 years. Courtesy Canon USA, Inc.
Most new photo printers employ
six ink colors while some use seven or eight inks for more impressive
print quality in either color or black and white. (Some printers can hold
eight inks but use only seven at one time; the HP 7960 and Canon i9900
use eight inks for all printing.) The best six-color printers generate
better prints than the older four-color machines, with superior color
nuances and saturation, better color gradation (transitions), more accurate
neutral tones, and less white space between the dots for a smoother look.
One or two extra inks do not make an obvious difference but are more likely
to satisfy perfectionists.
Ink Tank Setup: Until recently, a single ink cartridge containing
reservoirs of each color--plus a separate black cartridge--was
standard. Now, an increasing number of photo printers, particularly Canon
and Epson models, accept individual tanks. Instead of replacing an entire
cartridge when a single color runs out you can replace only the tank that
is depleted. Most photo enthusiasts find that individual ink tanks offer
greater economy in the long run, making this feature worthwhile.
photo printers generally accepted one color cartridge plus
a black ink cartridge. Today, many employ six or more ink
colors, generally in individual ink tanks that can be replaced
individually, as necessary..
Paper Size And Printable
Area: Most consumer grade photo printers accept paper as large
as 8.5x11" and many can make borderless prints up to that size.
Others can make borderless prints only in smaller size, such as 4x6"
or 8x10". Tabloid size printers accept 13x19" sheets of paper
and most can make borderless prints of that size; Epson models can make
44" long prints when using roll paper. Wide format printers are
also available but fall into the professional category in terms of price.
(The Epson Pro 4000 is the most affordable and accepts paper as wide as
17"; 24" printers cost $3000 and up.)
When comparing printers, be sure to check their specifications carefully
for maximum printable area and the largest borderless print size that
each machine can produce. Such data can be difficult to find in the specifications;
if necessary, consult a retailer for this information.
Direct Printing Capability: An increasing number of photo
printers allow for printing direct from a memory card or a digital camera,
a feature that's useful when you want prints quickly with maximum
simplicity. For the best results, I recommend a printer that will at least
allow you to adjust brightness, color and cropping. If you plan to use
such features, you'll want to be able to preview your images on
an LCD monitor: on the printer or on your camera's monitor. Don't
expect the same quality you'd get if you downloaded the image to
a computer and enhanced it with image-editing software. Still, many "direct
prints" are very good, suitable for a family album or scrapbook.
Printer Resolution: Defined in dpi (dots per inch), printer
resolution refers to the number of dots of ink the print head can apply
per inch on the paper. Most photo printers today offer a maximum resolution
capability of 1440dpi or 2800dpi. Some recent machines boast substantially
higher resolution such as 4800dpi or 5760dpi, but this feature is not
necessary. You will not see an improvement in your photos when printing
at any setting higher than 2880dpi for printer resolution. Even the difference
between a print made at 1440dpi and another made at 2880dpi is noticeable
only by a critical observer.
increasing number of Canon and Epson printers can print
direct from various brands of digital cameras, when connected
with a USB cable. This is a useful feature but requires
a PictBridge compatible camera and PictBridge compliant
printer. Look for such information in the product specifications.
Courtesy Canon USA Inc.
The higher the resolution that
you select (in the printer software), the more ink the machine will consume
and the longer the printing time will be. Although serious photographers
will want the versatility offered by a 2880+ dpi machine, plan to use
the 1440dpi setting often for faster printing and lower ink cost. With
watercolor and other "soft" papers, you'll generally
get the best results (less ink pooling) at a 720dpi printer resolution.
Printer Speed: If you make numerous high-resolution photos,
you'll want to look for a very fast printer. The manufacturers'
specs usually refer to printing draft-quality photos. While high-resolution
photos will take longer, the published data can be useful for comparison
purposes. Some manufacturers are starting to publish speed information
for high-resolution photo printing and this is generally more reliable.
prints, regardless of the paper, ink, and technology, fade
and discolor over time, as this old conventional photo illustrates.
If you must have long-lasting prints, look for a machine
that makes outputs with a lightfast rating of 25 or more
years and use only the archival papers.
Actual printing speed depends
on several factors: the printer resolution setting, your computer's
processing speed, the amount of RAM, the type of connectivity, the size
of the printer's buffer, the size of the image file being processed,
and so on. (Printers that support certain computers' high-speed
USB 2.0 connectivity are only slightly faster than USB 1.1 printers; that's
because consumer grade machines cannot accept data at the maximum speed.)
Nonetheless, it's worth reading test reports for rough estimates
of actual printing times, particularly if you plan to make many large,
Print Permanence: All photos eventually fade, especially
when displayed in direct sunlight. Some ink/paper combinations are more
lightfast than others, and the resulting prints are archival. Noticeable
fading should not occur for 20 or more years when the prints are matted,
framed, covered with non-UV glass and displayed away from direct sunlight.
In the past, only pigmented inks were truly archival but today, some dye-based
inks are also very lightfast. Look for information about print longevity
on the manufacturers' websites. Do note however that the estimates
are generally for one or two specific archival papers and rarely apply
when other papers are used.
Prints that are not archival generally last for at least a year or two
when taped to your refrigerator and may look great for five years when
properly framed or stored in an archival photo album. Of course, you can
remake any print that has faded so there's no compelling need to
pay extra for a machine that makes long-lasting prints. But if that's
high on your list of priorities, buy a printer that accepts lightfast
inks and use the manufacturer's most stable paper. You can find
additional information and recommendations on many archival issues in
a November 2003 Shutterbug article, "The Archival Quality Of Digital
Print Media, A Conversation With Henry Wilhelm" (a renowned expert
in this field); the full text is also available at www.shutterbug.com/
if you're on a tight budget, you can find a six color,
high-resolution photo printer that uses individual ink cartridges,
generates micro-fine 3 pl droplets and makes borderless
8.5x11" photos in under 3 minutes. The new Epson Stylus
Photo R200 ($99, street price) can also print directly onto
ink jet printable CD-R and DVD-R discs.
Other Printer Considerations:
You might also want to consider other factors when scanning the specifications
of several printers. Size may be important if you have limited desk space.
Noise level may be a concern if the printer will be placed close to your
work area. You might also want a printer that accepts thick media such
as "watercolor" paper.
Finally, it can be useful to have some estimate as to the cost of ink.
Check prices on the web, and also review the printer manufacturers'
specifications as to ink consumption. Because they're often based
on printing photos at a low-resolution setting, such estimates are usually
very optimistic but are useful for comparison purposes.
There's no simple method for identifying the ideal printer, because
that depends on individual budgets, preferences, and printing plans. However,
if you're considering a letter-size photo printer that will make
beautiful photo prints, look for a machine with the following features:
1) At least 1440dpi resolution
2) Six (or more) ink colors, preferably in individual tanks
3) Ink droplets size of 4 pl, or preferably smaller if you're a
4) If you want archival prints, look for a lightfast rating of 25+ years.
The quickest way to compare the specifications for several machines of
several brands is on a photo retailer's website. Also read test
reports in Shutterbug and in eDigitalPhoto magazine; these evaluations
can be invaluable in identifying machines that will meet your expectations.
Finally, visit a few local retailers to view 8.5x11" prints made
by as many machines as possible. There's no standard as to what
makes for an excellent photographic print, but look at color fidelity
and tonal range: detail in both highlight and shadow areas. Then take
a closer look at the print, checking for smooth gradations of color and
to confirm that the ink dots are not visible. After viewing the output
of several printers, you should be able to determine which come closest
to satisfying your own standards.
A freelance stock photographer
and long-time "eDigitalPhoto" and "Shutterbug"
contributor, Peter K. Burian is the author of a new book, "Mastering
Digital Photography and Imaging" (Sybex.) Covering all aspects of
the topic--the technology, equipment and techniques--this book
provides 270 pages of practical advice for photo enthusiasts.
Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Epson America, Inc.
Olympus America, Inc.