What to look for in a photo printer
Jun 21, 2008, 3:09 GMT
Washington - You can have the best digital camera on the block, but that won't matter if your prints are no good.
The fact is, that to get the most out of digital photography, you need to devote as much time to learning about photo printers as you do about digital cameras.
Part of the challenge lies in knowing which photo printer will best suit your needs. Another part is understanding which features that are commonly touted by printer manufacturers really matter.
---Dedicated or multi-purpose?
Just about any colour inkjet printer on the market today will claim to be able to print your digital photographs. And the claim is not unfounded. But the fact is that an inkjet printer designed specifically for printing photographs will do a much better job at printing photographs than a printer that does double or triple duty as a text and business graphics printer as well.
The reason: photo printers were designed from the ground up to handle the demanding task of handling the myriad of colour gradations and tonality that photographs demand. That's why general purpose colour inkjets tend to have only four separate ink tanks - or a single ink tank that hold several colours - while photo printers have eight or more separate ink tanks.
The additional colours of ink typically include lighter shades of magenta and cyan, and they may even include different types of black ink to allow you to print very nice black-and-white photographs on different types of paper.
So if you're an occasional photo printer who is not overly picky about the quality of your printed photographs, a multi-purpose colour inkjet may be all you need. But if you hope to print photographs that rival or even exceed the quality that you get back from the processing lab, a dedicated photo printer is what you'll need.
Most of us want our photographs to look as good five years from now as they do the day they were printed. Unfortunately, colour photos from inkjet printers have often suffered from premature fading or discolouration. Recently, those problems have been addressed to varying degrees by the major makers of photo printers and ink - especially Epson - and today you can buy photo printers that feature inks designed to provide prints that can last up to 200 years without fading.
Of course, since these inks were developed only recently, no one can actually verify the claims that the prints will actually last 200 years without discolouration. But enough simulations have been run on the inks to make it reasonable to assume that prints using the newer high-longevity ink will not suffer from quick discolouration or fading.
The good news about dedicated photo printers is that they don't have to cost a lot initially. By now it's fairly well known that inkjet printer manufacturers make most of their money on consumables - meaning ink and paper - and that's no different with photo printers. But by far the biggest cost associated with photo printers is ink. Over time, the cost of ink refills will far exceed your initial expense for the printer itself.
In general, the less you pay for a dedicated photo printer today, the more you'll pay in ink refills later. That's because the less expensive photo printers on the market typically use smaller ink tanks.
Printers that use larger ink tanks - such as the Canon Pixma or Epson 3800 - cost more up front but end up saving you money over the long run. Printers that come with larger ink tanks also offer greater flexibility - such as a wide body for accepting larger papers - but they also require more desktop space. So think carefully about how frequently you'll print before you buy.
You might think that image quality should be your primary consideration when looking at photo printers. But in fact, image quality is not entirely dependent upon the printer. The paper you use, the ink, and whether you're working in a fully profiled computing environment have a lot to do with how good your digital photos turn out.
Profiling is especially important - and something that few people budget for. Essentially, profiling involves using special equipment that allows you to adjust your monitor and printer so that both are speaking the same language when it comes to colour reproduction. In an unprofiled environment, which is what most people have, a certain shade of blue, for example, will appear one way on the monitor and slightly different when printed out.
Profiling tools such as X-Rite's EyeOne and ColourVision's PrintFIX Pro come with tools that first allow you to calibrate your monitor and then create custom profiles - essentially computer files - that your printer can use to ensure that what you see on your monitor is what comes out of your printer.
With well-made profiles, you can get good image quality from many photo printers on the market today. It's important with profiling equipment - and for good colour in general - to stick with the ink made by the manufacturer of your printer and to settle on just a few photo papers for which you have created profiles.
Now that you know what to look for in a photo printer, how do you go about zeroing in on a specific model? You could start by visiting a local or online computer store and seeing which models are available. That will give you an idea of price points. Then visit some sites where printers are reviewed or discussed.