It may be easy to share photos online, but it’s no substitute for seeing your favorite photographs nicely matted and framed. Even if you’re not planning to display your work publicly, making gallery-quality prints elevates your photography out of the inbox and into the spotlight. The key to fine-art printing at home is in your choice of printer. It’s tempting to settle for the discounted printer offered when you buy a computer, but those printers are typically basic office models, designed for common printing tasks—not for printing top-notch photographs.
Knowing a bit about printer technology will help you understand what, as a photographer, you need from a printer, and the difference in quality you’ll see when you invest in a printer designed for photographers. If we stay within the high-quality photo-printer category, we are, by definition, eliminating machines that are optimized for high-speed office work, snapshot printers and laser printer replacements.
Inkjet print images are formed by tiny droplets of ink that are sprayed onto the paper in a very thin stream. The volume of each ink droplet is measured in picoliters: one-trillionth of a liter. It’s an amount that’s imperceptible to the human eye. The tiny droplets are arranged in a very dense pattern that can be measured in terms of dpi (dots per inch). As the number of dots increases, the space between them decreases, and the image looks better.
PIGMENT VS. DYE
Some printers use pigment-based inks and others dye-based, and each technology has its advocates. The argument generally runs something like this: Pigment inks are typically more fade-resistant, but deliver less saturated colors. Dye inks are less stable, but produce bold, glossy colors.
Pigment inks will adhere to practically any surface, while dye inks need coated photo papers to perform best. In terms of longevity, dye inks have a typical life of up to 100 years, depending on the paper used and how the print is displayed. Pigment inks can be expected to endure much longer. This may not be a concern if you’re printing for personal use, but if you plan to sell your prints, longevity is an important consideration.
The number of individual ink tanks a printer uses varies among brands and product lines. Photo printers typically have a larger number of individual ink cartridges, adding variations such as light magenta and photo black. These additional inks widen the printer’s palette, enabling it to reproduce subtler variations in tone and hue.
Many think printer speed is an overrated consideration, at least as far as the larger-format photo printers are concerned. If your goal is knocking out a slug of 4×6-inch snapshots, you’ll be more keenly concerned about time. But the difference between a two-minute 8×10 and a three-minute 8×10 is less of an issue than the final quality of the print. Fine-art printing, like any art, takes time.
MODELS TO CONSIDER
The Epson Stylus Photo R2880 is popular with serious photographers who want to produce high-quality prints that match their vision, and it’s robust enough for high-volume installations. It has a number of less obvious virtues, as well, features that don’t leap out at first—for example, the permanent Advanced MicroPiezo AMC print head is treated with a special ink-repellent coating to ensure accurate dot placement and minimize nozzle clogging. Also, the Automatic Nozzle Check technology ensures consistent color and print quality, and Epson’s proprietary mist collection system keeps the inside of the printer clean—crucial if you’re a volume printer. The R2880 produces up to 13×19-inch prints and uses a pigment-based, eight-color ink set. Estimated Street Price: $799.
Step up to the new Epson Stylus Pro 3880 large-format printer to enjoy these features and several more. The 17-inch-wide printer design produces gallery-quality color and black-and-white output up to 17×22 inches. The UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta ink technology is pigment-based with nine-color ink technology, including new Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta inks that deliver dramatic blues and violets, expanding the color gamut. The advanced paper-handling mechanism can handle just about everything from 4×6 up to 17×22 inches. The 3880 also features one hi-speed USB 2.0 and one 10/100Base-T Ethernet port, and offers a 2.5-inch, backlit LCD control panel for easy, direct printer control and status monitoring. Estimated Street Price: $1,295.
The Epson Stylus Photo R1900 costs less, but offers a lot—like eight-color UltraChrome Hi-Gloss 2 pigment-based ink (Photo Black, Matte Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Red, Orange and Gloss Optimizer), 5760×1440 optimized dpi and 8x10s in about a minute. This combination of features is a great choice for many of us. PS: The 13×19-inch printer also will print directly from PictBridge-compatible digital cameras, which means it’s friendly to every family member. Estimated Street Price: $549.
The Canon PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II produces professional, borderless, large-format photos on media up to 13 inches wide. It features a high-density, 6,144-nozzle FINE print head that deposits ink droplets as small as 2 picoliters, which translates to 11 million ink droplets per square inch. Canon’s 100-year, dye-based ChromaLife100 ink is delivered from eight separate tanks that can be individually replaced. The Pro9000 Mark II cranks out an 8×10 in 47 seconds—pretty speedy by today’s standards. Estimated Street Price: $499.
The Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II also produces large-format photos up to 13 inches wide. Like the Pro9000, it offers two separate paper trays to allow you to switch media without interrupting your workflow. The Pro9500 Mark II improves upon the features of its Pro9000 sibling by offering a high-performance, high-density FINE print head with 25 percent more nozzles—7,680 instead of 6,144—for finer gradations. Print resolution is a maximum of 4800×2400. The Pro9500 Mark II also uses Canon’s Lucia branded pigment-based links, which are stored in 10 individual ink tanks, including Matte Black, Photo Black and Gray inks, to produce outstanding color as well as superior black-and-white prints. The addition of Gray ink means that the printer doesn’t have to try to reproduce gray tones by blending other colors. Estimated Street Price: $849.
All this for less than $100—holy cow! The Canon PIXMA iP4700 offers up to 9600×2400 dpi resolution with a minimum color droplet size of 1 picoliter, plus a five-color ink system that consists of four dye-based inks and a pigment-based black ink, which produces outstanding photos and clean, crisp, laser-quality text. It produces up to 8.5×11-inch prints. Estimated Street Price: $99.
inkjet photo-printing systems combine durable, innovative hardware with advanced HP Vivera pigment ink technology and superlative papers and media. The Photosmart Pro B9180 Photo Printer leverages HP’s third-generation gray ink to maximize monochrome and black-and-white output. Eight individual high-capacity pigment ink cartridges enable high-volume printing that’s quite speedy—4×6-inch photos appear in as little as 10 seconds and 13×19-inch photos print as fast as 1.5 minutes. The B9180 accepts a variety of media, including canvas, photo rag, water-color, stiff pre-matte and film up to 13×19 inches. Estimated Street Price: $699.
The HP Photosmart Pro B8850 produces outstanding photo-quality prints up to 13×19 inches and also shows off its versatility by delivering sharp text equal to a high-end laser printer. The B8850 uses an eight-color ink set and will produce a 13×19-inch print in less than 90 seconds, and can print mixed color text and graphics in as fast as 26 ppm. The B8850 features a built-in color-calibration system for reliable and predictable results using HP’s legendary pigment Vivera inks. It offers support for Adobe RGB, sRGB and ICC profiles, plus full compatibility with Adobe Photoshop. A unique monitoring system tells you when one of the individually replaceable ink cartridges is running low, and a built-in self-cleaning system reduces waste and keeps things tidy. Estimated Street Price: $549.
Photographers on a budget will appreciate the HP Photosmart B8550, which provides a terrific dye-based, five-ink thermal-jet solution that knocks out 4×5- to 13×19-inch prints at 1200×1200 dpi (up to 9600×2400-optimized dpi color when printing from a computer on select HP photo papers and with 1200-input dpi). It can print without a computer via dedicated card slots. Estimated Street Price: $299.
| Canon (800) OK-CANON www.usa.canon.com
Epson (800) GO-EPSON www.epson.com
HP(Hewlett-Packard) (800) 752-0900 www.hp.com