If you’re like a lot of photographers, you have a high-quality DSLR and at least a few great lenses. You’ve spent time and money honing your craft, and you have the skills to produce an outstanding photograph. Maybe you’re even a little bit of a tech geek about megapixels or sensor noise or sharpening; you probably pay attention to the littlest details.
And after all that, you drop the ball. You only look at your pictures on screen, at low-resolution, where you can never enjoy the full benefit of all that image quality and photographic know-how. Why settle for displaying your high-quality, high-resolution, beautiful digital images as little bitty, web-sized JPEGs? The fine art of photography culminates in making prints—big, beautiful prints, in color and black-and-white.
With the current crop of awesome inkjet photo printers available from Canon and Epson—two manufacturers who cater specifically to the photographic market—there’s almost no excuse for not printing your best photographs. Before you make a printer purchase, here’s what you need to know about the technology that makes beautiful desktop prints a reality.
Inkjet has become the de facto standard for desktop photo printers, with two subtle variations. One approach, the thermal inkjet printer, uses heat to squeeze ink droplets out of the printhead and onto the paper. This is the preferred technology of Canon. The other type of inkjet printhead is called piezoelectric, and it uses an electrical charge to mechanically push drops of ink onto the paper. This is the printhead Epson uses. Piezoelectric printheads offer the benefit of multiple droplet sizes, whereas the thermal approach can allow for more nozzles and, ultimately, faster printing. Both are equally capable of producing beautiful prints.
No matter how they’re sprayed, those droplets of ink are measured in picoliters (one-trillionth of a liter), and they’re a big factor in the quality of a print. Because the appearance of continuous tone is achieved by placing tiny dots incredibly close together on the surface of the paper, being able to distinguish individual dots is bad. So manufacturers place a premium on making their droplets so small and densely packed as to appear invisible, creating the continuous-tone effect.
The use of multiple inks also helps render smoother tonal gradations and truer colors. Early inkjets used four inks, but today eight or more are common. Instead of just cyan, magenta, yellow and black, many printers now include additional inks that are lighter versions of each of those colors, or different colors that aid in producing certain tones more vividly and accurately.
Another variation in printer options is based on the print size—how large a sheet of paper can the printer handle? Can it print on that paper from edge to edge to create a "full-bleed" enlargement? While almost all desktops accept standard 8.5×11-inch letter paper, higher-end models up the paper size to 13 or even 17 inches wide. The ability to create large prints makes pro-style desktop photo printers more flexible, more desirable and more expensive. For even larger prints, you have to step up to bigger, more expensive freestanding models—or outsource the work to a lab.
The holy grail of desktop printing has long been the ability to render beautiful black-and-white prints from a color printer. Because multiple ink colors have to be combined to create gray tones, neutral gray output has long been quite a challenge. The first way photographers dealt with this was to convert a printer into a strictly black-and-white machine. It worked, of course, but it wasn’t especially practical. So now manufacturers offer additional black and gray inks in some models specifically to improve the quality of black-and-white prints they can produce. When paired with the appropriate paper, darkroom-caliber prints are much easier with a printer that offers extra gray and black inks.