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.