Throughout the history of photography, countless advancements have made it easier for people to create photographic images. One of the most important advancements has been the advent of affordable, photo-quality inkjet printers. They have brought the color and black and white darkroom “out of the dark” and into just about any room in an office, home or school. I’ve been using and recommending printers to amateur and professional photographers for more than 15 years, and I’ve owned or used at least 50 inkjet printers, ranging from printers that max out at 4 inches in width, to 50-inch-wide models.
For this two-part article, I’ve put together a list of topics I often cover with my students and clients when they ask me advice on which printer to buy. Part I focuses on printers that can accept paper and other media up to 13 inches in width, and Part II will cover printers that can accept media over 13 inches wide and up to 44 inches in width. Note: when the term “letter-size” is used throughout the article, it means that the maximum width of paper that can be fed is 8.5 inches in width. However, unlike most laser printers, you can print much longer lengths—in some cases 40 inches or more.
Many inkjet printers allow you to print on a range of printing substrates, including canvas, watercolor and ultra-heavyweight glossy papers, and that’s unmatched in the world of digital lab photo printing. Also, digital photo processes cannot match the longevity and color gamut of many inkjet paper and ink combinations. Other advantages to owning a printer are the ability to test different papers and the ability to get instant feedback, whether you make your own final portfolio or exhibition prints, or whether you send your final prints out to another company.
I’d be remiss not to state that there are thousands of photo labs across the globe that can produce continuous-tone prints on photo paper, sometimes at a price less than the combined cost of high quality inkjet ink and paper. Many companies now offer high-quality inkjet printing similar to traditional labs. With that in mind, you should ask yourself if it makes sense to buy an inkjet printer. If not, it’s probably best to leave the work to others and instead spend the free time taking pictures.
To help illustrate my points throughout this article, I will mention specific printers that can print on paper, and in many cases other materials, up to 13 inches in width. Due to the sheer number of printers on the market, I can only mention a few, so this should not be seen as a roundup of all photo-quality printers on the market. Reading reviews and doing your own testing are the best ways to find the right printer. So with that, let’s begin!
Costs to own and run a printer can add up, and with just about any printer, there are three important considerations:
cost of the printer
cost of the ink
cost of the paper or other materials that you plan to put through the printer
Also consider the inventory costs of any materials (ink, paper, etc) that you would like to keep on a shelf. Costs can range from free with the purchase of a computer (printers are a popular “bundled” item), to about $850 for a higher-end pigment ink printer like the 13-inch-wide Epson Stylus Photo R3000, (buy from Amazon). I will go into more detail about ink costs in Number 6 below because it is a very important part of the overall costs of running any printer.
2. Warranties and Customer Service
Every company has different warranties and different ways of supporting their printers. I would look for printers with a one year parts and labor warranty (including free door-to-door shipping and return of the broken printer), which is common. If you think you’ll need phone or e-mail support, you can post questions on forums like Photo.net prior to your purchase to get people’s opinions of how their customer support issues were handled by specific companies. Depending on the cost of the printer and how much you plan to use the printer, you might consider an extended manufacturer warranty or third-party warranty offered by the retailer or another company. Some photo-quality printers (especially 8.5×11-inch models) cost about the same as a full set of inks. If that’s the case, it probably would not make sense to pay for a warranty.
3. Print Quality and Print Speed
Finding the right balance between print quality and speed is important when selecting a printer. If a photo-quality 8×10-inch print takes 10-15 minutes to print, that will put a big damper on productivity. Fortunately, there has been a lot of competition between manufacturers, resulting in significantly faster print speeds than in the past, while still retaining outstanding print quality. My recommendation is to ignore the “10 pages per minute” ad copy and instead focus on the print speeds that produce photo-quality output.
Though you may be tempted to judge printers against each other by looking at their print speeds at their best print quality settings, it makes sense to judge them based on the highest speeds possible that produce the quality you need. For example, the 13-inch-wide Canon Pixma Pro9500 MkII, (buy from Amazon) and the 13-inch-wide Epson Stylus Photo R2880, (buy from Amazon) (both pigment ink printers) make outstanding photo-quality prints at quality settings lower than their highest settings. That can really make a difference, sometimes shaving the printing time in half or a quarter while preserving image quality.
The highest quality setting is sometimes necessary to eliminate visible dots (especially when printing on glossy or semi-gloss papers). An example of this is the Epson Stylus Photo R1900, (buy from Amazon). I recommend using the highest quality setting with this printer. Even so, a 13×19 print at the highest quality setting will only take about five minutes to print.
Some printers also have a “High Speed” checkbox (faster print speeds) or a “More Passes” check box (slower print speeds). Experiment by printing a test image to see how much these options add to the overall quality vs. how they impact overall speed.
Many print drivers have a “high speed” checkbox, as shown in this screen shot of the Epson 1400 Mac OSX driver.
Visit a page with a smaller file (about 4 inches by 4 inches) containing a group of test images that will allow you to print at least four-up on a letter-size sheet: andrewdarlow.com/calib/ctest_adobergb.jpg. (To download it, just drag it to your desktop or right click and save it to your computer. If the print quality meets your needs at a faster setting, choose the faster option.)
The time savings can really add up when you are printing multiple 13×19-inch prints. If a pigment-based inkset is not critical, the 13-inch wide Canon Pixma Pro9000 MkII, (buy from Amazon), is a speed demon. Expect vibrant, photo-quality 13×19 prints to be ready in under three minutes at Standard Quality and in about five minutes at High Quality (its highest setting).
4. Pigment vs. Dye ink (and Print Permanence in general)
The question of whether one should buy a pigment- or dye-based inkjet printer is one of the most important decisions to make in one’s quest for an ideal printer. In the past, inkjet printers that used dye-based inks had a clear advantage in overall color gamut (number of colors that can be printed on a specific paper or other material) and in “smoothness” with regard to the way the ink sat on the paper surface (especially with glossy or semi-gloss papers). However, things have changed, and many of today’s high-end pigment-ink-based inkjet printers produce smooth prints rivaling any dye-based printer. Many pigment-based printers also have a very large color gamut, with excellent waterfastness and very good longevity when paired with a wide range of glossy and matte papers. The primary negative features of most dye-based printers were, and still are in many cases, the following: a faster overall rate of print fading compared with pigment inks, a color shift on some papers after a few hours or days (especially when compared with pigment inks), or a color and/or density shift when prints are exposed to ozone or pollutants in the air. Dye-based prints also tend to run or smudge more than pigment-based inks when they come in contact with moisture, but new ink and paper formulations are proving to be resistant to water.
Improvements in ink technology as well as clear “gloss optimizers” or “gloss equalizers” on printers like the 13-inch-wide Epson Stylus Photo R1900, (buy from Amazon) and the Kodak ESP line of single- and multi-function printers have reduced the gloss differential and bronzing issues that were common with many pigment-based printers. Gloss differential is an uneven look across the surface of a print (especially around areas such as people’s heads), and is most often seen in dark and light areas of pigment-based prints on glossy papers. Bronzing is an effect that makes medium to dark tones look bronze in color when viewed at certain angles, and it’s most often seen on glossy or semi-gloss papers. One advantage I still see with some dye-based printers is that their print heads tend to clog less, reducing the frequency of print head cleanings. In general, I prefer pigment-based ink printers for my own work because of the strengths listed above, but it’s important to find the product that’s right for you based on your needs.
It’s also important to note that the combination of a printer’s inks and paper (or other material) are what determine the overall look and feel, as well as the waterfastness and potential longevity of a specific print. There are some great (and free) sources for getting a sense of how different papers fare when matched with specific printers. At the top of my list are the following two websites: wilhelm-research.com and Aardenburg-Imaging.com. Both offer a wealth of data, and Wilhelm-research.com also includes the following data points for its paper and ink tests: “Resistance to High Humidity” and “Resistance to Water.” Different companies will state that their printer and ink combinations will last a certain number of years before fading, but every company tends to use a different set of criteria when presenting those numbers. Referring to the information in the websites above helps to cut through the haze by allowing you to compare between printer and ink combinations that have been tested under the same conditions.
Canon, Epson and Kodak are three manufacturers currently producing most of the photo-quality pigment-based 8.5- and 13-inch-wide printers on the market. HP produces a large number of high quality dye-based printers, as well as some that combine pigment and dye-based inks, including the 13-inch-wide HP Photosmart B8550 Printer, (buy from Amazon). Epson’s Claria inkset is one example of a dye-based product that in many ways performs more like a pigment ink than a traditional dye-based ink. Similarly, Brother’s Innobella dye-based inks have tested very well by Wilhelm-research.com, with estimated longevity on specific papers exceeding 100 years when displayed under glass or UV acrylic. Another important item to note is in almost all cases, dye-based inks will print better on uncoated papers not specially coated for inkjet printing. That makes them ideal for notecards, bookmarks and similar products, which can be a profitable niche for photographers. There are many scored blank greeting cards available on the market for prices considerably less than inkjet-compatible cards. That being said, it will be much easier to match the color and contrast you see on your screen if you use inkjet-compatible cards and paper. A few of the sources I’ve used and recommend for inkjet-compatible notecards are Moab Paper, Museo Fine Art and Red River Paper.
On the topic of Claria dye-based inks, Epson printers that use Claria inks have received excellent water-resistance and estimated permanence ratings by wilhelm-research.com (80-100+ years before noticeable fading or color shift) when paired with various paper types and when protected by glass or UV acrylic. Here’s a tip for getting even more from the published results on both Wilhem-research.com and Aardenburg-imaging.com: even if your exact printer model is not listed, if you can find a printer that uses the same inkset, you can expect similar results. For example, you can see estimated permanence data for most Claria ink printers by searching for the Epson Stylus Photo 1400 Claria ink printer on Wilhelm-research.com, or visit this link to display the results: wilhelm-research.com/epson/SP1400.html. The Kodak ESP line of pigment ink printers is another good example. Kodak frequently updates that line of printers, but the inks have stayed consistent for most, if not all of the ESP printers. A few Kodak ESP printers are also rated on Wilhelm-research.com.
Andrew Darlow is a photographer, author and digital imaging consultant based in the New York City area. For more than 15 years he has conducted seminars and workshops at photo-related conferences and for photography organizations, including the American Photographic Artists (APA), Arles Photo Festival (Arles, France) and the International Center of Photography (ICP). His editorial and fine-art work have been featured in numerous exhibitions and magazines, including Photo District News, Popular Photography, Professional Photographer and Rangefinder magazine. Darlow is editor of The Imaging Buffet, an online resource with news, reviews, and interviews covering the subjects of photography, printing, and new media. His book, 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers (Course Technology, PTR) was chosen as the winner in the “Photography: Instructional/How-To” category of The National Best Books 2008 Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. His newest book is Pet Photography 101: Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Dog or Cat (Focal Press). More »