Ink Jet Photo Printer Primer; Ready To Print? Pro Tips For Getting The Right Printer You Need

A high quality photo printer is an integral part of the digital darkroom. Most brands use heat (thermal technology) to force ink droplets onto the paper while Epson's printers employ vibration (Micro-Piezo technology.)
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Whether you shoot with a digital camera or scan photographs, printing can be one of the most rewarding aspects of photography. In the past, you needed a darkroom and a great deal of expertise to make beautiful color or black and white prints. Today, anyone can make prints that are suitable for framing, without working with caustic chemicals. The prerequisite of course, is a printer designed to produce optimal results when outputting photos. If you do not yet own such a printer, or if your machine is more than a couple of years old, you're a candidate for one of the latest models. But which type of machine is best for your specific needs? And what features are worth looking for and which are merely bells and whistles? After testing many Canon, Epson and HP photo printers, I can offer the following recommendations.

Dye sublimation printers are also highly desirable because they make durable, high-resolution, continuous tone prints with rich color saturation. However, most models cannot make prints larger than 4x6" or 5.8x3.9". It's worth paying extra for machines that can make 8x10s, such as the Kodak Pro 8500 ($969, street price, reviewed October 2003) or the Olympus P-400 ($469, street) if you appreciate the benefits of dye sub prints. Courtesy Olympus America.

Although dye sublimation printers are very popular among those who want only small prints, ink jets are more practical for 8.5x11" or larger outputs because they're substantially less expensive. The ink jet printers force ink onto paper to make prints comprised of individual dots. Consequently, a print is not continuous tone like a conventional silver halide photograph or a dye sub print. However, if you make a 1400dpi print from a high-resolution image on high quality photo paper, the ink dots should not be visible to the naked eye.

Primary Ink Jet Printer Features
If you're planning to buy an ink jet photo printer, you'll want to fully appreciate the primary features that are available, as well as other factors that differentiate one machine from another. This information will be valuable when you're reviewing the specifications of several models in your price range.

Ink Droplet Size: The size of the ink droplets fired by the print head determines overall print quality, particularly the amount of fine detail. The droplet size is stated in picoliters or pl, a millionth of a liter. A 4 pl size is common in current ink jet printers, but some newer machines can spray 2 pl droplets that are 33 percent smaller in spherical volume. The smaller the droplets, the more subtle the gradations of color, the more detail that appears in the image and the smoother the overall appearance of the print.

In the future, expect to see more letter-size photo printers that use incredibly small 1.5 pl droplets, such as the new Epson Stylus Photo R800 that generates archival (lightfast for 80 years) prints using
Hi-Gloss pigment inks. Courtesy Epson America, Inc.

In a letter size printer, 4 pl droplets produce excellent results while smaller droplets are even better. Large format (13x19") printers generally produce 3 or 4 pl droplets but some new models (like the Canon i9900) can spray 2 pl droplets. The difference is noticeable under close scrutiny but it's not significant in large prints that will be viewed from a distance of about 6 ft.

Number Of Ink Colors: An ink jet printer combines the various ink colors to produce a wide range of hues and tones. The more individual ink colors the better the photo quality will be, with less white space between the dots for a smoother look. Color quality will be higher too with superior color nuances, as with skin tones that are slightly different, richer saturation, and better gradation (transitions) through a full range of tones and colors.

Many ink jet photo printers employ six ink colors, while a few models (such as the Epson Stylus Photo 2200) use seven inks. Eight color printing may become more common in the future, and is already available with the Canon BubbleJet i9900, a machine that generates ultra-fine 2 pl ink droplets to make a 13x19" photo in three minutes, with a lightfast rating of 25 years. Courtesy Canon USA, Inc.

Most new photo printers employ six ink colors while some use seven or eight inks for more impressive print quality in either color or black and white. (Some printers can hold eight inks but use only seven at one time; the HP 7960 and Canon i9900 use eight inks for all printing.) The best six-color printers generate better prints than the older four-color machines, with superior color nuances and saturation, better color gradation (transitions), more accurate neutral tones, and less white space between the dots for a smoother look. One or two extra inks do not make an obvious difference but are more likely to satisfy perfectionists.

Ink Tank Setup:
Until recently, a single ink cartridge containing reservoirs of each color--plus a separate black cartridge--was standard. Now, an increasing number of photo printers, particularly Canon and Epson models, accept individual tanks. Instead of replacing an entire cartridge when a single color runs out you can replace only the tank that is depleted. Most photo enthusiasts find that individual ink tanks offer greater economy in the long run, making this feature worthwhile.

Older photo printers generally accepted one color cartridge plus a black ink cartridge. Today, many employ six or more ink colors, generally in individual ink tanks that can be replaced individually, as necessary..

Paper Size And Printable Area: Most consumer grade photo printers accept paper as large as 8.5x11" and many can make borderless prints up to that size. Others can make borderless prints only in smaller size, such as 4x6" or 8x10". Tabloid size printers accept 13x19" sheets of paper and most can make borderless prints of that size; Epson models can make 44" long prints when using roll paper. Wide format printers are also available but fall into the professional category in terms of price. (The Epson Pro 4000 is the most affordable and accepts paper as wide as 17"; 24" printers cost $3000 and up.)

When comparing printers, be sure to check their specifications carefully for maximum printable area and the largest borderless print size that each machine can produce. Such data can be difficult to find in the specifications; if necessary, consult a retailer for this information.

Direct Printing Capability: An increasing number of photo printers allow for printing direct from a memory card or a digital camera, a feature that's useful when you want prints quickly with maximum simplicity. For the best results, I recommend a printer that will at least allow you to adjust brightness, color and cropping. If you plan to use such features, you'll want to be able to preview your images on an LCD monitor: on the printer or on your camera's monitor. Don't expect the same quality you'd get if you downloaded the image to a computer and enhanced it with image-editing software. Still, many "direct prints" are very good, suitable for a family album or scrapbook.

Printer Resolution: Defined in dpi (dots per inch), printer resolution refers to the number of dots of ink the print head can apply per inch on the paper. Most photo printers today offer a maximum resolution capability of 1440dpi or 2800dpi. Some recent machines boast substantially higher resolution such as 4800dpi or 5760dpi, but this feature is not necessary. You will not see an improvement in your photos when printing at any setting higher than 2880dpi for printer resolution. Even the difference between a print made at 1440dpi and another made at 2880dpi is noticeable only by a critical observer.

An increasing number of Canon and Epson printers can print direct from various brands of digital cameras, when connected with a USB cable. This is a useful feature but requires a PictBridge compatible camera and PictBridge compliant printer. Look for such information in the product specifications. Courtesy Canon USA Inc.

The higher the resolution that you select (in the printer software), the more ink the machine will consume and the longer the printing time will be. Although serious photographers will want the versatility offered by a 2880+ dpi machine, plan to use the 1440dpi setting often for faster printing and lower ink cost. With watercolor and other "soft" papers, you'll generally get the best results (less ink pooling) at a 720dpi printer resolution.

Printer Speed: If you make numerous high-resolution photos, you'll want to look for a very fast printer. The manufacturers' specs usually refer to printing draft-quality photos. While high-resolution photos will take longer, the published data can be useful for comparison purposes. Some manufacturers are starting to publish speed information for high-resolution photo printing and this is generally more reliable.

All prints, regardless of the paper, ink, and technology, fade and discolor over time, as this old conventional photo illustrates. If you must have long-lasting prints, look for a machine that makes outputs with a lightfast rating of 25 or more years and use only the archival papers.

Actual printing speed depends on several factors: the printer resolution setting, your computer's processing speed, the amount of RAM, the type of connectivity, the size of the printer's buffer, the size of the image file being processed, and so on. (Printers that support certain computers' high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity are only slightly faster than USB 1.1 printers; that's because consumer grade machines cannot accept data at the maximum speed.) Nonetheless, it's worth reading test reports for rough estimates of actual printing times, particularly if you plan to make many large, high-resolution prints.

Print Permanence: All photos eventually fade, especially when displayed in direct sunlight. Some ink/paper combinations are more lightfast than others, and the resulting prints are archival. Noticeable fading should not occur for 20 or more years when the prints are matted, framed, covered with non-UV glass and displayed away from direct sunlight. In the past, only pigmented inks were truly archival but today, some dye-based inks are also very lightfast. Look for information about print longevity on the manufacturers' websites. Do note however that the estimates are generally for one or two specific archival papers and rarely apply when other papers are used.

Prints that are not archival generally last for at least a year or two when taped to your refrigerator and may look great for five years when properly framed or stored in an archival photo album. Of course, you can remake any print that has faded so there's no compelling need to pay extra for a machine that makes long-lasting prints. But if that's high on your list of priorities, buy a printer that accepts lightfast inks and use the manufacturer's most stable paper. You can find additional information and recommendations on many archival issues in a November 2003 Shutterbug article, "The Archival Quality Of Digital Print Media, A Conversation With Henry Wilhelm" (a renowned expert in this field); the full text is also available at features/1103sb_thearchival/.

Even if you're on a tight budget, you can find a six color, high-resolution photo printer that uses individual ink cartridges, generates micro-fine 3 pl droplets and makes borderless 8.5x11" photos in under 3 minutes. The new Epson Stylus Photo R200 ($99, street price) can also print directly onto ink jet printable CD-R and DVD-R discs.

Other Printer Considerations: You might also want to consider other factors when scanning the specifications of several printers. Size may be important if you have limited desk space. Noise level may be a concern if the printer will be placed close to your work area. You might also want a printer that accepts thick media such as "watercolor" paper.

Finally, it can be useful to have some estimate as to the cost of ink. Check prices on the web, and also review the printer manufacturers' specifications as to ink consumption. Because they're often based on printing photos at a low-resolution setting, such estimates are usually very optimistic but are useful for comparison purposes.

Final Recommendations
There's no simple method for identifying the ideal printer, because that depends on individual budgets, preferences, and printing plans. However, if you're considering a letter-size photo printer that will make beautiful photo prints, look for a machine with the following features:
1) At least 1440dpi resolution
2) Six (or more) ink colors, preferably in individual tanks
3) Ink droplets size of 4 pl, or preferably smaller if you're a perfectionist.
4) If you want archival prints, look for a lightfast rating of 25+ years.

The quickest way to compare the specifications for several machines of several brands is on a photo retailer's website. Also read test reports in Shutterbug and in eDigitalPhoto magazine; these evaluations can be invaluable in identifying machines that will meet your expectations.

Finally, visit a few local retailers to view 8.5x11" prints made by as many machines as possible. There's no standard as to what makes for an excellent photographic print, but look at color fidelity and tonal range: detail in both highlight and shadow areas. Then take a closer look at the print, checking for smooth gradations of color and to confirm that the ink dots are not visible. After viewing the output of several printers, you should be able to determine which come closest to satisfying your own standards.

A freelance stock photographer and long-time "eDigitalPhoto" and "Shutterbug" contributor, Peter K. Burian is the author of a new book, "Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging" (Sybex.) Covering all aspects of the topic--the technology, equipment and techniques--this book provides 270 pages of practical advice for photo enthusiasts.

Canon U.S.A., Inc.
(516) 328-5000

Epson America, Inc.
(800) 922-8911

Olympus America, Inc.
(800) 622-6372