Choosing a Mobile Photo Printer
Every day many people carry hundreds and sometimes thousands of pictures in their pockets or purses. The smartphone has easily become the most common way we create and share photographs. It might be considered a modern day version of the 19th century Carte de Visite (CDV). The CDV, invented in Paris in 1854, was usually a 2.125 × 3.5″ albumen print mounted on a firm paper card. After Napoleon had a CDV made in 1859, the format became extremely popular. Cards were traded or given away to family, friends, and visitors.
Today, we often share images with others by simply holding our phone to show the image on screen. Or, if we wish to give someone a photograph, we text or email it to them. Sometimes we post images to online file sharing services or social media. Images accumulate in our photo streams, on our computer desktops, and in our browsers. We save some and delete others, but it’s becoming less and less common to create an actual physical print.
Partially, I believe the lack of printing has been due to the fact that printing directly from a mobile device has proven difficult. For a number of years there have been several online service bureau methods that enable one to create prints, but the person who wanted to print at home was left to struggle. Recently, however, there have been several printers released to help address the lack of mobile photo printing options.
Over the past few weeks I had the pleasure of testing four mobile photo printers: The Impossible Project’s Instant Lab, Fujifilm’s instax SHARE Smartphone Printer SP-1, VuPoint Solutions’ Photo Cube, and Canon’s SELPHY CP910. Each printer is unique and works to solve the problem of mobile printing in its own way. Your choice will depend on your particular requirements.
The Impossible Project Instant Lab
The Impossible Instant Lab is an optical device that creates instant film prints by photographing an image on your iPhone (or iPod Touch) screen. The printer hardware is powered by a long-lasting rechargeable battery, holds a pack of Impossible film (color or black & white), and extends to cradle the iPhone. To create a print, the iPhone runs the Impossible app (which is a free download from the iTunes App Store but is only available for iOS, not Android or Windows operating systems) that controls exposure time and allows slight image modification (cropping, contrast, gamma, and hue). When ready to print, the iPhone screen turns black and you place the device on the Instant Lab cradle. The iPhone’s motion sensor knows when it’s upside down and the flashlight illuminates indicating that it’s time to pull the Instant Lab’s dark slide. The iPhone screen flashes to expose the film for the declared exposure time, then you’ll hear a shutter click, and finally the flashlight turns off. It’s now time to replace the dark slide and press the eject button to pop a new print out of the printer.
The entire process is straightforward and relatively simple. In order to create instant prints with the same tonal range as the original, it’s necessary to greatly decrease the image’s contrast (can be done in the Impossible Project app) prior to printing. The 3.5 × 4.2″ prints take about an hour to fully develop. Film is available for around $22 (8 sheets). Once you dial in the exposure/contrast settings, you can make perfect prints on Impossible’s gorgeous instant film. One might think that since the device photographs the iPhone screen you would see artifacts, but I couldn’t detect any such issue.
For more information: visit www.the-impossible-project.com
Fujifilm instax SHARE Smartphone Printer SP-1
The Fujifilm instax SHARE Printer is another device that leverages instant film to create beautiful prints from your phone. The printer is powered by two CR2 batteries that are included with the device. Connecting the phone to the printer is simply a matter of turning the printer on and selecting it as your wireless network. Once your phone is on the (printer) network, open the instax SHARE app (available for free and compatible with iOS and Android devices), select the image you’d like to print (or take a new picture), make any adjustments (the app provides cropping, rotating, and several filters), and press print. In just a few moments, an instant film print slides out of the front of the printer. Prints fully develop in about five minutes.
The instax SHARE prints’ color and contrast were both relatively accurate without any pre-printing manipulation. At 2.4 × 1.8″, the images are fairly small and are constrained to the rectangular format. Film is available on Amazon for around $15 (two ten packs).
For more information: visit www.fujifilm.com
VuPoint Solutions Photo Cube
The VuPoint Photo Cube is a dye sublimation thermal transfer printer. It creates full color images by passing the paper through the printer four different times: once each for yellow, magenta, cyan, and black. There is a range of Photo Cube models so you can select the connection type that works with your mobile device. Choices include: 30-pin, Lightning, microUSB, and Wi-Fi. I tested the model with a Lightning connection docking station, which also charges your iOS device while you print. Alternatively, you can use the USB interface. You also need to install the free Photo Cube Advance app. It’s a bare bones printing app that provides support for number of copies, multiple images per sheet, social media sharing, and printing. It does not offer tools for image manipulation, cropping, or orientation adjustment. All images print in landscape mode.
One thing I found confusing is that (it seems) your mobile device needs to be undocked before pressing the button to print the image. Once pressed, you will be immediately prompted to dock the device. I tried to print with my phone continually docked and I was never successful.
The paper and ink are part of an integrated package that currently lists on Amazon for $25 (36, 4 × 6″ photographs). I was excited about the printer’s claim to print panoramas, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the final prints. It creates them in 4 × 6″ chunks, and the example here was done in three pieces. As you can see, the colors aren’t a perfect match. That said, the color of individual 4 × 6″ prints was pretty close to what I saw in the digital file.
Price: various models depending on docking connection, $104.95-199.95
For more information: visit www.vupointsolutions.com
Canon SELPHY CP910
The Canon SELPHY is also a dye sublimation printer, but the print quality is crisper and brighter than that of the Photo Cube. Like the Photo Cube, it passes the paper through the printer once for each application of yellow, magenta, cyan, and black. With both of these dye sub printers I often found myself wishing the image would emerge before the final application of black dye, when they looked more vibrant and less muddy. That said, the final photographs from the SELPHY were still nice and crisp with color that matched the digital file fairly closely.
Connection to the SELPHY is either through a Wi-Fi network or a direct connection to your smartphone. It was easy to create a direct connection from my phone to the printer, but I think they went a little overboard with the eight-character password protection. After establishing the connection, you use the free Canon Easy-PhotoPrint app (available on all mobile device platforms) to send images to the printer. This app, like the one for the Photo Cube, has no controls for manipulation, cropping, or orientation. You may choose to print bordered or borderless prints and, with landscape formatted images, the bordered option creates prints with the aspect ratio intact and minimal or no cropping. The borderless option cropped the image to fit the sheet and that wasn’t always appealing to me. The print quality of the SELPHY prints was the closest to “drug-store” quality—and in some cases better.
In addition to smartphones and tablets, the SELPHY can also print from SD cards and Wi-Fi enabled cameras. The paper and ink cassettes are separate but sold as a package. On Amazon, they currently list at around $23 (54 sheets), which is by far the least expensive of these mobile printer options.
For more information: visit www.usa.canon.com
In the end, choosing one of these printers really comes down to personal preference. If you’re looking for images that resemble those made at drug store or big-box store labs, the two dye sublimation printers are reasonable options. If you like the creamy instant film look, then you might consider the Impossible Instant Lab or the Fujifilm instax SHARE Printer. Whatever you choose, creating physical prints will be great insurance that you’ll be able to share a few photographs with future generations.
Tom Persinger is a photographer, writer, historian, and the founder of F295.