Factors to Consider when Choosing a Large Photo-Quality Inkjet Printer
Part I: Small Printers | Part II: Large Printers
Like a picture window or a life-size sculpture, large prints can make a significant visual statement in a home, office or other setting. Over the last 10-15 years, printer, ink and paper technologies have been advancing rapidly, with print quality improving as prices have fallen. If you’ve read Part I of this article featuring printers up to 13 inches in width, you will notice that a number of the topics covered in this article are similar to those in Part I. That’s because small- and large-format inkjet printers share many of the same features.
This article is tailored specifically toward printers that can accept paper from 17-44 inches in width, and I will highlight many printer features and specific printer models based on my experience testing or using them for my own work. There are quite a few companies who produce photo-quality inkjet printers in the 17-44 inch range, but the three primary companies who cater to photographers are Canon, Epson and HP. For this article, I will focus solely on pigment-based inkjet printers because of their print quality and expected longevity when paired with most quality matte or gloss/semi-gloss papers.
It’s important to take into consideration all the costs related to printing, including: the cost of a printer, ink and paper; the cost of holding ink and paper in inventory; and of course, the time required to make proofs and final prints. Larger prints generally cost more to have made at outside companies compared with smaller prints, so the overall cost savings of purchasing a 17-inch-wide or larger printer, especially when shipping is factored in, can be significant as long as the printer is used enough to justify its cost.
You might be surprised to hear that I often recommend 17-inch-wide printers, even if the photographer has no intention of making 17-inch-wide prints. The reason for this is because when you consider the amount of ink that ships with most 17-inch-wide printers (about 80 ml per cartridge), the cost per print goes down considerably compared with the ink cartridges used in most 8.5- and 13-inch-wide printers (about 15 ml per cartridge). Even more important to me and many others is the fact that it is liberating to not have to change ink cartridges after printing 30-100 letter-size prints—that gets old fast. But as I mentioned in Part I, printers with larger ink cartridges should be used on a consistent basis, and inks should not be kept sitting in a printer for many months without being used.
There is also the issue of cleaning cycles, which gets complicated, but suffice it to say that as time goes by, ink will be used for cleaning and/or maintenance, regardless of the printer brand.
The most affordable 17-inch-wide photo-quality printer on the market today is the
Also keep an eye out for special offers from retailers. Some companies offer significant discounts or valuable supplies with the purchase of specific printers. Sometimes the rebates are tied to the purchase of a camera, and in other cases, significant discounts are available when a printer is traded in. In other words, don’t just compare printers based on their MSRP. I’ve been very surprised at some of the competitive prices I’ve been seeing for the latest 24- and 44-inch-wide printers from Canon, Epson and HP.
2. Warranties and Customer Service
Warranties for 17 to 44-inch-wide printers are a very important consideration. Unlike a $99 letter-sized printer, larger printers generally have price tags in the $2,000-5,000 range. Most printers 17 inches wide and larger come with a one year limited parts and labor warranty (including on-site service if the problem can’t be resolved via phone). That means a technician will come to you, which I consider essential—especially if it’s a 150-300 pound printer that needs service. Most company warranties can be extended as long as the warranty is purchased before the existing warranty period ends. A quick online search will help you determine the cost of an additional one or two year warranty for specific printers. I’ve found that in most cases, it’s well worth the investment, and the cost of a warranty may influence which printer you eventually buy.
Good phone or e-mail support is also very important, and one of the best ways to determine if your concerns will be handled quickly and effectively is to ask others their experiences with various companies. Online forums, newsgroups and FAQs on printer company websites can also be very helpful. One outstanding resource for all things related to the Canon iPF series is The Unofficial Canon ImagePROGRAF Printer Wiki. The site also has comparisons between Canon ImagePROGRAF printers and printers from different manufacturers.
Other ways to get user feedback include community forums like the Photo.net Community Forums, as well as Yahoo! Groups and other online resources. I’ve put together a list of newsgroups and forum sites that I monitor, and links to them can be found here:
Viewing online guides from printer manufacturers can also help you to make more informed choices before investing in a printer. To help its users with their printer setup, Canon has made available a helpful set of online guides entitled: Standard Set-Up for imagePROGRAF Printers (http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=2706).
3. Print Quality, Permanence and Speed
Print quality, permanence and print speed are extremely important to most photographers—and for good reason. Time is money, and printers that can speed through projects while producing high quality prints will have an edge over the competition. If you are willing to give up a small amount of detail, density and/or sharpness by choosing a faster print setting, you can often double or triple your print speeds. A test using the same digital file, output at three or four different speeds will help you determine your printer’s “speed sweet spot.” And keep in mind that some papers may require higher quality (generally slower) print settings to get very high quality results.
In addition, printmaking is generally time-consuming and expensive, and to have prints fade in a short time defeats the purpose. All of the high-end photo printers from Canon, Epson and HP can produce sharp, photo-quality, vibrant and long-lasting prints (100 years or more before noticeable fading on many papers when framed under glass or UV-filtered acrylic).* Differences exist between printers with regard to fading and/or color shift over time, so it makes sense to look at how each performs with different types of media under similar testing conditions. As I recommended in Part I, there are some excellent sources for estimated longevity data of specific printer and paper combinations. The following two websites are jam-packed with helpful information and permanence data:
Visiting a trade show and examining the prints coming off a machine (and the prints hanging on the walls) at a printer manufacturer’s booth is one way to determine whether the output quality from a specific printer is good enough for your needs. Most companies also offer a sample test print at no cost—see their websites for more information. You can also visit an inkjet paper company’s booth; they will often have printers set up, with a wide range of print samples. Representatives are generally more than happy to tell you the printer(s) on which the samples were printed.
The Canon ImagePROGRAF printers tend to be the fastest in the industry, with the
And to be fair to all manufacturers, it is very difficult to make comparisons as to print speeds without looking at test prints side-by-side of the same image from different printers. One company’s “Medium” quality setting may produce a better print faster than another company’s “High” quality setting. To give you some sense of the speed differences at different settings, below are print sizes and speeds for the
Print Mode 16″ × 20″ 20″ × 30″ 40″ × 60″ (9900 only) Fine – 720 dpi HS* 2:53 5:03 15:26 SuperFine – 1440 dpi HS* 3:47 6:39 24:20 SuperPhoto – 2880 dpi HS* 7:14 12:52 40:05
Another item to consider is how the ink from different manufacturers “sits” on specific papers. There are many variables, and one company, HP, has a gloss enhancer in its
4. Ink Cartridges and Ink Switching
Large prints obviously need more ink than small prints, and individual ink cartridges are used for all Canon, Epson and HP printer models 17-44 inches in width. Knowing what size ink cartridges are available for your printer can help you decide whether that printer should be considered. To give you an idea as to what your options are, the
As noted in Part I of this series, the issue of ink swapping is an important one to keep in mind when selecting a printer. I wrote: “Many pigment ink printers need to use different black inks to optimize print quality on matter papers vs. photo papers, and in some cases, this needs to be done manually.” Like the Canon PIXMA Pro 9500 Mark II, the Canon ImagePROGRAF and HP Z-series printers all have both a matte black and photo black ink installed at all times, and no ink is wasted when switching from printing on glossy or semi-gloss papers to matte papers.
All of the latest Epson Stylus Pro printers 17 to 44 inches in width allow you to make the switch behind the scenes in just a few minutes, with an ink loss of about 1-3 ml depending upon which black ink you are swapping. It’s not as convenient, but it is much better than previous Epson Stylus Pro models, which required an expensive and time-consuming manual switching procedure.
5. Black and White
If high quality black-and-white printing is important to you, you are in luck. All of the photo-quality printers from Canon, Epson and HP discussed in this article contain multiple black/gray inks that help the printers produce stunning black-and-white (or toned) prints on glossy, semi-gloss or matte papers, as well as canvas and other substrates. HP’s Designjet Z3200 printer stands out in one respect above its peers, and that is in the way it can be set using the driver to print with just the gray inks instead of mixing in small amounts of other colors. In fact, all four of the HP Z3100’s or Z3200’s black/gray inks are employed when printing on matte papers or matte canvas.
That said, Epson and Canon’s driver-based black-and-white modes (or black and white printing via standard color ICC profiles) can produce outstanding, even-toned monochrome prints, with estimated longevity over 200 years on many papers and canvas materials. (source: Wilhelm-research.com). Epson’s Advanced Black and White mode (built into the driver on most of its pigment ink printers) is a tool I use on a consistent basis. It’s fairly easy to choose a specific toning color, such as sepia, then save that toning as a Preset or Saved Setting in the Mac or Windows driver.
6. Color Gamut and Number of Inks
Color gamut can be defined as all the colors that can be represented or reproduced by a specific device (or interpreted by human vision). One of the most impressive advancements in inkjet printing has been a dramatic increase in the number of bright colors that can be reproduced on a wide range of papers.
Looking at color gamut comparisons between printers is one way to help determine which ones have the ability to print intense colors. Printers that use Epson’s UltraChrome HDR inkset (11 inks) and Canon’s newest LUCIA EX inkset (12 inks) are the current leaders with regard to printable gamut. If super-saturated colors are not as important to you, then you might want to choose a printer with fewer inks and a smaller gamut. Fewer ink cartridges will need to be kept on-hand, and you should save on the overall cost of running the printer. For example, you might choose the
All of the printers discussed in this article have impressive color gamuts, and the number of printable colors achievable with today’s inkjet printers on most high quality papers can far exceed what’s possible in the traditional color darkroom. Instead of just looking at a gamut chart, I recommend looking at actual prints if possible to help you make a final decision.
Some of today’s printers are equipped with on-board spectrophotometers, and in other cases, they are optional. Whether you need one may influence which printer you buy, so an understanding of linearization and profiling is important.
One way to control color is to make sure that a printer is printing consistently. This is especially true if you have multiple printers producing color critical work, such as contract proofs for magazine layouts. Linearization is a type of calibration that can help bring a printer in line with the standards that are set by the manufacturer for the same brand of printer just coming off the assembly line. Following linearization, custom profiles are often created, or supplied ICC profiles can be used. Together, the linearization and profiling steps can help with color matching from print to print over time, and also between different machines that use the same approach, regardless of where they are located.
The HP Designjet Z3200 and some other HP printers have an embedded spectrophotometer mounted on the printer carriage. The system uses X-Rite i1 color technology, making it possible to both linearize and make printer profiles for HP as well as non-HP branded media automatically, and within about 25 minutes. All Canon ImagePROGRAF printers have an internal linearization (called “self-calibration”) that helps establish an overall calibration for the printer.
A few years ago, Epson introduced their SpectroProofer, which is an optional hardware device that performs in ways very similar to HP’s system. It is available for the following printers: Epson Stylus Pro 4900 (17 inches wide), Epson Stylus Pro 7890/9890 and the Epson Stylus Pro 7900/9900. Also important to note is that a Postscript RIP is necessary if you choose to add a SpectroProofer, which will add to the total price tag.
In my experience with Epson printers, if kept in a stable environment (about 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity levels between about 30-70%), an on-board calibration tool is not necessary. Instead, creating custom profiles after testing a few media settings in the print driver with specific papers does the job just fine. However, the on-board spectrophotometer is a nice feature to have, and it should be considered in your overall decision when purchasing a printer.
8. Noise and Weight
The sounds that a specific printer makes when printing and cleaning its heads are a consideration for many—especially those who share a bedroom or other living area with a printer. Luckily, most printers are relatively quiet, and asking others their experience with specific printers is a great way to get some answers.
Another area of concern is printer weight. Virtually all printers 17 inches wide and larger weigh over 100 pounds, making them difficult to move into a home or office, especially if a staircase is involved. Even the 17-inch wide Canon ImagePROGRAF iPF5100 and 17-inch-wide
9. Paper Feed Options and Cutters
Medium and large format printers have a variety of media feed options and in some cases, sophisticated cutters. A few 17-inch-wide printers, including the
The cassette feed in Epson’s new Stylus Pro 4900 tops out at about 250 gsm (.27mm thickness), according to the specs, but testing will be necessary to determine exactly what the limits are. That said, I’m not recommending you run very heavy paper through a paper tray that’s not rated to handle it. In my experience, semi-gloss, glossy and fiber gloss papers tend to feed better from cassettes compared with matte papers, but each paper is different.
The Epson Stylus Pro 3880 is the only 17-inch-wide printer that acts a lot like a 13-inch-wide printer. Its main top feed tray can easily hold 10-20 sheets of medium-weight photo paper, but feeding is not as predictable as with most cassettes. In my experience with feed trays in general, it’s not uncommon to have multiple sheets pulled into the printer at the same time when feeding sheets. That being said, even if there are some misfeeds from time to time, the advantage of having a tray feed compared with no bulk-feed option is significant.
All 24-44 inch-wide printers discussed thus far have individual sheet feed options, and some perform more consistently than others. Most allow “nearly straight-through feeding” for papers up to about 350 gsm (very thick art paper), and some have a straight-through path which is great for mounted boards, metals, etc. However, to take advantage of the straight-through path, the maximum paper width will often be reduced. For example, the maximum paper width for the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 for the front manual feed slot is 16.5 inches, and for the Epson Stylus Pro 3880, the front manual feed slot can accept media up to 16 inches in width.
Moving on to larger printers, Canon, Epson and HP have all gone their separate ways with regard to the way in which roll and sheet papers are fed. The advantage of Epson Stylus Pro printers over HP is the fact that you can keep Epson Stylus Pro printers near a wall and load both sheets and rolls relatively easily from in front of the printers. The HP Z-series printers require you to load rolls from the back, and sheets over about 10 inches in length need space behind the printer for them to travel properly, which can be frustrating at times. Unlocking the wheels on one side and pivoting the printer when loading rolls can help the situation. Also, the roll media adapters on the newest Epson printers accept either 2- or 3-inch media cores, and they are impressive.
Another updated feature on many printers are their cutters. All of Epson and Canon’s newest 17-44 inch-wide printers have rotary cutters, which are capable of cutting very thick materials (even canvas). Epson’s Stylus Pro 7900 and 9900 take it one step further by placing the cutter “off-carriage” to reduce dust, which is a big concern, especially with heavy matte papers.
10. RIPs and Printer Plug-ins
If a RIP (Raster Image Processor) or Printer Plug-in is available for your printer, that might be a reason to choose a specific printer model. ImagePrint (colorbytesoftware.com) and ColorBurst (colorburstrip.com) are both popular RIPs (see their sites for compatible printers). Different bundled RIPs are also available for Epson printers to extend their functionality. I recently wrote this extensive article on ImagingBuffet.com about why someone might choose the Epson Professional Graphic Arts Edition (a “lite” version of the ColorBurst RIP) with the Epson Stylus Pro 3880. The article is available here: http://imagingbuffet.com/2010/10/22/comparing-the-epson-professionalgraphic-arts-edition-with-the-standard-epson-driver/.
Postscript RIPs are very valuable for those who produce layouts in programs like Adobe InDesign and Quark Xpress. I should also note that although Lightroom and Apple Aperture are not RIPs, they both have RIP-like layout features that can make printing multiple images on a page much easier.
The Canon ImagePROGRAF printers all come with a free Windows- and Mac-compatible plug-in that’s considerably easier to use than Photoshop’s built-in printing options.
If you’d like to download a worksheet to go along with these tips, I created a free PDF that’s available on this page called the InkjetSelector. inkjettips.com/2008/05/09/the-inkjetselector-pdf-available-for-free-download/
It’s a form with 70 parameters to help you choose your ideal printer. I recommend printing the form and bringing it to a store that sells inkjet printers, or e-mail/fax it to a reseller or consultant who knows a lot about inkjet printers and who can give you advice.
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).
Original text and images ©2011 Andrew Darlow. Portions of this article excerpted from Andrew Darlow’s book: 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers (Course Technology, PTR). Companion Website: http://www.inkjettips.com