Factors to Consider when Choosing a Small Photo-Quality Inkjet Printer
Part I: Small Printers | Part II: Large Printers
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
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
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
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.
A few helpful links:
- Download a zip file containing an excellent group of test images that fits on a letter-size sheet: drycreekphoto.com/tools/test_images/DCP-TestImage-Small.zip
- 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
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
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
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.
5. Multi- vs. Single-Function (and Build Quality)
In the past few years, multi-function photo quality inkjet printers (sometimes called all-in-ones) have become very popular. In general, a multi-function printer is a good choice if you want to use your printer for more than just printing photos, and if you don’t plan to use heavier papers (over 200-250gsm). Faxing and scanning are the two most popular additional features offered by most companies in this segment. Two of the most impressive printers that I’ve seen in person in this segment are the
There are many “single-function” photo-quality inkjet printers on the market, and they tend to be the ones that advanced amateurs and pros purchase. They often have multiple feed paths for a range of papers or other substrates, and in some cases, they include a straight paper path for thick, rigid or fragile materials. If you are looking for a bare-bones single-function letter-size printer that can produce very high quality long-lasting prints on glossy or matte papers, a good choice is the
An advantage of some Canon single-function printers is their capacity and feed options. For example, the
I always consider the build quality of any printer I buy. If the output tray breaks after you extend it one time, that’s not a good sign. Visiting a retailer allows you to “kick the tires,” and some have demo prints available, but don’t assume that the quality you are seeing from their demos is the best quality that can be printed. Demo models are sometimes set more for acceptable quality and high speed to approximate an office setting. A few of the most robust 13-inch-wide pigment-ink printers on the market are the
6. Ink Cartridges and Black-and-White Capabilities
Every printer has a different ink delivery system. Most inkjet printers have either a separate black ink cartridge plus a combined color ink cartridge (Kodak’s ESP printers are a good example of that system), or they have separate black and separate color ink cartridges. Most Canon, Epson and HP photo-quality printers use individual ink cartridges. In theory, less ink should be wasted with individual inks since a combined ink cartridge may still contain a lot of ink if one of the color inks is depleted. I would especially agree with that reasoning if most of your prints contain a range of similar colors, such as blue skies, green grass or underwater scenes.
Image Above Right: A selection of individual and multi-color ink cartridges from Canon, Epson and HP. With the exception of the two large Canon cartridges to the left, all are made for printers 13-inches wide or less.
Prior to purchasing any printer, it’s a good idea to find out the approximate number of prints you can expect out of a set of inks as well as the cost to buy individual or bundled sets of ink. That’s easier said than done, but many people will post their results online. Buying a printer with more ink cartridges (for example, 6 colors vs. 10 colors) will mean that you’ll need to keep more inks in stock if you want to avoid the chances of being without a printer.
Also, many printers have a driver setting that allows you to print with just the black ink instead of a combination of all the inks. This can be very helpful for printing documents such as letters, or for creating quick templates to see where images will fall exactly on a page prior to making a final print. In some cases, you can also print very high quality photos using just the black ink. However, you will almost always have to use the highest quality setting to get acceptable results with just the black ink.
Some printers contain multiple gray inks, which help photographers to produce better quality and more long-lasting neutral and toned black-and-white photographs. If high quality black and white printing is important to you, I highly recommend considering one of the printers that offers multiple gray inks. A few of the current printer models that use multiple gray inks include the
While I’m on the topic, the issue of ink swapping should always be considered before buying a printer. 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. The winner in this area is the
As new printers are introduced and as phone technology advances, the two appear to be converging in many ways. If you would like to print from your pocket (or wirelessly from a laptop), it’s a good idea to look into the built-in and optional connectivity choices for any printer you are considering.
Some of the connectivity options available on printers up to 13×19 inches include: Wi-Fi, USB, FireWire, Bluetooth, PictBridge or computer-free operation with on-board media card slots and a color LCD monitor. Canon, Epson and HP all have smartphone apps available that require just a network-capable printer. Just check the specs to see if the printer has an Ethernet port or built-in wireless. The
8. Borderless Printing Capability
Another common feature that should be considered is borderless printing. Unlike photo labs, many inkjet printers have problems getting borderless printing consistently right. Sometimes the printer has problems with the way the ink is applied at the beginning and end of the print, and in other cases, ink can spray on the surface on which the print travels, leading to marks on the bottom of subsequent prints. That said, if borderless printing is an important feature to you, it’s important to research how well the printer handles it. In some cases, the printer and/or print driver will allow only two sides of a sheet to be borderless, and the other two sides will then need to be trimmed by hand. If I need borderless prints, I generally prefer to print on a larger sheet of paper with crop marks and then carefully cut the print using a rotary cutter.
9. Noise, Weight and Space Requirements
Because so many pro and amateur photographers work in home offices and relatively quiet studios, it makes a lot of sense to consider the sounds that any printer makes. Reading reviews is one of the best ways to find out about potential issues, since just looking at the decibel levels won’t accurately describe annoying high pitched whirring sounds during paper feeding or thumping noises during cleaning cycles.
Also consider the space where you plan to keep the printer. Some printers require a considerable amount of space in front and behind them for feeding heavy paper, and others can feed heavy sheets from the top. Some allow you to put multiple sheets in a feed tray, and others need to have sheets over a certain weight fed one at a time.
With regards to ultra-portability, there is a wonderful class of printers rarely considered by serious amateurs and pro photographers. They are known as compact printers, and the largest size print they make is usually 5×7 or 4×12 inches in size. These printers can serve as “on-the-go instant photo booth printers.” They are great to have at parties or when traveling, and I believe they provide a way to create the perfect thank you gift for your photo subjects (either paid models or others whom you might photograph). Most of the printers weigh just a few pounds, and many have optional battery packs. Examples include the
Epson is not the only company with ultra-portable printers. HP makes the
For a 13-inch-wide printer, the
11. Color Management-Friendly Features
A properly calibrated monitor and printer are essential for consistent results when editing and printing. Some of the color-management-friendly features that I look for are the following: a printer driver for Mac and Windows that allows users to turn off the color controls inside the driver. That makes it possible to have the color-management aware application, such as Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Apple Aperture or Adobe Lightroom manage the colors by sending the photo directly to the printer using the paper profile (a.k.a. output profile). If you want the best print quality, and at the same time wish to save money by optimizing ink usage, you should be using either custom profiles made specifically for your printer and paper by you or a consultant (made with a product like the
Some companies supply 10-20 or more profiles for the papers that have their brand names on them, and in many cases, the profiles will be installed automatically in your computer’s Colorsync folder when you download the printer driver. If you like the papers branded by a specific printer company, that may tip the scales toward purchasing that company’s printer. Also, if you see a paper that you love, made by a company who specializes in making inkjet papers (there are many), that company will often have profiles available for specific printers. You can check which printers are supported on their website; having all of those profiles available for free is another selling point. That said, a “canned” profile, or company-provided profile, will generally not be as accurate as one you create yourself (or have made by someone) for your specific paper and printer.
To learn more about the wonderful world of color management (and all its dramatic twists and turns), I highly recommend reading Jay Kinghorn’s Color Management Overview series.
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. www.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