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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Gadget Bag: Best Printers for Fall


Make sure the season of spectacular colors translates to your prints

Labels: Gadget BagGear

Epson Stylus Pro 3880

As autumn arrives, it's time to get out and make striking color photos. It's also a great time to revisit inkjet printers. They have been good for a number of years, but today's technology is providing printers that can produce spectacular prints that really make those fall reds and yellows pop.

Fall landscape photos look great printed big—assuming they're sharp and printed well. The "sharp" part is a matter of using a good lens, focusing accurately, employing a solid tripod and having enough megapixels to allow for the desired print size (as a rule of thumb, divide the image's horizontal width in pixels by 300, and the result is the maximum width, in inches, at which it should produce an excellent print). The "printed well" part is a matter of using a good printer and good paper, and proper technique (technique is fodder for another article). Here's what you need to know about printers and papers for fall colors.

A major consideration for a landscape printer is a wide color gamut, that is, the printer should be able to deliver a wide range of rich and accurate colors, with smooth transitions from tone to tone. No print can reproduce all possible colors, but a good printer can produce a wide range of them on a good paper. A printer's color gamut depends largely on its inks, its technology and the paper used. Printer brochures use such terms as "wide color gamut," "extremely wide gamut" and "widest color gamut," but none lists a numerical indication of color gamut in the specs, so it's best to go to a dealer that sells the printers you're considering and look at sample output (ideally, take one of your files and print it, although this isn't always possible).

Photo inkjet printers use one of two types of ink: dye-based (with fine colorant particles and additives dissolved in liquid) or pigment-based (with larger colorant particles and additives suspended in liquid). In the early days of inkjet printing, dye-based inks delivered better color, while pigment inks provided longer print life. But inkjet ink technology has come a long way in recent years, and today, both types can provide excellent color and long print life (when used with appropriate compatible papers). Four of the five printers featured here use pigment-based inks.

Early photo inkjet printers used just four inks: the three subtractive primary colors (magenta, cyan and yellow), plus black. Today's printers use additional inks to provide richer, more accurate colors and smoother transitions. The printers featured here use eight or more inks, including multiple blacks to produce excellent shadow tones and monochrome prints.

Another ink consideration is container size. Printers that use larger cartridges provide the benefit of more prints before you have to change one out, as well as lower cost per print (larger cartridges generally cost less per milliliter than smaller ones).

Another consideration is printing speed. Big prints take some time, and the printing times given in printer specs can be somewhat optimistic. For example, a lower-quality setting results in a much faster printing time (and a lower-quality print), so be sure to check the time for the highest-quality print. And the printing time is generally measured from the time the printer starts to print, not from the moment you click the on-screen "print" button—and with large image files and slower computers, there can be quite a delay between clicking "print" and the printer starting to print. Speed is one factor that manufacturers use to help differentiate products from one another, but it's debatable how important it is to individual photographers. Do you really care if it takes your print five minutes versus seven and a half minutes? If you produce a lot of prints for sale, this may be a big deal to you, but for most enthusiasts, speed just isn't a huge factor.

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