Modern inkjets offer photographic quality and creative control over the printing process
By Zachary Singer
None of us would have known of Ansel Adams if he had taken his film to the corner drugstore. Although the compositions would remain the same, the brilliant quality of his prints would be missing. The glowing white tones and deep, detailed blacks in his work are a stunning example of getting the best results when you do the printing yourself.
Until recently, those of us in pursuit of quality in our prints were largely confined to black-and-white, just as Adams was. Color was neither as controllable nor as expressive a medium as black-and-white, and even a simple color darkroom could cost thousands of dollars. Digital imaging has changed all that.
Among the new digital technologies are inkjet printers that allow someone working at home, in an office or in a studio to create outstanding, long-lasting prints in full color with little more required than their computer, some software and some digital images. (Some printers even will let you print directly from a digital memory card.) The old dream of making your own color enlargements is a reality.
You still can take your images to a lab, of course. They use digital equipment, too, and your prints can turn out quite well. The downside is that if you have any urge to tweak that first print, you'll have to pay for a second one and return to the lab when it's made.
With your own inkjet printer, you can work just like in a traditional darkroom, making prints until you're satisfied that you've got everything exactly the way you want it. That's especially liberating when producing big enlargements, as you can experiment freely with various effects on smaller sheets without committing yourself to the expense of a large commercial print. Unlike the darkroom, you don't have to deal with a lot of chemicals that can change as you print. Inkjet printing is consistent enough to take up where you left off yesterday—or last week—without skipping a beat.
Another advantage to using an inkjet is that it's ready when you are. If you find sudden inspiration some evening, you can pursue it immediately and keep printing while you're on a roll. Unless you live in New York City, chances are your lab doesn't stay open all night.
These days, you can get a professional-quality, 13x19-inch printer for less than the cost of an entry-level D-SLR, and 24-inch-wide and larger printers are available as well. If you're more of an 8x10 person, you can get a printer of that size that will produce gorgeous prints for next to nothing. Before you run off to buy a printer, though, there are some things you should know so you can be sure to find the one that fits your needs and budget.
How Many Colors? When you begin your search for a printer, you'll notice there are four-color, six-color, seven-color and now even eight-color printers available. Each mixes its inks to produce millions of colors in a finished print.
The four-color models use cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to get the job done, just like a commercial press. First-generation inkjets used this approach, as do current budget printers. They're capable of producing lovely prints because of the advanced printing algorithms in modern printer software.
Six-color printers improve on the four-color design by incorporating light cyan and light magenta into the mix. This arrangement provides a greater range of reproducible colors and noticeably improved highlight details.
Seven-color printers take it still further with a "light black" ink for more neutral grays in color work and better black-and-white performance. The latest eight-color printers aim at extending the color gamut still further. Canon, for example, adds red and green inks to the usual six-color mix for better reds, greens and oranges. Hewlett-Packard uses the typical cyan, magenta and yellow inks found in six-color printers, along with three gray inks for improved overall color and purer black-and-white prints. Dye Vs. Pigment There are two types of color inkjet printers—those that use dye-based inks and others whose ink is pigment-based.
Dye-based printers produce slightly brighter colors than their pigment-based counterparts. The output from many of these printers displays a wider range of colors than digital prints on conventional photographic paper. Subjects that are naturally vibrant, like flower close-ups, really blaze on dye-based inkjet prints.
In the past, dye-based inks were prone to fading. Ten years ago, inkjet print colors would shift noticeably within months of printing. Modern dye-based inks commonly last 10 years and increasing numbers of them are far better. Many models now offer dye-based inks with 25- and even 75-year life spans.
Pigment-based inks aren't quite as intense as dye-based inks. While you'd notice the difference if you put a pigment-based print next to a dye-based print of the same image, the pigment-based prints are quite vibrant. They're often mistaken for traditional photographic prints.
On the whole, pigment-based prints last longer than those printed with dye-based inks. Prints should last 75 years or more before any sign of fading. In many instances, expected print life exceeds 100 years.
The archival properties of pigment inks, as well as the high quality of images made with them, have made pigment-based prints something of a standard in the art world. Museums now routinely acquire pigment-based prints for their collections.
Keep in mind that prints made with either type of ink will need to be framed under glass or kept in album pages for maximum life. Gases in the atmosphere, including pollutants, would otherwise interact with the prints, possibly causing them to fade prematurely. As with all artwork, a print shouldn't be displayed where direct sunlight can strike it.
Resolution And Ink Droplet Size Printer resolution isn't at all related to the number of pixels you have in your digital image. Rather, it refers to the number of ink dots the printer can lay down on an inch of paper. Up to a certain point, having more ink dots per inch produces finer color gradations in your prints. It doesn't affect image sharpness, as does camera resolution.
Because printing resolution really only affects the tonal smoothness in prints, it doesn't matter how many pixels there are in your camera's original image. The only thing you consider when setting printer resolution is whether you want photographic quality or just a draft-quality proof print. You don't have to match the number of pixels in your image with the printer resolution, or vice versa.
Manufacturers make a point of touting very high printer resolutions, sometimes more than 5000 dots per inch. Realistically, 1440 dpi is about all you need for photographic quality. Higher resolutions simply take longer to print and are more marketing hype than valuable capabilities.
A second statistic, ink droplet size, provides a useful indication of print quality. Ink droplets 4 picoliters and smaller form dots too small for the eye to see, producing truly photographic-quality, continuous-tone prints. Some models now tout droplet sizes as small as 1.5 or 2 picoliters.
Speed Some manufacturers have clung to the old habit of quoting per-page print speeds for draft mode. All printers operate much more quickly that way, and the listed performance isn't what you'd get when outputting a full-color, photo-quality print. If speed is an issue for you, make sure you compare print speeds for photo-quality mode.
Dye-sub printers produce continuous-tone prints by using a thermal head to transfer dyes from a carrier ribbon to your printing paper. Just as in a real photograph, the lightness or darkness of a given area is controlled directly by how much dye is placed there, rather than by increasingly scattering dots of fixed brightness as with inkjet printers.
The dye-sub's approach allows the use of more deeply colored dyes than can be used in an inkjet system. Its cyan, magenta and yellow dyes match the intensity of those in photographic materials. Like photographic prints, dye-subs don't need the "fourth color," black, to achieve darker tones. Because added black isn't "graying out" the color, dye-subs can produce richly saturated prints.
Dye-sub printers lay down each of their three colored dyes in a separate pass. Some manufacturers use a fourth pass to overcoat the print. This clear topcoat provides protection from water, fingerprints or UV rays.
These printers are made in a variety of sizes by Canon, Hi-Touch, Kodak, Olympus and Sony. An example of this type is the HiTi Photo Printer 730PS, which makes prints up to 6x8 inches. It uses a fast USB 2.0 interface for quick printing, and can accept memory cards directly in its color LCD-equipped hand controller. List Price: $399. Contact: Hi-Touch Imaging Technologies, (323) 728-9900, www.hitouchimaging.com.
Small Printers The Canon i960 produces prints up to 8.5x11 inches fast. Its six-color, dye-based ink system can knock out a photo-quality 8x10 in about a minute, and 4x6-inch prints in 37 seconds. The printer interfaces with your computer through a high-speed USB 2.0 connection and can print directly from PictBridge-compatible digital cameras. List Price: $199.99.
The Epson Stylus Photo R800's archival UltraChrome pigment inks can last up to 100 years. It prints sheets up to 8.5x11, and on 8.3-inch roll paper for panoramas up to 44 inches wide. The printer features both USB 2.0 and FireWire (IEEE 1394) connectivity. Price: $399.
The HP Photosmart 7960 can make borderless prints up to 8.5x11 inches. Its eight-color ink system sports extra gray inks, for outstanding black-and-white prints and improved color print performance. The dye-based printer produces prints that last up to 73 years with the appropriate ink and paper. Price: $299.99.
Large Printers The Canon i9900 makes borderless prints up to 13x19 inches. Its eight-color dye-based ink system adds red and green inks to the standard six-color system for extra-brilliant reds, oranges and greens. Like its little brother, it's fast, producing a full 13x19-inch print in less than three minutes. Estimated Street Price: $499.99.
Epson's Stylus Pro 4000 offers UltraChrome pigment-based prints on sheets up to 17x22 inches, as well as 17-inch roll paper. The seven-color Stylus Pro 4000 uses an eighth ink cartridge to provide an alternate black ink optimized for different paper surfaces. The printer's straight-through paper path allows it to handle heavyweight media, including posterboard up to 1.5mm thick. Estimated Price: $1,795.
The HP Designjet 130's six dye-based inks make vibrant prints on sheets up to 18x24 inches. Its capacity for 24-inch roll paper enables you to make huge prints, 24 inches high by as much as 50 feet wide. (How about a 24x36-inch print from your D-SLR?) Estimated Price: $1,295.