Improved (and more) inks, better papers and the latest printer technology mean inkjet prints that look better—and last longer—than conventional photos
By Mike Stensvold
Quality inkjet printers let you make professional-caliber color and black-and-white prints at home. And today, you can get printers that produce bigger, longer-lasting and far better looking prints—color and black-and-white—a lot faster than ever before. This delightful situation is the result of improvements in technology—print controllers, print heads, printer drivers, inks and papers, and ink-placing algorithms.
Outdoor photographers will especially appreciate the larger-format inkjets, those capable of making prints of 13x19 inches or larger, because a first-rate, sharp outdoor photo deserves a suitably grand presentation. Fortunately, such printers are readily available from Canon, Epson and HP.
What makes a good inkjet print? Quality ink put down on quality paper in a quality manner. Each printer manufacturer has its own inks, papers and proprietary method(s) of placing the ink droplets on the paper, and while differing somewhat in process, all are capable of turning out excellent prints.
Next to image quality, print life is a major consideration. Early inkjet prints lasted months, sometimes just weeks. That’s all changed today, and when using their manufacturers’ specified inks and papers, the printers discussed here all deliver excellent print life—100-200-year lightfast permanence with pigment-based inks, and 60-100 years with today’s dye-based inks—provided you use the right paper. Print life can be extended by mounting the print under glass, and for longest life, store prints in a cool, dark gas-free environment.
Of course, the whole purpose of prints is to be seen, so archival dark-storage conditions aren’t always an option. That’s why you want to consider the projected lives of various ink/paper combinations. A manufacturer obviously can’t test a paper’s life by waiting 100 years to see if it fades, so accelerated testing is done, both by printer manufacturers and by independent test labs. One respected independent source of such test data is Wilhelm Imaging Research (www.wilhelm-research.com). Check Wilhelm and the printer manufacturers’ information to help you decide on ink/paper combos when print life is a great concern.
The third major consideration in choosing an inkjet printer for outdoor photos is speed. Technological improvements have made today’s printers amazingly fast compared to earlier ones, but read the speed specifications carefully. Often printer speeds are given for draft-quality prints, or prints with only partial paper coverage (i.e., an 11x17-inch image on 13x19-inch paper). What you want to know is how long it will take to make top photo-quality prints in the sizes you desire. You might have to find a store that has some printers set up to help you decide.
Print speed also depends on your computer system, software and the complexity of the image. Note that many listed print times are from the moment the printer starts printing until it stops; they don’t include the time between the moment you click the "print" button and the moment the printer actually starts to print. We’ve found that it takes at least five minutes (sometimes much longer) to make a highest-quality 13x19-inch photo print on a typical 13x19-inch inkjet printer.