Not so long ago, the photographic print was how everyone experienced photography. Before websites, smartphones and apps, shoeboxes with stacks of 4×6-inch photos of the family vacation were a household staple—I still have a few in the garage myself.
For the casual photographer who uses the medium as personal documentary rather than fine art, digital photography changed the way most images are shared, and the end of printing has been repeatedly foretold. But that hasn’t happened. Like Mark Twain’s famous quip, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” printing technology has experienced a renaissance as a result of digital technology.
Though the folks who use photography for utility may not be printing like they used to, for photographers with a capital “P”—those who use the medium for the creation of art and personal expression—there’s never been a more exciting time to make a print. The best photo printers for home studios produce large-format prints in a matter of minutes with color and tonal reproduction that blows away what was achievable in the chemical darkroom. We have digital methods for translating our images to traditional processes like platinum or cyanotype, and we have options for printing on alternative substrates like wood or metal. The art of photographic printing has never been more accessible or invited so much experimentation.
Long Live The Print
When digital imaging was emerging, the early home inkjet printers could make beautiful prints, but they didn’t last very long. Color fading and shifting, sometimes dramatic and rapid, were common problems. Canon and Epson were early leaders in addressing this, and the latest generation of pro-grade desktop printers can produce prints that will outlive us all. That’s an especially important consideration for photographers who sell prints to collectors, but even for those who simply enjoy seeing their best photographs artfully framed around their home, it’s reassuring to know that today’s prints will look just as good decades from now as they do today.
There are two types of ink commonly used in desktop printing: dye and pigment. Dye has historically been able to produce a wider range of colors, while pigment-based inks are more stable and provide greater longevity. That led printer makers who cater to the fine art photographer to focus on developing pigment-based ink sets that could rival the gamut of dye-based ink. Today, the best photo printers from Canon and Epson use pigment-based ink sets with nine or more colors, including both matte and glossy black variants, that are able to reproduce images with literally stunning details—details you’d likely miss looking at an image on a digital screen.
Best Photo Printers From Canon
The latest desktop printer from Canon for pro and enthusiast photographers is the imagePROGRAF PRO-300, a 13×19-inch printer introduced in 2020 that’s the smaller sibling of the 17×22-inch imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 introduced in 2015. Like the PRO-1000, it uses a Canon LUCIA PRO pigment-based ink set. The PRO-300 has a nine-color plus “Chroma Optimizer” set, while the PRO-1000 has an 11-color (plus optimizer) set. The Chroma Optimizer is a clear coat that Canon says prevents bronzing and improves black density. The PRO-300 can produce borderless prints up to 13×19 inches, plus panoramas up to 13×39 inches. The PRO-1000 can go as large as 17×22 inches or 17×25.5 inches for panorama format. Both printers accept cut-sheet paper only.
Best Photo Printers From Epson
Epson’s newest models for premium quality desktop photo printing are the SureColor P700 and SureColor P900. The SureColor P700 is a 13×19-inch printer, and the P900 is the larger 17×22-inch model. Both use the same new Epson 10-color UltraChrome PRO10 ink set and can accept roll paper in addition to cut-sheet for long panorama prints or for volume production. (The roll paper feed is built into the P700 and offered as an optional accessory for the P900.) New in this generation of SureColor printers are dedicated channels for Matte and Photo Black (glossy) inks, alleviating a pain point of earlier models that required manual switching between glossy and matte depending on your paper selection. Now, like the Canon imagePROGRAFs, this process is automatic, saving time and ink.
Print Head Technology: Heat Versus Voltage
One of the main differences between Canon and Epson printers is the technology used to place ink on the paper. Canon has a thermal print head, while Epson’s head is piezoelectric. The Canon approach employs heating elements to expel ink droplets from the printer’s nozzles. Epson’s system uses physical actuators that eject droplets when a voltage is applied to them. In practical terms, piezoelectric heads provide finer control over ink droplet size but are more susceptible to clogging than thermal heads—especially if the printer goes unused for an extended period.
Epson’s SureColor P700 and P900 piezoelectric heads can produce three different droplet sizes as small as 1.5 picoliters. Canon’s thermal heads have many more nozzles—the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 has 7,680 nozzles (768 per channel) compared to the Epson SureColor P700’s 1,800 nozzles (180 per channel)—but Canon’s droplet size is 4 picoliters.
So, there are pros and cons of each technology, and ultimately the decision between Canon and Epson may come down to either brand preference or the ability to print on roll paper, something the Canon desktop options here can’t do. Practically speaking, I’ve used both the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and the Epson SureColor P700 and been very pleased with the color, tonality and detail these printers can produce.
The ability to create gallery-quality prints at home is incredibly convenient and can help guide you in post-processing as you make adjustments to a photo’s exposure and color. It’s so gratifying to see an image that took planning and patience to capture come to life as a photographic print. If you’re used to seeing your images only on-screen, I think you’ll be delighted to discover the details that a large print can reveal.
Beyond The Desktop: Unique Prints From Pro Photo Labs
I think all photographers should experience the art of producing their own prints, but there are possibilities available from a professional lab that you can’t reasonably achieve at home. With the option to print on unique substrates like wood or metal, or to create prints in die-cut shapes, a pro lab can help you make something special.
Depending on the process and materials you choose, there may be some tradeoffs—or differences, at the least—from a traditional paper print to keep in mind. For example, one of my favorite personal prints is of an image I took overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a foggy morning in Big Sur. The density of the fog and the calmness of the ocean on that morning resulted in an image that appears to be a simple gradient of blues and grays from a distance. Only on closer inspection do you see the ripples in the waves and the subtle variation of density in the fog. I chose to have it printed on wood by Bay Photo, and one of the inherent characteristics of that process is that the grain of the wood may show through. For an image that relies heavily on precise, fine details, wood may not produce the look you’re after, but in the case of my Big Sur photograph, the faint grain detail adds a layer of visual “texture” that I like very much. There’s also a dimensional, almost sculptural quality to print on wood that makes it something to try, and the earthy quality of it feels appropriate for nature photography in particular.
In addition to offering unique substrates, Bay Photo’s Splits option transforms a single image into a mosaic of multiple prints for a dramatic wall art statement. Multiple cluster configurations are available, from a simple “Four Square” 4×4 grid to more sophisticated arrangements like the “Timeless” 5-panel style shown above.
Another interesting option that a lab can deliver is the ability to create prints with unique shapes. WhiteWall offers four shape options—round, hexagon, octagon and dodecagon—for several of its custom print products, including its HD Metal Print. The shapes are available in sizes ranging from 8 inches to 36 inches.
If you’re looking for a departure from the traditional paper print, check out what’s available from online labs like WhiteWall and Bay Photo. There’s an impressive variety of unique substrates and mounting options to transform your photo into a statement piece.