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.
Inks—the more the merrier. My first inkjet printer used four inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. It made nice color prints, and not-so-nice black-and-white ones. Today’s inkjet printers use as many as 12 inks. And they make superb prints, both color and black-and-white.
What do all the extra inks do? They produce smoother tone transitions, more accurate colors and a greater range of colors. Multiple black inks (generally light gray, dark gray and black) produce a smoother, more neutral and greater range of gray tones from black through white. Some printers use special matte black ink to print on matte papers, and photo black ink to print on glossy papers, to optimize image quality on each paper type.
Today’s photo inkjet printers use dye-based inks or pigment-based inks. Dye-based inks consist of colorants and additives dissolved in liquid, while pigment-based inks consist of much larger colorant particles and additives suspended in liquid. Historically, dye-based inks delivered better colors and could be used on a wider range of media types, but they yielded poor print longevity compared to pigment-based inks.
Getting pigment-based inks to deliver great colors took lots of R&D, one major problem being those relatively huge pigment particles. But all that effort has paid off wonderfully, and today the technology in inks, nozzles and print heads has advanced to the point where most large-format inkjet photo printers use pigment-based inks. Canon’s latest large-format inks are the pigment-based 10- and 12-color Lucia and the dye-based 8-color ChromaLife 100 inksets, Epson’s is the pigment-based 8-color UltraChrome K3 inkset, and HP’s are the 8- and 12-color Vivera inksets.
Dye-based inks are generally used in lower-priced smaller-format printers, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in quality or cutting-edge technology: Pigment pioneer Epson recently introduced the dye-based 6-color Claria Hi-Definition inks (along with three low-priced photo printers that use them), with estimated dark-storage print life of more than 200 years when used with specified Epson papers, while Canon (ChromaLife 100) and HP (Vivera) also offer dye-based inks with 100-year longevity.
Besides the printer manufacturers, independent ink companies offer color and monochrome inksets for popular inkjets: Inkfarm, Inkjet Mall, Lyson, MediaStreet and Pantone are a few sources. Third-party inks are often less expensive.
Much is made of ink droplet size, and smaller is better. Today’s large-format inkjet printers use droplet sizes in the 2- to 4-picoliter range (a picoliter is one-trillionth of a liter), while some smaller-format inkjets use droplets as small as 1 picoliter. But even more important than droplet size is how those droplets are put down on the paper. As mentioned earlier, each printer manufacturer has its own top-secret droplet-placement and screening algorithms, and the onesfor the printers cited here are very efficient.
Canon, Epson and HP offer a wide variety of print media optimized for their printers and inks, and with profiles provided in their drivers. There’s also a growing list of independent inkjet paper brands on the market, including Adorama, Forte, Hahnemuhle, Harman, Ilford, Legion by Moab, Museo and Tetenal.
The hot thing in large-format inkjet printing today is fine-art papers. In fact,
major printer manufacturers are marketing fine-art papers from the likes of Hahnemuhle and Crane & Co. (Museo) along with their own papers. Fine-art media include a variety of textures and smooth surfaces, including watercolor and canvas. The textured ones lend a painterly feel to landscape images; the smooth ones are better when fine detail is important. The making of archival inkjet prints on fine-art papers even has a fancy name: giclee.
Inkjet papers consist of a number of layers, generally a base with resin coatings on each side and an ink-reception layer on top, sometimes with additional reflective layers. Each paper maker has its own proprietary technology controlling how the ink-reception layer absorbs the inks, as this plays a large part in the image quality and longevity of the resulting prints. The coating layers and often a protection layer above the reception layer determine the glossiness of the paper.
With glossy papers, the ink sits right on top, where it yields the widest color gamut and greatest image brightness and "snap," but also is most susceptible to fingerprints and other damage. Glossy surfaces also can reflect light sources in the viewing area, making them less suitable for display prints. Inks "bite into" luster and semi-gloss surfaces more, producing slightly duller but more durable images. Most fine-art photo prints are made on nonglossy media.
The brighter (whiter) the paper, the more "snap" a print can have, but sometimes an image is better suited to a less bright paper. Also, the optical brightening agents used to brighten some papers can break down with time. The standard print-longevity test results you see in printer/ink/paper specs don’t take into account yellowing caused by the breakdown of optical brighteners.
Some inkjet papers are designed for pigment-based inks and some for dye-based inks, while others will work with both ink types. Be sure to check for compatibility with your printer’s inks before buying new paper.
Printers For Outdoor Photos
Canon’s PIXMA Pro9000 ($499) is a 13x19-inch large-format model that uses eight dye-based ChromaLife 100 inks: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, photo magenta, red and green. A high-precision print head with FINE (Full-lithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering) technology accurately deposits microscopic droplets of the high-density, wide-gamut inks on five special Canon papers, yielding 100-year life in albums, 30-year lightfastness and 10-year gas-fastness. Two paper paths make it easy to print on standard and thick art papers.
Higher up in Canon’s large-format inkjet line is the imagePROGRAF iPF5000 ($1,995), a 17-inch wide-format professional model that distributes 12 Canon Lucia pigment inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, photo cyan, photo magenta, red, green, blue, gray, photo gray, regular black and matte black) through dual print heads with 30,720 nozzles. The unique blue ink creates beautiful skies, while the black and gray inks deliver excellent black-and-whites. The iPF5000 can handle paper from 8 to 17 inches wide and make prints up to 59 feet long using Canon’s driver; and up to the length of a 150-foot roll using some third-party RIP software.
There are three print paths to suit all sorts of media, plus an optional roll-feed unit (cassette and roll paper can be loaded simultaneously; borderless printing is possible only on rolls). Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800 ($1,299 and up, depending on package) is the company’s latest and most technically advanced printer, with the widest color gamut. The 17x22-inch large-format inkjet prints with eight Epson UltraChrome K3 inks (the K3 indicating three black inks among them): cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta, light black, light light black and either photo
black or matte black. The printer holds all nine inks, automatically using photo black or matte black to suit the paper you choose in the print driver.
All-new algorithms for dot placement and photographic screening include technology developed especially for black-and-white printing, and the Stylus Pro 3800 delivers beautiful color and black-and-white prints, from 4x6 to 17x22 inches, on a wide variety of media. Permanence ratings range from 85 to 200 years for color and 76 to 312 years for black-and-white, depending on media used.
The Stylus Photo R2400 ($849) also uses Epson's UltraChrome K3 pigment inkset, but the switch between photo black and matte black inks is done manually by the user rather than automatically by the printer. This fast inkjet features three separate paper paths to handle a wide range of media including posterboard and rolls, and can do borderless or bordered prints from 4x6 to 13x19 inches. As in the Stylus Pro 3800, Advanced Black & White Mode makes it easy to produce terrific black-and-white prints.
HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180 ($699) is a 13x19-inch inkjet that utilizes eight HP Vivera pigment-based inks: cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta, photo black, matte black and light gray (it uses photo black for glossy paper, matte black for matte papers, and both for watercolor and canvas media). Main and straight-through specialty-media trays allow for borderless or bordered printing on a wide range of media (textured HP Aquarella is especially nice for suitable subjects) from wallet size to 13x19 inches. Appropriate HP media deliver waterproof prints with under-glass 200+-year light and thermal permanence.
For those who think really big, there are even larger-format inkjets, such as HP’s Designjet Z2100 Photo Printer. This comes in 24-inch ($3,395) and 44-inch-wide ($5,595) versions, can make prints up to 300 feet long (assuming your operating system and application can handle that), accepts thick media up to 500gsm, and uses the same eight Vivera pigment inks as the B9180 for excellent prints in color and black-and-white. Scalable Printing technology assures reliability and optimizes ink consumption. The Z2100 even has an embedded spectrophotometer with i1 Color Technology from GretagMacbeth to provide automatic media profiling. (Note: Canon and Epson also offer excellent very-large-format inkjet printers.)
All of the printers mentioned here use individual ink tanks, so you don’t have to replace all the colors when one runs low. And all provide easy-to-use drivers that operate as stand-alones or as Photoshop plug-ins.
Moab by Legion