What you see isn’t always what you get in the translation between screen and print. Matthew Richards reveals how to make your prints charming
However big, bright and beautiful your computer screen, there’s always something magical about seeing photos in print. Whether they are arranged in an album, framed on a desk or hanging on the wall, paper prints have real retro charm. Moreover, the high resolution of a photographic print, compared with even the latest 4K ultra-high definition monitor screens, does full justice to the levels of fine detail and texture that you can capture with today’s digital cameras.
Rather than sending your digital photos to an online print lab, creating your own photo prints at home can have several advantages. First, you’ll get your prints within seconds or minutes, rather than having to wait for anything from a day to a week or more for them to turn up in the post. Second, you have full control over the process and can fine-tune the results. In most cases, the cost of paper and ink for inkjet printing at home also work out cheaper than using a lab, especially when you factor postage into the equation. However, you need to buy the printer itself, and it pays to pick a good one.
Coming up trumps
Researching the perfect photo printer to suit your needs can feel a bit like playing Top Trumps, with a baffling range of features and specifications to take into account. At least a couple of factors have become simpler. Dye-sublimation printers have largely been dropped and inkjet is the only print technology worth buying for home photo printing. Second, while Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark used to be the fab four in inkjet manufacturers, it’s become a straight fight between Canon and Epson for seriously good photo output. Even so, there are plenty of models to choose from, with a range of strengths and weaknesses.
Most of us don’t relish the thought of buying and running two separate printers. Canon led the way in multi-purpose printers for document and photo output, with a revolutionary five-ink system. It combines pigmentbased black for deep, solid text on plain paper, along with dye-based CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) inks for photo printing. The resulting Canon Pixma range of printers has been so successful, that the idea was later copied by Epson and, for a while, by HP. Considering that only four inks are actually used for photo printing, the gamut (or colour space) and tonal range can be impressive, thanks to the careful selection of ink colours to maximise photo quality.
For the most part, especially in A4 photo printers, Epson has stuck with the more traditional method of adding light or ‘photo’ cyan and magenta inks to the usual CMYK line-up, creating photo printers that run on six inks. In theory, this should deliver a wider gamut than Canon’s five-ink printers, although you can often be hard-pressed to spot the difference. The flipside is that, with only a dye-based black ink, you’d expect the Epson printers to muster only feint grey text in document output. In fact though, they tend to do a pretty good job.
While many HP and Lexmark ‘photo’ printers used a pair of tri-colour cartridges in the past, pretty much every photo-friendly printer on the market these days has individually replaceable cartridges. It makes much better sense, as you’ll only have to replace ink that’s actually run out, rather than throwing ink away as part of a multi-colour cartridge.
Recent developments in the A4-photoprinter market include a growing or different range of ink colours. Canon added a grey cartridge to its five-ink technology, bringing the total to six and extending the gamut in the process, as well as enabling more convincing quality for black & white photo prints. The company’s very latest high-end Pixma TS8050 and TS9050 series printers assume a different tack, adding ‘photo blue’ instead of grey ink, going all out for extended gamut and reducing the occasional grainy look in bright blues.
There wasn’t really any need for Epson to add extra colours to its six-ink models, as all the inks were dedicated to photo printing anyway. Epson bucked the trend in a different way, with ‘EcoTank’ photofriendly printers like the ET-7700. These come with fixed ink tanks and bottles of ink for easy replenishment. Indeed, the ET-7700 is sold with nearly a pint of ink, enough for 3,400 6x4in or 800 A4 photos. There’s a catch, however, in that it’s about five times more expensive to buy than the competing Canon Pixma TS6150, with a similar five-ink line-up delivered in more conventional, replaceable cartridges.
Ultimately, taking own-brand quality photo paper into account, the Epson ET-7700 won’t save you any money compared with the Canon, even if you create all 800 A4 photo prints over the printer’s lifetime. And while you need to make a hefty payment for the Epson printer up front, the Canon allows you to pay as you go. That said, the larger A3-format Epson EcoTank ET-7750 is only about £100 more expensive to buy than its A4 sibling and, for creating larger photo prints in high volumes, gives better economies of scale.
The big issue
You only need about three megapixels to create a top-quality A4 inkjet photo print, so when it comes to creating your own output, you might query the value of all those extra megapixels in current cameras. The bigger question is why should you limit yourself to an A4 printer? Measuring 11.69×8.27in (297x210mm), an A4 print is a perfectly respectable size for up-close viewing or framing and popping on the mantelpiece. Hang it on the wall, however, and it’ll look completely lost.
The next step up in size is an A3 printer, which outputs prints with double the surface area of an A4, at 16.5×11.7in (420x297mm). There are various models to choose from, but a more popular size for photo printers is the so-called A3+ or ‘Super A3’, at 19x13in (483x329mm). As well as being noticeably larger than A3, A3+ is also a better fi t for the 3:2 aspect ratio of DSLR cameras, although it’s still not perfect. When it comes to choosing a specialist photo printer rather than a model that offers a compromise between effective photo and document printing, you’re comparatively spoiled for choice if you upsize from A4 to A3+. Not only are there numerous ink line-ups on offer, but there are also alternatives when it comes to the actual formulation of ink, as we’ll come to in a moment.
If you want to supersize your home printing, there are a couple of notable A2 desktop photo printers on the market. These are the Canon imagePrograf Pro-1000 and Epson SureColor SC-P800. They don’t come cheap, at around the £1,000 mark, but enable a maximum print size that’s double the size of A3, at 23.4×16.5 inches (594x420mm).
For going larger than regular A3+ and A2 prints, there’s a win for Epson compared with the equivalent Canon models. Epson’s current SureColor SC-P600 (A3+) and SC-P800 (A2) models can be fitted with a clip-on roll feeder, giving you the option to use rolls of photo paper rather than pre-cut sheets. Not only does it put larger, panoramic printing on the menu, but you can print at any desired aspect ratio to suit the subject matter.
Dye or pigment?
There’s a lot to be said for the use of pigment-based inks in photographic output. The pigments used in the formulation of this type of ink have much larger molecules than those in dye-based inks. As such, they tend to be more resistant to fading due to environmental factors including temperature, humidity and ultraviolet radiation, in particular. The last of these features is a major consideration for professional photographers selling prints to clients,who might expect the prints to last a lifetime when hung on a wall.
It’s not all good news for pigment-based inks. Owing to the relatively large molecules, the ink tends to dry on the surface of the paper rather than sink into it. If you’re transporting prints around to exhibit or show at galleries and they’re not mounted and framed behind glass, pigment-based prints are relatively susceptible to scuffs and scrapes, with the ink chipping off the paper or other media-like canvas. Indeed, you might have noticed that boxed canvas prints created with pigment-based inks can be prone to ink flaking off the edges when they are stretched over wooden frames.
A bigger problem occurs when you try to use pigment-based inks on glossy or lustre paper. These papers have a top-layer surface that’s smooth and reflective. When you’re printing with dye-based inks, the dye is completely absorbed beneath the top layer, so the finish looks glossy (or semi-glossy) and uniform. However, pigment-based inks are only partially absorbed. Depending on how heavily ink is laid on different areas of a print, you can end up with ‘bronzing’ or ‘gloss differential’. This is a phenomenon where different areas or colours within a print reflect light differently, so you don’t get a uniform finish.
To be fair, some of the latest pigmentbased printers, such as the Epson SCP600 and SC-P800, deliver much better smoothness on glossy paper than pigment printers in the past. Canon edges ahead with its Pixma Pro-1, Pro-10S and Pro-1000 models, adding a cartridge of ‘chroma optimizer’ to the ink line-up. It is like a coating of clear varnish that has been laid over the top of the ink when using glossy paper, to boost the uniformity of reflectivity.
Despite advances in pigment-based ink formulation, there’s still no beating dye-based inks for printing on glossy or lustre paper. You simply get an unmatched quality of evenness from top-end dyebased printers like the Canon Pixma Pro-100S. Another bonus of dye-based printers is that they are typically about twice as fast as their pigment-based counterparts in producing prints. For example, you can usually expect to get an A3+ print in top-quality setting in around five minutes, compared with 10 minutes or more when using a pigment printer. It might not sound like a significant difference but, if you need to produce several prints or more in a hurry, the amount of time saved can be welcome.
With the right kind of printer, you can expect magnificent mono photo prints as well as great colour reproduction. Again, you’re best off with a large-format printer that will typically have more ink cartridges, but some are better for black & white photos than others.
The Canon Pro-10S, for example, includes what most of us would consider a basic black & white line-up for a pigment-based printer, namely with matte black, photo black and grey inks on tap. This enables faithful output on both matte and glossy media, utilising either the matte or photo black ink accordingly. The Canon Pro-1 goes further still, with matte black, photo black and no less than three dark-, medium- and light-grey cartridges for superb tonal fidelity.
Meanwhile, the Epson SC-P600 and SC-P800 use dual black and dual grey inks, named matte black, photo black, light black and light light black. Mono photo quality is extremely good, with the availability of highly accurate results, similar to those by the Canon Pro-1. However, there’s a drawback in both Epson printers, for colour as well as mono printing. The matte and photo black inks share a single channel in the print head, rather than having their own dedicated channels. As such, every time you switch between glossy and matte media, you need to purge the ink that’s in the head and replenish it with the alternative type. The process wastes precious ink and takes a few minutes to complete.
Even large-format A3+ printers nowadays tend to enable very high-resolution output, typically of 4,800×2,400dpi for Canon and 5,760×1,440dpi for Epson. This is made possible by an extremely fi ne matrix of nozzles in the print heads. A fundamental difference between Canon and Epson is that Canon uses thermal inkjet technology, where the ink is effectively boiled to force it out of the nozzles under pressure, whereas Epson uses a Micro Piezo system for squeezing ink out of the nozzles.
In both cases, it’s possible for nozzles within print heads to become blocked. In our experience, Epson printers suffer from this more often than Canon printers, but you can experience problems with both makes. Especially before printing a large-format print, it’s worth running a nozzle-check routine. If you spot problems in the test print, apply a cleaning cycle. Repeat the procedure if necessary. Some printers offer a ‘deep clean’ if needed. Otherwise, you run the risk of feint lines appearing across the surface of your photo print, and ruining the results.
Another check that’s worth carrying out from time to time is that the print heads are properly aligned. This involves returning to the maintenance section of the printer driver and running a routine that aligns the heads both vertically and horizontally, for optimum accuracy.
Matthew Richards began his career as a broadcast engineer for the BBC in London and for companies across Southern Africa. He then became a technical author, before moving into journalism and photography, for which he’s enjoyed assignments in the UK and worldwide. He currently specialises in reviewing cameras, lenses and photographic accessories.