Which printer is right for you?

Understanding the choices

We've all seen the commercials that suggest asking your doctor whether a certain prescription is right for you. Wouldn't it be nice if we always had someone to consult when making important decisions who could help us determine the right path for us? Choosing a printer is important to your enjoyment of digital photography but can be a confusing process simply due to the number of models available and the different features offered. Many people try their local electronics or computer super store, but the "consultants" in the printer section often seem to know more about the "extended warranty" that they try to sell you than the printers themselves! This short article will give you some tips on hunting for the right printer for your needs. While the article covers only the basics, it should give you the foundation to be able to ask the right questions and do the right research to decide on your choice of printer for printing photographs at home. Note that this article addresses printing of photographs (not text) and also assumes that you have already weighed the costs/benefits of printing your digital photos at home versus online (or at stores like Wal Mart) and you have decided to print at home.

Understanding the technology and limitations

There are many types of photo printers on the market, including inkjet, dye sublimation (dye sub), color laser, and even printers that use a chemical process similar to traditional photo "kiosks" at photo outlets. By far the most cost effective and most popular models for home printing are the inkjets and the dye subs, so we'll focus on those.

  • Inkjets: Color inkjet printers have been around for many years and like the internal combustion engines that run our cars, trucks, and SUV's, they aren't the most efficient animals in the world but they are so accepted and have been around so long that they have been perfected to the point that they really do the job well. Today's top quality photo inkjets offer a wide color range (color gamut), super high resolution, and can even be obtained in archival form for prints that will most likely outlast you! Inkjets work by "spitting" tiny dots of colored ink in a pattern so fine that your eyes cannot detect the dots.

  • Dye subs: Dye sub printers have been around a long time too and have also been perfected to efficient photo printing machines. Dye sub printers work by "melting" off a layer of dye from a ribbon (basically a roll of plastic) onto the paper as it passes by a heater. Dye subs are considered "continuous tone" because each "dot" produced on the page can be any (arbitrary) color. Dye subs don't use dot patterns to fool the eye into seeing a particular color, rather, they place the exact color needed at each location so that the final print is dot free.

Advantages and disadvantages of inkjets versus dye subs

We cannot mention every possible advantage/disadvantage when comparing inkjet and dye sub printers but the following list hits the major points that will apply to most people printing photos at home.

Inkjet Advantages:

  • Very precise and sharp edges

  • Latest models offer incredible detail that exceeds most dye subs

  • Variety of papers/surfaces available such as matte, luster, glossy

  • Not locked in to one manufacturer's paper

  • Archival inkjets can be found that produce prints w/long life

  • Most can print on many different surfaces designed to accept ink including CD's, CD inserts, envelopes, etc.

  • Have a considerably larger color gamut and usually produce more vivid photos than dye subs

  • Easier to obtain large format inkjets that can print 11x14, 13x20 sizes, or larger

  • Inkjet printing is often cheaper than dye sub printing

Inkjet Disadvantages:

  • Often much slower than dye subs

  • Most non-archival inkjets produce prints that fade a little (sometimes a lot) faster than dye sub prints

  • Print heads sometimes clog and require cleaning or even replacement

Dye Sub Advantages:

  • Very fast

  • Relatively maintenance free

  • Smooth with no dot patterns visible, even under magnification

  • Produce excellent shadow detail in dark areas where some inkjets may be "blotchy"

  • Prints are usually more durable and more waterproof than inkjet prints

  • For many viewers, dye subs simply produce photos that look and feel more like real photographs due to the smoothness of the prints and the absence of visible dot patterns

Dye Sub Disadvantages:

  • Consumer level models often smear high contrast edges (like a black square on a white background) to some degree, making charts, graphs, and line art look a bit less "precise"

  • Dye sub prints typically only last as long or slightly longer than a good non-archival inkjet printer and are generally not considered "archival"

  • Paper type selection is very limited and while dye subs produce excellent glossy photos, most fall behind or do not even offer the option of matte prints

  • Must use an entire page and an entire page worth of ribbon even to print one small wallet size photo because dye subs are "page at a time" and pages cannot normally be fed through the printer twice to fill more of the page as they can in inkjets

  • Dust can sometimes get inside and cause vertical scratches on prints

  • Dye sub printing and the cost of paper and toner (ribbon) is often higher than inkjet printing

Size is Everything!

If you need one printer that meets all your needs, you have to ask yourself the question: how large will you need to print? If you regularly (or even occasionally) need to print at a size larger than 8x10, you are basically limited to wide format inkjets as consumer level dye sub printers are limited to 8x10. In the dye sub category, we start out with the small 4x6 versions that normally sell for $200 or less and then we move up to the "big boys" like the Olympus P-440 or the Kodak 8500/8600 series that can print up to 8x10. Beyond 8x10, you will be looking at either a wide carriage inkjet (13 inch wide capable of printing to 13x20 or higher) or a "super wide" 24 inch or 44 inch wide professional inkjet. The latter are mostly used in studios or photo stores that offer digital printing and are beyond the cost of most at-home printing consumers. When selecting your printer, keep size in mind.

Models and options

Dye subs are actually easier to buy because there are fewer models and fewer features to choose from. You simply need to select your maximum print size (basically 4x6 or 8x10) and buy. There are many online resources and online forums available, so search and see what people are saying about the model you picked before you buy. I will refrain from making model suggestions in this article just because I don't want to be inundated with email asking "why didn't you recommend my printer". :-)

Buying an inkjet is a more complicated adventure. If you've decided that a standard 8.5 inch wide inkjet isn't big enough and you'd like to be able to print larger than 8x10, your decision will be somewhat easier because the choices in that size are more limited. If you want a wide (13 inch width) printer, you simply need to decide whether a non-archival printer that uses dye inks is good enough, or you need an archival printer that uses pigment inks. Non archival printers that use dye inks are easier to find and typically produce prints that last 10-25 years when displayed in most indoor lighting conditions behind glass in a frame. Archival printers that use pigment inks typically produce prints that last 75-100 years or longer under the same conditions. If you plan to sell prints, you would be well advised to buy and use an archival/pigment ink printer. Again, the web, online forums, and search tools are your friends. Pick your favorite online "printing" forum and read what others are saying about the printer you have selected. If you are concerned about print longevity, refer to my September article as it refers to some web sites with longevity data for various printers/papers.

One final consideration is whether or not you need to print directly from your digital camera's memory card without using a computer. Many new models offer the ability to print (and even preview and do some basic touchups) right on the printer without even connecting the printer to a computer. All of these printers can still be connected to a computer if you wish for the best quality and editing, but allow you to print in the field or away from home without having to lug your laptop around with you. Whether you print without a computer or not is a personal decision, but in my opinion, I don't recommend using the direct-printing-from-printer method as the quality of your prints is usually not as good as if you print through good quality printing software on your computer, and you have much less control over color, color management, etc.

In Summary:

The bottom line in this article is to be aware of your options, the different technologies available, and be able to assess your needs before you go shopping. Once you understand some of the basics to buying a printer, take your knowledge a step further by applying the general concepts here to the different models that you find online and at your electronics store. In the end, I recommend having your mind made up prior to walking into the local super store because the stores, in general, just don't have the resources to address what is best for you!

-- Mike Chaney