One of the best pieces of advice I like giving photographers is that they should print their photos. For many, this will mean going to a lab or print shop, in which case you should learn about profiling and calibration. The rest of you are likely more interested in getting your hands dirty and printing on your own at home. This guarantees you have full control over the entire production process, from capture to output. To do this, you will need a photo printer, and here is a guide to help you find the perfect model.
Three basic types of printers exist: inkjet, dye sublimation, and laser. For photo printing, we can eliminate laser. That leaves inkjet and dye sub. Personally, if you aim to print photos at home for display, and in a variety of sizes, go with an inkjet. Reliable quality and the ability to work with numerous paper types and styles will go a long way for home photo printing and make it an easy choice. The downsides are that inkjet systems can be prone to clogging when not used, ink is pricey and, depending on the model, there can be a ton of different ink cartridges to replace.
Dye sublimation shouldn’t be forgotten because it has a couple of quite distinct advantages. One benefit comes for event or on-location printing, say, at a wedding or party. These printers are easier to transport (though many are quite heavy) and use dedicated media and ink sets that make it easy to calculate costs per print and ensure you have enough media to last the night. The sets also mean that ink and paper run out simultaneously, making it easy to track and replace when needed. Image quality is decent and the speeds are generally very good, but if you care strictly about image quality, inkjet is a more reliable technology.
Long story short: for at-home photo printing, the safe bet is inkjet. Now, let’s dive into the differences between inkjet printers.
When beginning your search, you must consider print size. It is arguably the single biggest limitation of any printer, and one that won’t change during the lifetime of the product. Think about what sizes you will be printing most often. Then think of sizes you may want to print. After that, consider your options (and budget) and make the best decision you can. For beginners, you will be fine sticking with something 13" wide, or even standard letter-sized models, if all you will be printing are 4 x 6" and 8 x 10" photos. 13" width makes sense, since it supports the standard 13 x 19" format, which is large enough to be framed and hung on a wall.
A step up from that, the standard professional desktop printer will go 17" wide, opening the door to 17 x 22" prints and some spectacular panoramic sizes. This is my own personal go-to in my home, where I have an Epson SureColor P900. An alternative to this would be the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000. This is a great size if you don’t have any incredibly large printing needs (or you have a print shop you trust to handle larger jobs). At 17" wide, many will also support roll papers for even larger printing.
Beyond that, you are looking at some serious large-format printers. Once you hit 24", you need to consider specialized stands and paper-tray setups to handle massive prints with the delicate touch they deserve. These are production units that will demand constant use to be properly maintained and keep ink flowing. If you are serious about looking at printers larger than 24", then you are probably already serious about printing. These units are tough to maintain in a household setting unless you expect to be printing nearly daily. The larger ink cartridges also raise the maintenance costs and it will require a decent amount of space in your work area.
To summarize: for beginners, up to 13" is fine, pros will likely want at least 17", maybe 24" if they have a need, and anything larger should require serious thought into how often and big you need to be printing. Large-format units are generally better suited to professional printing workflows.
All the Colors! Inks and Gamut
A term you will stumble upon in your printer search is gamut. In layman’s terms, this refers to the number of colors the printer can reproduce. The part of printing that is responsible for this is the ink set. Two main types exist: dye and pigment. Practical differences to know are that pigment-based inks are better suited to archival printing because they last longer, but they are also more expensive. Printing stuff for your home or to give your family? Inexpensive dye-based printers will do just fine. Selling prints or hanging artwork in a gallery? Go with pigment systems.
Next, you will be looking at the number of inks and the colors included. The most basic will use cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, aka CMYK. By combining these four colors in an additive process, you can create the full range of colors we are accustomed to seeing. Pretty cool, right? Standard home printers will stick to this simple four-color setup, but are limited in how wide the color gamut can be. This means that you may not be able to reproduce certain colors you can see on your screen accurately. Professional photo printers have found a solution to using more colors in the ink system, ranging from more common Light Cyan and Yellow to options such as Orange and Blue. By having more colors to mix together, you can more effectively hit the edges of the gamut and make it possible to create richer, more vibrant images.
More isn’t necessarily better. Nor is having certain colors when we talk about photography. You may notice some manufacturers offer two models of the same printer but with different ink color sets. Here you will want to pay attention to the marketing language regarding who should use it. In these cases, they may add a color or remove one to make it better able to produce a brightly colored poster instead of a super-accurate photograph. Just pay attention to make sure you are getting the right model.
Greens and oranges get a lot of attention, but you can’t forget about black. On modern printers, multiple shades of black and gray are used to achieve extra-fine gradations in your color and monochrome prints. If you commonly work in black-and-white, looking for something with multiple types of black will serve you better than one with extra colors. While we are on the topic of black, a common trend is for printers to have both a photo and matte black. One is optimized for glossy papers while the other, obviously, is designed for matte surfaces. If you plan on switching between the two often, black switching and print-head designs should be of some concern. Most printers feature a single black channel in the print head, meaning if you want to switch between matte and glossy media, you will need to switch the ink being used, generally using a not insignificant amount of ink to clear the nozzles. Today, you can find some with dedicated matte and photo black channels, so you won’t waste ink unnecessarily and can quickly switch between the two.
This is getting into more complicated territory. Don’t fret―many printers today are quite good and can produce equivalent quality to similar models.
If all you plan to print is standard fine art-type media, you can skip this section. Most photography-oriented printers (not talking about home/office ones here) will work with a good range of media types with relative ease. A couple of things to note during your search should be maximum media thickness and feed methods. The maximum thickness should be obvious—you can only work with media that is thinner than that spec. Feed methods may be less clear. Options such as fine art feeder, rear tray, and straight-through path all mean different types of media can be printed.
Straight-feed paths are less common, but are used to handle thicker media, such as board that may crease if bent too much by a standard feed method. Fine Art feeds are similar, in that they work with more delicate or thicker paper. In this case, it is generally a different feed method that can ensure the best positions the media needs for printing, and sometimes can offer additional settings. Other than these, and roll feed, which you should watch for core size and maximum print length, most other options are going to be your standard feed trays.
Beyond all this, you are looking at extra features. We are talking about time savers, advanced drivers and settings, Wi-Fi, etc. This is where you can just find features that seem fun, like if you want to print directly from a camera or iPad.
That’s a (somewhat) simple rundown of the basic information you need to know to find a photo printer. Are you still having trouble finding the best one for you? Is there a topic you would like us to cover in more detail? Be sure to drop us a line in the Comments section, below!