Get Great Photos from Desktop Printers: Part 1

Part 1: Selecting a photo printer.

Part 2: Color management, soft proofing, making your first print.

Part 3: Rendering intents, out-of-gamut colors, best viewing conditions.

Part 4: Driver-controlled color, custom paper profiling, third-party RIPs

You return from a photo expedition, excited by what you shot and anxious to get the results into your computer so you can take a closer look.

You open your pictures in your favorite editor and find a few “hero” images that came out even better than you expected. Over the next few hours you adjust and tweak and correct and finesse. You find detail in the shadows that you didn’t expect to be there; you find subtle gradients in the sky that reveal themselves beautifully through a few saturation adjustments. Your final image is exactly what you were hoping to capture when you took the shot.

Then you try to print it.

Though you have what is supposed to be a great photo printer — a device that reportedly yields “better results than Cibachrome” — your image doesn’t look anything like what you see on screen. The colors are flat; the shadows have no details; and some areas of bright, varied color have turned into dull, monochromatic blobs.

You try fiddling with your image and printing again, and the second print is better, with a little more detail in the shadows and better overall saturation, yet many of the colors are still wrong. You keep trying. After running through your sixth sheet of fairly expensive photo paper, you give up and think about buying a new printer.

Like Socks at Christmas
If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. While your image-editing program gives you a tremendous amount of instant darkroom craft — push-button effects that would require years of practice in a wet darkroom — it doesn’t necessarily give you foolproof, easy printing. Printing is often frustrating and disappointing. Going from looking at a beautiful image on-screen to a dingy printed page is like expecting to get a load of toys on Christmas morning and waking up to a vast assortment of socks spread beneath the tree.

The good news is that it is possible to get beautiful prints from a quality desktop photo printer. What’s more, you can build a printing system that allows for accurate “soft proofing” on your monitor, so that your prints better match what you see on your screen.

In this four-part series, I’ll cover every step you need to take to get great photos from your desktop printer. In this installment of the series, you’ll learn how to select a photo printer that’s right for your needs. In part 2, I’ll explore color management and how to configure your system for soft proofing, as well as how to make your first print. Part 3 will examine paper profiling, which can improve the accuracy of your soft proofs and make your system color-accurate on more types of paper. Finally, in part 4 I’ll take a look at third-party RIPs, special software that produces better results than most regular printer drivers.

Selecting a Printer
Choosing a photo printer is not quite the same as choosing a normal office printer. When selecting a device for printing photos, you’ll want to be more cognizant of image quality and print longevity and probably less concerned about speedy, high-volume output.

There are several different printing technologies that are capable of producing photo-quality prints.

Color laser printers employ the same technology as color copiers, and the current generation of color lasers does a good job with image printing. However, they don’t yield photographic-quality results. Color laser printers have the smallest color gamut (range of colors) of any current color technology, and they’re prone to streaking and blotchy artifacts. Ultimately, their images simply don’t look like “real” photo prints, so you can rule out this entire category when you’re shopping.

Dye-sublimation printers work by quickly heating printed dyes so that they sublime (change from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid stage) and adhere to a page. Dye-sublimation printers have the advantage that they always look continuous tone. You won’t ever see printer dots with a dye-sub printer, because as the ink sublimes, it diffuses to cover a larger area. Each piece of sublimed ink overlaps its neighbors slightly to create true continuous tone.

The downside to dye-sub technology is that the same diffusion that creates continuous tone also mean that final images look a bit soft. Also, dye-sub printers require a very specific dye-sub paper, which usually has a slight semi-gloss finish. Because of the special paper requirements, dye-sub printers usually have a slightly higher cost-per-print than other technologies.

Dye sub is great when you want Polaroid-like functionality. There are many small dye-sub printers that are good when you need to bang out a print as quickly as possible. If you want to produce the best image possible, though, dye sub is not the way to go.

Inkjet printers are the best option for digital photographers who want photo quality output. A good photo inkjet printer offers it all: excellent image quality, the ability to use a vast assortment of media, speedy printing, a large array of print sizes, archival-quality prints, and very reasonable cost per page. If you’re serious about photo output, inkjet is your best option, so I’ll spend the bulk of the remainder of this column talking about inkjet choice.

Choosing an Inkjet
Inkjet printing technology has advanced as rapidly as digital camera technology. Over the last 10 years, inkjet printers have improved in overall quality, sharpness, continuous tone, archivability, and color gamut. There is now a huge array of printers to choose from: You should be able to find a very good photo inkjet printer for under $150.

Choosing a printer is a fairly simple process of assessing a few important characteristics.

Number of Inks
Like all color printing technologies, inkjet printers make full-color images by mixing different combinations and patterns of a few primary colors. The simplest printers use four inks: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. HP even makes a few printers that use only cyan, magenta, and yellow. “Black” is mixed from these three primaries.

A four-color printer is fine for business graphics and low-quality photo work. But for serious photo output, these printers simply don’t have the dynamic range and color gamut you need.

A six-color inkjet includes the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks, then adds light cyan and light magenta inks. These two extra colors allow the printer to reduce the visible printer dots that can appear in highlight areas and create smoother color transitions and gradients. The extra colors also help improve fade resistance. Some primary colors fade faster than others, so by mixing colors from different, sturdier primaries, the printer can produce prints with better fade resistance.

Several vendors make eight-color printers, but they choose different mixes to achieve different results. For example, Canon’s i9900 uses the same six colors as a six-color inkjet and adds red and green ink to yield prints with better reds and greens. Some HP printers start with the usual six-color mix and add two lighter shades of gray to produce truly neutral gray tones.

There are even more complex ink systems, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: expand the gamut and improve neutrality.

Additional inks are also employed to help reduce metamerism, a property of some inks that can cause them to appear different in different types of light. A print that suffers from bad metamerism might appear fine in bright daylight but have a greenish cast under tungsten light. Metamerism is usually caused by a slight color cast in the black ink of a printer. To combat metamerism, many printers mix a primary color in with the black ink.

Ultimately, you don’t need to concern yourself with the specifics of your printer’s color mix. You simply want to find the printer that produces the best output. However, paying attention to the color mix in a printer can give you a good idea of what qualities to look for in a print.

With the jump from a three- or four-color printer to a six-color printer, you’ll use almost twice as much ink per print. A printer that uses eight or nine or more inks will suck up more ink per print than a six-color printer, but not substantially more.

Some Epson printers, such as the R2400, use eight inks, but the black ink comes in two flavors, matte black for printing on matte paper and photo black for printing on photo paper. So even though nine inks are available to the printer, it uses only eight at one time. You must swap the blacks out depending on the type of paper you’re using. (It’s worth noting that this ink swapping results in a cleaning cycle that uses up a fair amount of ink, so you don’t want to do it often.)

Archivability — A Lasting Impression
After you’ve perfected a print’s color, the last thing you want is for the color to fade or alter once the print is hung on the wall. A printer’s archival characteristics are a measure of how well the print will hold up over time in real-world display conditions. A print with good archival qualities will go for years without fading or changing color.

Some ink colors are more vulnerable to light than others. Yellow, for example, fades much faster than other primary ink colors. Because the color in a print is composed of a mix of primary inks, if the yellow begins to fade, the colors in an image are no longer be mixed properly, and the hues begin to skew.

The interaction between inks and paper also affect the life of a print. For example, when ink sits in an emulsion on the paper’s surface, the emulsion encapsulates the ink, giving it extra stability. In a less stable ink/paper duo, the ink seeps deep into the paper, where it’s more prone to light, humidity, and acids in the paper itself.

There are two main categories of ink: pigment and dye. Until recently, pigment inks were the only way to get extreme longevity out of a print. However, pigment inks typically have a much narrower color gamut than dye inks, so pigment-based inks often yield images that lack bright reds and blues.

Over the last two years, this difference has, well, faded. The latest generation of pigment printers has a much wider gamut, while the latest generation of dye printers provides much better longevity. Consequently, you no longer have to make an immediate “dye or pigment” choice when considering printers. Instead, you can examine both image quality and longevity claims to decide which printer is right for you. Whether that printer turns out to use pigment or dye-based inks doesn’t really matter.

Obviously, it’s impossible to know for certain the lifespan of a print from a printer that’s only a year or so old. Wilhelm Imaging Research is a laboratory that specializes in evaluating and predicting the archival qualities of printed output. At the WIR Web site, you can find stats for specific ink/paper combinations created by specific printers. These stats are the industry-accepted standard for longevity predictions.

A traditional silver-halide print (the type made in a darkroom) will last from 20 to 40 years. If your printer claims longevity of at least 30 years, you’ll know that your prints will last at least as long as the photographic prints that have been made and sold for the last 100 years or so.

Note that some people take the WIR numbers with a few grains of salt. The WIR numbers are based on subjecting a print to a particular stress condition for a certain amount of time. The procedure does not test a print for how it holds up under years’ worth of variable light and climate conditions (seasonal changes, being moved around, etc.). As such, many people think it’s wise to reduce the WIR numbers by 25 to 50%. Even after this reduction, many printers will still yield much better longevity than traditional wet darkroom prints. Also, note that if a paper/ink combination is rated for 50 years, that doesn’t mean that on the first day of year 51, you’ll be looking at a blank piece of paper. Rather, after 50 years or so, the print will begin to exhibit hue shift and fading, some of which might be barely perceptible. It could still be many more years before the print looks outright bad.

When considering archival quality, you should also think about durability. How waterproof is the output from a particular image? Does it scratch easily? Can it hold up to repeated handling? Depending on how careful you are (and what will be done with your prints), some of these issues may be more important than others.

Evaluating Output Quality
You can look at printer specs all day long, but in the end, you’ll want to base your buying decision on overall output quality. The best way to judge final quality is to make prints on your candidate printers. Many printer vendors provide free samples, though these have often been crafted to show off the printers’ strongest points. The ideal test is to print your own images on the printers you’re considering. Some photo stores will let you do this, and you may find friendly people in on-line photography forums with your candidate printers who are willing to print a couple of sample pages for you.

I recommend printing tests on both matte and glossy papers, as these yield very different results. You’ll also want to pick an image, or images, with a broad range of colors (both in terms of hue and lightness), as well as light and dark areas, and areas of fine detail. Once your sample prints are in front of you, evaluate them for the following:

  • Color. How is the color overall? Don’t consider color accuracy, since accuracy is dependent on how well you drive the printer, and right now you’re just doing simple tests. Instead, look at overall range of color. Can the printer produce bright reds, greens, and blues? How are the colors in-between? Overall, do the colors look vibrant, or are they dull and flat?
  • Continuous tone. Can you see visible printer dots, or does the print appear to be continuous tone? Pay close attention to bright highlight areas (clouds, specular highlights on glass or metal), as these areas usually show visible dots when the printer is having troubles. Also, take a look at the transition zones (the gradients around these highlights) and ensure that they’re smooth.
  • Neutrality. If you intend to do a lot of black and white printing (more accurately called “grayscale”), you’ll want to do some grayscale tests as well. Printing neutral gray tones is a very difficult thing for a printer and, until recently, it wasn’t possible to get a truly neutral gray print from an inkjet.Even if you’re not planning on printing grayscale images, check the neutral tones in your image (clouds in skies, for example) to make certain they’re neutral. True neutral can be a hard thing to spot because your eye does a pretty good job of correcting grays that aren’t truly neutral. What you’re trying to spot are color casts (usually green, but sometimes reddish or blue) in tones that should be gray. To ease your search, keep an actual black and white photographic print handy, as a reference to what true neutral really looks like.
  • DMax. The blackness of the black that a printer can produce is measured as a property called DMax. Blackness is very important because as your ability to produce a black black increases, so does the contrast range you can reproduce. Go for the blackest black possible. Because glossy papers usually yield blacker blacks than matte papers, test on both types.
  • Detail. How good is the detail in the image? Detail is also a function of how well you drive the printer (and how good your source image is), so don’t lend too much weight to this parameter unless you’re confident that you know what you’re doing.
  • Metamerism. View the prints under different kinds of light — direct sunlight, shade, tungsten light, fluorescent, mixed lights — and look for shifts in overall color. If you see a shift, then your print is suffering from metamerism. Metamerism is most prevalent in pigment-based printers and is most visible in gray tones.
  • Bronzing. A print whose black tones appear reddish-brown is suffering from bronzing. To spot it, view prints from an angle, and pay particular attention to the shadow areas.
  • Gloss differential. When printing on glossy papers, some printers yield blacks that have more of a matte finish than do the other colors. In such a print, the overall image will appear glossy, but when viewed at an angle, the blacks will appear varnished with a matte finish. Some printers have a special “gloss optimizer” that’s sprayed over the print to even out the gloss.
  • Overall quality. Finally, assess the overall quality of an image. Stand back and look at the prints and decide whether you like one better than the others. It’s OK if you’re not sure why you like one print better. Sometimes it’s an unquantifiable combination of factors that combine to produce a superior print.What Size?
    Printer sizes range from dedicated 4″ x 6″ printers up to giant poster-sized printers. I recommend something that can print a range of sizes, most likely 4″ x 6″ to 8″ x 10″.

    However, if you think you might want larger prints, look at models that can output 13″ x 19″ prints, at least. There are also printers that output 18″-wide prints. From there, you’re in the large-format world of 24″, 36″, 56″, and larger printers. If you do hope to print large images, consider a model that can accept roll paper. Rolls are usually cheaper than cut sheets and let you create odd sizes.

    It takes a lot of data to make a large print. If you’re shooting with a 3-megapixel camera, a 13″ x 19″ print won’t look too good. Basically, don’t pay for more printer than you can use.

    When considering image size, take note of whether the printer can create borderless prints, and at what sizes. Just because a printer can output 13″ x 19″ doesn’t mean it can produce a borderless 13″ x 19″ print.

    Which Features?
    Narrowing the range of possibilities to the models that produce the image quality you like at the size you want will be your main tools for selecting a printer. Once you’ve made this distinction, you can start examining additional features:

  • Media options. As I mentioned earlier, longevity claims for a printer depend on printing on specific types of media, usually the vendor-supplied media. What’s more, out-of-the-box, a printer will produce better results with vendor-supplied media because the printer driver is configured to work with those paper types. That’s why I recommend that you know the types of paper available for your candidate printers. You can use third-party papers in any printer (I discuss how in part 3 of this series), but the vendor media for your specific printer will be your workhouse media. Does the vendor have a good selection of glossy, semi-gloss, and matte papers? What about specialty papers, such as watercolor or canvas (assuming you’re interested in such media)?
  • Paper path. Most printers have multiple paper paths. If you plan on printing on unusual media, such as heavy cardboard, wood, or fabric, look for a printer that includes a straight-through paper path.
  • Connectivity options. All current printers provide a USB connection, but not all have Firewire ports. Probably the most important connectivity option is networkability, which usually shows up in the form of an Ethernet port. If you want the printer to be accessible from several different computers, you’ll need a network-capable model (unless you plan on setting up a dedicated print server machine, or use some kind of printer sharing software). If you’re considering buying a large printer, you might need networkability simply because it may not be possible to locate the printer close to your computer. With a networkable printer, you can easily attach it to your existing network, or use a wireless access point to turn it into a wirelessly networked device.
  • Ink tank size. If you expect to do a lot of printing, a printer with larger ink tanks is more cost-effective. Some larger printers can even be retrofitted with special “continuous ink systems,” which let you buy ink in bulk to greatly reduce your costs. However, most of these contraptions will violate your warranty.If you’ve answered all of the questions presented here, you should be ready to choose a printer. Once you buy it, set it up and give it a try. You should see decent prints out of the box. Over the next three columns, you’ll learn how to improve the results to get great prints.


Posted on: August 11, 2006

1 Comment on Get Great Photos from Desktop Printers: Part 1

  1. A really good beginner to intermediate primer on different printer types and all the elements to consider. Can’t wait for the next 3 aticles to coplete the “story”. I will print a hard copy of the four parts and keep them in my “archive”.

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