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Capturing Memories: Comparing Photo Printers

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 2010 Issue
April 1, 2010

Capturing Memories: Comparing Photo Printers

Every spring my wife and I head out in the Jeep with our camera bags packed, in pursuit of wildflowers and waterfalls. She is a serious amateur photographer with a good digital SLR camera, an assortment of lenses and filters, and a tripod I get to carry when we hike. The resulting pictures are often spectacular on screen.

If only the printed versions of the photos were as stunning. But, the reality is that most printers are designed for affordable printing, which is quite different from printing archival-quality photographs. Small office inkjet and laser printers were never intended for serious photographers.

Realizing we need a true film-quality printer, I spent the last few months researching printing technologies and reading printer reviews. In the end, we went to a local camera store and compared color and black-and-white photo prints with our own eyes.

Dye-Sublimation “Film” Printers

Small photo printers are increasingly popular and are often sold “bundled” with entry-level consumer cameras. These printers, which generally produce 4″ × 6″ and wallet-size prints, use a technology known as “dye-sublimation” printing. They work by melting solid dye onto paper.

Kodak is the undisputed leader of dye-sub printer manufacturers. Canon’s Selphy printer line is also popular and offers similar output, so the choice might come down to price or convenience. In our case, we purchased the Kodak EasyShare printer because the supplies are cheap and easy to locate. I admit that I don’t always have spare supplies, so I need something I can buy at most office supply stores in a pinch.

Dye-sublimation printers use solid dyes of three or four colors and a clear coating to create photo prints. Colored dyes are embedded in a special cellophane-like material, each color occupying a space equal to the largest print that can be produced. The cellophane starts on one spool and moves to a “waste” spool with each print.

Special photo paper moves in and out of the printer. As the paper moves through the printer, a single dye color panel is placed precisely over the photo area. An electro-static or heat transfer print head literally melts the dyes onto the photo paper. Only one color is transferred to the paper at a time as the spool of dyes advances, so the slightest misalignment or interruption can ruin prints. If you watch a dye-sub printer, you can watch the layers of dye assemble until there is a complete photo. The last pass through the printer adds a clear protective coating.

Inexpensive dye-sub units have panels of three colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. The more advanced units add a black panel, producing much brighter images with better contrast. Individual dye-sub prints are relatively expensive, but durable. They are ideal for smaller photo prints. Unlike pigments or laser printer toners, the dyes blend while warm to produce “continuous tone” images.

My dream printer is a dye-sub device: the Kodak 9810 Digital Photo Printer. This is a special purpose, high-speed dye-sub printer used in commercial settings. Many stores use these printers to create full-size prints for customers. The Kodak 9810 also costs $2500 or more, depending on features. Print supplies cost $1.50 to $5 for each photo.

Inkjet Pigment Printers

I bet most computer users have owned an inkjet printer at one time. Most multi-function devices are inkjets. Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Epson, and Lexmark are the leading manufacturers of inkjet printers. Most inkjets offer “photo inks” and can use special paper, but these are not truly photo-quality devices. There is a difference between the inkjets in most homes and true photo printers.

A photo printer has the following features:

The inks are “pigment” instead of inexpensive dyes.
There are more ink tanks, often eight, ten, or even a dozen.
The inkjet nozzles are capable of 2 to 4-picoliter dots.
The printer includes “color matching” logic.

Pigment is not the same as standard inkjet dye. Pigments are microscopic coated particles suspend in a water base. Pigment dots sit on the paper and adhere to it, with the heated clear coating acting as glue. Once on a page, research indicates pigments might last more than a century without fading. Some manufacturers claim to use “200-year pigments.”

Dyes are liquid inks that are absorbed by paper. Dyes “bleed” or spread until the page is completely dry. Most of us have seen the results of water on a standard inkjet print. By comparison, I’ve seen a demonstration of water being misted onto a pigment-based page without any noticeable effect. Pigments are not waterproof, but they handle humidity and other elements much better than dyes.

The pigment dots on paper are measured in picoliters. The smaller the dots, the greater the image resolution. Most good inkjet printers create 6-picoliter dots, or roughly 1440 dots per inch. A photo printer can produce 5700 or more dots per inch, more than four times better.

The extra colors in a photo printer are also important. While inexpensive inkjet printers might use three colors, a photo printer uses eight or more colors. This range of pigment colors allows for more accurate reproduction of images. Remember, pigments don’t mix like dyes do because pigments are solid. Various hues are really optical illusions caused by the arrangement of dots on a page. Color laser printer toner works the same way; the colors don’t actually mix.

Both Canon and Epson sell highly rated pigment-based printers. The Epson R1900 has 2-picoliter nozzles, while the Canon Pixma Pro 9500 features 3-picoliter nozzles. If you plan to print photos often, the Epson R1900 is a great purchase. However, the Epson printer features permanent print nozzles, which have a tendency to clog. Reviewers have said that once an Epson R1900 clogs, it is dead. Canon print heads are replaceable, which is a good feature. I like both, but the Epson models seem to produce prints with greater contrast.

Two Printers, Two Purposes

For photo printing, the size, cost per print, and convenience matter. It’s nearly impossible to buy one printer to meet the needs of a serious photographer. These are my choices, but I think the Canon printers are also excellent devices:

Kodak EasyShare Series 3 Dye-Sub Printer: ideal for small prints (4″ × 6″ and wallet).
Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Pigment Printer: for all “standard” photo sizes.

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