[May 2021 update: I’ve since relaunched Printerville, and an updated version of this post is available there.]
I ran a website called Printerville for a while in the mid-2000s, but a decade ago, I ceased publishing new work there. The higher end of the desktop photo printer market had matured, and companies were no longer coming out regularly with new models. For example, at the beginning of 2020, the current set of printers from Canon and Epson—HP left this part of market long ago—had been around for five years. Only in the last year has there been any activity in this space, and I wrote a little bit about that here on the site:
- Epson debuts SureColor P700 and P900 photo printers (April 2020)
- Epson (and Canon) Photo Printer Updates (from November)
With those announcements, I received lots of questions from folks who were interested in the idea of printing, and were wondering about how to even start thinking about buying a printer. I’ve been sending out an email to them with a few basic thoughts regarding things to think about when choosing a printer—or whether you should just use an online print service. Given the constant interest in this topic, it seemed worth publishing here.
Why bother with a photo printer in the first place?
I believe that printing is as important a part of your photographic journey as the camera and lens. A print is tangible and intimate. Holding one in your hands—or looking at one on a wall—can provoke a completely different feeling than what you get when looking at a photo on a screen. Not only that, but when you print your own work, printing informs your photographic practice. It helps you in the field and in your post-production editing.
I print both family stuff (snapshots and the like) and art prints. I use a pigment-based printer because I believe it gives me the best color gamut for the work I do. Dye printers are cheaper, and they do a good job, but they’re (largely) optimized for bright color and glossy papers, which most people like. I have nothing against them, and regularly recommend them to people who are more interested in snapshots and glossy prints, or for those who don’t want to spend the extra money on something they’re not sure about.
Printing is an art, and it’s nowhere near as simple as it might seem. The biggest thing I hear from people new to printing is that, “I’m not getting what I’m seeing on screen,” and that’s real, especially if there’s been no attempt to calibrate their displays. (A colorimeter is a really good thing to have, especially if you’re printing fine art for sale, but there are things you can do to improve your color without one.)
Some of this disconnect is also that most people have their brightness cranked up when they’re editing their photos, and the differential between reflective (paper) and transmissive (screen) illumination is huge, so prints often come out dark. (Turning down the brightness on your display really helps with this, even if you’re mostly sharing photos online.)
People also tend to over-saturate their stuff, and in general apply too much global clarity/dynamic contrast to their photos, which also sends things out of whack. With time and experience, however, the concept of ‘editing for the print’ will help your post-production work, as you see your photos in a different light.
Don’t printers just eat ink?
People who just want to print here and there don’t like this. Or, they want to use third-party inks and refillable cartridges to save money, which is great for printing maps and web pages, but kind of defeats the purpose in the photo printer space. For people like this, it really is better to use a service like Mpix, Bay Photo, or even Shutterfly. If I were planning to go this route. I’d narrow down to two or three services, send a bunch of 5×7 prints to evaluate, and pick the service that had the best mix of quality and cost. I know lots of people who do that and are happy with it.
Epson and Canon have gotten much better about the cartridges in their printers — making them higher-capacity — and you don’t go through all colors equally, so it’s not like you’re constantly buying ink. Again, for me, because I like and want to print my own stuff, the cost of the ink isn’t a huge deal for me. No matter what type of printing you do, it costs money to get a print.
I had a new set of inks in my Epson SureColor P800 last January, and printed about 15 images at larger sizes (8×10, 13×19, 17×22), and more than 200 of a limited series of prints (half-letter), and didn’t run out of any ink. With regular usage, I had to replace two of the cartridges after four months.
On Printerville in the mid-2000s, I worked towards creating a methodology for quantifying the cost of printing on a printer-by-printer basis. My friends at Red River also worked towards this, refined it over time, and have a web page dedicated to it on their site, with results for most recent photo printers: Cost of Printing; it give you a good idea of what it really costs per page, which I think is the best way to think about this topic. But remember too, that ink is one part of the equation: media costs money as well. That’s one reason why I do a lot of printing of images on smaller size paper, or in test strips—so I’m not unnecessarily wasting larger sheets of fine art paper.
It takes practice to get printing down; don’t overcomplicate it.
Time and a bit of effort helps to get things right. Some people print a bunch of stuff out, get frustrated, and then give up (or just accept what they’re getting). I tell most people to buy a couple of boxes of 4×6/5×7 glossy or luster paper (Epson or Canon, depending upon the printer manufacturer, or a good third-party vendor like Red River or Moab), and use those as test prints, then adjust editing as they see fit. That’s the cheapest way to do it. Don’t start with every different paper type, or go out and buy the expensive stuff. Work your paper decisions as you get better, and get to understand the basic qualities of printing. (When you’re thinking about printing on different papers, print samplers are a great way to look at lots of different companies’ media types.)
Oh, and you have to learn how to use ICC paper profiles when printing (which almost every good paper manufacturer offers). You also have to understand printing from your primary editing app, and the difference between driver- and app-based color management. Neither of these things are hard, but some people never know about them, and they add to the confusion about getting good prints.
But, don’t printers clog up, wasting more ink?
Yes, printers clog from time to time. And pigment-based printers tend to clog more easily than dye-based ones. That said, I’ve been running three printers regularly for the last few years — printing in spurts, not continually — and I don’t get a lot of clogs. I primarily do a couple of things: (1) I put a cover on top of the printer, to keep dust out, and (2) if I haven’t been printing for a while, I’ll print a ‘maintenance’ sheet on plain paper, which will tell me if there are any of the nozzles having a problem. If so, I run a head cleaning cycle. It really doesn’t use that much ink, or take that much time. I view this like checking the oil in my car before a trip.
I think the whole ‘inkjets clog all the time’ thing is a holdover from the old days. Yes, if you don’t print regularly (10-20 prints a month, of any size, even 4×6), you’ll have to run a head cleaning from time to time. And, if you don’t print occasionally (10-20 prints every six months to a year), you’ll definitely want to do a head cleaning before printing. The real problem comes when you go a year or more between prints. You might end up using a lot of ink trying to get 20-30 nozzles clean. At that point, you would have been better off using a print service.
Notes about print life
Pigment printers offer the best in terms of longevity, but it’s not like a good dye printer will fade tomorrow, especially if you use good paper, and put them under glass, laminate them, or keep them out of direct sunlight. If you take care of either type of print, you should be fine. If you are serious about printing, and expect to either sell your work or exhibit it, I would choose a pigment printer.
Choosing a printer
I am a fan of the Epsons. I think their pigment printers are the best, in terms of quality and ease of use. I’ve been using a P600 and P800 for four years now, and they’ve been workhorses for me. The big knock on those Epson printers was that, if you wanted to switch between matte black ink (for matte/art papers) and photo black ink (for glossy and semigloss papers), the printers used one channel to the print head. So, switching took time and ink to make that happen. The new ones just announced, the P700/P900, don’t have that restriction. I used to rarely switch between paper types, so it wasn’t a big issue to me, but as my tastes have evolved, I do go back and forth between matte and glossy (baryta, actually), so I’m glad to see Epson remove this last obstacle.
The Canon printers I’ve used have been decent; historically, it was harder to get neutrally toned prints out of their printers (Epson’s Advanced B&W mode is pretty great that way), but that appears to largely be a thing of the past. I am intrigued by the PRO-300’s capabilities, and I think that Canon’s inks produce excellent photographic prints. I know plenty of people who love their Canon printers, and I don’t think that they’re wrong.
I’ve tended to go with the printers that can handle 17-inch wide papers, like the P800 (and now, the P900). I print a lot of work at 16×20, so the wide-carriage printer makes sense for me—as does the better cost per ml metric of the larger printers’ ink cartridges—but the lower cost (and smaller) 13-inch printers are ideal, especially if you think 11×14 or 12×18 are about as large as you would want to print. (The new crop of 13- and 17-inch printers are smaller than their predecessors, which is great for people tight on space.)
All of these printers are back-ordered right now, most likely due to the pandemic. I was able to get my hands on an Epson P900 in early November, and my review has been posted. My Canon PRO-300 review is in process.
Thinking holistically about printing
Printing is a funny thing, and there are a lot of opinions about it all. I have lived with printers of all types and sizes for nearly three decades, Epsons and Canons and HPs extensively, and I can’t imagine photography without printing. The things about printing that people talk about as negatives—ink costs, paper costs, clogs, learning curve, etc.—don’t bother me. It’s worth it for me to have control over my prints, to be able to print more, and to print on different media types. I have used most of the print services, and they’re fine, even for really good stuff, but if you want to print big, or frequently, or experiment with different papers, a good printer is essential. You have to want to print, though. That’s the bottom line.
[Updated 02/14/21 with link to the Epson P900 review, update on the Canon PRO-300, and some minor wording changes.]