Buying your first Photo Printer

Today’s topic is printers. This is something that’s very interesting to me because I love printing. I love it so much I made an online course about it to help you get going quickly with creating fine prints. 

I recently finished an in-person class on printing and the student was just all smiles. She couldn’t believe the creative doors that had been opened because she learned to print. She was very timid going into it and almost afraid to make it happen. But by following my process and taking things one step at a time she quickly gained the confidence she needed to wrestle those various printer settings and controls to do what she wanted them to do and she made some excellent prints. 

If you want to add more “wow” to your photography I encourage you to learn to print fine gallery-quality images. Whether you do it on your own printer or if you use an online lab, it’s a valuable process to go through.

Speaking of online labs, as I record this I’m in the middle of adding my bonus feature to the online course where I order from at least six different online labs. I walk you through the entire ordering process and do a print analysis at the end comparing the different print labs. I’ll turn this into a future episode of the podcast as well.

Alright, on with the show, selecting a printer.

In this episode I’m going to assume you’re buying a printer for the first time. I’m also going to assume you want to have maximum control and freedom of paper to put into your printer. Towards the end I’ll look at large format or grand format printers.

Where to begin

For me, the end result is all about the image on paper. The machine you use to make that happen is just an intermediary device. Your image is key, I can help you there, but not in this episode, and the paper is key. But even with paper, where to begin? There’s so many options available. It can get quite frustrating to tackle this daunting task of deciding which paper to go on. The reason I suggest you start here is so you can easily identify which printer you “Shouldn’t” be buying. Your end goal is to create fine gallery-quality images. And we’ll get there, but we need to also start there at least for a few moments so all the other decisions we have to make are the right ones that will help us achieve that end goal.

Recommendations on paper manufacturers

I really like Canson Infinity papers. There’s also Moab Papers and Hahnemühle. I just went for it and jumped to the finest quality papers on the planet. This may seem strange since this is not going to be your starting point when you make your first print. This is about understanding where you want to be with your print making once you have all the skills. There are literally hundreds of different paper types to choose from between just these manufacturers, and I’ve only mentioned three manufacturers. 

The first thing to do on these manufacturers websites is to simply read about the different types of digital papers they offer. Much of it won’t make any sense to you. That’s OK. Please do however look for some keywords that do interest you. Maybe it’s something like the word texture, or smooth, or warm tone. Anything like that. Just get a basic feel for it.

Once you’ve looked at a few items to see if there’s anything that interests you, it’s time to look at their ICC profile downloads. This is THE reason I had you come to the paper manufacturers first. The ICC profile is a little tidbit of information that’s needed so the printer puts down the proper amount of ink on that specific paper it’s made for in order to get accurate color. It’s possible to make your own Profile, and I cover that in my online course, but that’s not usually something people want to get into, and that’s totally fine, no need to worry about that at this time. You’re probably already feeling overwhelmed with all the paper options.

ICC Profile, so what?

The whole purpose here is to simply verify that the paper manufacturer supports the printer you have, or the printer you want to buy. At this point you don’t know which printer you want to buy, but if it’s in this list, it’s going to have a thumbs up from me.

If the printer isn’t in this list then you can’t control the color coming out of it very easily and printing will be a continual act of frustration for you since you won’t be able to get consistent results. So take a look at these profile pages, see the many, many options of printers that are supported and revisit these pages once you start looking at specific printer models.

If the printer model you’re interested in buying isn’t supported by the paper manufacturers, then don’t buy it.

A few thoughts on that, just to clarify further because photography is one of those lovely fields where someone can make a blanket statement and then instantly he can be proven wrong for that statement given certain circumstances. And printing is certainly one of them. In this case, the only caveats to this rule is if the printer manufacturer provides profiles for various papers or if you have your own calibration device and you want to make your own profiles. Those devices are expensive so I’m assuming in this episode you won’t want to make your own profiles.

Printer specifications, what to look for

Let’s talk about the printing hardware for a bit now and what to look for in deciding upon a printer.

For the most part, to be on the ICC profile list of a paper manufacturer, your printer will have to be classified as a “photo” printer or some such by the printer manufacturer. Also, very few letter-sized printers are supported by the paper manufacturers too. So, I recommend looking at the 13×19 print size printers to start out with. They are capable of printing amazingly good quality photographs straight out of the box, but with proper training you can do so much more. If you want to go with a 17” wide printer that’s awesome. And there’s other models that are 24” 44” and even 64 inches wide. Those would be some amazingly large prints. If you’re doing canvas or something like that the larger formats make sense. But let’s get back to reality.

In the range of 13×19 printers, there’s not a whole lot of selection. And those of you that are HP fans I’m going to disappoint. I don’t have any experience with HP printers. In the photo printing field they just haven’t achieved anything notable in the market share side of things, and I just don’t have experience with them. I do have experience with Canon and Epson printers, so I’ll focus on these two printer brands.

If you go to Epson’s website and click on the “photo printers for home” link you’ll get a selection of seven printers at the time of this recording in late June 2019. 

https://epson.com/For-Home/Printers/Photo/c/h120

The first four printers are the smaller format models and are not supported by Moab paper at least. If you click the “photo printers for work” link you’ll only be shown the four models that we’re interested in.

https://epson.com/For-Work/Printers/Photo/c/w120

These are the XP-15000, P400, P600 and P800 with the P800 being 17” wide. All of these printers are supported by Moab paper with ICC profiles, and I would assume the other paper manufactures have them covered as well.

Let’s take a look at Canon. Their models were a bit tougher to filter out online, so I’ve included a link here: 

https://www.usa.canon.com/internet/portal/us/home/products/list/professional-large-format-printers/professional-inkjet-printers/professional-inkjet-printers

The two we’re interested in from Canon are the Pixma Pro-100 and the Pixma Pro-10. They also have the Pro-1000 but that’s a 17” wide printer.

Epson Ink Sets

Let’s start with Epson again. The XP-15000 uses a six-color Claria Photo HD inkset “with all-new Red and Gray” inks. The Claria ink is a dye-based inkset. More on Dye vs. Pigment inks in a moment. Epson doesn’t readily disclose the size of the ink cartridges but they are about $11 each.

In looking at the website for this printer, Epson seems to be targeting this printer at the home crafter. It’s geared towards higher production with the large paper tray in front and a rear paper feed.

The P400 uses and 8-color Epson UltraChrome HD ink. They are 14ml each and cost about $18.

The P600 uses a 9-color Epson UltraChrome HD inkset. They are 25.9ml per cartridge and they cost about $32 each. 

The P800, while a larger printer, uses the same 9-color inks, but they are in larger cartridges at 80ml and they cost about $63 each. That’s a huge cost for replacing the ink, but they are available individually. You won’t have to replace all inks at the same time. By far, the P800 will be the cheapest printer to operate and would be worth the extra investment if you’re going to print a lot. At just over a $1/ml of ink, the P600 strikes a nice balance in ink cost vs. printer cost.

I should mention the Epson UltraChrome inks are a pigment inkset.

Canon Ink Sets

The Pixma Pro-100 uses the Canon ChromaLife 100 inks. It’s comprised of eight individual inks and each cartridge is about 14ml. At $17 each it’s not cheap, but about a $1 cheaper than the Epson counterparts. There’s a black and two gray inks in this set which is nice for making B&W prints. The Canon print driver has an option to do true B&W prints which can be nice since it will only use these Black and grey inks.

The Pixma Pro-10 and the Pro-1000 are pigment based inks. The Pro-1000 model uses 11 inks plus a chroma optimizer and they are 80ml for about $55. The Pro-10 uses 9 inks with a chroma optimizer. This chroma optimizer is said to “reduce bronzing” and to provide an even ink height which helps reduce surface reflection. This bronzing effect is most noticeable with large sections of black ink. When you hold the print at an angle and you move it back and forth in the light you might notice a secondary color that is present, this is the bronzing they’re talking about. It’s also known as metamerism. It’s not usually a problem, but these pigment inks will have two different blacks, one for matte papers and another for glossy papers.

Pigment vs. Dye inks

The “more affordable” printers use the dye-based inks. And those inks are cheaper to purchase as well, so you might ask, why the difference? The reason is longevity of the print. Printer manufacturers have come a long way in their dye-based systems. It’s quite impressive. It used to be that if you wanted longevity you went with a pigment-based ink, and if you wanted a wider color gamut you went with a dye-based ink set. Today, it almost doesn’t matter. However, for me, I still prefer the pigment-based inks. The color these printers are capable of producing are very near that of our high-quality monitors so that’s no longer the limiting factor. 

I suppose we should get into the specific differences between the two types of inks. Dye inks are those where the colorant is dissolved into the liquid carrier. When it’s squirted onto the paper it’s more fully absorbed into the special coating that’s applied to photo papers. For a pigment ink system, the colorant is a ground up substance that is suspended in the liquid carrier. When the ink dries it’s more likely to have less absorption due to the nature of the colorant, and that’s also why it’s possible to get the bronzing effect with pigment-based printers. But I’d like to stress, this is 2019 and this hasn’t been a serious issue for at least 10 years. Probably more. I’ve been printing for about 13 years now and this just isn’t an issue anymore.

If you want more information on ink longevity, check out Wilhelm Research. Their website needs some help in the design, but they have excellent guidance when it comes to understanding ink sets and their longevity.

http://wilhelm-research.com

Printer resolution

Does resolution really matter? Canon advertises 4800×2400 dots per inch for the Pixma Pro-10 and 100 models and 2400×1200 for the Pixma Pro-1000. Epson Lists their droplet size as small as 1.5 picoleters. The XP-15000, P400 and P600 have a resolution of 5760×1440. The P800 has a 2880×1440 resolution.

For simplification of discussion let’s focus on each manufacturers lower number. For Canon 13×19 printers that’s 2400 dots per inch. For Epson it’s 1440 dots per inch. And for the Canon 17” wide machine it’s 1200 dots per inch.

Does this even matter?

For the most part I say no. Each of these are very high and will produce very fine photo quality results. Quite frankly the only reason I find this to be of any interest is that I like to set my image resolution in Photoshop to an even multiplier of these lower numbers. So for a 2400 dpi printer, I set my resolution to either 300 ppi, 240 ppi or 200 ppi, depending on the level of detail I need out of the print or the physical size I’m making the print (these two notions go hand in hand).

For the Epson, it’s either 360 ppi, 240 ppi or 180 ppi. Do you notice a common number in there? 240 works for each model. Maybe that’s why the default resolution when bringing an image from LR into PS is 240 ppi? I’ve not talked with anyone at Adobe, but it seems it would make sense.

I like to have this even multiplier of ppi to dpi just to make translating the image from PS to the printer easier on the print driver. I get pretty picky when it comes to my sharpening settings and I don’t want any surprises. Standardizing my printing resolutions will help me do that.

More on Ink Sets, why all the different colors…

Epson and Canon have formulated these ink sets to deliver excellent quality. The primaries in the printing world are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Black has to be added so we have good contrast. Beyond that the most popular expansion inks are going to be called Photo Cyan, Photo Magenta, Gray, Light Gray (Light Black or Light Light Black for Epson) and then we have an assortment of other inks such as green, orange and red. By including these other inks, the ones beyond the CMYK colors, the manufacturers are more easily able to get their printer to reproduce all the colors in the sRGB or Adobe RGB color spaces (or models). These are the two color spaces we’re most interested in with our printing. So is one better than the other?

In short, yes. More color options does give you the opportunity to print more colors and you’ll be able to have, theoretically speaking anyway, a better chance at having accurate colors being reproduced. With that said, my Epson printer at work has a Green and an Orange ink. And they hardly ever get used. So there’s at least part of the whole thing that is a marketing gimmick of sorts. But when you need it, those colors are available. My Canon Pixma Pro-10, my personal printer at home, has a Red ink, I’ve not used it enough to see if it’s anything of a high use with my prints. Certainly it depends on the type of images you’re producing. I have a feeling Canon put the Red ink in there to save on Magenta and Yellow when reds are used since Magenta and Yellow very easily make a perfect Red. I’d like to see a printer with two or three different greens in it though since those are the colors that are hardest to accurately reproduce.

Ink head technologies

Both Manufacturers have different technologies for squirting ink onto your paper. “Back in the day” I used to prefer Epson because their printers would get clogged less, or rather, when it got clogged, I wouldn’t have to replace a print head. With Canon I would have to replace a head every now and then. Today, however, both manufacturers have done really well at getting good cleaning processes figured out. They even have sensors on the ink heads now that will detect when a nozzle is clogged and it will use the other nozzles to print in its place. You can always run a nozzle check and I recommend you do at least that once a month if you ever have a period of time where you’re not printing. Replacing print heads can be expensive and if it happens to you it might be better to just buy another printer. On the Canon iPF 5100 I had a while back, it cost about $1,700 new, but then I ended up replacing three print heads because I just never printed during the summer. At $500 a pop that got ridiculous. So I bought an Epson and have always been able to unclog it. I know Canon printers have gotten better though, but I don’t have specific experience of not printing for 3 months to see if I can resurrect it when it gets clogged. 

Getting started with your new printer

Both manufacturers have made printing very easy right out of the box. It’s amazing how simple printing is. However, the simplicity they offer does come at a cost. My recommendation is to get your feet wet. Install the driver and the profiles and utilities that is available for your printer. And if you’re buying a used printer that is a discontinued model get on the manufacture’s website and be sure they still support your computer and operating system with a current driver and utilities.

Use the manufacturer branded paper to start out with. Canon and Epson especially make some really fine papers. And they make it easy by preinstalling the ICC profiles for you. Use their recommendations to get started, but once you have the basics down, start bringing in other papers as that’s where the true magic can happen. The image should be printed on a paper that helps accentuate the image, not detract from it. If you’re showing a print to an average viewer and their first comment is something to do with the paper then you’ve probably missed the mark. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of experience but once you’ve graduated to the finer quality papers that we first talked about you’ll see what I mean and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Paper Handling

We started with paper, and it’s probably good to end with paper. The different papers have different handling of paper. I prefer to put my paper in one at a time. I’m guaranteed not to let it set to long on the printer that way, and in my current office setup the rear paper tray is unusable on my printer. So I feed it in single sheets on the top. If your printer has a tray I say use it for the standard papers. But not the fine papers we’ve been talking about from Moab and the like. They have a good surface that needs to be treated right and stacking the paper in a tray and allowing the printer to drag it across the other sheets is a bit of a travesty. This is probably just me being extra picky, but when it comes to my art I think it’s good to be picky.

Now what?

Once you’ve gotten a few prints out and you’re getting used to the process of printing I encourage you to find buddies or other resources that help you achieve even more in your printing. I’m sure you know I’ve got an online course that dives very deep into the world of printing. Getting even better results out of your photography on one of these printers is possible, but it’s one of those things where until you see the difference it’s hard to understand what you’re missing out on. That’s why I offer a 30-day money back guarantee on my course. Plus, there’s monthly group sessions for the first six months where we get together online and we share our questions and successes with learning this print process. Printing gallery quality prints is possible, and with the help of others we can have you printing with WOW in just a few short weeks. Maybe even less.

Join a workshop and learn it even faster!

And if you really want to learn it fast, join me on the Oregon coast this August. We’re going to shoot the coast and learn printing too in the hotel conference room. All the info is available on the website, I hope you can make it. It’s limited to 8 participants for the first session, and then I have a compressed session from in the very beginning of September, going over Labor Day weekend. That’s limited to 4 participants. So whatever you’re in for, let’s get together and print this summer!