Which digital printer is best for you?

Print your photos to share or display

Do you bring your printer everywhere and share your photos, or do you need a reliable workhorse for your studio or home? Here’s an overview of the five key printer printer categories, and one or two representative models.

Portable 4x6-format printers
One of the benefits of owning your own printer, versus getting your images printed by some distant (or even local) lab, is the immediacy: you can print in the comfort of your own home, and you have the print in your hands in minutes instead of hours. But what if you want to make prints right now, wherever you are? There's a growing subset of printers designed for just that. Portable printers are desgned to be light and small enough to carry to parties or sports events, and some are battery-operated. Most use dye-sublimation, rather than inkjet, printing technology.

While some portable printers are designed for pro use and are both fast and convenient—and expensive--other models, such as the Canon Selphy ES30, are made (and priced) for snapshooters. Snapshooter models are convenient, but not very fast, delivering a 4x6-inch print in minute, more or less. The Selphy ES30 has a built-in handle for easy carrying and an integrated cartridge that holds both ink and paper, so it's really built for ease-of-use. A 3-inch monitor lets you preview your pictures and make minor adjustments via a scroll wheel control, and built-in wireless functions let you download from a digital camera via a wire, or from your camera phone using an optional BU-30 Bluetooth interface.

One of the ES30's print options is gold or silver ink cartridges. These add metallic color options that you can use to create creative borders. If you're into scrapbooking, these might be worth looking into.

Tip: According to user comments on the Canon web site, the ink/paper packs get used up fairly fast, and are not widely available in local stores. Therefore, we suggest you stock up on ink/paper packs so you're not caught short.  However, based on user feedback, you are very likely to be pleased with the quality of the images and ease of use, and the cost per print if you buy the 100 postcard pack can be around 25 cents, although standard 4x6-inch prints can cost around $1 each.

Pro-end Dye-Sublimation Printers
There’s no middle ground when it comes to Dye-Sublimation printers. Either they’re very small, like the portable printers I wrote about yesterday, or they are designed for professional use and carry four-figure pricetags. For the professional photographer, what are the advantages of a high-end Dye-Sub?

Many photographers feel dye-sub printers produce better overall image quality and more durable prints. It’s a continuous-tone technology, and the resulting prints look like a traditional print and last a long time. Prints are dry and ready to handle as soon as they are made, and since the prints are made using thermal transfer rather than liquid inks, the process is cleaner and you don’t have clogged printer heads to contend with. And, they can generally make a print faster than an inkjet.

The disadvantages of dye sublimation printing are the cost of the printers, the inevitable waste (most of the dye is not used during the printing process), cost per print (over a dollar apiece) and limits in print size. Even the most expensive models only go up to 8x12 inches. But if you are working in a portrait or wedding studio and want to provide instant gratification to your sitters, or you want to add digital printing services to a small retail shop, a dye-sub is a good investment.

If you’re an event photographer, consider the Sony Snap Lab, a compact high-speed printer that goes up to 5x7. It’s a relatively inexpensive $1,250, and weighs under 25 pounds so you can bring it with you and make prints on location.

For studios and stores that want in-house lab capabilities, the Kodak Professional 9810 can deliver up to 8x12-inch borderless prints at 300 dpi continuous tone within 45 seconds. Another option is the Fujifilm ASK-4000 (see photo),  which claims print speed of 40 seconds for 8x12-inch prints. Both models require a Windows-based computer and are in the $2,500 range. For a couple of hundred dollars less, the Sony UPC20L SnapLab  could be used by retailers as a small kiosk so walk-in customers could make prints thanks to its 10-inch touch screen.

All in ones: Jacks of all trades, masters of…many!
If you have limited desk space, or your budget is tight, consider a multi-function, also known as an all-in-one. These machines are a combination of printer, scanner,  and copier, and sometimes have built-in fax capabilities. While some dedicated scanners and printers might offer you slightly higher image quality, they’re also generally more expensive. We’ve found that you can get almost the same performance and quality in a similarly priced all-in-one—and then you’ve also got the ability to copy, scan and fax. Nifty!

One of the best deals in this category is the Epson Stylus NX215, which prints, copies and scans and uses a faster USB 2.0 interface for downloading files from your computer. It uses a 4-color ink system with four individual cartridges, prints a decent 5760x1454 dpi. Automatic Photo Correction onboard software will get rid of dings and scratches and discoloration on your precious family photos as you scan and print them.

For a bump up in image quality and cutting-edge online connectivity, consider the HP Photosmart Premium C309N (shown), which uses a touch-sensitive LCD screen for operation, and holds an inkjet printer, scanner and copier with 9600x2400 dpi resolution and a speedy USB 2.0 connection—and can surf the web via a bluetooth connection for things like maps, movie tickets and coupons which it then prints out. You can also use it to print wirelessly from your iPhone and, presumably, your iPad as well.

Gotta have fax? The Canon Pixma MX7600 has it, along with photo-quality 4800x1200 dpi resolution, improved 5-color ink system that features black pigment ink, plus copying, printing, and scanning capabilities. The MX7600 can be networked via Ethernet and you can print from memory cards, digital cameras and camera phones.

Wide Format Printers: Is it time to live large?

If you’re feeling limited by the maximum paper size requirements of your current printer (11x17, perhaps?), then it’s time to consider moving up to a wide-format printer. Wide-format is defined as any printer capable of producing prints that are 24 inches or wider. Some models can produce up to 64-inch wide prints. You can, of course, send your prints out to a service bureau, but some photographers need more control and the instant feedback of a printer that’s carefully calibrated to handle their files using the inks and print media of their choosing.

The Big Three in this relatively esoteric area of printing are Canon, Epson, and HP (no surprise here). All take both rolls and sheets of print media and most come with a stand that has a basket that catches the prints as they come out. A built-in cutter cuts the print (if you’re using a roll) when it’s complete.

When making large prints, printer speed can be a deciding factor, as each print will take minutes to be completed, so check online reviews as well as manufacturer specs.  Number of inks is another. Canon and HP printers tend to have 5 colors. Epson’s printers can have as many as 9 inks. Keep in mind that it can easily cost you $100 or more per ink cartridge, and potentially much more than that for a roll of paper.  However, the more inks you use, the more accurate the color will be. Also remember that you can customize things by using third-party inks. This can be especially helpful in obtaining rich tonality if you’re printing only black-and-white.

Many newer printers have built-in calibration tools, which can make getting consistent, accurate results much easier. Since each print is a major investment in time and money and re-do’s waste material, good calibration is essential when doing large-format printing.

Do you need a small-format printer as well? No! You can also feed smaller format paper through your wide-format printer. Once you invest in a wide-format printer, it could be the only printer you’ll need.

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