I like prints, preferably big ones. Moreover, I get a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing one of my photos slide out of even my mid-range printer as a concrete expression of my vision.
That said, while I like the results, I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the process. Moreover, I’ve certainly made some concessions when it comes to printing, that while maybe not ideal are what they are. I’m certainly not convinced that every photographer with some semblance of standards has to run out and buy a $2000 Epson Stylus Pro and print everything on $20 per sq. ft. fine art papers. I know I don’t; my printer is a lowly Canon Pixma Pro 9000 mark II that I got for a song, and I print mostly on Canon’s mid- and high-end papers.
In the 3 and a half years that I’ve been printing my own stuff, I feel almost as clueless about the whole thing as I was when I started. That said, I have learned some things, and this post is detailing some of them.
I have yet to find a printer manufacturer that writes what I consider good documentation.
Consider the differences this:
Depth of Field Preview
The aperture opening (diaphragm) changes only at the moment when the picture is taken. Otherwise, the aperture remains fully open. Therefore, when you look at the scene through the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor, the depth of filed will look narrow.
Press the depth-of-field preview button to stop down the lens to the current aperture setting and check the depth of field (range of acceptable focus).
As compared to this:
Select the Media Type setting that matches the paper you loaded.
The first except (from a Canon camera manual) provides some inkling about what happens when the depth of field preview button and why to use it.
On the other hand, telling me to select the media type that matches the paper I’ve loaded is, obvious to the point of uselessness.
What I need to know to make an informed decision is what the setting does not just a restatement of it’s title. Does it adjust the platen hight? Does it change the ink volume that’s used? If so, what do the various values do the settings translate to?
I’m not singling out Epson here either. Canon’s printer manuals aren’t any different.
The only place where Epson gets a point in documentation is in the formats the provide. Their docs, at least the ones I looked at, are available online in HTML and offline in PDF format. Canon is still using a proprietary “help” program that needs to be installed on Windows or MacOS to be used.
In pretty much any online discussion about “printing” price is one of the first reasons that I see loads of people say not to bother; just send your stuff out.
For small prints (4×6), you can’t beat the prices for sending them out. 8×10, narrow the gap to being more of a wash. By 12×18, you can come out ahead printing at home in terms of ink and paper costs, but the printer is probably a sunk cost unless you print a lot. Larger than A3+ (13×19), and the printers cost so much that it starts shifting the economies back to the labs.
That said, I will also argue that people who only look at the costs aren’t really interested in the results that much either. Printing yourself yields a number of benefits that aren’t summarized in costs alone.
First is convenience; you don’t have to go pick up prints somewhere, and you don’t have to wait for them be shipped to you.
Second is control; you have complete control over not only the printing aspect, but also the paper that’s used.
Finally, there is color gamut. Most photo services print the vast majority of their products using light-jet printers that are limited to the sRGB color space. Virtual all good quality inkjet photo printers can exceed that color space, and frequently in important areas like skin tones.
That said, like most things, there’s a continuum for the ranges of prices, and that continuum depends on just how far you want to take printing. You can certainly get a printer and get started on a reasonable, if not shoe string, budget.
My Pixma Pro 9000 mark II ended up costing me $50. I got it when B+H was having a sale and there was an included mail in rebate with it as well. I had two friends who recently bought Pixma Pro–100s for $100 after rebates. So it’s perfectly doable to get a quality photo printer on the cheap.
The other major cost center is supplies; paper and ink.
As far as ink goes, I find it’s very rare to find sales on it. That’s not to say that there might not be one, on rare occasions, but I’ve never been lucky enough to catch one.
The only way I know of to reliably save money on ink is to go with 3rd party re-inking kits. And that puts you into grey areas with respect to quality, longevity, and you can pretty much discount any readily available/manufacturer supplied printer profiles.
Paper, on the other hand, is something that I see show up on sale from time to time. Especially from Canon. In fact, if you’re buying a Canon printer, it behooves you to register it and get on Canon’s mailing list for their store’s sales. Most of the time the mailings well be garbage, but once or twice a year I find incredible deals to score paper for pennies on the dollar.
The last time I stocked up on paper, I scored a little over $600 in Canon papers, from Canon for around $150. My per page costs for A3+ prints on Canon’s Pro Premium Matte paper, is somewhere around 10–20¢ per page.
Admittedly if you fall in love with a fine art paper, like Moab’s Entrada Rag, you’re probably not going to be able to score deals like that.
It goes without saying that color calibration is important. A better question is; How important?
This is probably the area where I’ve spent the most time trying to get a handle on what’s really necessary and how necessary everything really is. Ultimately, the problem is costs.
You cannot generate printer profiles with a colorimeter — like you might use to profile your monitor. Instead, you need a spectrophotometer, and one that has reflective capabilities at that. Ignoring the technical differences, the biggest hurdle is cost.
A good colorimeter, like a Colormunki Display runs around $170. What’s marketed as a pretty high end one, like the i1 Display Pro can be had for around $250. Datacolor offers Spyder products in about the same price ranges with about the same capabilities — though I prefer X-Rite products as they seem to be more compatible with DisplayCal and Argyll CMS.
Pair any of those colorimeters with the really powerful free/open source color management programs in DisplayCal and Argyll CSM, and you can get incredibly accurate monitor profiles for what’s really a quite reasonable price.
Stepping up to spectrophotometers, and the prices go up a bunch. The Colormunki Photo, runs about $500; and the i1 Pro, is in the $1200–1500 range. Again, I’m not ignoring Datacolor’s Spyder products, I just don’t know them well enough to be able to discuss them fully.
That’s a pretty big leap in price. Moreover, there’s a limitation here that isn’t obvious. The Colormunki Photo doesn’t have the capability to profile with UV light sources.
The trouble here isn’t the spectrophotometer, it’s the papers; or rather it’s the Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs), used in the papers.
Broadly speaking, OBAs work by absorbing invisible UV light, and re-emitting that as visible blue light. This has the effect of making the paper brighter, as it’s radiating more visible light than it otherwise would. But as far as color goes, it also changes the paper’s white point to be more blue — at least when the paper is under some UV light.
If you were to build a profile for a paper that uses OBAs with a spectrophotometer that doesn’t have UV capabilities, then the change in paper color under UV light will result in a color shift in the printed images that wasn’t correctly compensated for by the color profile.
And it’s not like just limiting yourself to “fine art” papers solves the problems. Many high end gloss papers, like Canon’s Pro Platinum and Moab’s Slickrock Pearl, have OBAs in them. Even high end matte and semi-gloss papers, such as Moab’s Entrada Rag, are frequently available in bright versions with OBAs.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a damnation of OBAs, or paper companies for using them. My point is that if you’re going to get into generating your own printer profiles, you need to be aware of this limitation in spectrophotometers, so you can either work around it or plan accordingly.
Alternatively, you can completely skip the spectrophotometer until you get into doing rather higher end work. This was my choice, and I can’t say I have any regrets.
In my experience, both using Moab and Canon papers on my Pixma Pro 9000 mark II, the supplied color profiles have been generally very good. Maybe not so good that you can make exact print matches to Pantone color swatches. But they’ve been certainly good enough that there aren’t obvious problems in the print’s color compared to my properly profiled displays.
My advice: If you don’t already have a colorimeter to profile your displays, consider getting a Colormunki Photo that can also generate profiles for OBA-free papers. If you already have a colorimeter for your monitors, skip a spectrophotometer for now.
One of the biggest advantages of ink jet printers, and printing yourself, is that you can pick and choose the papers you use. Of course, this is an entire can of worms itself.
Broadly speaking, papers come in 3 surface types; gloss, semi-gloss, and matte.
Gloss papers tend to hold the most details and usually provide the widest possible color gamuts and dynamic ranges. The down side is that they’re glossy and reflect light sources clearly.
Semi-gloss papers (frequently called luster and semi-gloss), exhibit most of the better characteristics of gloss papers, but not quite as strongly. However, since the surface textured, they don’t reflect light sources as distinctly.
Matte papers are an entirely different visceral experience. Since they lack the uniform coating of gloss and semi-gloss papers, the paper’s structure shows through more. As such they frequently impart some of their own texture into the print, as well as muting some of the fine details. On the other hand they don’t reflect light sources distinctly at all.
To me the biggest thing about matte papers is that they make prints feel like art. There’s an entirely different visceral experience of holding a print that’s on a good heavy matt paper that simply can’t be touched by the plastic-y coated gloss papers.
Of course purists will argue that you shouldn’t be handling your prints, and certainly not without gloves. To which I say rubbish, they’re my prints, and the entire point of the print as far as I’m concerned is to connect with the image in a way you can’t when holding an iPad or looking at it on a monitor.
Depending on the printer and the papers you choose, paper is going to be the first or second biggest ongoing expense for printing.
My advice for papers is pretty simple.
When you first get started, try as many different papers as you can; find something you like not just something that has good specs. For the longest time I never really bothered with matte papers, in my mind at the time my glossy papers were so much better “technically” than the matte papers were that they weren’t worth it. Now I practically print only on Matte papers, because the results feel like art not like something I picked up at a local photo lab.
Second, try not to limit yourself to just one kind of paper. The bulk of my paper stocks are matte, but I have a small amount of high gloss, luster, and pearl (Moab Slickrock Pearl). Some prints just pop way better on different papers. Moreover if you’re framing the print, the higher resolution of a gloss paper may very well outweighs the feel of a print you won’t be feeling.
Also don’t get too caught up in the whole “fine art” paper versus something else. It would be easy to sneer down one’s nose at say Canon’s Pro Premium Matte paper being less good than Moab’s Entrada rag. However, so much of choice of paper is a personal thing that it’s not necessarily a given that you’ll like the look or feel of the more expensive paper just because it’s more expensive.
Pigment v. Dye Inks
This is another one of those places where the hard numbers don’t really tell the whole story. Pigment inks have some solid advantages in terms of print life and dynamic range. Most people printing fine art prints are printing with pigment inks for those reasons.
However, pigment inks, or more specifically the printers they’re used in, demand one major consideration; volume. If you’re not printing somewhat regularly, the pigment inks can clog print nozzles. The alternative to printing is cleaning cycles which just waste ink.
How often you have to print to keep a pigment printer happy is not a question I can answer. The last time I dealt with pigment printers was more than a decade ago, and the gist was if they weren’t being used on a weekly bases then, they would clog — though there were other factors involved.
On the other hand, dye based printers in my experience are perfectly happy to go unused for extended periods of time. My Pixma Pro 9000 mk II has sat idle for 6 or more months in some cases, and fired up and made great prints right away.
Given that my printing tends to be very bursty — print a bunch then sit idle for 3–6 months — I find that I’m much more comfortable with my dye based printer. Yea, I could probably get darker blacks with a pigment printer instead, but I’m also much more likely to have to either waste a lot of ink or deal with more clogging issues than I do with my dye inks.
As far as print permanence goes. I’m not all that concerned either. I have several 4 or 5 year old prints under glass that haven’t noticeably degraded. And I have a whole slew of year or more old prints that aren just hanging with no protection form the environment that likewise are in good shape.
That said, I do recognize that these prints probably won’t last 50 or 100 years. But I’m fine with that. Even for fine-art print sales, I’m fine with that as long as it’s made clear to the buyer that the prints may not last 100 years and the price reflects that reality.
One Parting Thought
Thom Hogan has an article where he recommends buying the best tripod first, because buying through all the intermediate steps costs so much more money. I never agreed with that line of thinking, and I really wouldn’t apply it here. Unless you’re absolutely sure you’re going to print like crazy, buy the least expensive quality printer you can afford and build from there. The last thing you want to do is buy a $1000 printer and a $1500 colorimeter, and print 5 pictures a year or less.