What makes a good photo printer? Do you need PictBridge? Is it really necessary to have a photo printer that will accept images from your PC? How many colours should the printer support? Which size of paper? Do you need different paper types? Everything depends on what you are going to do with your photo printer.
In this article I will specifically focus on quality elements, both in terms of mechanics and results. I carry with me an experience as a reviewer of high-end printers of over ten years. Let's start with the quality of the components.
Photo printer quality
These days, you can buy an inkjet photo printer for less than 200 Euros. Although you always get quality in relation to what you pay, most inkjet photo printers --even the cheap ones-- have a decent quality of build.
The problem with very cheap photo printers is that the manufacturer cannot make a profit from them, and therefore has to find a way to generate money through other means than directly from selling the hardware. The easiest and most obvious way to do that is to sell ink cartridges that get depleted soon. Most cheap inkjet photo printers are therefore expensive in terms of ink consumption.
Many people will replace the manufacturer's ink with third-party ink. This is a viable strategy provided you don't care much for the longevity of your prints and the replacement ink that you buy is of a decent quality. Most replacement inks of good quality are just as expensive as the manufacturer's.
Lyson in the UK sells fine quality inkjet inks that come in bulk packaging (www.lyson.com).
Some ink manufacturers will make larger ink bottles, so that the price per unit decreases. This is actually the only way to get acceptable quality for a decent price. However, a cheap inkjet photo printer is not built to support intensive printing, so if that is why you buy those large ink bottles, then be prepared to replace your photo printer every 3 months instead of every two years. If you're printing many prints, the life span of a cheap photo printer may be much less than a year.
Better quality photo printers
If you have a bit of a larger budget, there are somewhat more expensive photo printers (between 300 and 700 Euros) on the market that have much better quality components, which last longer and which are capable of much better quality prints. More importantly, these printers consume less ink.
What should you ask a vendor of such higher-quality photo printer? For starters, such a photo printer should come with built-in calibration. Calibration is a technique that makes sure the printer is put into a known state. We use that state to make sure the colours and output quality we get from the photo printer are consistently the same. This also means we can create colour profiles for the printer, and have it print without colour streaks or gaps in the output.
Another issue that you must take into account is the ink spillage that occurs because of cleaning cycles. Every inkjet photo printer, including the cheap ones (I should say especially the cheap ones) have to clean their print heads from time to time. Some brands are notorious for wasting large amounts of ink during this process.
Cleaning the print heads involves flushing the head with a small amount of ink, in order to get the print heads firing their tiny bubbles of ink correctly. Ink tends to clog inside the heads, hence the need for cleaning. Epson photo printers waste a lot of ink on this process. Up to 20% of an ink cartridge can go to waste, especially when a shallow cleaning cycle is not enough for the heads to unclog.
HP has the lowest cleaning waste in its newest top-range photo printer, the Photosmart Pro B9180. Only 1% goes to waste with every other deep cleaning cycle. I reviewed the Photosmart Pro B9180 on www.IT-Enquirer.com. I also covered this printer's capabilities in depth, as it represents a whole new generation photo printer.
With more expensive photo printers usually also comes the ability to drive them through a Raster Image Processor (RIP), which is a sophisticated printer driver that enables you to save paper and control the ink density (the amount of ink splashed onto the paper) for each colour. RIPs are usually reserved for the larger photo printers.
Output quality of photo printers
The output quality of a photo printer depends on a number of factors, but colour accuracy and the ability to fill a patch uniformly with colour must be among the determining ones. Your photo printer should be capable of printing accurate colours. Most entry-level photo printers will allow you to print your photos directly from the camera. That's fine, but if the photo wasn't perfect or near-perfect, the odds are that you will want to fine-tune the photo.
This involves downloading the photo to your PC, editing it, and then printing it through a printer driver. The crux here is the part where I said "through a driver". If you don't have a printer colour profile for the paper you are using, chances are the photo will come out in a whole different way than what you expected.
Colour management will remedy this, but that's a topic out of scope for this article. Remember that you need good colour profiles that come with the printer in order to get the most out of it. From all the manufacturers that I have reviewed photo printers from for the different magazines that I write for, only Canon and HP have excellent colour profiles. Epson's profiles are mediocre to say the least.
If you don't know what a colour profile is, Wikipedia's article on color management may clarify.
If you're serious about photo printing, and your budget allows, don't buy the cheapest model. It will cost you more in ink consumption and will output mediocre quality. If you have the budget and you're a serious amateur or even a semi-pro, then a high-end photo printer will be a pleasure to use. Canon and HP are both excellent choices. Although many professional photographers use large format Epson photo printers, and while their output quality is certainly good, Epson has less appeal in the lower ends of the market than the two other brands I mentioned earlier.
There are yet other brands of photo printers. However, those are all aimed at low-end consumer usage.
About The Author
Erik Vlietinck is journalist and reviewer who specialised in document publishing and graphic design technology some 10 years ago. He has his own web magazine, http://www.IT-Enquirer.com where you can find lots of information on creative technologies.