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As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I’m going to cover full-size (13” and wider) photo quality printers in this installment, but not in the form of a buyer’s guide.  There are plenty of these already available (your search engine of choice is your friend), and I frankly don’t have enough experience with a variety of different printer models to produce one.  But I’ve been doing my own printing for about ten years now and feel comfortable enough with a few of the basic issues surrounding self-printing to offer some (hopefully) useful basic information.  (If you’re interested in a printer that only produces small prints—4×6 inches, for example—this probably won’t be of much value to you.  It should be noted, however, that essentially all full-size printers are capable of producing small prints as well.)

I don’t consider this the final word in printing, by any means.  This piece is intended as an entree into the world of printers, to provide you with a few key concepts to keep in mind when considering a purchase.

Ink Types

The basic ink option when selecting a photo quality printer is between a model with a dye-based inkset and a pigment-based inkset.  There was a time not that many years ago when this was a critically important choice.  Dye-based printers were, all things considered, less expensive than their pigment-based counterparts, and contained a wider color gamut, but produced prints that were rated much less robust when it came to archival quality.  Today, most of the differences between the two types of inksets have disappeared.

Pigment-based inksets still tend to dominate professional level printers, but it’s largely a legacy issue at this point.  Some people claim that they can detect a clear (preferable) difference with pigment-based black & white prints, but I must confess that I don’t see it myself.  And this comes from someone who uses—and has always used—a pigment-based printer.

Essentially, I don’t see the inkset itself as a significant factor in printer choice.  At this point, I use a pigment-based printer because of the unit’s other features, not the pigment-based inks per se.

The major companies that produce photo quality printers—Epson, Canon, HP—are constantly upgrading their inks and refresh their basic inksets every few years.

If you anticipate doing a high volume of printing, you may ultimately want to look into third party inks and/or external ink-delivery systems, but these matters are beyond the scope of this piece.

Carriage Width

This is a big, big deal when it comes to printer selection.   Unless you’re going to print borderless (which I don’t recommend, by the way), you can figure the largest possible non-panoramic print that you can produce on the short side of the print by subtracting one inch from the printer’s carriage width.  For instance, with a 13” wide printer you can print up to 12” on the short side of the print (from the point of view of a conventional 3:2 ratio image from most digital cameras); that would mean a standard sized print of 12×18 inches.

You have to consider how large you want to be able to print without engaging an outside print service.  If you want to be able to print your own 16×24” prints, you’re not going to be able to go with a 13” wide printer.

A 13” wide printer is considered the largest “tabletop” printer size.  As you go wider—17 inches is the next step up—the price increases, and significantly.  So does the footprint of the printer and the weight.  By the time you move past 17 inches in width (24” is the next step up), you’re looking at a price tag well into the thousands of dollars (US) and a dedicated printer stand.

But if the downsides (price, size) of larger carriage printers are clear, one key benefit isn’t so obvious—ink cartridge savings.  13” wide printers are relatively inexpensive, but the per unit ink cost of these tabletop printers is considerable.  If you print with any regularity, you’ll burn through the small cartridges that feed a 13 inch printer with numbing frequency.  By moving up one rung on the ladder—to a 17” wide printer—you have access to ink cartridges that are roughly four times the capacity at only about twice the cost.  That equates to a 50% per unit ink savings.  This provides a huge potential cost savings going forward.  As you move farther up the ladder you have access to even more savings in per unit ink costs.  Now, that shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision, of course.  (If it were, you’d be buying the largest printer available.)  But it could well be a tie-breaker; if you’re on the fence about two different printer sizes, it could make sense to go up to the higher size to save money down the road.

Rolls or Sheets

Some printers accept rolls of papers as well as sheets; some only accept sheets.  If you want to print panoramas, you really need a printer that accepts rolls.  (It’s possible to feed rolls of paper into a sheet feeder, but it’s quite difficult to get it right.)  Even if you don’t want to print panoramas, you’ll find that roll paper is, per unit, much cheaper than sheets, but rolls can be a bit more difficult to work with—dealing with the paper cutter and taking the time and trouble to uncurl the paper after the print has been produced.  Some of the printers that don’t accept rolls are cheaper than comparable units that do, but a machine that allows for both rolls and sheets obviously retains the most flexibility.

Print Speed

If you rarely, if ever, print more than one image at a time, this isn’t a big deal, but if you ever do any batch printing, it’s a very, very big deal and, of course, the more you print the more important it is.  Print speed can vary dramatically from model to model; generally speaking (and this will come as no surprise I’m sure), more expensive printers are faster than less expensive ones—sometimes by a factor of two or more.  Do your due diligence and take note of the comparative print speeds of the models in question.

Next:  Paper Choices

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday.  To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog:  Lightscapes Nature Photography.