By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Good photographs look better as good prints, especially large, carefully made prints.
Getting there is the subject of this week’s column.
As we discussed last week, there are a number of good photo printers at prices affordable to most people. Although there are observable differences in the prints made by different models, you’ll be able to make a good-quality print using any of them. Your choice of printer is not a make-or-break decision. However, the inks and printing software used by a particular printer will have a major effect on the appearance of your final print, so choose wisely.
Choosing a printer
Aside from cost, printing speed and secondary features, the maximum size that you can make with a particular printer will be a crucial factor in deciding which printer to purchase. Your other primary factor should be the ink set used, as it has a major impact on the quality of your final print.
There are only a few ink sets, each unique to a particular manufacturer. A basic ink set is typically used by several, increasingly larger printers in a vendor’s product line. Where you have a choice, pick an ink set with several shades of black and at least two shades of magenta and of cyan.
Some higher-end ink sets include a range of supplemental colors, such as green, red and orange, to improve the rendition of specific colors. These supplemental colors are not always crucial, depending on the versatility of the primary ink set, but can improve the range of colors that can be correctly depicted in the final print. By the way, the range of colors produced by an ink set is called its “gamut.” A wide color gamut is preferred, assuming it is bright and accurate.
If you mostly want snapshot-size prints and small enlargements up to 8.5-by-11-inch letter size, then Canon’s MG8120 is a good, inexpensive choice, usually selling for about $200. Unusually for a multifunction device that includes scan, fax and copy capabilities, the MG8120 uses both a black and a gray ink, along with the usual magenta, cyan and yellow. It does not include the lighter photo magenta and photo cyan inks, so some subtle colors may look too saturated.
Most serious photographers prefer the ability to make prints as large as 13-by-19, big enough to be prominent hanging on a wall. In that size, I prefer the Canon Pixma-Pro 9000 Mark II, a dye-based inkjet (about $420) and the Epson R3000, a pigment-based printer that uses Epson’s excellent K3 with Vivid Magenta ink set (about $815). Both printers use relatively small ink cartridges that cost more per unit of ink, so the price per final print will be noticeably higher.
The R3000 uses the entire K3 with Vivid Magenta ink set, and that’s more than adequate for nearly anyone. The Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mark II uses eight inks, including light magenta and cyan, as well as green and red. However, it uses only one black/gray ink, so it’s likely to do better with brighter-colored images, rather than traditional black and white.
At the next level, we have printers that can accommodate 17-inch-wide paper. The least expensive, and likely the best, is Epson’s Stylus Pro 3880, which uses all sizes of cut sheets printing paper through 17-by-25. The 3880 ($1,295 list price) also uses relatively larger ink cartridges, reducing the cost per print. This is probably the best all-around printer, if you can afford it.
Canon also makes some excellent 17-inch-wide printers but I have not had the opportunity to use them and compare their prints to those made with Epson printers. Epson’s higher-end printers are something of a de facto printing standard among pro and semipro photographers and continue to improve.
Beyond the 17-inch-wide printers lies pro photographer territory. HP has a number of printers that can handle roll paper up to 24 inches wide, including the DesignJet 130 ($1,500) and the higher-end DesignJet Z3200 ($3,950). Although the 130 is reasonably affordable, it requires careful and regular calibration to get the excellent prints of which it’s capable, something that may deter nonprofessional photographers. The Z3200 is self-calibrating, but notice that steep price.
Epson’s newest 24-inch printer, the Stylus Pro 7890, will be introduced later in June. Its discounted introductory price of $2,795 is reasonable for a pro-quality, 24-inch printer and it uses the proven K3 with Vivid Magenta ink set. However, this printer, nice as it may be, is out of my price range and probably that of most readers.
Overall, my sense is that the Epson 3880 is probably the printer of choice for serious amateur photographers, so save those pennies. Unlike cameras, high-end printer models are only replaced every three or four years, so it’s unlikely that your investment will be obsolete in six months.
There’s endless partisan controversy about which printing paper to use. Unlike printers, in which there are only a few different ink sets affecting our decision, there are dozens of different photo papers.
Traditionally, snapshots and quick images were done on letter-size glossy paper, while “fine art” prints were done on matte paper that had little gloss but a lot of surface texture. Personally, I prefer the all-around compromise of a nice “luster” paper.
It’s important to use a paper that’s designed to work well with your particular printer and ink set. If an inappropriate paper is used, the print won’t look very good but, mercifully, it won’t be archival, either, and will fade relatively soon.
Kirkland’s Professional Glossy Inkjet Photo Paper, sold by Costco and Three Bears, is actually quite good for routine, letter-size and smaller prints. It’s worked well for me with both dye-based ink printers and also my Epson 3880’s pigment-based K3 with Vivid Magenta ink set. When I last purchased a 150-sheet box, I recall spending about $20 at Three Bears. This paper would still be a real value at $30 per 150-sheet box. It’s my regular day-to-day paper for small prints.
I’ve used 13-by-19 Canon Photo Paper Pro II and Photo Paper Pro Platinum, as well as Ilford Gallerie lustre paper with Canon 9000 printers and have liked the results. With 13-by-19 Epson printers, my inclination would be either Epson’s Ultra Premium Luster or, more likely, Red River’s 75-pound Arctic Polar luster paper. Red River papers must be ordered online from Red River, http://www.redriverpaper.com, a very reputable paper vendor. Ilford’s Smooth Pearl, a luster paper, also makes a nice print, but I preferred the greater heft and slightly greater image quality of the Red River paper.
Papers for 17-inch printers, like the Epson 3880, are something of a puzzle. Epson, Ilford and others only make their papers in 17-by-22, which is an inefficient and wasteful size. Most serious photographers shoot digital SLR cameras and produce images with a ratio of 3:2 between the long and short sides. Printing the entirety of such an image on less-rectangular 17-by-22 paper results in wasting slightly more than 2 inches on the short side and a noticeably smaller print.
I prefer using 17-by-25 paper, which allows you to print the complete dSLR image larger and without waste. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find 17-by-25 cut sheet photo paper. Neither Epson nor Ilford makes such paper.
Luckily, Red River’s Arctic Polar luster can be purchased in 25-inch long sheets and it’s priced right and about $68 for a 20-sheet box. It’s my first choice at this time. Another advantage of the Arctic Polar is the sheets are made of somewhat heavier paper stock, reducing the chance of creases and crinkles.
Next week, we’ll start looking at the mechanics of making fine prints.
Odds and ends
- Science Book of the Week: This week’s recommended science book for laypersons is John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World,” which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. “Annals” is an anthology of four short books exploring the emerging theory of plate tectonics, which revolutionized our understanding of geology and earth sciences between 1960 and 1990. Each book is set in a different part of the United States as McPhee tags along with accomplished geologists on their research trips. McPhee, who teaches at Princeton University, is probably America’s greatest and most prolific living writer of graceful yet informative nonfiction literature. Much of his work centers on scientific topics of broad interest to laypersons. Longtime Alaskans may also recall his famous and kindly 1977 book about living in the Alaska wilderness, “Coming into the Country.”
- Your Own Exhibition: If you’re interested in submitting a proposal for an individual or group art exhibition to hang in 2012, contact the Kenai Fine Arts Center at 283-7040 during weekday afternoons for more information.
- Shameless Self-Promotion Department: My June photo exhibition, “Obscured Views,” will hang through the end of June at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.