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Making An Impression: Printers And Services

Discover some of the printers and services available to bring your digital images into print
Printers and services

Epson Expression Photo XP-970

Like silver halide crystals in days of yore, pixels have become a photographer’s creative stock-in-trade. Even photographers who still shoot film usually scan their negatives or slides to create a digital file. Then, image files are either printed at home or sent to a lab. 

The great majority of photographers who print at home do so with inkjet technology, using printers that recreate the image with inks sprayed onto paper. The digital darkroom, as it has become known, dispenses with the wet darkroom’s smelly solutions and backbreaking processing, though some photographers argue that this comes at a price in quality.

The irony is that commercial printing—prints made by the many photo labs offering a wide range of output services—are almost entirely produced on light-sensitive chromogenic paper using a chemical process. Yet they still start with the digital files that you supply them, right from your digital camera or cell phone.

These days, whether you print at home or hand off your files to a photofinisher, the payoff is awesome. Let’s look at the two types of workflows.

Printing At Home

An argument for doing your own printing is creative control. For instance, if you make a print that isn’t satisfactory, you can return to your computer and make whatever changes might improve it. Lighten it, darken it or make your other adjustments. Then print again. But remember: What you see on your screen won’t exactly match what you see on paper.

If you decide to print at home, which almost all photographers do on inkjet models, you’re able to access a whole world of media choices.

Available from both printer manufacturers and third-party suppliers, these choices are far more wide-ranging than the several papers typically offered by commercial printing outfits. You can choose papers that resemble those of the traditional darkroom, sometimes with the “baryta” (barium sulfate) layer that gave wet-process papers their depth and lustrousness. You can choose papers with non-reflective matte surfaces, from completely smooth to heavily textured, the latter contributing a kind of watercolor quality to the image. One of inkjet printing’s benefits is that images that tended to “die” on matte-surfaced silver halide papers often reproduce beautifully in ink, on matte-surfaced inkjet paper. Plus, there are many specialty papers.

Beyond matters of creative control, one other factor to consider in the decision to print at home vs. using a commercial lab is cost.

This entails questions such as how many prints you’ll be making, and how often and how big you like to make them. If you’re the sort of photographer who wants a lot of 4×6-inch prints for sharing, you’re really better off using a commercial lab. But if you like to show off your stuff and make big prints regularly, by the time you spring for a dozen or two 16x24s at a commercial lab, you’ll have spent what it would’ve cost to put together your own pro-level printing setup at home.

A print requiring a large sheet of paper that might cost $3 or $4, plus another buck for ink, could set you back $50 or far more from a photo lab—with no real guarantee of satisfaction. Keep in mind, however, that inkjet inks aren’t cheap and should be factored into this equation.

All that said, what you can accomplish at home is limited by the printer you use. It’s best to work with a model specifically designed for photographic printing, which typically means one with more than the customary four inks, cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Six or eight inks are best because they include “light” versions of several colors and/or grays that produce subtler hues and tonal gradation in the image.

Office models usually don’t have more than four inks, and they limit you to print sizes no larger than 8.5×11 inches. For serious work, consider a model with at least a 13-inch carriage, which is generally dedicated to photography and always has a fuller ink set.

If you have the space and the budget, consider buying a printer with a 17-inch-wide carriage. Again, these models are designed specifically for photographic output, with the ink quality to match, and will let you print on papers up to 17×22 inches.

Printers and services
Canon PIXMA Pro-100

A Few Good Inkjet Printers

The following printers represent a sample of possible sizes and capabilities. You can choose a smaller model for everyday letter-sized prints, for example, and farm out both small prints (in quantity) and big prints to a lab. Or you can spring for a larger model and do all but large prints on your own.

Epson Expression Photo XP-970: You can print on 11×17-inch (tabloid-size) paper by using a rear feed tray. And there are lots of choices in 11×17-inch paper! The printer uses six inks, and it can even print directly from a memory card or USB stick. It also has other office-type functions, including copying, and incorporates a flatbed scanner.
Price: $230
Learn more about the Epson Expression Photo XP-970 at B&H.

Epson Surecolor P800: This model is a very capable 17-inch-wide, pigment-based printer for prints on paper up to 17×22 inches, which allows you to make impressively large prints on a huge range of papers. The printer comes with an almost-full set of “starter” inks, which adds a few hundred dollars of value to the printer, on top of what discounts or specials you may be able to find.
Price: $1,200
Learn more about the Epson Surecolor P800 at B&H.

Canon PIXMA Pro-100: This 13-inch-wide printer can print on sheets of paper up to 13×19 inches and uses eight inks, rather than four or six, including two grays and a black. As with bigger photo printers, the Pro-100 dispenses with office-type features, including a scanner. Like the smaller Epson, this model uses dye-based inks. Many photographers prefer pigment-based inks for their greater archival longevity, but dye-based inks are far more stable than they used to be. You can upgrade to the Canon PIXMA Pro-10 for a similar pigment-based model, for a few hundred dollars more.
Price: $340
Learn more about the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 at B&H.

Printing Through A Photo Lab

There are several reasons photographers aren’t in a position to do at-home printing. You might want some prints that are far bigger than you could make on your home printer. Or you may want special products that display your images, from mugs to pillows. Or perhaps you may want framing services included with your order, so you get back a finished piece ready to hang on the wall, or a photo book, or, available from certain labs, prints on special materials from canvas to metal.

If this is you, there are commercial photo labs that will provide these services, and more, including some things you simply can’t do even if you print at home. What you want, and what you’re willing to accept, will dictate the kind of lab you choose.

Many good mass-market labs suffice for most of the services listed above; read on for more information and tips about dealing with them. If you want a high level of control, though—meaning the ability to approve or reject a print until it’s right, exotic printing processes or a broader range of paper choices—you’ll probably be better off dealing with a custom lab.

Here are some of the workflow options.

You can deliver your digital image files to a brick-and-mortar retailer, the way so many people did with their film in analog days. The difference is that you’ll provide them in a digital medium, whether your camera’s memory card or a USB stick or burned to a DVD or CD if you prefer. (It’s safest to get the images off the memory card, backing them up to your computer and deliver them on more affordable storage medium.) Businesses providing drop-off printing include local and regional (chain) photography shops as well as big retailers such as Walmart, CVS, Target or Walgreens that have a photo “department” in the corner.

These big retailers generally farm their work out to some of the same consumer photo labs that provide printing services independently, usually online. These include such companies as Snapfish, Shutterfly, Mpix, RitzPix and more. Even Amazon has gotten into the business.

Some of these outfits even offer a local pick-up service at the big retailers mentioned above, if you want prints faster than their usual mail-service delivery allows. It’s the digital age’s version of one-hour photofinishing, but to get this service, you have to upload your images to the lab’s website from your computer or phone.

Even if you’re not in a hurry, uploading makes sense. There’s no loss of quality: The reality is that the print will be made from the exact same file, and internet bandwidth is such that transmission speed is no longer an issue for most people. Most online labs use the familiar cart-based system for ordering, and in addition to specifying size, surface, borders and even special coatings, some of them allow you to make simple adjustments to an image, including cropping. You can even pull images from places other than your computer, including Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and more.

If you plan to upload a large number of images for small prints—every decent shot from your last vacation, perhaps—it may be overly ambitious to make individual adjustments to every one before uploading. The lab will apply basic, on-the-fly corrections to each image, lightening dark ones or saturating dull ones, for example. Better to see what you get and then go back for bigger prints of your best shots. Small commercial prints cost mere pennies, often less than 10 cents apiece. Deep discounts for prints abound on these sites.

On the other hand, if you’re going to upload a great shot for a big print, it’s worth investing the time on the computer to make it the best you can. If you’ve converted the image from a RAW file and are working on it in Photoshop or TIFF format, though, keep in mind that you’ll probably have to save it in JPEG format before uploading it. (Only high-end, custom labs will usually accept files in Photoshop or TIFF format.) Save the file at the largest possible JPEG size, ideally maximum quality, meaning with the least image-degrading compression. Even at significant sizes, a print from a maximum JPEG will be pretty much indistinguishable from one made directly from an uncompressed or lossless compressed file format. It’s in the editing that these formats offer their true benefits.

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