David duChemin is a wonderful photographer who has written a number of books about the creative aspects of the practice of photography, and I regularly look forward to his his bimonthly newsletter, which is also posted on his blogDavid’s approach to photography instruction is much more creativity-focused than gear-focused, and he is a very good writer. At times, his newsletters can diverge into a bit of a soft-sell for his courses, but he’s worth reading if you’re interested in a more thoughtful, artistic approach to improving your work.. This past week’s post, “Print Your Work Without Printing Your Work?“, was quite provocative, especially when I read his comment near the top of the piece:
I hate printing, and it’s high time I admitted that.
David goes on to talk at length about his dissatisfaction with the process of printing by himself, despite the fact that he (like many of us) loves the look and feel of a finished print. His solution: utilize the services and talents of a friend who is a fine-art printer, which I think is a great idea.
The piece overall is a good overview of options for getting your work printed without having to do it yourself. I echo his suggestions for online printing services mentioned in the post. I would add Bay Photo Lab to the list of providers, however; I, along with a number of photographer friends, have had great success with them over the years.
David’s approach to photography instruction is much more creativity-focused than gear-focused, and he is a very good writer. At times, his newsletters can diverge into a bit of a soft-sell for his courses, but he’s worth reading if you’re interested in a more thoughtful, artistic approach to improving your work.
I took around 10 files, some of them actual printer color test files, and sent them through EPL to the ET-8550 and the Epson P700. I marked the back of each print with the printer used. I then started sharing them with friends who would come to the studio and see the printed images on the table.
First, there was little difference, if any, visible between the prints (Note: they were all made on Epson Premium Lustre paper). Also, when push came to shove, more people choose the ET-8550 prints than the P700 prints, which was quite astounding. Keep in mind finding any differences was very difficult.
I’ve been hard at work finishing up our latest book by Ben Long, The Practicing Photographer, and haven’t been able to get to the stack of printers for review in my office (and on order), but the dye-based EcoTank printers are near the top of my list. I think that these new printers could be ideal for a lot of amateur photographers looking to create decent prints at lower costs, and it was good to see Kevin’s early take on them.
Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO-300 is a $900, 13-inch desktop photo printer with nine pigment inks. Introduced in mid-2020, not long after Epson’s announcement of the 13-inch SureColor P700 (and the 17-inch P900), the PRO-300 replaces the Pixma PRO-10 at the top of the Canon’s 13-inch photo printer lineup. It boasts a comparable feature set to Epson’s P700, including flexible paper handling, black-and-white and borderless printing, extensive connectivity options and more. After a few months of testing, I can say that it’s a solid printer with excellent print quality for its class. Like most photo printers at this level, there are a few rough edges in places, but overall it’s a good value, and quite competitive with Epson’s offerings.
Epson recently announced a new set of all-in-one photo printers in their EcoTank line of cartridge-free printers. The EcoTank Photo ET-8500 (letter-size; $600) and Photo ET-8550 (13-inch; $700) inkjets have six refillable inks (five dye, one pigment), the capability to handle thick media, full network connectivity options, a flatbed scanner/copier, and more. These printers are Epson’s first photo-centric entries in the “supertank” printer market, and the company is hoping to reach photographers, designers and small office/home office folks who want high-quality, wide-gamut prints on a range of different media formats.
Maybe it has been the pandemic, or just timing, but the idea of printing your photographs seems to have some new resonance with photographers. I receive more questions these days than ever before from people who are interested in the idea of printing, but who aren’t quite sure how to even start thinking about buying a photo printer. The questions are varied, many of them along these lines:
Which printer should I buy?
Doesn’t it cost a lot more to print with your own printer?
Don’t photo printers clog all the time?
Pigments vs. dyes — does it matter?
Epson vs. Canon — who really is the best?
Why shouldn’t I just use an online printing service?
This post is an outgrowth of an email that I’ve been sending out to those folks with questions (a variant of this was first published on our sister site, Complete Digital Photography). It includes a few thoughts regarding things to think about when choosing a photo printer — or whether you should just use an online print service for your prints. It’s not intended to be the final word on the matter, but more of a conduit to get people thinking about the idea of printing their work, and the things to consider about the process.
Why bother with a photo printer in the first place?
I believe that printing is as important a part of your photographic journey as the camera and lens. A print is tangible and intimate. Holding one in your hands — or looking at one on a wall—can provoke a completely different feeling than what you get when looking at a photo on a screen. Not only that, but when you print your own work, printing informs your photographic practice. It helps you in the field and in your post-production editing.
I print both family stuff (snapshots and the like) and art prints. I use a pigment-based printer because I believe it gives me the best color gamut for the work I do. Dye printers are cheaper, and they do a good job, but they’re (largely) optimized for bright color and glossy papers, which most people like. For most photographers, there is nothing wrong with dye-based printers, and regularly I recommend them to people who are more interested in snapshots and glossy prints, or for those who don’t want to spend the extra money on something they’re not sure about.
Printing is an art, and it’s nowhere near as simple as it might seem. The biggest thing I hear from people new to printing is that, “I’m not getting what I’m seeing on screen,” and that’s real, especially if there’s been no attempt to calibrate their displays. (A colorimeter is a really good thing to have, especially if you’re printing fine art for sale, but there are things you can do to improve your color without one.)
Some of this disconnect is also that most people have their brightness cranked up when they’re editing their photos, and the differential between reflective (paper) and transmissive (screen) illumination is huge, so prints often come out dark. (Turning down the brightness on your display really helps with this, even if you’re mostly sharing photos online.)
People also tend to over-saturate their work, and in general apply too much clarity/dynamic contrast globally to their photos, which also sends things out of whack. With time and experience, however, the concept of ‘editing for the print’ will help your post-production work, as you see your photos in a different light.
Don’t printers just eat ink?
People who just want to print here and there don’t like this. Or, they want to use third-party inks and refillable cartridges to save money, which is great for printing maps and web pages, but kind of defeats the purpose in the photo printer space. For people like this, it really is better to use a service like Mpix, Bay Photo, or even Shutterfly. If I were planning to go this route. I’d narrow down to two or three services, send a bunch of photos printed at 5×7 to evaluate, and pick the service that had the best mix of quality and cost. I know lots of people who do that and are happy with it.
Epson and Canon have gotten much better about the cartridges in their printers — many of them are higher in capacity (or cheaper in cost per ml) — and you don’t go through all colors equally, so it’s not like you’re constantly buying ink. Again, for me, because I like and want to print my own stuff, the cost of the ink isn’t a huge deal for me. No matter what type of printing you do, it costs money to get a print.
For example, I had a new set of inks in my Epson SureColor P800 last January, and printed about 15 images at larger sizes (8×10, 13×19, 17×22), and more than 200 of a limited series of prints (half-letter size), and didn’t run out of any ink. With regular usage, I had to replace two of the cartridges after four months.
Here on this site, years ago, I worked towards creating a methodology for quantifying the cost of printing on a printer-by-printer basis. My friends at Red River also worked on this idea, and refined it over time. They’ve kept testing new printers over the years, and have a dedicated web page on their site, Cost of Printing. Their tests will give you a good idea of what it really costs per page (per printer), which I think is the best way to think about this topic. But remember too, that ink is one part of the equation: media costs money as well. That’s one reason why I do a lot of printing of images on smaller size paper, or in test strips — so I’m not unnecessarily wasting larger sheets of fine art paper.
It takes practice to get printing down; don’t overcomplicate it.
Time and a bit of effort helps to get things right. Some people print a bunch of stuff out, get frustrated, and then give up (or just accept what they’re getting). I tell most people to buy a couple of boxes of 4×6/5×7 glossy or luster paper (from Epson or Canon, depending upon the printer manufacturer, or a good third-party vendor like Red River or Moab), and use those as test prints, then adjust editing as they see fit. That’s the cheapest way to do it. Don’t start with every different paper type, or go out and buy the expensive stuff. Work your paper decisions as you get better, and get to understand the basic qualities of printing. (When you’re thinking about printing on different papers, print samplers are a great way to look at lots of different companies’ media types.)
You have to learn how to use ICC paper profiles when printing (which almost every good paper manufacturer offers). You also have to understand printing from your primary editing app, and the difference between driver- and app-based color management. None of these things are hard, but some people never know about them, and they add to the confusion about getting good prints.
But, don’t printers clog up, wasting more ink?
Yes, printers clog from time to time. And pigment-based printers tend to clog more easily than dye-based ones. That said, I’ve been running five printers regularly for the last few years — printing in spurts, not continually — and I don’t get a lot of clogs. I primarily do two things: (1) I put a cover on top of the printer, to keep dust out, and (2) if I haven’t been printing for a while, I’ll print a ‘maintenance’ sheet on plain paper, which will tell me if there are any of the nozzles having a problem. If so, I run a head cleaning cycle. It really doesn’t use that much ink, or take that much time. I view this like checking the oil in my car before a trip.
I think the whole ‘inkjets clog all the time’ thing is a holdover from the old days. Yes, if you don’t print regularly (10-20 prints a month, of any size, even 4×6), you’ll have to run a head cleaning from time to time. And, if you don’t print occasionally (10-20 prints every six months to a year), you’ll definitely want to do a head cleaning before printing. The real problem comes when you go a year or more between prints. You might end up using a lot of ink trying to get 20-30 nozzles clean. At that point, you would have been better off using a print service.
Notes about print life
Pigment printers offer the best in terms of longevity, but it’s not like a good dye printer will fade tomorrow, especially if you use good paper, and put them under glass or acrylic (UV coating really helps here), laminate them, or keep them out of direct sunlight. If you take care of either type of print, you should be fine. If you expect to either sell your work or exhibit it, however, I would choose a pigment printer.
Choosing a printer
I am a fan of the Epsons. I think their pigment printers are the best, in terms of quality and ease of use. I’ve been using a Surecolor P600 and P800 for years now, and they’ve been workhorses for me. The big knock on those Epson printers was that, if you wanted to switch between matte black ink (for matte/art papers) and photo black ink (for glossy and semigloss papers), the printers used one channel to the print head. So, switching took time and ink to make that happen. The newer models, the Surecolor P700 and the P900, don’t have that restriction. I used to rarely switch between paper types, so it wasn’t a big issue to me, but as my tastes have evolved, I do go back and forth between matte and glossy (baryta, actually), so I’m glad to see Epson remove this last obstacle. I’ve had some issues with paper feeding on the P900, but the print quality is amazing (see my review for more).
The Canon printers I’ve used have been decent; historically, it was harder to get neutrally toned prints out of their printers (Epson’s Advanced B&W mode is pretty great that way), but that is largely be a thing of the past. There is no question that Canon’s inks produce excellent photographic prints. I know plenty of people who love their Canon printers, and I don’t think that they’re wrong.
I am currently finishing up a review of Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO-300, and I have found it to be a a great addition to the 13-inch pigment category; their PRO-1000 is an excellent 17-inch printer, if a bit dated compared with Epson’s entries.
If you think you want to start with a dye-based printer, Epson’s Expression Photo line is quite good, and they have a pair of new photo printers (letter-size, and 13-inch) in their Ecotank Photo line. These printers have refillable ink tanks, which makes pho quite economical. On the Canon side of things, the Pixma PRO-200 is a great dye-based printer.
For desktop printing, I’ve tended to go with the printers that can handle 17-inch-wide papers, like the Epson Surecolor P800 and the P900. I print a lot of work at 16×20, so the wide-carriage printer makes sense for me — as does the better cost per ml metric of the larger printers’ ink cartridges — but the lower cost (and smaller) 13-inch printers are ideal, especially if you think 11×14 or 12×18 are about as large as you would want to print.
What about HP? Years ago, HP spent quite a bit of time and effort cultivating the advanced amateur and professional photographer community. (The DesignJet Z3200 remains one of my favorite printers of all time.) Today, while they have a line of large-format printers that produce good photographic output, they really aren’t a presence in the desktop photo market.
Thinking holistically about printing
Printing is a funny thing, and there are a lot of opinions about it all. I have lived with printers of all types and sizes for nearly three decades, Epsons and Canons and HPs extensively, and I can’t imagine photography without printing. The things about printing that people talk about as negatives — ink costs, paper costs, clogs, learning curve, etc. — don’t bother me. It’s worth it for me to have control over my prints, to be able to print more, and to print on different media types. I have used most of the print services, and they’re fine, even for really good stuff, but if you want to print big, or frequently, or experiment with different papers, a good printer is essential. You have to want to print, though. That’s the bottom line.
It’s been nearly a decade since I stopped working on Printerville. There were number of reasons for that, some personal, some professional, but the reality was that a site that reviewed mid-range to high-end photo printers didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, especially if there weren’t new developments happening on a regular basis. Archival ink sets offered expanded color gamuts that had seemed unimaginable in desktop photo printers a decade before, and the printers from Epson and Canon that used these inks were quite advanced. And HP, which had made a splash with their Z series of large-format printers, largely walked away from the advanced/pro photo market after the crash and burn of the B9180/B8850 desktop printers.
Plus, there was the ‘screen’ thing. Photographers at the time seemed to be more enamored of tablets and phones and online photo services like Instagram, Flickr and 500px than printing. When I’d mention printing, mostly what I heard from many photographers was that printing ‘was hard’ and, more importantly, ‘expensive.’
There’s nothing wrong with photos viewed on screens, but I love printing my own photographs, whether they be snapshots, proofs of work in progress, or finished fine art. To me, printing your work is an essential part of growing as a photographer; it helps inform your shooting and your processing in a way that viewing on screen cannot. It’s another component of the art of photography, an element of practice that can help you become a better photographer.
Epson bills their SureColor P700 and P900 printers as models that can create “exhibition quality” photographic prints, and that is most certainly true: the quality of the prints that they can produce is second to none in the sub-$1500 market. Replacing two five-year-old models, the SureColor P600 and P800 respectively, the new printers have some important enhancements, including a new inkset that expands the printers’ gamut; enhanced blacks when printing on glossy and other photo papers; and the removal of the decades-old reliance of using a single black-ink channel to switch between photo and fine art media. The new printers are also small and light, which should make photographers with tight workspaces happy. All that said — and especially if this is your first printer of this type — be prepared to wrestle with it a bit as you get up to speed.
In 1999, I tested Epson’s first wide-format, photographic-quality, inkjet printer, the Stylus Pro 9000. At the time, there were a number of companies that offered wide-format proofers and signage printers, and the 9000 competed well in that space, but Epson was as interested in the nascent fine-art printing market, which was dominated largely by Scitex’s Iris printers.
Epson America today announced a modest upgrade to its 17-inch professional photo printer line, with the Stylus Pro 3880.
On the surface, the 3880 offers a few incremental improvements over the Stylus Pro 3800, adding the Vivid Magenta inks, an improved printhead, and new screening algorithms. The case design, print engine, and ink system (with its spacious 80ml cartridges and 8-channel head that requires switching of matte and photo black inks) are identical to the 3800, which is testament to that printer’s design and its success in the market, as well as the relative maturity of the photo printer industry.
In my Stylus Photo R2880 review, one of the biggest questions I get is not about the quality of the printer, or even comparisons with HP and Canon printers in the same price range. No, it is: “How does it compare with Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800?”
This is understandable: while the R2880 is a very good printer, it does suffer from a few issues, notably the smaller ink tanks and the necessity to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges when you want to move between matte and glossy papers. The 3800 also requires a switch, but the process is automatic and requires no user intervention. The 3800 does waste a few dollars of ink per switch, which is troublesome, but given the rarity with which people change paper type—and its high-capacity (80ml) cartridge size, this is a lesser issue for many pro users.
Right now, the Stylus Pro 3800 is under $1,200 at Amazon (a savings of $100 or so), while the R2880 is priced around $650 ($150 off the list price). If you’re looking at the two printers, how do you choose between the two? I think it’s pretty straightforward: what follows are some of my thoughts, based on fairly heavy usage of both printers (and nearly every other photo printer in the $300 to $5,000 price range).