Summary: This guide aims to help you decide which inkjet printer is right for your needs.
29th of November, 2012
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Is an inkjet printer the right device?
If you answer yes to any of those questions - an inkjet printer is the device you need.
- Do you want quite simply the best quality quality printing available in the world today?
- Do you want flexibility to print on almost any type of paper and canvas?
- Do you want control over your own printing?
- Do you want to be able to print at any time of the day?
- Do you want to make the most archival prints currently possible?
Unfortunately, the early models were not that flash - but they're kind of like the Model T compared to today's Ferrari. Don't let internet mythology and scaredy-cats with clogging stories put you off - there is a reason the vast bulk of award winning and gallery level prints are made today with inkjet printers. If you buy the right printer (and not the cheapest model in Officeworks!), and you learn how to use one properly, they are quite simply the absolute best printers in the world today. Put in just a little effort and the results you get back will astound you and you will find yourself making the best prints you've ever made (and more easily, to boot!).
Let Image Science help you choose, and control, your inkjet printer - and you will take control over your own printing. This is a key step to becoming a better image maker. It's not that expensive, or difficult, and the results are worth it! Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn't developed an eye for state of the art printing - because this is truly how state of the art printing is currently done. Simple as that!
The fundamental question - pigment inks or dye based inks?This is the first issue you need to decide when choosing an inkjet printer.
Pigment Inks have traditionally had some slight disadvantages - firstly they are more expensive - both the inks themselves and the printers initially. They also tend to have slightly less gamut than dye inks, and slightly less black blacks on all papers. So there is a very slight reduction in sheet print quality over dye based inks. They are also not the best choice with high gloss papers due to gloss differential effects, and clogging of the printer heads remains a minor issue even now. That said - with modern pigment inksets and good colour management, the quality difference has essentially disappeared, and the day to day management of a pigment ink printer is very easy.
BUT - prints made with pigment inks on archival papers are very very colour stable. And this is the key issue - if you are pursuing photographic work of high quality, then naturally you want the prints of this work to last the test of time. And the life spans of prints made with pigment inks, properly stored (ie an acid free album or framed) -are vastly superior to the life spans of prints made with dye based inks (or traditional lab chemistry prints, for that matter). We're talking a substantial difference - a few months to a few years is typical before visible fading occurs with dye based inks, with pigments the results are several decades and possibly centuries before visible fading occurs! Quite simply, pigment inks on archival papers offer the best longevity for almost any colour printing process available in the world today.
Dye Based Inks still generally offer the very best sheer print quality. Slightly wider gamut and blacker blacks. They are also cheaper to buy and run, and there are less issues with clogging etc. This makes them perfect for proofing scenarios (such as cross rendered proofing) - and they are excellent for test prints, or for any short term printing needs. But prints from these printers will fade in relatively short order. Even the very best dye inksets have lifespans that are no more than a third of pigment ink print lifespans.
If you are selling your prints it is definitely bad practice to be printing with dye based inks.
If in doubt, choose pigment inks. All the major manufactures are developing new pigment inksets but dyes have been left behind. Pigments are unquestionably the future.
The next big question - what sizes do you need? Do you need roll papers?What size of prints do you need or want to make for yourself? Are you happy making small A4 prints for yourself, and having a service like ours make the bigger prints for you? Or would you prefer to keep everything in house and make prints up to poster size yourself?
Printers come in different carriage sizes - basically, smaller A4 printers, then A3+ models (or technically 13 inch carriage models), and then A2 models (17" carriage). The carriage size places a limit on the width of the sheets you can use with the printer, but not the length. Many of the bigger printers include the capability to handle papers in a roll format, meaning you can basically make a print of any length on these printers. Great if you're a panoramic photographer, for example. But roll paper handling is generally more fiddly and more wasteful than sheets, so if you don't need this capability, then it shouldn't factor too heavily into your decision. In our experience, very few people actually use the roll handling capabilities of the smaller printers - 17" machines are the minimum size to consider if you really want roll handling because very few papers are made in rolls smaller than 17" inches.
Running CostsInkjet printers are relatively expensive to run compared to cheap labs (i.e. your local Ted's or chemist type place). They are about on par with the cost of printing at pro labs for the most part. They are positively cheap, however, for the level of control and quality they offer. Most professional chemistry based labs (ones who do really good work, who are unfortunately few and far between) charge as much (or more) for their chemistry printing as making your own inkjet prints will cost you. Quite simply - when used properly (i.e. with custom profiles and quality materials, and the original inks), inkjet printers offer the best quality printing in the world today, at a very reasonable price - as measured both in absolute image quality AND longevity AND control over the process.
Inkjet printers are quite simply amazing little devices and anyone serious about making beautiful prints should have one (at least!) - the ability to make world class prints without leaving your house, at any time you like, is not to be under-estimated. You will be able to print better, and so you will print more - and are beautiful prints not the point to it all? Most people who discover inkjet printing, and are sensible about their use and are willing to learn to use the tools properly (why not start by reading our comprehensive notes on Digitial Fine Printing?) - almost invariably find they abandon all other forms of printing in favour of inkjet printing because the results are just so much better - and so much more in your control - than with labs.
Basically, the way it works in terms of running costs is the bigger the printer, the cheaper it is to run. Technically, it is about the size of the ink tanks - as they get bigger, the cheaper the per ml cost (and the less waster per cartridge as well). Up to and including the A3+ sizes, there is not a huge difference between the models in cost of running terms. As soon as you hit the A2/17" models, the cost drops markedly from there on up. The Epson 3880 (a 17" machine with 80 ml tanks at roughly $100 each) is much cheaper to run than the Epson 2880 (a 13" machine with approx. 12 ml tanks at approx $25 each), for example.
In general, Epson printers do cost slightly more to run in our experience than Canon printers. The Canon's are just more frugal with ink. But overall we still prefer Epson printers for the most part, since they are the kings of this market, there is a massive knowledge pool to draw on, and we think their printer drivers are the best in ease of use terms (by no means perfect but some of the Canon drivers are really a bit odd!).
About InksPhoto Black & Matte Black - most pigment ink printers come with two main black inks. These inks are not used simultaneously - the Photo Black (PK) ink is used for all gloss and semi-gloss papers, and can be used on completely matte fine art papers with OK results. However, to get great results on matte papers, the Matte Black ink (MK) is loaded into the printer to replace the Photo Black. Better printers (like the Epson 3880) can have both loaded at once, and have a very simple process to switch between them. On less good printers, the process requires manually swapping the black inks. When the black inks are swapped, a small amount of ink is sometimes wasted, depending on the model. However the amount of ink isn't much, so if you swap only every few days, it really isn't a big deal.
Better inkjet printers also come with 'Light Black' or 'Grey' inks, which greatly aid in achieving high quality black and white prints, and there is a mode in the driver (called 'Advanced Black and White' or similar) that causes prints to be made using predominantly the black and grey inks, without using the colour inks or much of them. A good example is again the Epson 3880, which has both the MK and PK inks loaded at any time, and then two further inks (Light Black and Light Light Black) that are used for easily making excellent black and white prints. More about Black and White Inkjet Printing.
Gloss Optimiser - some printers (e.g. the Epson R800 and R1900 include a 'gloss optimiser' cartridge in addition to the coloured inks. This is a special cartridge designed to increase the performance of pigment inks on gloss papers. After the image is printed, the printer coats the image with the gloss optimiser and this pretty much eliminates gloss differential effects. It's quite effective but the latest pigment inksets (in the Epson 2880 and Epson 3880) really do almost as well even without this cartridge.
How Many Inks - photo quality printing requires at least 6 inks in our experience. Most of the really high quality devices have at least 8. However, counter-intuitively, it is NOT the case that more inks necessarily means better performance. Far more important is the ink lay down strategy used by the printer. A prime example of this is the very large format printers - the current 12 ink Canon printers have somewhat less gamut (i.e. range of colours) (and also less performance within that gamut) than the current 10 ink Epson printers. But both are capable of superb results overall, and there is little practical difference. We recommend sticking to machines with 8 or more inks.
Large Format PrintersLarge format prints start at 17" carriage machines, and then typically come in 24 inch, 44 inch and 64 inch models. They are of course all considerably more expensive and are really aimed toward people/studios making significant numbers of prints. They also take up a LOT more space - typically they come with their own stand, and 24" models are similar in size to an upright piano, just to give you an idea. Basically, you just choose the size you need (remembering the bigger printers can use smaller materials as well, but not the other way around of course!).
Right now, Epson are the clear leaders in large format printers. Their current series of machines (x880 and x900) are in our opinion clearly the best options available once the whole package is considered. Firstly - they are the current leaders in print quality in general - widest gamut, least gloss differential, low metamerism etc when prints across a broad range of materials are considered. They have been developing their pigment inks for 15 odd years and compared to the early generation feel of the current Canon and HP offerings, you can really tell the difference - particularly if you do use a wide variety of materials. ALL the paper manufacturer's test their papers first and foremost with Epson printers as Epson are the clear kings of this market (70% or more internationally, in some countries well over 90%!).
This is not to say the Canon iPF line of printers is bad, or the HP Z series, but they both suffer from slight issues that make the total package less effective in our experience - and despite having 12 inks in the Canons, the gamut is measurably smaller than the 10 ink Epsons - testaments to Epson's excellent knowledge in this area. There are also vast pools of knowledge to draw on when using the Epson printers - because so many other people are using them, so problem solving is usually relatively easy.
The new Epson printers are also easily the best currently in paper handling - the new roll holders are superbly designed, trivially easy to use, and the cutter in the printer is remarkably fast, clean and robust.
Of course this is open for debate and not everyone will agree, but we have or have had examples of most of these through here and in the end, we always come back to the Epson machines as the best to use for quality fine art printing in general.
When it comes to choosing a large format printer, it largely comes to size. The x880 models have largely been superseded now by the 7900 and 9900 printers, and if you have the budget these are the obvious choices. They have all the latest features and inks and are a joy to use - fast, quiet, incredible quality and easy to use.
When considering a large format printer, it's best to talk to people who actually use them day to day (like us!), so we suggest you give us a call and we can take you through it. We have vast experience with them and unlike most places we will not up-sell you to things you probably don't need (like expensive RIP software which far too often ends up not being used!).
If you're after a large format machine, give us a call and come in for a chat/demo. 8 years of running them full time and achieving award winning prints with them has given us a lot of experience to draw on!
The best option for serious image makers - the Epson 3880.Unquestionably the best combination of quality, versatility, and cost of use currently comes in the form of the Epson 3880. If your budget for a printer is anywhere near $1500, then consider saving up slightly longer and getting the Epson 3880. It's only minor disadvantage is it does not handle roll papers (but can do sheets all the way up to 17" by 38"). Other than that disadvantage, it is so clearly superior to the A3+ models, it's very hard to make a case for them. The 3800 is simply built far better than the smaller models, and is more versatile. It's backed by an Epson pro graphics warranty (on site in capital cities) and has proven itself to be very robust, churning out print after beautiful print. It has both black inks loaded, so switching paper types from gloss to matte is very easy, and it has a much more robust paper feed than the smaller models . While the ink tanks seem expensive initially, the cost per millilitre of ink is noticeably lower than the smaller models, so the printer is cheaper to run in the long term. Indeed, given that 720 mls of ink comes with the printer, it's actually cheaper to buy a 3880 than any of the A3+ models when you think about it!
We think this is pretty much the perfect machine for serious image makers. Print quality is second to none, you can print on almost any type of surface at exquisite quality, and you can go all the way out to the very satisfying A2 size (or 17 inches by up to 38 inches). Anything bigger and you can send to use and since the inks we use are almost exactly the same, you can be confident of nearly perfect matches between your system and ours.
I just want a smaller model and to make prints for my family album etc.
Then either an R2000 or if the budget is very tight, the Epson 1430 makes a good entry level printer. But if you can get to the R2000 or above, these pigment printers provide a lot more in the way of quality and robustness.
I only make proof prints/want to proof for offset printing (e.g. magazine output).
The Canon IX7000 is probaly the best option. Very goo print quality with a very wide gamut, easy to run and frugal on ink usage, it's a cost effective device offering tremendous quality. In this context, longevity is not an issue - you just need speed, quality and cost effectiveness and this device offers all of that. You can print up to super A3 (13 by 19 inches) and thus can proof a double page spread at full size.