Some criteria to consider when comparing pro-photo printers
By Eileen Fritsch
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Great Output and is published here with permission, courtesy of Great Output and LexJet. Great Output is LexJet’s bi-monthly publication for photographers who want to know more about how to print, finish, display, and sell digital images.
A wide-format inkjet printer is a great investment. Every day LexJet customers tell us about creative ways they’re using wide-format printers to generate additional revenue. And, the potential for using wide-format printers to improve studio profitability has just begun to be tapped.
For example, you can combine your wide-format printing capabilities with your photography expertise to help some of the millions of photo enthusiasts equipped with digital SLRs create enlargements that look far more artistic and refined than any of the poster-size prints they can now buy at their nearest Office Max or Staples.
A 2007 survey of professional photographers suggests that many of you haven’t considered buying a wide-format printer because you think it might distract you from keeping pace with camera and workflow software upgrades or dealing with intensifying price competition and the shifting demand for photography services. But if growing your photography business is a top priority, consider the dozens of ways a wide-format printer can help you stabilize, diversify, and grow your photography business.
Which wide-format inkjet printer is best for you?
Download a comparison chart that details the features and specs of the Epson Stylus Pro, HP Designjet and Canon imagePROGRAPH models.
Read on to learn more about the features and functions you need to understand when evaluating a wide-format printer for your business.
LexJet carries eight models of Epson, Canon, and HP pro photo printers that handle media rolls ranging from 24 inches to 64 inches wide. That’s because every photography business has different requirements in terms of workflow, color gamuts, print types, and print volumes.
Over the past year, Epson, Canon and HP have all made their wide-format photo printers better and easier to use. And the extensive range of materials available from the printer manufacturers and LexJet make wide-format printers one of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can own.
So how do you choose which printer is right for your business? Portrait/fine-art photographer and Canon Print Master Vincent Isola says choosing a wide-format printer is like buying a car: “They all get you where you want to go. But each model has different features that set them apart. It’s simply a matter of deciding which features you prefer.”
Image Permanence: As long as your prints are properly protected, handled, and displayed, image permanence is no longer the deciding factor it once was. Epson, Canon and HP all use pigment inks to produce color and black-and-white prints that can last for decades.
Image Quality: Image quality is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s also related partly to the type of images you want to print and the type of media you use most often.
Image quality is determined to a great degree by the color gamut and tonal range a printer can produce. The wider the tonal range, the more details the printer the printer can reproduce in shadow and highlight areas, and the smoother the gradations and fleshtones will be.
But just because one brand of printer has more colors in its inkset doesn’t necessarily mean it produces a wider color gamut. The number and type of colors make a difference of course, but color gamut is determined by a complex combination of variables including droplet sizes, the screening pattern used by the print driver or RIP software, the types of pigments used in the ink, the size of the pigment particles themselves, the reflective properties of the print media, and the quality of media’s receptive coating.
The MicroPiezo printhead technologies Epson uses with its UltraChrome pigmented inks can vary the size of the droplets, creating droplets as small as 3.5 picoliters. The technology also provides highly uniform dot geometry and extremely accurate dot placement. Combined with Epson’s AccuPhoto HD screening, Epson can achieve a wide color gamut and the appearance of a continuous-tone print with fewer inks than Canon and HP printers. Variable-droplet printing also requires Epson to use smaller pigment particles to minimize head clogs.
Canon and HP printers output consistent-size droplets as small as 4 pl and their inks are formulated with different pigments and larger pigment particles.
The size and quality of each pigment particle affects how different shades of colors look on different materials. Fast-drying matte canvases draw the pigments away from the print surface, whereas glossier papers keep the pigments close to the surface. This affects how the pigments reflect light and are perceived as different colors. So, the inkset used with one brand of printer may produce a better red or purple on a matte canvas. And the inkset on a different printer brand may produce better reds and purples on photo papers.
Bronzing is another image-quality problem related to certain types of papers. Bronzing is that slightly metallic look that appears when a print on a gloss or luster photo paper is viewed at an angle. It’s related to differences in the glossiness between the darker areas of an image and the lighter areas. HP Z3100 printers use a clear Gloss Enhancer to avoid the problem. Epson and Canon have developed revised ink formulations, pigment encapsulation techniques, and screening patterns to address the problem. Spraying prints with a protective clearcoat can even out the gloss differential that causes bronzing.
In any case, before choosing a printer, try to have some of your images output on the type(s) of media you’ll use most often.
Print Speeds: If you plan to sell a few prints per month at $250 to $500 each, then image quality will matter more to you than print speed. But if you plan to sell hundreds of poster-size enlargements to different portrait clients, event attendees, or photo hobbyists, then you’ll want a printing workflow that lets you print and ship prints quickly.
Print Consistency: Consistency from print to print depends on whether the performance of the printer remains stable over time. If the printer isn’t performing the same way day after day, the color profiles you use one day won’t produce the same predictable print results next week. It will also affect your ability to accurately view your images in Photoshop before you print.
Minor variations in color consistency may not matter if you’re selling one-off posters to hundreds of different customers who never see the prints side by side. But color consistency definitely matters if you’re selling limited-edition prints or posters to commercial clients who want to incorporate brand colors. It’s also important that fleshtones and memory colors (skies, grass, food) remain accurate.
Epson printers use piezo printheads, which are calibrated at the factory and remain stable over the anticipated life of the printer. (The downside is that piezo printheads are expensive to replace and require a visit from a technician to do so.)
The thermal printheads in HP and Canon printers require onboard systems to keep them calibrated. HP printers have used on-board closed-loop automated calibration systems for several years. Canon added an onboard calibration system when they introduced the 5100/6100/8100 and 9100 printers. The primary advantage of thermal printheads is that you can replace them yourself if their performance degrades.
Image ©Anita Marquis
Operating Costs: Yes, there are some differences in the ink costs among Canon, Epson, and HP printers and LexJet can help you make comparisons based upon the type and volume of printing you plan to do. And, the Canon, Epson, and HP printers all have built-in utilities that let you track the ink and media costs of each print job.
But instead of calculating comparatively minor differences in ink and material costs, you can more profitably spend your time on marketing your new capabilities or using your printer to help attract new photography customers. You can even design an unattended printing workflow that lets your studio make more money by creating sellable prints while you sleep, shoot more pictures, or consult with clients.
It’s also important to price your prints appropriately. Your customers are paying not just for the printing, but also for your photography expertise and creative services in editing each image.
Ease of Use: If you’ll routinely switch from one type of media to another, you’ll want a printer that makes it easy to do so. Make sure you understand the steps involved in changing from cut sheet to roll media or from photo papers to art papers so you don’t needlessly waste time, paper, or ink every time you make a switch.
If you plan to stick with one type of roll media for poster or canvas printing, then it might not really matter if the printer has a straight-feed media path for thick media or can automatically switch from photo black to matte black inks.
Workflow Software: Dozens of products can help you efficiently lay out and upsize your images or create and use profiles for different types of materials. At LexJet, we typically recommend ImagePrint because its vast profile library gives you the ability to effortlessly print to many different types of materials. Right now, ImagePrint is available only with Epson printers.
But all of the printer manufacturers have been improving their print drivers, developing specialized software, or partnering with other RIP software providers. Canon, HP, and Epson all offer proofing RIPs that enable your printer to simulate output from CMYK offset or digital presses or match output from other inkjet printers or toner-based printers you may be using.
HP makes it easy to avoid common printing errors by synchronizing the color settings in their print drivers with your Photoshop color settings. You can also launch HP’s color-management tools directly from Lightroom’s Print Module.
Canon’s Print Plug-in for Digital Photo Professional software makes it fast to go directly from shooting with a Canon EOS DSLR to printing. Canon developed its optional PosterArtist 2007 software (Windows-only) with input from photographers who said they wanted a fast, efficient way to design posters they could sell to portrait, event or commercial clients. In addition to pre-designed templates, the software includes variable-data capabilities that make it possible to automatically customize the text to add names to senior portrait posters or the locations of each restaurant or hotel in a chain.
Some photographers who have been printing for awhile and sell fine-art reproduction services understand that the 60- and 64-inch printers make it faster to generate higher volumes of smaller prints. But these extra-wide printers also introduce new challenges in terms of handling bulky rolls of media or framing or shipping extra-large prints.
Tech Support: Make sure tech support is affordable, fast and dependable. LexJet has all three brands of printers in our office and we can help you resolve many common technical issues by phone. All three printer manufacturers have been improving online access to technical information. HP offers its online Knowledge Center, Canon has its online Digital Learning Center, and Epson has developed a website specifically for professional photo printing.
The Bottom Line: The printer you choose depends partly on the nature of your business and whether you want to sell five prints a month on canvas or art papers at $500 each or 100 posters a month at $25 each. Your choice will also be dictated by whether you specialize in shooting bright, colorful images with highly saturated colors or finely detailed, exquisitely nuanced black-and-white prints.
For far less than what you once paid for camera equipment, you can now buy a printer that can not only differentiate yourself from emerging and part-time pros but also sell to them! Call one of the friendly account specialists at LexJet at 800-453-9538 and we’ll be happy to give you additional ideas about how you can use a wide-format inkjet printer to grow your photography business.
What Can You Create With a Wide-Format Inkjet Printer?
• Exhibition prints for fellow photographers and artists
• High-quality enlargements for advanced amateur photographers
• Photo murals and wallcoverings for interior décor or scenic backdrops
• Framed prints that architects can give to clients
• Promotional displays for bridal-show exhibitors
• Photo banners on fabric or vinyl
• Detailed photo enlargements for use in courtroom trials
• Posters for senior portrait or packages
• Presentations to potential commercial clients
• Identity graphics for vehicles
• Posters and banners for school sports teams
• Wall portraits of engagement shots to boost online photo sales from a wedding reception
• Posters for offices, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and other businesses
Great Output is LexJet’s bi-monthly publication for photographers who want to know more about how to print, finish, display, and sell digital images. LexJet also publishes a monthly educational eNewsletter for photographers called In Focus. For more information about subscribing to these resources, go to www.lexjet.com/lexjet/newsletters.asp, or contact a LexJet account specialist at 800-453-9538.