Hard copies, hard decisions
Shopping for a photo printer in a developing market
By Mitch Krpata

YOU SPENT WEEKS doing research, and finally you settled on the right digital camera. Along the way, you became fluent in the language of megapixels and CompactFlash cards, and can speak about the relative merits of Olympus and Canon models in a crowded room without inciting laughter. And now you've got an adorable digital picture of your cat that's just crying out to be framed and placed on a prominent shelf. Any old photo printer will do, right? Come on, you didn't think it would be that easy. If anything, there are even more questions to consider when shopping for a photo printer than for a digital camera. Should you get an inkjet or dye-sublimation printer? A single-function printer or an all-in-one? What kind of paper is best suited to your needs? And just what the hell is a "picoliter," anyway? As with digital cameras, you'll find that the answers to most of these questions depend largely on what you'll be using your printer for. Considering that consumer-grade photo printers range in price from $70 to $500, and photo paper (depending on size and composition) can run upwards of 75 cents a sheet, you simply cannot afford to make the wrong decision. Whether you're a professional photographer, a serious amateur, or a neophyte, the right printer for you is out there. It's just a matter of finding it.

The first thing to consider is exactly what you plan to do with your prints. If you're not looking to produce anything more ambitious than a few four-by-six or five-by-seven-inch snapshots, then you can probably get away with any low-end model. Because the surface area is so small, the final image won't betray a low-resolution source photograph, and there's a larger margin of error for imprecise inking. However, there are still questions of longevity to consider, since some printed photos can warp or fade over time. And if you're looking to print large, high-quality pictures, that's where all the technical jargon comes into play.

The pixel perplex
The two most reliable kinds of printers are inkjet and dye-sublimation printers. Inkjets have been around for years, and have moved rather smoothly from printing only black type to producing full-color photographs. Inkjets work by spraying a number of fine droplets of ink onto the printing paper. The rule of thumb for these printers is that the more dots per inch (DPI) the printer dispenses, the sharper the image will be. The DPI measurement, like megapixels on digital cameras, makes it easy to compare different models by quantifying the detail that goes into a standard segment of the image. But it's folly simply to pick the printer with the highest DPI and assume it's the best. For one thing, not all dots are created equal. An inkjet's dots are measured in picoliters, which, in lay terms, means one-trillionth of a liter, of all measures. When researching inkjet photo printers, you'll encounter models offering anywhere from two to 25 picoliters. That tells you how much ink of all colors, in total volume, is dispensed in each dot. As in golf, a lower number is desirable. Fewer picoliters mean a more precise, higher-resolution image. When talking about such miniscule numbers, this difference may seem negligible, but your eye will be able to discern the variation in quality.

Additionally, there's a fairly close correlation between DPI and price. It's not ironclad, but with photo printers, if you want more, you've got to give up more. The flipside is that most casual photographers don't actually need the highest-possible DPI. Unless you're rocking a 16.7-megapixel camera, in all likelihood the top-of-the-line printers are more advanced than your source photos require. Since most consumer-friendly cameras still aren't pushing beyond six megapixels or so, buying a cutting-edge printer for those photos would be akin to getting a Porsche and then obeying all posted speed limits.

It's not too difficult to decide how powerful an inkjet should be to fit best with your camera. According to www.howstuffworks.com, "The rule of thumb is that you divide your printer's color resolution [DPI] by about four to get the actual maximum picture quality [in pixels] of your printer. So for a 1200 dpi printer, a resolution of 300 pixels per inch would be just about the best quality that printer is capable of. This means that for a 1200x900 pixel image, you could print a 4x3-inch print [1200 divided by 300; 900 divided by 300]. In practice, though, lower resolutions than this usually provide adequate quality. To make a reasonable print that comes close to the quality of a traditionally developed [film] photograph, you need about 150 to 200 pixels per inch of print size." In other words, the larger (in megapixels) the pictures your camera takes, the more DPI your printer will need to do justice to your shots (not to oversimplify or anything). As the technology improves - which it is doing at a meteoric rate - this will become less of an issue, but for now there's no reason to go whole hog on the printer if you don't possess a camera from the same generation. Pictures from older cameras simply won't look as good no matter what you print them on, and the gap in quality from the camera to the page becomes less noticeable once you pass a certain number of megapixels and DPI.

Ink or dye
Inkjets should suffice for most photographers. However, for professionals and hard-core amateurs, the relatively new technology of dye-sublimation is worth looking into. Dye-sublimation is superior to inkjet in every way that matters - except for price. Although the cost of dye-sublimation printers continues to fall, they're vastly more expensive than inkjets and are considered a niche market. In fact, some consumer brands aren't even offering dye-sublimation printers yet. Still, the advantages are significant.

The biggest difference is that inkjet images are composed of several discrete units of color - think of a Georges Seurat painting on an even more-intricate scale. With digital inkjet photos, it's still possible to notice the individual dots composing the image, particularly at close range. That's not a problem with dye-sublimation, wherein the dyes live in a cellophane-like film. The print head (which dispenses the ink) heats up and passes over the film in the appropriate places, diffusing the ink onto the page, which results in a smoother, more continuous image.

Additionally, dye-sublimation prints grab hold of the page more tenaciously than those from inkjets. Because inkjets merely spray the page, their prints are more susceptible to smearing. Even if the ink doesn't smudge right away, in the long run gravity always wins. The dye-sublimation process, by contrast, actually fuses the ink into the pores of the paper through the heat process involved. It's almost like embossing, and the step up in quality is obvious. Dye-sublimation is bound to become the industry standard within a few years, but for now it's still in the "early adopter" phase.

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