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Hard copies, hard decisions (continued)

Bells, whistles, or neither?
Okay, you've made your decision about which printer - inkjet or dye-sublimation - is for you. Don't get too excited, bucko. Which method of printing is right for you may be the most important decision you need to make, but it's not the only one. There's also the issue of functionality. Time was a person could get a printer whose sole purpose was, you know, to print things. Nowadays you can get printers that have more in common with Swiss Army knives than with track-feed printers. They can scan, copy, fax - the only thing missing is a little corkscrew.

You can count on one of two things with a multi-function printer: 1) it's going to cost you an arm and a leg, or 2) it's not going to work very well. Sometimes even both.

This is not to say that all-in-ones aren't worth getting. Although multi-function photo printers have yet to offer the ludicrous array of uses of some past office behemoths (printer-copier-scanner-fax-espresso-machine), they can be pretty handy. Most include a scanner. Via some clever marketing-speak, companies will have you believe that this allows them to also proclaim these things copiers, because you can scan a document and then print it. And why argue semantics? Scanners are useful to have, however. They're a good way to digitize your existing film photos and send them to your friends. And, once you've scanned an analog photo, you can print it out again. All this can be worthwhile, especially for work-from-home types, but all-in-ones aren't for everybody.

What can be truly valuable are portable photo printers. These are small, battery-powered printers not much larger than the cameras themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, portables do come with a slew of drawbacks. One of the biggest sacrifices manufacturers make is in the quantity of ink that these models hold, so you'll need replacement cartridges much more often than you will with standard desktop models. Also, with most portables, there's precious little you can do to alter or enhance your photos before printing them. Typically, you simply connect the camera to the printer via a USB port, and print away.

Still, portable printers offer serious advantages worth considering. They come in handy for things like weddings, bar fights, insurance claims, and family reunions; they allow you to avoid the hassle of promising to send a snapshot to friends, family, or the police later. Instead, you can hand over a print right away, forcing people to compliment your photography skills in person. (That way, it's easier to tell how sincere they are.) Although the benefits of portables are undeniable, they also serve only a few specific purposes and are no substitute for desktop models. However useful you find a portable, you'll still need its bigger brother. Make sure your wallet can handle the strain.

Not-so-hidden costs
No matter how much you choose to spend on your photo printer, in the long run the most crippling cost will be to replace your ink cartridges. Depending on your printer, replacement cartridges will cost anywhere from $15 to $50 each. And, believe me, you will need replacement cartridges. Printing photos, particularly large ones, will chew up your ink supply faster than Takeru Kobayashi can down 50 hot dogs.

Ink is a bigger concern with photo printers than with either traditional black-inkjet printers or even color printers, simply because there's a lot more of it. Classic color printers designed to print out colorful pie charts and Web pages make do with only three shades of ink - usually black, cyan (a greenish blue), and magenta. Most photo printers have at least six colors - in addition to the above three, they have lighter shades of cyan and magenta, plus yellow - and some higher-end models have eight or more. The need for so many pigments should be obvious: more-nuanced shades are needed to duplicate accurately the real-life colors of digital photography (some cameras can capture more than 16 million distinct hues).

Because of the quantity of ink needed to depict the source image, you're likely to blaze through your cartridges in less time than you're used to with traditional printers. And this is exactly what printer manufacturers have in mind. The truth is that ink is the bread and butter of the entire industry. You've probably heard that movie theaters make only a small percentage of their revenue through their box office, so they inflate their concession prices to the point where you need to take out a second mortgage just for a bucket of popcorn and a large Coke. The printer industry works the same way. Because they can sell you a printer only once every few years or so, they need to make their money another way - and often they'll sell their hardware at below-manufacturing costs just to ensnare you in their web. Once that happens, you're forced to buy cartridges that contain less ink than they should, and that cost more than they ought to. Unfortunately, at that point, you don't have much choice.

The ridiculous lack of an industrywide standard-type ink cartridge has become a running joke. For the most part, only the original equipment manufacturer offers cartridges for its printers. That is, if you have an Epson printer, you can buy replacement ink only from Epson; if you have a Canon, you can buy only from Canon, and so on. Even worse, each different model usually requires its own specific type of cartridge. This makes it difficult for third parties to offer competitive prices on ink, and although third-party options do exist, they're usually not worth the savings.

As if that weren't enough, there is a huge black market for counterfeit printer ink. In February 2003, cops based in Brampton, Ontario, busted a counterfeiter named Yasar Sattar, who was attempting to sell $30,000 worth of ersatz Epson ink. I wish I were making this up. The lesson: sometimes replacement cartridges are well worth what you pay for them. Although you can often find great deals on high-quality printers, you're playing with fire if you think you've found a sweetheart deal on ink.

You shouldn't try to compromise on ink quality. While your choice of printer depends on your camera and your printing goals, bad ink can torpedo every project, from the most painstakingly professional portrait to the silliest drunken candid. With cheap cartridges, you risk a variety of calamities. For one thing, the ink quality itself is likely to be noticeably inferior to the real deal. Colors will be off, and diluted dyes can lead to anemic-looking photos. Additionally, cheap ink is likelier to run and smear, which wastes not only the ink itself, but also your paper. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that black-market forgeries often come with less-than-full reservoirs, so they run out of ink faster. So, despite the initial savings, they're less cost-effective. And finally, if the quality of the cartridge itself is not up to par - faulty nozzles are common - you may find yourself dealing with leakage or indiscriminate shotgun blasts of ink.

There's one more thing to consider before leaping enthusiastically into the realm of photo printing: paper. Paper comes in any number of sizes, from three-by-five inches to 13-by-19 and even larger, so make sure you buy a dimension that your printer can support. Most vendors offer a quick reference guide to ensure that your chosen medium will work with your hardware.

Photo paper is by nature heavier and thicker than standard 8.5-by-11-inch document paper. Because the sheet will be saturated with ink, it's necessary for it to be sturdier. With that said, there are several characteristics to consider when choosing the right paper for your photographs.

The biggest decision is whether you want matte or glossy paper. And while this isn't like choosing which one of your two children will live and which will die, it matters more than you might expect. First of all, the fundamental difference between the two is pretty explicitly stated in their names. Matte paper lends your photographs a dull finish, which sounds like an insult but isn't. The image itself won't appear hazy or muddled on matte paper; rather, the paper surface minimizes glare. That makes matte paper the ideal choice for framing, because it won't bounce a reflection from every light source in the room.

Glossy prints more closely resemble those you'll get from your standard one-hour-photo shop, and are, in most respects, good enough. They do tend to pick up fingerprints more than matte prints do, so that's a potential pitfall. Plus, the glossy coating on this type of paper means that ink will dry more slowly than on more-absorbent matte paper, subjecting it to a heightened risk of smudging. But glossy paper has the advantage of the price. In general, a ream of glossy paper costs a few bucks less than a package of matte paper of comparable quality. The difference in cost isn't huge at first, but over time you'll save quite a bit by using glossies.

Another aspect of paper to consider is brightness (the "white" hue of the paper itself). Brightness is expressed as a number from one to 100, with 100 being a blindingly pure, almost holy white. Most photo paper is rated in the mid-to-high 90s (even if its actual brightness isn't explicitly listed on the packaging). The difference in shades isn't huge, but it is noticeable to the naked eye. Here, again, what you choose is mostly a matter of preference. You'll find that photos printed on brighter paper tend to have livelier color and pop off the page more. There are exceptions, and it may take some experimenting with different brands and brightness levels to determine what best serves your photographs.

If you're after longevity and prestige, you'll want to choose a thicker, heavier paper stock. Paper weight is usually measured in pounds, and you'll find options ranging from 24 to 71 pounds. Paper weight is an industry standard based on pounds per ream, with a ream being 500 sheets. Thickness, or caliper, is measured in "mils," meaning thousandths of an inch (a measurement that can be taken literally). You'll typically find calipers offered from six mil to 10.25 mil.

Thicker, heavier paper can usually absorb more ink and also holds the ink better. Though this is a matter of personal preference, I think it also feels better in the hand - more substantial and professional.

BY NOW, you should have a handle on the most important things to look for when shopping for a photo printer. Do the research before making any purchases. You have many brands to choose from, and every one of them is scrambling to make even loftier promises than its competitors. Be sure you're getting everything you need and nothing you don't. The whole process may seem like an awful lot of work, but photographs are supposed to last forever. Make sure they deserve to.

Mitch Krpata can be reached at mkrpata@phx.com.

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