Cover photo by Meesri Apichart

Eric Stowell is responsible for content and merchandising for LD Products where he researches and writes about the latest advances in print technology. His focus is to make print tech and terminology accessible to consumers by providing current news and comprehensive printing guides.

There are several mechanics that go into taking the perfect picture. Considering factors like exposure, framing, contrast, focus, depth and depth of field all play a part in piecing together that perfect snapshot in time. Just as there are several moving parts that go into a perfectly executed photo, successfully transporting the photographic qualities of a digital file onto ink and paper also requires using materials that go together. We will begin examining three very important materials here: printers, paper and ink.

With dozens of color photo printers to choose from, how do you know which one is specifically engineered to meet your photo printing needs? The cost, quality and features of the perfect photo printer will vary greatly depending on your area of expertise and the photo services you provide. So whether you shoot weddings, events, or casual portraits on weekends, here’s a list of some of the best photo printers on the market today based on your photography style, client needs and budget.  With the right print, that perfect shot can truly shine.

Models for the Amateur Photographer
Epson Artisan 1430 on Amazon
The Artisan 1430 is an excellent introductory photo printer for a reasonable price.  It’s 6-color dye based ink system and wide print carriage lets you print vibrant photos or posters as large as 13” x 19”.  It’s designed to work with up to 60 different media types and sizes, including an option to print directly onto printable CDs and DVDs. Epson’s Ultra-Premium Luster photo paper is the preferred choice for gallery or portrait photography.  Like most printers nowadays, Wi-Fi connectivity is a given, the Epson Connect app lets you easily push prints from your smartphone.  Adobe Photoshop Elements, a beginner’s version of Photoshop, is a nice added bonus, making this printer very enticing for an entry-level photographer.  We also liked Epson’s automatic color and light correction, a feature that optimizes your photos for the highest quality. High yield cartridges are standard for this machine and you can replace each color as needed. The genuine Epson brand cartridges go for around twenty dollars apiece on most online stores but you can find a decent aftermarket version for as low as $6.50.

Canon PIXMA iP8720 on B&H Photo
The Pixma iP8720 offers similar features to Epson’s Artisan 1430 at a cheaper initial price point.  It also includes a 6 color ink system, but instead of dye ink across the board, Canon includes a pigment black (for crisp text) and a gray cartridge (for optimal black and white photography).  The iP8720 has the ability to print in wide-format, supporting up to a 13”x19” print size. 4”x6” photos print in just under 36 seconds.  For a budding photographer that dabbles in both color and black and white prints, the Canon might win over the Epson.  For the price, it’s 9600 x 2400 dpi print resolution is impressive, providing incredible detail to prints and photos. And Canon’s ChromaLife 100+ ink lasts up to 300 years when stored in an archival-quality album.  You can purchase Canon brand ink in both a standard yield and high yield option.  High yield cartridges are your best bet, giving you considerably more ink for just a few more dollars.

Mid-Range Model for the Professional Photographer
Canon Pixma Pro 10 on Amazon
Sophisticated cameras like a DSLR capture images with a very high pixel count, and in order to do your photos justice you need a printer that is able to take that into consideration. Canon’s Pixma Pro series is designed to do just that.  The Pro-10 sits right in the middle of the line, just above the dye-based Pixma Pro-100 and the top of the line Pixma Pro-1.  It’s 10 pigmented inks offer an expanded color gamut, giving your prints an extraordinary range of colors.  A specially designed chroma optimizer ink cartridge improves print performance on glossy papers while reducing metamerism and bronzing. Pigmented inks are the favorite for serious professionals due to their archival longevity, whereas dye based inks produce a more vivid print but tend to fade over time.  Like the aforementioned printers, the Pro-10 supports up to a 13”x19” print size and includes wireless capabilities.  Genuine ink goes for around fifteen bucks each but with 10 replacement cartridges, the cost can add up quickly.

Models for the Professional Photographer
Epson SureColor P800 on Amazon
The SureColor P800 is one of Epson’s newer photo printers on the market and is a relatively inexpensive choice for the professional event or wedding photographer.  It’s meant to replace the five year old Stylus 3880 series and its unmatched print quality and generous page yield make it a worthy successor. Each printer includes 9 Epson UltraChrome HD pigment ink cartridges and are sold for around sixty dollars apiece. With an 80 milliliter capacity, cartridge replacement should be scarce.  Designed for wide-format use, the P800 allows you to print up to 17”x22” wide borderless photos and for a couple hundred bucks Epson offers a compatible roll media adapter.  Capable of handling up to 100 foot rolls, it’s great for printing panoramic photos on banners and gallery wrapped canvases.  The P800 is the first printer in its class to offer Wi-Fi connectivity and its compact size and light weight make it extremely portable.  It supports three different paper paths for various media types and sizes, including a front loading path for fine art paper.  In terms of what features you get for the price, the P800 is definitely worth considering.

Shopping for a photo printer should be easy once you’ve nailed down your needs.  Think about the services you provide and how they translate to your printed product. Every professional photographer hopes their work will exceed a client’s expectations and the right printer can make that happen.

There’s a whole lot more to paper than most of us know. Using the right photo paper is just as important as using the right printer.  When choosing the right photo paper for your photos, there are a few properties you should know about.

Brightness, Whiteness, and Shade
Brightness is defined as how much light is reflected off the paper. Brighter paper offers higher contrast and a better range of color when it comes to color photo printing.

Apart from brightness, Xerox recommends that you take the paper’s shade and whiteness properties into consideration. In layman’s terms, whiteness is how white you visually perceive the paper to be as some paper can lean towards a slightly yellow or blue hue. Blue white paper is optimal for photo printing as these tend to be perceived as brighter than more neutral white papers.

Shade is a paper property that describes the subtle color differences and can affect the final look and feel of your photos when printed. If your photo is comprised of mostly warm colors, choosing a warmer shade of paper better enhances the warm characteristics of your image. For photos dominated by mostly cool colors, like blue and black, printing on a blue white sheet will amplify the graphic effect. For colors on both warm and cold sides of the spectrum, going with a true white sheet will boost the details of the photo overall. There’s also the option of true white which is a paper with no brighteners or dyes. Knowing about the shade property will come in handy when you’re trying to determine what kind of paper to use for portrait over landscape images.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to the right paper brightness, whiteness, and shade for color photo printing. It all depends on the dominant colors of your photos because how the ink and toner interacts your paper will determine how your photos appear on the page. If your budget allows, you can also play around and print your photos on different kinds of paper to see the different qualities in each one.

A good photo paper helps the ink permeate throughout the page and also guards against fading or discoloration. This is where coated paper comes in. Paper coating helps ink stay neatly on  the paper by controlling how it’s absorbed instead of flowing out from areas of high ink concentration. Coated paper will protect your photos from fading as pigment is locked on the surface of the paper. There are three types of photo paper (or paper finishes) based on their coating that are commonly used by photographers, each with their own unique purpose.

Gloss: Gloss paper is the by far the most popular, and is appreciated for its ability to produce vibrant colors, highlight fine details and offer a smooth looking finish. But under certain lighting the glare from the finish might make prints difficult to see.  Glossy photo paper is great for wedding photography, family photos and promotional media. Handle glossy prints carefully, as they can easily attract fingerprints!

Semi-gloss: Semi-gloss paper is a nice compromise between glossy and matte.  It still offers the vibrancy of a glossy paper but with far less glare.  Like matte, it is durable and resistant to smudging.  So when do you choose semi-gloss over gloss?  Semi-gloss is preferred when displaying your work behind glass and low glare means you can still appreciate a great photo under strong light.

Matte:  Matte paper tends to have a very dull appearance.  It has a very low reflective property so glare is virtually non-existent, making it best suited for black and white photography.  Businesses also like using matte paper for flyers or brochures due to its readability.

Fine Art Papers
With the popularity of digital photography, paper manufacturers have introduced a variety of fine art papers including watercolor papers, canvas sheets, velvet cotton rag, and fiber based papers available in various textures specially made with photo printing in mind. Landscape photographs look great when printed on textured fiber paper as this brings more depth and detail to the image. Each fine art paper type brings unique qualities to the image which normal photographic paper can’t. Deciding whether or not to use fine art paper (again) all depends on you, your photo and your purpose. Jane Davenport experimented on the different kinds of fine art paper and gives her take on how each one is different on her blog.

Knowing which paper to use for your photos might take a bit of trial and error and would always depend on the color and contrast qualities of your shots.  Luckily, photo paper manufacturers will often sell sample or variety packs that allow you to experiment across different media.  To get the absolute best in quality, try and buy the photo paper compatible with your printer. When you do start experimenting with different types of paper, make sure your printer is properly configured to the appropriate media type. For example, if printing on glossy stock, select the “glossy” paper type in your printer settings to get the optimum results.

Simply put, most lower end photo printers use a dye-based ink while higher end printers will use pigment-based ink. Dye based is inexpensive and is generally preferred by casual photographers because of it’s vibrancy and versatility.  However, since it’s water-soluble, it can be vulnerable to smearing if it comes into contact with water. Dye-based prints last about 25 years when displayed under glass.

Pigmented-based ink, on the other hand, offers a crisper finish and a quicker dry-time than dye-based ink.  It is valued by professional photographers and graphic designers for its ability to print archival quality images and text. Pigment ink is embedded into the fibers of the paper as it dries, offering greater color stability and high resistance to water.

Overall, even if dye-based inks offer the blackest blacks, pigment-based inks are more superior to them in terms of saturation, fade resistance, and other image reproduction factors.

Paper size considerations. Some considerations when printing photos is will your printer be able to accommodate the paper size you want to use? Most home printers can accommodate a max width of up to 17”, some wide format printers can go as wide as 22”, and there are commercial wide formats that can go as wide as 44”. Another consideration is paper to printer compatibility. Apart from the size considerations, double check your printer’s paper weight tolerance (g/m2) to make sure your paper is not too thick for your printer. A quick tip on thickness: avoid printing on humid days as the extra moisture can fatten up your medium.

ColorLok. Dye-based and pigment-based ink behave differently when used on different types of paper. Using ColorLok paper with pigment ink increases ink saturation by eliminating vertical bleeds and facilitates faster drying which results in sharper more vibrant images.

Ink D-Max. Another important tidbit, make sure you use the correct black ink for your paper. Using matte black ink with matte paper results in the best D-Max, or maximum black. Similarly, use photo black ink with semi-gloss and gloss papers for optimum results.

Profiles. It may be worthwhile to tinker with your printer’s ICC profile to make sure you sure you set the right settings for the media you’re about to use. Default profiles are ideal for testing and the small price of customizing your profile will prove priceless in the end.

Pigment Ink. Pigment ink works beautifully with matte, semi-gloss, and high-gloss photo paper but for best results, use resin-coated paper. Using resin-coated paper results in the sharpest, most vivid, waterproof, durable photos. The glaring downside to this medium is the steep price. Resin coated paper comes in two types: swellable and porous. Swellable resin coated paper works best with dye-based ink and porous resin coated paper works great with both ink types. Some examples of resin-coated photo paper are Epson’s Premium Glossy and Semi-Gloss photo papers (porous), Epson’s Ultra Premium Luster photo paper (swellable), HP’s Premium Plus Glossy and Soft-Gloss Photo paper (swellable), and Canon’s Pro II, Platinum, and Plus Glossy II photo paper (porous). One way to determine if your paper is resin-coated is if it doesn’t curl up after printing.

Pigment ink on smooth fine art matte paper is another favorite in the photography, design, and illustrative worlds. Apart from boasting archival characteristics, this combination results in stunning images with the widest range of colors and the strongest blacks making it a duo to strongly consider. The textured variety of fine art matte paper works better on bigger prints since the texture can overwhelm smaller prints.

The making of a great photo is more than just the picture itself. Careful consideration of the printer, paper and ink should play an equally important role in your photographic process.  Don’t be afraid to test different media and inks. Just like capturing the perfect shot can take a considerable amount of planning, finding the right materials may take a bit of trial and error.  But once you’ve discovered the best combination for the job, your photo can reach its full potential.

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