Beginner’s guide to printing photographs – Part 1

Why print?

You have been enjoying your photographic hobby for a while. Eventually, you reach an epiphany – your pictures in the digital space scream for a place in the physical world! You want to share physical photographs with relatives and friends that they are proud to put on display or use as a cover for a diary or scrapbook. Or you want to decorate your home with your own work. Or you want to create your own physical album to record your precious memories, tangible and easy to look at and pass down to a next of kin. Or you simply realized that printing is really the next step in your photographic journey. After all, although your pictures may look good on a fancy colour-calibrated monitor,  the real test of quality is to see how your work actually measures up in physical form!

Besides all the above, I must also emphasize that an important benefit of printing your work is that it genuinely improves your photography. Once you start printing, you will come to a sobering conclusion that a lot of pictures that get thousands of likes on social media actually look like garbage once they are printed in physical form. The physical print will reveal life-changing truths to you that MTF charts and pixel-peeping do not. Leave the lemmings on camera forums to whine and squabble over pixels on monitors and spec sheets while you rise above that lot to become a superior visual artist. 😀

Using a printing service versus doing it yourself

When it comes to performing the print job, you could find a photographic printing service to do the work for a fee. In fact, many printing services offer printing of 4R glossy photographs at attractive prices. It may end up vastly cheaper than buying your own papers, inks and spending your own time doing everything yourself. However, even if using a printing service may be cheaper and simpler, you may feel you can do a better job yourself. Or perhaps your local printing service only offers tacky 4R glossy prints at agreeable prices. One thing is absolutely certain – unless you are paying more for a professional printing service, you will print your own photographs with much more care and effort than a printing service that charges you a couple of cents per 4R picture. You will be willing to redo prints with different rendering modes, different papers and perform soft-proofing until you are satisfied with the results. No way the local printer who just wants to make quick-and-easy profits by brainlessly dumping your images into their printers will go through all that trouble for you. It is a question of convenience versus quality.

Note that many professional photographers make use of reputable, trusted professional printing services. Professional printing is an art form and a capital investment, and there are definitely situations where the skills, equipment and advice of a certified printing professional are mandatory.

Of course, since you are reading this article, I assume you have already made the decision to print your own photographs yourself. If so, welcome and keep reading! 

Which printer should I buy?

We start by trying to answer the number one basic question – which printer to buy. As hackneyed as this question is, it turns out that actually trying to answer this question brings up a lot of fundamental, little-known information that are important to know for the photo printing novice. Fundamental and little-known are important keywords here. Make a decision without considering some of the following facts and you could be heavily inconvenienced in your operation flow or find yourself incurring surprisingly high printing costs. To make things easy, I am going to approach the “what printer to buy” question with bite-sized information for you to chew on bit-by-bit.

Inkjet or laser printer?

This one is easy. Laser printers are more practical in office environments with bulk printing requirements. Inkjet printers excel at colours and offer the best output for photographs. First question is easy isn’t it? Hold on, things get rapidly more complicated with our next question.

Pigment-based or dye-based ink?

Pigment-based inks are more resilient to fade and longer-lasting. As a result all pigment-based inkjet printers are positioned as professional-grade photographic printers. They command a higher price and have more advanced features dedicated to photo-printing. Dye-based ink printers are considered to be “less professional” and have less of those advanced photo-printing features the pigment-based ink printers possess. For example, they may support smaller print sizes and less sophisticated printer drivers or control functions. 

Since this article is written for amateurs and beginners, so my recommendation to this audience is to start with a dye-based inkjet printer. Only invest in a pigment-based inkjet printer when you know you have become a printing expert with the justifications for operating a professional pigment-based printer. Otherwise, it is going to become expensive – much, much more expensive than the numbers on the price stickers would have you believe.

The reason is because a professional pigment-based inkjet printer is like a capital investment in a manufacturing facility. In simple terms, you lose money using it, and you also lose money not using it. The inks are expensive. The papers that you will want to use with these high-end production tools are expensive. These printers run the risk of clogging up if they are unused, causing permanent damage. Or they drain even more of those precious expensive inks to unclog themselves. Professional printing services run automated schedules on these printers to print one or two sheets of random stuff every week as part of maintenance to ensure they do not clog – which uses ink again. These professional-grade photographic printers only make sense if you print regularly and have the financial means and justifications to do so.

Note that there are some pigment-based inkjet printer models targeting SOHO users which are priced at very affordable levels. Be wary, because those printers come with a pitiable amount of ink storage. After a handful of prints, you are going to start running low on at least one colour, forcing you to buy more inks. These companies sell you a professional photo printer at a cheap price, but intend to slaughter your wallet with the price of their inks. It is so bad I nearly want to call it legalized fraud. Do your own research and be aware of your printing needs before committing.

The reasons above are why I recommend amateurs and beginners to start with a cheaper dye-based inkjet printer. Begin at the entry-level, then work up the product line-up slowly as you print more and start to understand your needs and preferences. As of 2018, printer manufacturers have introduced dye-based ink-tank printers which are capable of delivering extremely affordable printing capabilities. Epson even offers a 6-ink Eco-Tank model that can print up to A3 size! Printing photographs has become even more affordable and approachable for newcomers – as long as you educate yourself and understand what are the important things to look out for!

Epson or Canon or HP or…?

Photographic printer choices usually boil down to Canon or Epson. Sure you could print photographs with other printer brands, but these are the only brands in the forefront of photo printing, and the only two brands a professional printing service will use. So pick either Canon or Epson.

Oh yes, if you did not get my hint from two paragraphs before – get yourself a tank-based dye-based printer. These are extremely economical and allows you to do a lot of prints and experiments without putting a strain on ink costs. Get them!

So… Epson or Canon?

As this article has already gotten long enough, I will continue this guide in part 2 of this series. It is Epson versus Canon in the realm of amateur printing in the next chapter. Stay tuned!