Beginner’s guide to printing photographs – Part 2

In part one of this series, I made an introduction to printing your own photographs, explained why you might want to do it, gave some tips on what printers to not buy, and gave readers a first glimpse into the complexity of choosing a printer. In this follow-up post, I will give some recommendations for choosing between an Epson or a Canon inkjet printer for printing novices who wish to start printing their own photographs.

Colour management for printers and papers

Our displays need to be colour-calibrated to ensure colour consistency across different digital display mediums. This is well known. If you do not, stop reading, go look up the topic here, get your display calibrated as the guide suggests and do not bother coming back until you have a colour-calibrated display.

Once you understand colour calibration for digital displays, it is simply common sense to realize that a similar system to ensure colour consistency is mandatory for physical print media as well. In simple terms, we need to make sure the colours we print to paper match the colours displayed on our screen. Welcome to colour management for physical print!

To emphasize how important calibrating your printer for paper is, consider the following factors. Your printed photograph is going to be placed in locations where light will be illuminating it very differently from how light illuminates the digital display in the room where you perform image processing. Your digital display is back-lighted O/LED calibrated to your eyes’ comfort. A piece of photographic paper is flora pulp front-lighted by whatever happens to be lighting it. O/LED displays display colours using electronic pixels which can emit a wide range of different colours. Papers display colours by having printers spray tiny dots on it from a limited selection of 3-11 colours. A digital displays can fill the SRGB or AdobeRGB colourspace. The colourspace of your printer’s inks on physical papers is much more limited. The nature of light and physics already conspire to make your physical print look different from its digital representation on your display right from the beginning. All the more important to get colour calibration done right to minimize the deviation!

Different papers display colours in different ways, so you have to generate a paper profile for different papers. But wait, different printers also print colours in different ways! Hence you actually need a specific printer-paper profile for every printer-paper combination you use. For example, if you already have a paper profile for printer model A and paper type Z, you should not reuse it for printer model B with paper type Z. You should generate a new printer model B + paper type Z paper profile for it.

The problem with printer-paper colour profiles: availability

If you think things are looking complicated, the worst is yet to come. Photographic paper manufacturers typically calibrate their papers against the expensive, high-end professional pigment-based printers and make those profiles available for download. However, they do not do this for the entry-level dye-based printers. So you have to rely on the paper profiles that are built into the printer drivers provided by your printer manufacturer. And of course, you don’t expect Canon to provide profiles for anything else except Canon papers, and you don’t expect Epson to provide profiles for anything else except Epson papers.

To make things worse, many of the dye-based printers have such rubbish drivers that they don’t support all the paper types sold by its own manufacturer! :O The printer manufacturers are quite insistent that if you are not buying an expensive professional-grade pigment-based printer, you aren’t good enough to get access to their full suite of paper profiles.

So what happens when you want to use a paper which needs a profile that isn’t supported by your manufacturer’s printer driver? Simple – you are stuck. Try printing anything without solving this problem and the colours of your digital image and your physical print will be mismatched.

How to get the printer-paper colour profile you want

The simplest solution is to just stick to the papers your manufacturer’s printer driver support. Very restrictive but it works, especially for users of Canon printers. Canon sells a large variety of affordable papers that are readily supported by their drivers. Epson users will be in trouble here, as many Epson papers are in the premium/commercial range. This means that some papers may only be available in rolls instead of convenient pre-cut sheets, or the colour profiles for some intermediate-to-high-end papers are not available in their dye-based printer drivers.

Another solution is to invest in a colour calibration tool that can calibrate printers and papers. In another words – you colour-calibrate the papers yourself and generate your own printer-paper profiles. However, such calibration tools are quite expensive and carry a significant price mark-up over the usual display calibration device. I do not recommend purchasing one unless you are really rich or do printing as a business. Check out Color Munki if you are interested to explore this solution.

The best cheap solution I can think of is to make use of a printer calibration service. Some paper manufacturers actually provide such a service free-of-charge as long as you are using their papers. Just print a test page with your printer using their paper and mail it to them – they will perform the calibration in their lab and send the calibrated profile back to you. Some are even willing to perform the calibration with a different manufacturer’s paper with a fee. The challenge lies in identifying the businesses that offer such services. Not every paper manufacturer offers such a service, so it is necessary to visit their homepages and do your research.

Printer-paper profile problems affect newcomers’ choice between Canon and Epson

I started this article talking about recommendations between Canon and Epson dye-based printers. You may be wondering where that conversation went. We are coming back to that question right now. What I have been doing is to lay out some fundamental information which will support my recommendations to this initial question.

If you want an easy quick start, get a Canon dye-based printer. Canon papers are so readily available that you will have a much wider choice of papers right from the start, with the convenience of having the Canon printer-paper profiles easily available to you in Canon’s printer drivers.

Get an Epson printer, and be prepared to spend a lot of time messing around with drivers and colour profiles. Epson does have photographic papers available for sale, but a lot of them are not available in convenient pre-cut sheets, requiring you to buy large rolls that you will have to store, measure and cut yourself. Not something most people would want to do. In addition, their selection of pre-cut sheets is also woefully limited compared to what Canon offers. To appreciate this difference yourself, go to the printer business homepages of both companies and compare the range of pre-cut photographic papers each company offers. Also check with the online or local photography retail businesses you frequent. Canon definitely comes out as the better choice in this aspect.

Of course, Canon neither provides all possible varieties of photo papers, nor do they provide all the best there are. Eventually the advanced Canon printer users might want to try non-Canon papers. Then they will run into all the same colour calibration challenges that the Epson user has to deal with. It boils down to how much trouble you are willing to stomach at the beginning of your printing journey.

I also want to point out that as of now, Epson is actually ahead of Canon in their availability of economical tank-based dye-based printers. As of the date of this article, Epson is the only company I know of which offers a 6-colour tank-based printer that prints up to A3. Canon’ tank-based options are currently limited to 3 colours only.

So, Canon or Epson? It eventually depends on your personal preferences and aversions based on the information I have provided so far.

Even more things to know about papers

Our discussion about papers has not ended yet. As of now, I have at least provided enough basic information for you to choose a printer based on how the printer-paper relationship affects your printing. But there is a lot more to know about papers. Perhaps you should not rush out to buy that printer yet, but instead read part 3 of this printing guide, where I will introduce even more fundamental facts about papers and printing.

Look forward to it.

-WY