| Printing Great Photos from Inkjets |
In just a few short years, inkjet photo printers have branched off from their evolutionary predecessors, the inkjet office printer. From slow, crude producers of dotty text and marginal-quality graphics, the current generation of six-, seven-, and even eight-color photo printers produces prints that most people cannot distinguish from photo lab pictures.
Really? Well, photo printer manufacturers have surveys to prove it. A survey cited by HP concluded: "When presented with prints of five different photos, US consumer respondents preferred HP prints more than other inkjet and silver halide [photo lab] prints... Most participants did not realize inkjet printers are capable of producing true-to-life photographs. The test proved to be a real eye-opener."
It's worth dissecting this claim a bit. First, the survey said "US consumer" respondents, which I interpret as significantly less demanding than those of us who aim to produce great digital photos. I have conducted many informal surveys and I think it's true to say that, overall, people who like photos and take and print photos at photo labs are generally rather amazed at the quality of a well-done inkjet photo, even compared with a photo lab print. Inkjet quality is good, but there is more involved in achieving great results from an inkjet. The elements of preparing a photo for digital printing covered in this book—ranging from editing and touch-up techniques to the ink and paper you choose—play a major role in raising the quality level of digital prints.
This means if you send an average photo from a digital or film camera to a professional print lab for traditional (chemical-based) photo printing, that print will rarely look anywhere near as good as a photo that was touched up using photo editing software. Photos that have been well prepared with photo editing software, and printed using high-quality photo ink and high-quality photo paper, look very good indeed.
The debate over whether inkjet quality really equals or exceeds traditional photo printing is bound to rage for some time, as are arguments over dye sub quality versus inkjet color. But the very fact that there is a debate—and that large numbers of people find inkjet prints as good as or better than traditional photo prints—says much about the state of photo inkjet printing.
Given that very high-quality prints are available from inkjet printers and building on the previous discussions in this book about photo editing, paper options, and ink quality, you can see that two basic factors determine the quality of inkjet photo prints:
• Quality and options available in the inkjet printer
The rest of this chapter explores both these factors. I'll help you identify features that improve inkjet quality and help decipher the sometimes confusing printer property options available for photo inkjets. Along the way, you'll find advice on features that make inkjet photo printing more convenient, economical, and reliable.
Inkjet Types, Sizes, and FeaturesThe biggest single factor determining inkjet photo quality is the interaction of the inkjet method itself with appropriate photo paper. Chapter 5 explained the processes that combine to align ink with paper to generate precise dithering (combining ink colors), which produces a wide range of colors. Remember that with all the advances in inkjet technology, there have remained certain colors that aren't easily generated by combining droplets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
In general, six-, seven-, and eight-color inkjets do significantly better at managing challenging color tones and transitions between colors. A photo of the sky with subtle gradations of color, a close-up of a face, or a delicate transition between clouds, like the one in Figure 6-1, will be much improved when printed on a six-, seven-, or eight-color inkjet as opposed to a printer limited to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.
Beyond the benefits of additional ink cartridges, other elements make photo prints look good and print quickly. High printer resolution—the number of tiny inkjet droplets per inch—produces sharper photos with a better color range than printers with lower resolution. Printers with top or back sheet feeders subject photo paper to less stress than bottom-feeding printers that print on the back of paper as it is inserted into the printer. Finally, printers that use inking processes that mesh well with photo paper produce longer lasting and better color prints than printers using "quick drying" photo paper, or photo paper not configured specifically for a particular printer.
Inkjet FeaturesPhoto inkjets come in all sizes, ranging from cute, football-sized miniprinters to huge professional printers costing tens of thousands of dollars. Consumer-level (as opposed to professional print shop) printers generally cost between $100 and $600, with printers that support wide sheets costing significantly more.
In addition to the number of ink cartridges, other features that influence print quality include the type of paper loading, the paper drying and finishing process, resolution, ink drop volume (the smaller the drop—measured in picoliters—the better), borderless printing, and support for nonpaper media like CDs and DVDs.
Features that make inkjets more convenient include card readers that accept memory cards from cameras, USB connections that import photos directly from a camera, paper trays that feed 4-by-6 and smaller paper, LCD windows that preview photos, and features like duplex (two-sided) printing that allow the inkjet to do double-duty as a home or office printer.
In general, inkjets trend to provide trade-offs. Those with the most convenient features, including those that double as office printers, tend not to offer features like six-, seven-, or eight-color printing. Among the major manufacturers of photo inkjets, Epson and Canon inkjets tend to provide six, seven, or eight individual color cartridges, while HP photo printers combine four or six colors of ink into a single cartridge. The mini Epson PictureMate, shown in Figure 6-2, uses a six-color ink cartridge.
Stuffing a lot of convenient features into a tiny printer, the four-color HP Photosmart 245 printer provides five different slots supporting the most popular printer memory cards and combines an LCD display and minimal in-printer editing tools to print without a computer, as shown in Figure 6-3.
Paper-loading options include the freedom to feed different sizes of photo paper conveniently and the ability to feed photo paper through a printer without bending the paper through rollers. Consumer-level photo inkjets offer two basic options for loading paper: front or top. Top- or back-loading printers run paper past the inkjets in a straight path without bending the paper. These printers sometimes include rollers that accept long rolls of photo paper.
Paper trays under the printer, like that in the HP Photosmart 7960, allow for a smaller printer footprint but force paper to wrap around rollers before printing. Photo paper is inserted face-down in these printers, which risks scratching the paper. The Photosmart includes a convenient feeder compartment for 4-by-6 photo paper, as shown in Figure 6-4.
The contrast in paper-feed options between the HP Photosmart and the Epson Photo Stylus printers illustrates a trade-off between convenience (easy loading, less space) and quality (no bending during paper-feeding). The Canon i860 shown in Figure 6-5 feeds from the top and includes a 4-by-6 feeder tray. It even does duplex printing for office tasks or double-sided photo projects.
Overall, top-loading printers produce less handling stress on photo paper but take up more vertical space and often have fewer convenient features for managing small prints.
ConnectionsThere are several ways to get photos from your computer to your printer. Printer connections include the ubiquitous USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection, as well as FireWire or IEEE 1394 cables, wireless connections, and the old-but-reliable parallel port connection. Each connection has its advantages and disadvantages and varies significantly in speed.
It's important that your printer connection be compatible with your computer input ports. Most computers have USB connections and most printers support USB but computers and printers manufactured before 2002 often do not support USB 2.0, which is quite a bit faster than older USB connections. Because different printers come with different connections, or sets of connections, I review the main connection options to help you choose a printer with a configuration that works for you.
You can also transfer photos directly from your printer to your computer. Many printers ship with card readers that accept as many as five of the most widely used memory cards. This means you can insert CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, Secure Digital/MultiMedia, xD-Picture Card media or another memory device directly into a printer and essentially use the printer as an additional hard drive to move photo files to your desktop computer's hard drive.
USB Printer Connections
|High-Speed USB |
High-speed USB and USB 2.0 are the same. They describe a standard that supports high-speed data transmission (480 megabytes per second). Some peripherals-USB keyboards for example-do not require or utilize this high data transfer rate, but USB 2.0 connections are backward-compatible so peripherals with slower speed connections work just fine with USB 2.0. In short, there's no reason not to upgrade to USB 2.0 if your computer has older USB ports. USB 2.0 cards for PCs and Macs are available for under $50.
The USB connection is establishing itself rapidly as the global connector between all kinds of peripherals and computers. USB connections work with PCs and Macs and have replaced awkward, clunky, and slower computer/printer connections. Many cameras connect directly to a PC or a printer with a USB cable.
The USB 2.0 standard provides a fast data transfer rate between your computer and printer, which is helpful when transferring massive files associated with high-resolution photos. If your system supports only the older, slower USB configuration, it's most likely that your connection to a USB printer will work but it will be slower than if you have a high-speed USB 2.0 connection.
The biggest problem with USB connections is that printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals all require USB connections, so you need multiple ports and enough bandwidth to support it. Five-port USB hubs help this situation by increasing the number of printers and other peripherals you can connect to a single computer.
|Overloaded USBs Slow Down Printing |
Theoretically, 127 USB devices can be connected to a PC at the same time. However, each peripheral (that is actually running) shares the same USB management resources in your computer, so the more active peripherals you have, the slower the printing.
If you find yourself tripping over unsightly cords, one solution might be the newest printer link technology: wireless connections. I discuss that option a bit later in this chapter.
Firewire and IEEE 1394 Cables
|FireWire Nomenclature |
Apple calls them FireWire ports. Sony calls them iLink ports. Other PC manufacturers use the catchy name IEEE 1394 (even I could come up with a catchier product name than that). They're all the same thing.
FireWire and IEEE 1394 cables (the same thing) provide connections between your printer and computer that are as fast as USB 2.0 connections. FireWire works well with peripherals that require real-time interaction with a computer, like video cameras. A maximum of 64 FireWire devices can be hubbed into a FireWire port.
As with other connection options, FireWire hookups are almost always a second option and nearly every printer comes with USB 2.0. If your USB hubs are overloaded, and you have a FireWire port in your computer, that option can speed up printing. But there's no need to add a FireWire port to your computer if you have USB 2.0.
Parallel Port Connections
The parallel port is following the serial port into the dustbin of history but several current photo inkjet printers continue to support this connection. Although parallel ports are significantly slower than USB connections, if you have many USB peripherals plugged into your computer sharing the same computer resources, parallel printing might be just as fast as USB printing.
Also, parallel ports don't use up any of those precious USB slots. If USB resources are at a premium and your computer has a parallel port, it might be advantageous to choose an inkjet that supports a parallel connection. All current printers support USB so if a parallel connection is available on a photo printer, it will be a second option.
Wireless Printer Connections
|Compatibility Issues |
Check the wireless connection manufacturer's Web site to see if your printer is compatible with their connector technology. AmbiCom frequently updates its list of compatible printers and operating systems at www.ambicom.com.
Even if your desktop or office isn't crammed with photo printers, you might want to consider going with a wireless connection.
Wireless printer connections, like the AmbiCom WPKIT Wireless Printer Adapter, plug into the USB port in a supported printer and the USB plug in your computer. Many of these wireless connectors use Bluetooth wireless technology.
There's no need to do a lot of configuring with wireless printer hookups. There is no server to configure or connect to. However, the downside is that each wireless kit works with just one computer and additional computer connections are sold separately. Wireless printer connections are advertised to work at distances up to 100 feet, but users report mixed experiences in connecting beyond 20 feet.
Using Inkjet Card Readers
Many photo printers allow printing directly from a memory card without any interaction with a computer. One theme of this book is that great digital photo prints generally require some touching up with at least some basic photo editing software. To that end, this chapter does not spend much space discussing the slim set of options available for printing directly from you're a flash memory card.
This does not mean, however, that there's no point in getting a photo printer with flash memory card slots. Even if you're not planning to use your inkjet to print directly from a camera, any card slot that comes with a printer can function as a card reader. HP Photosmart printers, for instance, include a card reader that supports CompactFlash, Memory Stick, SmartMedia, Secure Digital/MultiMedia, and xD-Picture Card media, as shown in Figure 6-6.
Memory cards in printer slots—and memory cards in card readers—work like an additional hard drive. You can move files from a memory card to your hard drive just as you would manage any other files with your operating system.
Cameras can connect directly to printers. The easiest and most widely supported method is a USB cable running from a printer to a PictBridge-enabled digital camera.
Digital cameras and photo printers with card readers offer minimal cropping and editing features. These options often include enlarging, cropping, and sometimes a "one-step" color/level/contrast photo fix button.
Other instant-print features can be handy for quickly seeing what's on a memory card. HP Photosmart printers include menu options for printing contact sheets from a card, combining photos into an album, and printing selected batches of photos. These printers include display screens that preview photos too.
Hybrid OptionsDedicated photo printers tend to offer more features for printing great photos but hybrid models that function as general office printers can produce very nice photos as well. A four-color ink cartridge combined with high-quality photo paper yields very nice photos on printers that double as duplex printers, scanners, photo copiers, and even fax machines.
In fact, some printer/scanner/copier machines include card reader slots and print photos directly from a card or accept photos directly from a camera with PictBridge technology. If your budget or desk space constrains you to one printer, you'll find a nice set of options, particularly from HP, that provides special photo color and black cartridges for all-in-one printers.
Features you are not likely to find in a hybrid printer include the ability to print 4-by-6 and smaller prints; the use of six, seven, or eight color ink cartridges; individual, replaceable cartridges for different colors; and paper feeding features for roll paper or special media.
Setting Print OptionsQuick quiz: You need to adjust the orientation of your photo from portrait (tall) to landscape (wide). Do you do this in your printer settings or your image editor? How about choosing the size of your photo paper? In fact, both image editing software and printer preference dialog boxes often provide menus for defining page orientation and size. So the first thing to sort out is the relationship between print options defined in an image editor dialog box and those defined in printer dialog boxes.
You can print a photo directly from your digital camera, CD, storage device, or memory card. Both Mac OS X and Windows provide features that print photos without accessing any photo editing program. To put all this in perspective, it's helpful to divide the process of editing and printing photos into two distinct stages. Use photo editing software to touch up color and contrast, crop, and make other content changes to photos. Think about printing as a distinct process.
Whether you print from an image editing program or using the print tools in your operating system, printer options are managed in a specific printer properties dialog box. Thus if you select a file in your operating system's file management tool (like Windows Explorer or Mac Preview window) and choose File > Print, you will access the printer properties dialog box directly. If you print from an image editor instead, you will be prompted at some point to select a printer—and then see a button to access that printer's properties dialog box.
Let's return to the confusing quiz at the beginning of this discussion. There are a few features defined by both the image editing software and the printer's properties. For instance, Figure 6-7 shows page orientation defined in the Page Settings dialog box in Photoshop (accessed by selecting File > Page Properties in Windows or File > Page Setup on a Mac). Similar page properties dialog boxes exist in other photo editing software. As you can see, Photoshop's dialog box allows you to select landscape or portrait orientation.
Photo Editing Software Versus Printer Properties
In general, use image editing software to control color, contrast, levels, cropping, and other image-specific tweaking. Use printer properties dialog boxes to control which printer to use, the number of copies, the quality of the print, the type of paper, and other printer-specific issues. Unfortunately, as I noted, some options straddle the line between printer and software.
|Not Quite as Confusing in Mac OS X |
The printer properties dialog box for Mac OS X does not define page orientation or page size; it inherits this information from the photo image file itself.
I've complained to printer manufacturers about the confusion posed by the fact that both image editing programs and printer properties dialog boxes allow people to set conflicting settings for page size and orientation. They agree that this is an area where standards continue to be baffling to users. In the meantime, avoid confusion by breaking down print jobs into three categories:
• Photo printing options defined in image editing software
• Photo printing options defined in printer properties dialog boxes
• Photo printing options that must be synchronized between both the printer and the image editor software in Windows
|Rules Are Meant to Be Broken |
As I introduce the relationship between printer and software formatting, I emphasize the distinction between the two and warn against making printer-related adjustments in your image editor and image-related adjustments in your printer. Later, I discuss briefly some situations where it is sometimes useful to cross these lines.
In Windows, make sure to select the same settings for page size and orientation in image editing software as well as printer dialog boxes. Some printers include a preview option in their printer properties dialog boxes, like the one in Figure 6-9 showing a photo about to be printed in portrait mode that should be printed with landscape orientation—the sides of the photo are cut off and the top and bottom of the page are empty.
Selecting Paper Size and Type
|The Best Way to View Photos in Windows XP and Mac OS X |
To enable the best set of folder options to view photos in Windows XP, choose the Photo Album template. Do this in Windows Explorer by choosing View > Customize This Folder and then selecting Photo Album (for a dozen or fewer photos) or Pictures (for more photos).
In Mac OS X, photos in the iPhoto library are displayed as thumbnails that you can view either one at a time or at once by using the enlarging slider. If you select several photo files and open them in Preview, you will see one image in the main window and thumbnails for the rest along the right side. Display the thumbnails in the main window by clicking them.
There is a warped logic to photo editing software formatting a photo for landscape or portrait printing. Essentially, the decision depends on the previous printer setting you defined. Don't count on the Windows printer properties dialog box synchronizing with the printer's setting. Therefore, set the paper size and print orientation in both the image editing and printer properties dialog boxes.
The best way to assign page size and orientation in Windows is to define these attributes first in your printer and then in your image editor.
You can do all your image editing in your image editor, save the file, close your image editor, and print directly from Windows Explorer. Then select a file and chose File > Print, as shown in Figure 6-10. In Mac OS X Preview, choose File > Page Setup and then File > Print.
Another alternative is to do your image editing in a photo editing program and then use the Properties dialog box (accessed by clicking the Properties button in the Print dialog box of your photo editor) to select the paper size and type.
Either path—printing from your operating system or accessing printer properties from your image editor—will open the properties dialog box for your inkjet printer and access the features to be explored in the remainder of this chapter.
Let's return to the warped logic of printer/software interaction I referred to earlier. Image editors assume that the last printer setup (printer, page size, orientation) should be applied to the next photo you open for editing. If you switch printers, paper size, and orientation often (and many of us do), you'll soon grow tired of this situation. To reconfigure the image editor's printer, page size, and orientation settings, pretend to print a photo. Do this by choosing File > Print, choosing the printer, page size, and orientation in the printer dialog box, and then closing the dialog box (without actually printing anything).
Setting Print Quality
As I discussed in Chapter 5, photo printers use ICC profiles to translate what you see on a monitor into a printed photo with—hopefully—the same coloration. In order for these profiles to transform a photo file into a great print correctly, proper paper and ink settings are necessary.
With the correct printer selected, the Properties button in the Windows Print dialog box accesses the appropriate ink and paper options. These options depend on the printer's make and model, although families of printers, like the Canon "i" series, the HP PhotoSmart series, the Epson Stylus Photo series, and so on tend to have similar paper and ink features. Figure 6-12 shows the print properties dialog box for a Canon i860 photo printer.
Defining the Paper Type
The "big decisions" to be made about paper and ink are made when you purchase the paper and ink. The settings you choose in the printer properties dialog box match only the actual paper you have loaded in your printer. Because the process of mixing inkjet sprays with absorbable photo paper is quite fragile, choose the setting closest to the actual paper in the printer.
Setting Print Quality
Photo printers provide a series of quality options that balance speed and ink usage with quality. These options are different for every printer. Some offer a set of options for high quality, standard quality, or draft. Others offer more intermediate steps (fast normal, normal, fast draft, and so on). Epson printers provide options depending on the type of content.
You certainly can, and should feel free to, choose among different quality settings. Frequently, I print a draft version of a photo to get a sense of how it will look, and then only after a final round of retouching do I spring for the ink and best-quality paper required for a great photo print.
Printing Without Borders
|Evading Borderless Rules |
The criminal minded among you have already figured out that you can test a borderless print on nonphoto paper by lying to the printer properties dialog box. Most photo printers refuse to print a borderless photo on plain paper but you could, for instance, print a draft version of a borderless photo on plain paper by claiming that you're printing on photo paper. Expect the colors, of course, to be different when you print on real photo paper.
The current generation of photo printers supports borderless printing. Better said, the current combination of photo paper and photo printers supports borderless prints. Most photo printers disable the borderless print option in the print properties dialog box unless a paper that supports borderless printing is selected.
Manufacturers claim that attempting to print borderless photos on unauthorized paper will produce smeared and unsatisfactory results and they're not about to let us try for ourselves to see whether it's true or not. For instance, in Figure 6-16, the Borderless Printing option is grayed out because a nonphoto paper type (Plain Paper) is selected.
The drivers for many Epson printers refuse to allow you to define a print job for borderless printing on plain paper. To print proofs, I have to "lie" to the printer driver and claim I'm printing on photo paper. I prefer the message from Canon, indicating that my plain paper draft will not look as good as a borderless print on photo paper (see Figure 6-17), while still allowing me to print a photo on plain paper for proofing before committing to a quality print on expensive photo paper.
Photo Editing with Print OptionsPhoto printers offer a variety of features for editing the color, contrast, and levels. In the Canon "i" series, these features are found in the Effects tab, shown in Figure 6-18. In the Epson Stylus Photo series, these options are revealed by clicking the Advanced button in the Main tab, as shown in Figure 6-19. HP Photosmart printers make these features available in the Color tab.
The color editing features in printer dialog boxes offer limited options. Worst of all, they do not allow you to preview the actual photo you are printing, only a sample photo—if that. For these reasons, editing color, contrast, and levels in any image editor is preferable to making these adjustments in a printer dialog box where the only "proofing" available is churning out one print after another until you get lucky.
Proper Inkjet Care and Feeding
|Avoid Unauthorized Inks |
Experimenting with unauthorized ink refills and third-party ink cartridges is one thing for an office document printer but a bad idea for photo printers that require precise matching of ink and paper. I've heard complaints from Epson users who use non-Epson refill inks that this disables the ink level indicator. I'm all for saving money, but messing with photo ink cartridges is not the way to do it.
Photo inkjets are remarkably self-diagnosing and self-tuning. Like automobiles, they're chock full of sensors that tell you when a door is open or fluid is low. If an ink cartridge is gummed up, built-in cleaning features can wash it out.
The most important elements in inkjet quality—paper and ink—get replaced periodically, in effect reviving your printer. It usually isn't necessary or recommended to use nozzle clearing features to clean up ink, unless you've badly abused your printer by running paper and material through that doesn't absorb ink properly. Some photo printers include alignment tools if inkjet heads are misaligned. Unnecessary cleaning and alignment uses up quite a bit of ink.
Ink-level displays in the current generation of photo inkjets are pretty accurate. Most photo printers periodically display print levels when you print and indicate when new cartridges are required. The Epson indicator is shown in Figure 6-20.
Self-cleaning features that clean out sticky inkjets are needed only when photos print with streaks or come out missing lines, as shown in Figure 6-21.
• For many Epson printers, these features are found in the Maintenance tab of the properties dialog box.
• For HP photo printers, these features are often found in the Services tab.
• Canon diagnostic and maintenance tools are in the Maintenance tab of the dialog box.
• In Mac OS X, maintenance utilities are activated by a file in the Applications folder on the drive or partition where the system files are located. The file is called "Applications/EPSON Printer Utility."
Calibration features in printer property dialog boxes differ from the calibration tools I described in Chapter 2. These options do not calibrate your monitor or color output of your printer. They simply calibrate how cartridges are aligned, making sure inkjets are shooing ink where it is supposed to go. Most photo printers auto-calibrate each time a cartridge is replaced and that is generally sufficient.
Inkjets are the 500-pound gorilla of photo printing—they dominate home and office photo printing and consistently improve in quality to the point where a genuine debate exists about whether people prefer good inkjet photos to those produced by traditional photo labs.
Inkjets come in all sizes but those that print photos wider than 11 inches are priced far beyond the $200–$600 cost of very good 8and-a-half-inch-wide printers. Inkjets include a wide variety of options and features, with HP photo printers generally providing more in-printer viewing and editing tools, while Epson and Canon photo printers provide features like top-loading paper trays and replaceable color cartridges. USB 2.0 has emerged as the connection standard but printers often offer a second option of a FireWire/IEEE 1394 cable or even a parallel port. Wireless printer connectivity works through USB ports.
Do your photo editing in photo editing software and avoid the sparse, unpredictable tools for editing color, contrast, and levels in some printer dialog boxes. Use your printer dialog box to define page size and orientation instead. This determines how image editing software sizes a photo. Pay close attention to choosing media options that match your paper.
Ink cartridges and paper have much to do with the quality of your printed photo, and you replace them periodically—paper more quickly than ink, of course. Replacing ink cartridges as needed is the main factor in maintaining printer quality.