Not your father’s inkjet printer
Within the $50 billion inkjet printer industry is a small but very profitable subset of printers designed around the needs of advanced amateur and professional photographers. If your tastes lean towards fine art photo papers, long-lasting prints, and output beyond letter-sized dimensions, count yourself among this demographic. And if you find yourself in the market for a new printer, you've got significantly more options today than were available just a year ago. In this guide we'll go beyond the marketing hype and look at the features and performance issues you need to consider when navigating through this suddenly competitive field.
The big three
Epson enjoys a dominance in this market that would make even Microsoft blush. They literally created the photographic inkjet printer market with their Stylus Photo and Stylus Pro line of hardware. Over the years, their products have become synonymous with inkjet printing. But recent entries by Canon and HP represent the first significant challenges to Epson's seat on the throne, as both companies have introduced pigment-based printers optimized for photographic images.
The new competition is likely to be a boon for photographers over the coming years, as each company tries to outdo its rivals. In the near-term, though, it's quite a challenge sorting through the staggering array of printers. Canon, Epson, and HP each offer a wide variety of inkjet printers, from small desktop models to 300-pound behemoths. The first step in narrowing your printer options is to focus on the models specifically designed for long-lasting, professional-quality output.
If you're on a budget, or are looking for a lower-cost printer for your home photo printing needs, feel free to read on—at the end of our buyers guide we'll give you some tips and advice when it comes to getting great-looking prints without breaking the bank.
It's all about the ink
For all the fancy features touted in press releases, the single biggest distinction between a printer aimed at the home office and one designed for the photographer is the type of ink that ships with the unit. There are two basic choices: dyes and pigments. Once upon a time, all inkjets came loaded with dye inks. Dyes have long been associated with vibrant, saturated colors and an ability to adhere well to a wide variety of paper surfaces. Their glaring shortcoming has been longevity; they are simply much more prone to fading when exposed to light.
The development of pigment-based ink sets grew out of a desire to improve an image's fade resistance not only to light, but atmospheric and ozone contaminants as well. All else being equal, a pigment-based ink set will yield greater longevity than one that is composed primarily of dyes. There's no free lunch, however, and you give up some brilliance of color and saturation with a pigment-based ink. But the performance of pigments in this regard has improved significantly in recent years and for photographers who display and sell their prints the sacrifice of saturated colors for greater print longevity is a worthwhile trade-off. As a practical matter, image permanence extends well beyond the choice of an ink set—paper stability, print handling and display conditions play major roles—but if you'd like to give your prints the best chance of remaining intact, you'll want to print with a pigment-based ink.
Within the large number of models offered by each manufacturer, a select few printers are packaged with pigment-based ink sets. See Table 1.1 for a list of current pigment printer models. Now that we can focus on a relatively small number of competing models, let's take a look at some of the technology differences between them.
Table 1.1: Pigment ink photographic printer models
Pigment ink set
Max. paper width
Stylus Photo 2400
Stylus Pro 3800
Stylus Pro 4800
Stylus Pro 7800
Stylus Pro 9800
Photosmart Pro B9180
Designjet Z2100 Series
Designjet Z3100 Series