Choosing A Printer is Probably the Single Most Important Decision of Your Life
Perhaps that’s a bit of an over-exaggerated statement, but not as much as you might think. Your choice of printer can represent the single most significant cost associated with your fine art digital printmaking experience.
Choose poorly and you have invested in a paperweight the size of an extra-large BBQ with repair costs that exceed the cost of the printer. Choose wisely and you recoup your costs quickly and expand your abilities as both a photographer and artist.
So which printer should you buy? The answer isn’t an easy one-size-fits-all. You need to consider your needs, wants, desires, and optimal real estate availability.
When making such important decisions, I do a lot of research, not just of the product itself but about the company that makes it. Manufacturing and selling printers, and even ink, is not the most profitable business. The amount of research and development alone makes for a slim profit margin.
I give credit to the companies who have stuck with us and continue to make and improve their products. There are only two companies who have consistently invested in the fine art printing world and those are Epson and Canon. Epson created the first quality inkjet printers, Canon improved upon those, and, with a recent release of new printers, the competition between the two is a huge benefit to all of us.
But let’s get back to you. When choosing a printer, ask yourself these questions and use them as a checklist:
- How much does a printer cost?
- How large do I want to print?
- Do I want to print on sheets of paper or on a roll of paper? Do I want to do both?
- Are my prints intended for short term use or do I want them to last?
- What types of media will I be printing on? Glossy/Luster or Matte or both?
- How much space do I have available to install a printer?
- How much time am I willing to spend learning how to print?
- How often will I be making prints?
- How many prints will I be making?
That’s a lot of questions. Let’s review your answers and how they should affect your decision.
How Much Does A Printer Cost?
Believe it or not, this is the wrong question. I recommend thinking of it this way: you are never buying a printer, you are buying ink. The printer is practically free. The smaller the printer, the higher the cost of ink per ml.
The initial cost of a printer is often a moving target. Both Canon and Epson have regular rebates, either instant or in the form of a credit/debit card. Sometimes they will include some free paper or even extra ink.
The free paper is their proprietary brand, often not the best quality paper, but I was really excited about the extra ink when I purchased my large format printer.
Here is a handy formula:
Calculate the price of a FULL set of ink
+ the cost of the printhead (printers are consumer electronic devices so you should expect to replace a printhead over the lifespan of the device),
+ the value of the abilities of the printer (its ability to print larger sizes or on a roll)
= that is the primary cost of your printer.
Ink can range in price from $1.07 per ml for the Canon Pixmas Pro-10’s 14 ml ink cartridges to .42 cents per ml for the Pro-4100’s 700ml ink cartridges.
Let me give you an example: The Canon Pixma Pro-10 is quite inexpensive at $699.00, while the Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-1000 sells for $1,299.00. Which one costs more?
The Canon Pro-10 printer comes with 10 cartridges of ink that sell for $15.00 each for a total of $150.00. At 14 ml in each cartridge, it takes 5.71 cartridges on a Pro-10 to equal the amount of ink the Pro-1000 comes with. You would need to spend an extra $706.50 just to match the amount of ink included with a new Pro-1000.
The Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-1000 comes with a set of 12 – 80ml cartridges of ink. Each cartridge costs approximately $60.00 to replace, for a total value of $720 included with the printer. The print head replacement cost is $675. The total cost of ink and the print head is about $1400. If you purchase a Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-1000 for $1,299.00, you’ve purchased the ink and a head and got the printer for free... And you are getting a superior printer.
Use this calculation to help you decide what the cost of a printer really means.
How Large Do I Want To Print?
Desktop printers range from the Canon Pixma Pro-10 and Epson SureColor P700’s 13 inches wide to the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and Epson SureColor P900’s 17 inches wide. The larger Epson has the option for a roll adaptor, but the paper width is still the same.
The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 can print on a sheet 17 inches wide by 47 inches long. So, while the Canon doesn't have a roll adaptor, you could purchase a roll of paper then cut it down to size.
The large format printers Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-2100 and Epson SureColor P6000 have a 24-inch wide roll capacity and can print on sheets as well. The Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-4100 and Epson SureColor P9570 have a 44-inch wide roll capacity. If you want to go really big, the Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-6100 has a 60-inch wide capacity.
And if you want to blow it out of the water, the Epson SureColor P20000 has a whopping 64-inch wide roll capacity. Just know that there is a limited selection of papers that come in rolls that large.
Do I Want To Print On Sheets Of Paper, On A Roll Of Paper Or Both?
Of the desktop printers, only the Epson SureColor P series offers a roll adapter that can be added at an additional cost.
Large format printers all print on rolls. The large format printers can print on sheets, but the sheet feed is one at a time, as these printers are made for printing on rolls.
While I never thought I would prefer printing on rolls, I have found that I like the automatic cutting function, particularly for borderless prints.
Are My Prints Intended For Short Term Use Or Do I Want Them To Last?
Are you printing images that are not intended for keeping? Short-term advertisements, posters, or school projects don't necessarily need to be kept long term.
Family photos and fine artwork, on the other hand, you will want to last for generations. You may not be convinced of the value of your own art right now, but consider that future generations might. Our photographs tell our stories long after we are gone.
There are plenty of desktop dye ink printers that will make a good looking print. Dye-based inks are essentially colored water and optical brighteners. We know that optical brighteners fade over time. For this reason, dye-based printers are not your best choice if you want your prints to last.
For what we would consider “archival,” or longer-lasting prints, we want pigment-based inks. These inks are formulated to last and will most accurately represent the colors in our images.
As a side note, do not use 3rd party, or non-OEM, inks. I could go on and on about it but I can tell you that they are a bad idea.
What Types Of Media Will I Be Printing On? Glossy/Luster Or Matte Or Both?
We are fortunate to have more substrates to print on in the history of photography. Inkjet microporous coatings can be found on traditional wood-pulp based papers, canvas, plastic, fabrics, handmade papers, tissue-thin Kozo, 100% cotton papers, and more.
There are well over 200 inkjet papers on the market. For the most part, you can decide between a glossy or luster surface and a matte surface. These printers use different black inks for these two surfaces: a matte black and a photo black. When you tell your printer which type of paper you use it will pick the appropriate black ink.
There is no right answer as to which papers you use. Paper choice is as individual as photography itself. While there will be some who only print on either matte or glossy/luster papers, most people want a choice of either.
With Canon printers this has never been a problem, but with Epson printers choosing between the two resulted in the purge and wasting of inks and time waiting for the printer to be ready for the right black ink.
The newest line of Epson printers has followed Canon’s lead and done away with this feature. At the time of publication, I have not yet tried one of these new Epson printers, as they are not yet available. Until I give them a try I will not make a judgment, but it sure is an exciting development for the Epson line.
How Much Space Do I Have Available To Install A Printer?
A tiny little Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer is less than 30 inches wide and can sit comfortably on any stable desktop. While the Canon Pro-1000 is about the same physical dimension it weighs a hefty 71 lbs.
The new Epson line of desktop printers was designed with a smaller footprint, so it’s less intrusive on your desk space. While the condensed size is great, keep in mind that the ink cartridges have been taken down in size as well.
Large format printers are by far the best deal for ink costs and are the most efficient to operate, but they do take up a fair amount of real estate. I’ve found that an extra-large bbq cover fits my printer like a glove. That means I have a piece of equipment the size of an extra-large bbq in my office. That doesn't leave much room for anything else in my office.
These printers are about the size of a tall couch. They are heavy and, once filled with ink, moving them can be an issue, as they can’t be tipped on their side.
How Much Time Am I Willing To Spend Learning How To Print?
The biggest mistake one can make when buying a printer is expecting that just plugging it in and hitting “print” will result in beautiful prints. Buying a camera doesn’t make one a photographer, and buying a printer doesn’t make one a successful printer.
There is a fair amount of education involved in running a printer. Unfortunately, there is very little good solid education on how to print successfully. Having an understanding of and control over color management is essential for creating prints that match your vision for your work.
For a basic understanding of the 6 steps for perfect printing see my article on the Pro Edu blog.
How Often Will I Be Making Prints?
Printers are made to print. The motto of every printer owner needs to be: Use it or lose it! Clogged print heads are often the result of not using a printer.
A printer needs to have ink run through it at least once a week. I often print a lot at once, then not again for weeks. Between times, at least once a week, I print a nozzle check pattern on plain paper. It takes seconds, I don't even have to turn on my computer, and it uses maybe a penny’s worth of ink. Well worth the time and effort to keep my printer healthy.
How Many Prints Will I Be Making?
In general, desktop printers are not made for high volume printing. While they are made to be used, they are not made to run a business producing prints or running nonstop for hours at a time. Large format printers are designed for constant use and can handle high volume production.
Photographers create photographs. It’s the definition of what we were meant to do.
Having control over our final prints is the most important step in fulfilling your personal vision as an artist. Producing accurate beautiful prints is a perfectly achievable goal for every photographer, but expecting that purchasing a printer is the final step to achieving that goal is not the answer.
These questions are just part of becoming educated about printing. Owning a printer that doesn't suit your needs is a recipe for disaster. Having a 300 lb piece of equipment the size of a huge sofa, full of ink, that is expensive to empty, to get repaired, or get rid of can destroy your budget, productivity, and your spirit.
My personal goal is to encourage and educate photographers to print their own work. To this end, I am crafting an all-encompassing printing class with Pro Edu that we hope to have available later this year. In the meantime, I am creating a website, PerfectPrintClub.com, that will be filled with information and education on printing. Go on over, sign up, and we will let you know when it’s ready.