A Big Leap in the Virtual Darkroom

Photo printers have come a long way with improved colors. They're easy to use, too

You can buy an inkjet printer billing itself as a photo specialist for less than $150. Or you can spend upwards of $350. What do you get by spending more, and what exactly is a photo printer, anyway?

The special feature of the photo printers from Canon (CAJ ), Epson, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and Lexmark International (LXK ) is their use of two extra colors of ink -- light cyan and light magenta -- that allow the printing of more colors than the standard four inks. The difference is noticeable, especially in the subtle shadings of skin tones. The inks in photo printers are also specially formulated for greater resistance to fading. The better printers have the individual colors in separate ink tanks, so you don't have to throw away a multicolor cartridge because you ran out of yellow. Photo printers can print all the way to the edge of the paper, which lets you make borderless prints. You can use photo printers for regular printing, but they are generally a lot slower than comparably priced standard printers. All but a couple of low-end Windows-only Lexmark units work with either Windows PCs or Macs.

Epson Photo Stylus 960
Printer makers have put a lot of effort into making it easier to make decent prints with little or no use of a personal computer. All but the very cheapest printers can use the exposure information and other data that digital cameras record, along with the picture to optimize the print -- say, setting the colors for flash or natural light. In many cases, you can send pictures directly from a camera to a printer. Nearly all Hewlett-Packard photo printers have a USB port on the front that lets you print directly from HP cameras, but this doesn't work with other brands. A more common approach is to include slots that let you insert your camera's memory card into the printer. Nearly all HP printers offer slots for each of the four most common types of memory cards. Other makers offer this feature on selected models, but not all printers support all card types.

The problem with a card slot is that it's tough to choose what to print. You first print a sheet of thumbnails, then select the prints by number. The next step up is a printer with a small LCD display. The $249 Epson Stylus Photo 925 offers a 1.2-inch display as a $79 option, and a similar unit is available for select Canon models.

While getting your prints instantly is gratifying, I'm rarely interested in dumping shots from my camera to a printer. I prefer to take a good look at my pictures on a PC -- and generally print only after doing some virtual darkroom work (printers and digital cameras usually come with at least minimal editing software; my favorites for home use are Adobe Photoshop Elements and Ulead PhotoImpact, both around $90).

The printer that I found suited my style best was the $350 Epson Photo Stylus 960. It doesn't offer any slots for memory cards, but it does come with two accessories that I found useful. One was a roll-paper assembly that lets you make 4-in.-by-6-in. prints on a continuous sheet of glossy photo paper, which is then automatically cut into individual pictures. The other handy accessory was a tray that lets you print directly to the surface of specially treated compact disks, a much better solution than stick-on CD labels that can come loose and foul drives. The label design software isn't up to the crucial task of fitting text to a curve, but it is easy to create a label in your favorite image-editing software, then just use the Epson software to print your finished design.

A photo printer isn't necessary to enjoy a digital camera, since most photo processors will now make digital prints, and online services such as Snapfish and Eastman Kodak's Ofoto do a good job at a fair price, typically around 25 cents for a 4x6 print. But if you want to do it yourself, you should avoid the very cheapest models, which lack both the features and the mechanical robustness of more expensive products. What you spend for the printer will be dwarfed by the cost of ink and photo paper (about 75 cents per sheet for an 8x10, and nearly as much again for the ink), and these costs are about the same for all models.

Photo printing has matured greatly in the past couple of years, both in the ease with which you can make prints and in the quality and durability of the results. If you are serious about digital photography, especially if you want to experiment with digital editing of your photos, it's worth a try.


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