This is the first of several aperiodic [i.e., discontinuous —Ed.] columns on getting started in digital printing. Mike asked me if I would do some articles geared toward people who are just getting into it, and I agreed that was a good idea, so here we go. The intended audience is folks who haven't done any serious digital printing but would like to. It doesn't matter if you have wet darkroom experience or not. You're starting anew, regardless. Folks with considerable darkroom experience will have a leg up artistically and aesthetically, but, technique-wise, they're in the same boat as everyone else. It's a brand new learning curve.
In truth, one of the ways experienced darkroom printers get themselves in trouble is not realizing that. When they dive into digital printing expecting it to be the same, they frequently become frustrated or disillusioned with the mediocre quality of their prints. Don't let that happen to you. Accept that no matter how proficient you are in the darkroom, it will take you months to years to become really good at digital printing.
Your very first task is going to be choosing a printer. Pretty much anything made by the four major players—Epson, HP, Canon, or Kodak—will produce decent-looking color prints, as good or better as you could have made in the darkroom. Doesn't matter whether they're four-ink, six-ink, eight-ink, or ten ink; they can all produce very good results. It's all in how you use them. Most printers made by these four companies will also offer decent print permanence (to check for certain, go to the Wilhelm Research site) with some cautions that I will get to in the next column; it doesn't matter whether they use pigment-based or dye-based inks.
I'm not saying there aren't differences. I am saying that you have to be a sophisticated printer for the differences to matter. Otherwise it's like being a beginning photographer and fretting about whether you should be settling on Nikon, Canon, or Leica lenses.
If you're one of the small minority whose primary interest is black-and-white printing, you'll need to be pickier in your choices. You'll want a printer with at least two levels of black ink (normal and light) and three is even better. Your basic four-color printer or, really, any printer with only one black/gray color of ink in it is not likely to make you black and white prints you'll be happy with.
If you don't know how to research printers really carefully, stay away from the second tier companies such as Brother and Lexmark. Some of their printers are great. Some are garbage. Some produce really permanent prints. Some produce prints as ephemeral as tissue paper.
Something else to stay away from: the so-called "aftermarket" inks and papers: the stuff you see advertised that costs a fraction of what the printer manufacturers' inks and papers cost. Many of them will produce significantly poorer-looking prints. And just about every single one of them, in any combination, will produce prints that are 10 to 100 times less permanent than the manufacturers' goods.
Yes, the printer manufacturers are going to charge you an arm and a leg for print supplies. You're just going to have to learn to live with that.
There are good third-party inks and papers out there. They aren't cheap, either. Especially the papers.
My advice? Stick with the manufacturers inks, beyond question. Try the manufacturers' highest-grade photographic papers first. If you find one of them that you like pretty well, stick with it. Only look into third-party premium-quality papers if you can't find a manufacturer's paper you like.
Once you become a really good printer, then you can become a fine connoisseur of inks and papers. When you're beginning, it's like fretting about which fine wine goes best with a Happy Meal.
Does that mean I think you should just pin all the printer names on a corkboard and throw darts at them? No, but to decide what printer you should buy, you'll need to take other factors into account. That'll be the topic of my next column in this subject.
That column won't appear for several weeks, however. Next week is the occasion of my 200th TOP Column (canyabelieveit?) and I have something special planned for that one. And the week following, my next Grand TOP Print Sale begins! Stay tuned—Mike will give you the details.
If it's Wednesday, it must be Ctein—back on schedule. Long known as an expert in fine printing, Ctein was one of the last masters of the esoteric and difficult dye transfer process, and now makes part of his living as a custom printer making inkjet prints. —MJ
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.