This is the second of several aperiodic columns on getting started in digital printing. Mike asked me if I would do some articles geared toward those who haven't done any serious digital printing or are just getting into it, and I agreed that was a good idea, so here we go. It doesn't matter if you have wet darkroom experience or not. You're encouraged to reread the previous column and its comments before posting questions and comments to this one, as many related matters have already been addressed.
In the first column of this series I told you about all the things you shouldn't be taking into consideration when getting a printer. Now, we'll start talking about what you should be taking into consideration. To begin with, you need to figure out what you're going to be doing with it over the next year or so. That's hard to do when you haven't even started printing yet, but I'll try to walk you through it. A mistake is not fatal; it just means you might be buying another printer sooner than you expected.
I would not recommend getting anything that only prints smaller than 8.5x11 inches. Even if you're expecting that you'll only want wallet-size or 5x7 prints, get the bigger printer. The smaller, special-purpose printers are not cheaper to buy, and you'll be surprised to discover how much you like being able to do 8x10s on occasion. Furthermore, when it comes time to calibrate your printer (and you're likely to do that, if you follow my advice), you'll find that most calibration services and systems assume you can print out an 8.5x11 sheet.
Do you think you'll be happy for the time being making 8x10 prints? Then you don't need a printer that handles anything larger than letter-size paper. Do you have a serious hankering for 11x14? Then you're going to need a 13-inch wide printer. Sixteen by twenties? You'll have to move up to a 17-inch printer. Bigger still? Okay, you don't sound like a novice to me.
As a very broad rule, the smaller and cheaper the printer, the less durable it will be. Whether that really matters depends on how much printing you expect to be doing, week after week. If you average 10 8x10s a week, that's still only 500 prints a year. A printer that's good for a few thousand prints will very probably outlast your interest in that particular printer.
If you're really certain you're going to be giving the printer heavy use, look to one of those larger, more professional models. As I explained in my column on the Epson 3880 (a 17-inch professional printer), you can even save money by buying a much more expensive printer, if you're doing a large volume of printing. Run the numbers for yourself and see what makes sense. Ultimately, it's up to you: you can buy more printer than you need at the moment, in the expectation you'll take advantage of it later, or buy no more printer than you need right now and assume you'll buy a more expensive one when the time comes.
Don't forget about space! A bigger, larger-format printer requires a lot more room to run. The physical box will be larger and you'll need more space in front of and/or behind the printer as the larger sheets of paper travel through. The biggest reason why I got the 3880 printer instead of the 4880 was that I couldn't figure out how to make the 4880 printer fit in my office.
I've mentioned printing costs a couple of times. Here's the thing—some printers are a lot cheaper to run, print for print, than others; there can be more than a factor of two difference in the cost of an 8x10 print. There's no easy way to find this out! By and large the printer manufacturers won't tell you. If it's important for you to know this, you'll have to scour the various testing websites that review lots of different printers. Generally, they will have some kind of standard test suite they run that comes up with a per print cost or, equivalently, the number of prints you can expect from a set of ink cartridges.
The problem is that most printer test suites won't be testing for what you're interested in: a full-coverage, highest-quality photographic print. So you can't take their numbers as absolutes, only as relative data. It's a pretty safe bet that if some testing site says Printer X costs half as much to run as Printer Y, that will hold true for you. Think of it like automobile mileage tests: you don't expect to get the same mileage the tester did in the review, but so long as the testing is consistent from automobile to automobile you can tell which cars will be likely to deliver you better mileage. Don't try to compare results between sites unless you know they're running the same test suite.
Don't ask me what a good site is for this information or which printers are the most economical to run. I don't know. I'll bet you one of our readers does, though. Check the comments.
Fine, you bought your printer, set it up, installed the drivers, and it's playing nicely with your computer. What do you do next? That'll be the subject of Part III, coming soon (for some value of "soon") to a website near you.
Meanwhile, next week I'll go waaaaay off topic, when I report on DARPA's 100 Year Starship conference. Today, it's off to Orlando for me.
Ctein's regular weekly column, posted a day late this week (not Ctein's fault), usually appears on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.