A recent article in Digital Photography extols the virtues of using a high end printer to make display quality prints from equally high quality digital cameras. Actually, it just describes several top of the line printers. It doesn’t give a good reason for owning one. The reason is that there isn’t any good reason. Printers are the weak link in the computer armamentarium. They have moving parts and thus break easily.
But that’s not the only reason not to have one. Since we’re talking about photographs for display, they must be virtually perfect. And no matter how good the printer obtaining such a print is very difficult. The main problem is that what you see on your screen is apt not to be what your very expensive printer delivers. For your printer to deliver the desired content it must be calibrated to your screen and your computer. In addition, the computer and screen need to be be calibrated. And if this wasn’t difficult enough you must do it for each type of printing paper you use and for each manufacturer’s version of each paper.
A determined amateur can do all of this, but why bother? A far easier solution is to use a quality lab that will do all that’s needed for the best print possible and do it for less cost than if you do it yourself. Printing ink is very expensive and printing several large exhibition grade prints will devour it like mutton thrown to a wolf pack.
The Digital Photography article claims that print-head clogging “is rarely a problem with the newest printers.” Such has not been my experience. Pigment ink clogs printer heads. These inks are very expensive and it’s very difficult to get good results using them. Using a good lab couldn’t be simpler. Upload your photo file, chose the size and number of prints you want, and it will be at your door in two days. You can have the lab mount the prints as well if you wish.
There are a number of fine labs that produce high quality prints. The one I’ve used is Meridian Professional Imaging. I do have a printer. It’s the cheapest one I can find – an HP Deskjet 3000. I got it for $42. It’s wireless and does a fine job with text and snap shots. I use generic ink for it. When it breaks, I’ll throw it away and buy another. Any photo good enough to display goes to the lab.
You’re right, it is definitely harder to create the same quality as a professional lab at home. Rather outsource it, it’ll save you time as well and you’ll definitely have a lot less stress and bother at home.
I agree… I have used Shutterfly to print photos for 10 years and love it. The their website allows you access to your photos on smart phones, iPads (they have an app) and so on. Photos can be converted to greeting cards, they will even bind books/photo albums at a very reasonable price.
Well, if you use that argument, why bother buying an expensive camera in the first place? Pay a professional to do the whole job for you!
I started my photography “career” using a wet darkroom. I would spend hours and hours getting just one decent Black and White print. It was FAR easier to take my film to Boots to be processed, but much more FUN to do it myself!
I don’t think your analogy holds. I too had a darkroom and printed my own color and black and white prints. In the digital age I process the raw images I take in Lightroom and Photoshop on a calibrated monitor. When I have the image just as I want it, I need only a faithful reproduction of what my image and processing has produced. The raw image is the equivalent of the film negative. The processed image the virtual print. A high class lab has printing equipment far superior to anything an individual consumer can afford or have space for. Such a lab has a much better likelihood of reproducing what I see on my screen than anything I can do with the best consumer printer. I have used the best printers available. I have calibrated them and used various curves, but the professional lab I use still does better than I can do. I suspect most professional photographers use a lab. It is not fun to spend hours to produce a substandard print. Remember, we are talking about a fine arts printer which is intended to produce exhibition grade prints. If all you want is a 6X4 print for Grandma, any printer will do.
Thanks for you comment
I am confused by your argument. Are you saying that I should buy a good quality dye-ink printer rather than a pigment-ink printer? Or are you suggesting that I should only bother printing 6”x4” snapshots?
All of my friends and family that are likely to be interested in my snapshots have reasonable quality phones, tablets, computers so there is no reason for me to print snapshots at all.
If I have images that I consider good enough to hang on my wall, I want a print of the best possible quality and at a size of A4 or A3+.
My wet darkroom equipment was nowhere near the quality of a professional darkroom. Hence, the quality of the prints was not of a professional standard. This didn’t stop me trying though and I also achieved some quite acceptable results. I also had access to a professional quality darkroom where it was possible to obtain professional quality prints. A great deal of time, effort, expense and skill was still required, which is normally the case in the pursuit of art. This was in the days long before computers were good enough for displaying photographs so my snapshots were sent to the lab.
The difference now is that even non-photographers can achieve reasonable results with very little outlay in terms of time, effort, cash and skill. At the other end of the scale is a top gallery that will only accept the very highest image quality and archival longevity. In this case, I agree the best solution would probably be for the artist to use a lab that they can really trust and have a very close relationship with. However, there are lots of cases in between (myself included, and I suspect the majority of the people reading this article) where high quality is required, but they aren’t necessarily going to be displayed in a gallery. Do you still suggest using a lab in these cases?
Also, what do you mean by a “faithful reproduction”? Surely no matter how well your monitor is calibrated and how thorough you are with your workflow, there will always be a “difference” between the monitor display and the printed image. This is where the lab is actually having some input (albeit minor) into the finished piece of art. The artist needs to be sure that the lab is on the same wavelength.
If you are confident that the image on the monitor is how it will look in the finished print then you have already done the majority of the hard work in terms of establishing the correct colour space and profiles. You are also assuming that the lab will use the profiles and colour space as you intended. The lab is also assuming that you have done this. If either of these assumptions is incorrect then sending your image files to a lab will be no different to sending them to a printer. Well, the only difference being that you will have to wait longer before you realise the mistake.
I exhibit my prints and therefore they must be of the highest quality possible. The lab I use, mentioned in the article above, produces prints that exactly match what I see on my screen. I tried a lot of labs before I settled on this one. Thus, the limiting factor is me. If my image is up to snuff, the print will be as well. The lab can’t make a substandard one exhibition quality. If exhibition quality is not what you’re after why buy a fine art printer?
Well, that proves my point that using a lab is no guarantee of success.
Each to their own I guess.
For myself, I’ll continue trying to improve my photography (and printing) techniques.
It would of been nice if you would have referenced which fine art printers you were unhappy with.
I checked out the website you use for your prints and I don’t see how any of their paper would be museum grade quality.
You should look into printing on Fuji Flex for amazing results.