5. GET YOUR PRINT SHOP GOING
Although printing from film still far outpaces digital printing in the market—and plenty of digital photographers still use shops to print their files—desktop printers are getting so good that in the future every printer may come with photo-printing capability built in. That wouldn't kill the commercial photo-printing business, but it could radically downsize it as digital power moves to the desk.
The Tech Right Now
Color photo printers costing as little as $79 can match digital output from commercial print services.
Printers use four to seven inks and employ thermal or piezoelectric technology to spray thousands of tiny drops per second on special paper.
Ink drop size continues to shrink, and dots-per-inch (dpi) resolution increases.
Printers are inexpensive but ink cartridges and paper are not. A 4x6 home print may cost 56 cents, compared with 26 cents from a drugstore.
It's difficult to choose a printer on specs alone, because so many factors influence picture quality.
Photo printers can be pokey.
We tried out four mid- to high-range printers: Canon's i9100 ($499), Epson's Stylus Photo 960 ($349), Hewlett-Packard's Photosmart 7550 ($299) and Canon's i950 ($249). We also looked at Epson's Stylus Photo 2200 ($699); it uses special, long-lasting ink designed for archiving photos.
All can print 4x6 or 8x10 images, and do double duty as regular inkjet printers on 8.5x14 paper.
We shot three images with a pro-level Canon EOS-1Ds, then loaded the data onto a Windows PC and asked the machines to print 8x10 photos using the highest-quality print setting and manufacturer-supplied paper.
These are among the factors that affect the quality of printer output:
Resolution Three of the printers produce 4,800- by 1,200-dpi images, while the two Epsons make pictures at the 2,880- by 1,440-dpi level.
Drop size Generally, smaller drops yield sharper details, but larger drops create richer colors. The Epson 960 and Canon i950 lay 2-picoliter drops, the Photosmart 5-picoliter, and the others 4-picoliter.
Ink Four of the printers come with standard dye-based inks, which yield more vibrant colors but tend to fade over time. The Stylus Photo 2200 uses more expensive pigment inks, which are claimed to last for 50 years, twice the estimated life of dye inks.
Control Epson's printer driver lets you adjust color saturation, brightness and more. The Canon will remove randomly colored pixels from the image. The HP lets you add flash and adjust sharpness and contrast.
The Bottom Line
The HP Photosmart 7550 stood out. It was a snap to use and consistently
generated the best-looking pictures straight out of the box without adjusting the drivers or images. The Canon i950 was also excellent, although its color density did not quite match HP's.
The Canon and HP printers let you hook up select same-brand cameras for direct printing, but only the HP has slots to plug in a memory card and an LCD to preview stored images.
The Photosmart is the slowest of the bunch, and its ink cartridge system could prove more expensive to use. In an extreme test like this (printing a massive 30MB file), the Canons were almost twice as fast: 1 minute 6 seconds versus 2 minutes 4 seconds for a 4x6 image. If you value speed and like large data files, consider the Canon i950.
In 2004, models will come with PictBridge, a way to connect a camera made by one manufacturer to a printer made by another. Later, so-called smart printers will be able to directly fix basic problems such as overexposure and red-eye.
—Suzanne Kantra Kirschner
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The Future of Printing: Virtual Backlight
The next real breakthrough in 2-D printing may come not from the tech but from the ink. Using inkjet printers and a special light-emitting polymer, or LEP, University of Arizona researcher Ghassan Jabbour has been able to print light-emitting images that glow without a backlight. In the distant future it may be possible for the illumination of the polymers to be selectively controlled —allowing you to print a page and have the image move through an entire mini video. Meanwhile Jabbour claims his LEP techniques can be commercialized within the next two years.