Making your own prints, especially using a large-format printer that can produce 16×24” and larger prints, is a substantial commitment in time, space and money. However, it is not more intimidating than printing in a darkroom was in any of these ways. If you maintained and enjoyed a home darkroom, large-format printing involves similar space and financial commitments, and it is an equally rewarding craft to learn. It is much less involved in many ways than getting really high-quality color prints at home ever was. This part of the printing series will look at some of the highest-quality hardware on the market, and at how to set it up and use it. Part IV will cover software, looking at an approach that puts Adobe Lightroom Classic to shame, while Part V will look at ways to finish, present and deliver your prints.
There are three basic types of photo printers on the market today (plus a fourth that nobody is making right now, but that photographic artists dream of). The least expensive are probably of little interest to most Luminous Landscape readers, as they are primarily snapshot printers. They are worth a brief discussion because many of them are portable – it won’t be your main printer, but a little 4×6” printer can be a lot of fun at kids’ birthday parties and the like. I would include two sub-types of printers in this category – tiny dye-sublimation printers that weigh much less than a laptop computer and often run on batteries are one sub-type, while the other are small desktop inkjets that use 6 colors of ink. The dye-sublimation printers in this category don’t print larger than 4×6”, and some are handheld and have even smaller maximum print sizes. 6 color desktop inkjets (and it’s worth getting a 6 color model instead of a 4 color one if you intend to print photographs with any frequency) print up to 8.5×11”, and they double as home printers for non-photographic needs. They are generally not fast enough for serious home-office use, but they are fine for printing homework, letters and the like.
Printers in this class are meant to use their manufacturer’s glossy photo paper, and the dye-sub models offer no other choice, as the paper and dye sublimation film are packaged together. Inkjet printers in this class will work with papers from a variety of manufacturers, but higher-end art papers like those in Part II of this article are very difficult to use on low-end printers. The paper feeds are often not capable of accepting these thicker papers, and the printers are not meant to work with custom color profiles – they have profiles for their manufacturers’ papers built into the driver, but aren’t really set up to use anything else. Lower-end 3rd party glossy papers (Staples, Kodak, etc.) are designed to be close enough to the manufacturer papers that they should work by selecting the closest manufacturer paper in the driver. Choosing an inexpensive photo printer is simpler than choosing a higher-end model. The first decision point is whether you want a portable dye-sub printer or a desktop inkjet that also serves as a home printer. If you want a portable dye-sub, the Canon Selphy printers are a good choice – a less than 2 lb, battery-operated machine that produces 4×6” prints that look like they came from the local minilab can be a ton of fun in the right situation. The current model CP1300 costs just under $100, although the optional battery (not included) is almost as expensive as the printer – as shipped, it runs off an included AC adapter. It can accept your pictures just about any way you can think of – WiFi Direct, SD card slot, USB memory stick, and PictBridge are available for direct camera connection, USB and WiFi are provided for computer connectivity, and phones can choose between Apple AirPrint and Android-compatible Mopria. About the only thing missing is Ethernet, and you wouldn’t expect to find it on a portable printer! These little printers are not designed to produce color-managed, archival fine-art prints, but to produce fun prints… If you do anything where fun little prints are useful at all, especially if there are kids in your life, a Selphy is a cool toy!
The inexpensive desktop inkjets have a slightly different role, although they are also fun with kids. They start as low as $70 for some of the cheapest Canon models (anything even cheaper will be four-color), and go up to $300 or so (above $300, you start to get into the next category of serious desktop photo printers). Both Canon and Epson make some good choices in inexpensive inkjets. The color science in these printers isn’t what it is in their larger cousins, since they don’t have room for all the different inks that really serious photo printers use. Six colors tends to mean the standard cyan, magenta, yellow and black plus either light cyan and light magenta OR a light black (sometimes called gray) and a red or a blue. Serious photo printers tend to give you light cyan and light magenta PLUS a couple of grays and often a red, a blue or some other boost color – but that takes a ten or twelve color printhead you won’t find in an inexpensive printer!
Because they don’t really have the ink system to take advantage of it, nor the sturdy paper feed to use heavier papers, these printers are designed to use profiles for manufacturer papers, which are built into the driver. Workarounds are possible, but they tend to be more expensive than the printer. Even without sophisticated color management, there is quite a bit you can learn about printing with an inexpensive photo editor like Photoshop Elements or Affinity Photo and an inexpensive inkjet printer. They remind me of the old Beseler Printmaker 35 and Cadet 35 enlargers from darkroom days – would you make a print for the Museum of Fine Arts on one? Probably not, unless you were looking for a weird effect. Can you learn something about printing using one? Absolutely! When choosing an inexpensive inkjet, there are a number of factors to consider. First, do you want it just for photos, or for photos plus household printing? Second, do you want a built-in scanner, which many of them have? The scanners tend to be relatively low-quality, but they’re more than adequate for scanning receipts and the like. Most printers that include a scanner will also serve as photocopiers, and it can sometimes be useful to have a copier around – both for simple household chores, and for avant-garde copier art – I’ve never done it, but I have friends who enjoy copying and scanning arrangements of found objects, often from nature.
Third, what do you think of the photo quality? This level of printer actually has the greatest variation in photo quality of any, and it’s not a clear ranking, but rather a matching of printer capability to subjects – this is because of the different ways manufacturers use six ink channels. They all start from cyan, magenta, yellow and black) CMYK, but the additions vary widely. Do you enjoy portraiture? If so, your ideal printer has light cyan and light magenta – they really improve skin tones. If you prefer sunsets and highly saturated flowers, you will probably prefer a printer with a red or orange ink (Epson specializes in those). If you live by the sea, a river or a lake and are fascinated by water, a blue ink might be for you (Canon loves blue ink). If you enjoy black and white, you want at least one gray or light black, and more if you can get it. No inexpensive printer will combine several of these inksets like the higher-end models do, but each of these possibilities is available individually.
Beyond the photo capabilities, decide what else you might want to do with the printer. If you already have a printer you’re happy with for household or home-office printing (a laser printer will be much cheaper to run than printing text on anything photo-capable), you may want to choose mainly on photo capabilities. If you don’t have another printer, a speedier text mode may be useful – make sure you look at the real speed, not “draft mode”. Do you sometimes want to print pictures from your phone? If so, AirPrint or an Android equivalent like Mopria may be very useful. Some printers have memory card readers, and will print directly from your card – probably not useful for art, but what about snapshots? Also look at how expensive the ink is – there is no inexpensive 6-color printer that doesn’t feature expensive ink, but they do vary…
If you’re willing and able to spend $300 to $1000 (after inevitable large rebates), that is the range where serious desktop photo printers live. I wouldn’t spend over $1000 on any desktop printer, because large-format printers start around $2000 after rebates and come with hundreds of dollars in additional ink, making the true price difference much smaller. Canon’s Pro-100 and Pro-10 are older models that occupy the lower end of the range, sometimes dipping below $300 with particularly good rebates, especially if purchased with a Canon camera. Epson’s P400 and P600 are midrange choices with two different inksets, while Canon’s Pro-1000 and Epson’s P800 are higher-end models that handle larger paper and offer larger ink cartridges.
There are three fundamental differences between inexpensive photo printers and their more serious cousins. Most importantly, all the printers mentioned above use more than six inks. Other than Epson’s unusual inkset in the P400 (which uses orange, red and a gloss optimizer as well as standard CMYK), all serious photo printers, including other Epson models, use CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta and a gray or two. Some add other inks in addition to these – either extra grays, reds, greens or blues, or a gloss optimizer (sometimes called gloss enhancer or chroma optimizer).
They also offer much sturdier paper handling – all photo printers in this range accept at least 13×19” paper. Epson’s P800 and Canon’s Pro-1000 at the top of the range accept up to 17×22” paper. All of them take relatively heavy art paper, at least by feeding one sheet at a time. Even though a few of them offer roll paper adapters, either in the box or as accessories, they are essentially sheet-fed printers – the next size up (large-format printers) offer real roll paper handling. Sheets have the advantage of being flat when they come out of the box, and generally staying flat. Roll paper is generally cheaper per square foot, sometimes much cheaper, depending on the manufacturer and the individual paper. Roll paper also reduces waste, since you can use a custom paper size for the paper to match the print.
In addition to their improved paper handling, these two printers both use much larger 80 ml ink cartridges, while the 13×19” models use anything from 14 to 25 ml cartridges. The small cartridges are a pain, because you have to change ink frequently, and they are more expensive (anything from $1.00 to $1.50 per ml of ink, while the 80 ml cartridges are $0.70 or so). The cost difference is actually more than that, because the amount of waste ink left in the cartridge does not increase proportionally with cartridge size. The P800 comes with 64ml “starter” cartridges, while the Pro-1000 comes with full 80ml cartridges – either includes several hundred dollars of additional ink, compared to a printer with 14ml or even 25ml cartridges.
All of these printers are relatively easy to use with custom color profiles, which are available from paper manufacturers, or in high-end printing software like ImagePrint, or you can make your own with a spectrophotometer. The latter two options are likely to be most interesting to users of printers at the top of this class, or to users of large-format printers. With one notable exception – Innova art papers don’t support the odd inkset of the Epson P400, all major paper manufacturers offer profiles for all printers in this class. The other exception, of course, is papers distributed by printer manufacturers (which have excellent profiles for their own printers, but none for the competing brand).
The Canon Pro-100, uniquely in this group, is a dye-ink printer whose images may fade sooner than you might expect for fine-art display applications. All the others use pigment inks closely related, if not identical to those in the highest-end fine art printers – again, note the Epson P400’s unusual color selection, where the slightly more expensive P600 is conventional in this regard. The Canon Pro-1000 actually uses exactly the 12 same inks (in smaller cartridges) and print head as Canon’s entries into the large-format fine art market.
The less expensive printers in this category offer an introduction to fine-art printing for a very affordable price, while the P800 and Pro-1000 are full-fledged fine-art printers in their own right. At close to $1000 even with good rebates, a Pro-1000 or P800 is a substantial investment, but it is much less expensive than a darkroom, and it takes up substantially less space – they are both big desktop machines, but not outrageous. Epson has a couple of promising new models coming out in this range (the P700 and P900), which bring a new inkset and a more robust roll-feed option. Nobody seems to have seen one yet, but they seem highly competitive with the Canon Pro-1000.
The reason not to pay full price ($1200-$1300) for a P800 or Pro-1000, and the reason most photographers shouldn’t consider Epson’s ~$1500 17” P5000 is that you are beginning to approach large-format printer territory, especially when you consider the amount of ink that ships with large-format printers. For between $2000 and $2500, depending on the omnipresent rebates, free paper deals and other enticements, you can buy a 24”, roll-fed printer from Epson or Canon. It will come with either a full set of 160ml cartridges (Canon) or a still substantial set of 110ml cartridges (Epson) – over $1000 worth of ink. Another $1500 buys the 44” wide version of the same machine, and, in the case of Canon, includes another $800 worth of ink (Canon ships their 44” machines with 330 ml cartridges). These machines are an excellent investment for the serious printmaker, because their ink and paper costs are lower than the P800 or the Pro-1000, and the inksets are more sophisticated than the P800. As of April, 2020, there are still some Canon Pro-2000 (24”) and Canon Pro-4000 (44”) printers available – older models, but with exactly the same printhead and inkset as their replacements (the Pro-2100 and Pro-4100). Print quality is exactly the same, and all four machines use identical color profiles. The newer machines have minor improvements in user interface and some paper handling improvements, but the older ones are already notably easy to load.
These printers are a serious investment in time, money and space. A 24” printer is a big, bulky device that sits on its own stand and weighs a couple of hundred pounds, while a 44” printer is comparable in size and weight to an upright piano. Either may be difficult to get through narrow doors in older houses. A 24” printer can sit in a corner of a room not dedicated to photography, but it clashes with most décor, while a 44” printer takes up enough of a wall that it is best in a room dedicated to photography (it will fit in a decent-sized studio or workroom easily) or a largish home office. While their ink and paper costs are low per ml or square foot compared to smaller printers, there are two important considerations beyond the purchase price. First is that the cartridges hold so much ink that each cartridge is expensive (and there are 12 of them), even though the price per ml of ink is relatively low. It’s easy to have three or four $100 ink cartridges run out at around the same time, even though you might only change each cartridge every year or even two, depending on how much you print. A couple of $20 cartridges for a small-cartridge printer are an easier hit on the wallet at any given time, even if they are purchased much more frequently. Second is that big prints are spectacular, and, even if you promise yourself “I only have a big printer because it’s cheaper to run”, you’ll want to make big prints, and big prints use up a lot of ink and paper.
That said, a big printer is no more expensive than a good enlarger and a sodium vapor safelight, the consumables are actually quite a bit cheaper than darkroom supplies (ink looks more expensive, but you use milliliters of ink instead of liters of Dektol), and the space requirements are substantially less. A 10×12’ spare bedroom would be a comfortable lair for even a 44” printer, and it would easily fit a very nice desk for a photo editing computer and some other accessories, including a 44” trimmer, in addition to the printer. Such a room can easily double as a home office (try having a Zoom meeting in a darkroom!). A 24” printer requires help from a friend to move in, while a 44” printer is best handled by piano movers (it takes three or four strong people). Even an hour of help from piano movers is much less costly than plumbing in a darkroom sink or installing a darkroom door! Even a simple darkroom suitable for 12×18” black and white prints from 35mm and medium format will exceed a 24” print setup in space and cost, while a color-capable darkroom capable of making 20×24” prints from 4×5” film will vastly exceed the cost of a 44” setup. Modern inkjet printers are capable of the finest color prints ever seen (yes, the most recent printers are more capable than dye-transfer printing), as well as black and white quality rivaling a very fine silver gelatin print. A high-resolution mirrorless camera or DSLR in the 40+ MP class is capable of image quality that exceeds most 4×5” films and approaches 5×7” film. The Fujifilm GFX 100 is capable of 8×10” quality!
Since a large-format printer is a major investment, most of us are likely to keep our printer for a long time. Inexpensive desktop printers only last a couple of years, and even 13×19” desktops are 3-4 year investments, largely because many of the parts to repair them are not available or the repair is uneconomical. A 24” Canon iPF 6100 I bought 10 years ago recently retired from a friend’s studio! When you look at a 24” or 44” printer, you are looking at a machine with a 5-10 year useful life, so choose your big printer carefully. The two major manufacturers of large-format photo printers are Canon and Epson, just as they are in the other two classes. HP also makes large-format printers suitable for high-end photography, and a smaller, but dedicated cadre of photographers swears by them. Both Canon and Epson offer excellent color and black and white capability, versatile paper handling and similar running costs. Both have been committed to providing regular driver updates for many years of operating systems. HP, while by no means new to the large-format printing market (they are a favorite of architects, GIS pros and many other large-format users, and have been for decades), has been less regular about updating their photo-specific lineup. Their current DesignJet Z9 lineup is quite new, actually new enough that there are few photography-specific reviews yet – but its predecessor, the DesignJet Z3200, sat on the market through three generations of Canon and Epson printers. I haven’t ever used a modern HP DesignJet, although I would love to review one. In choosing between Canon and Epson, both have advantages and disadvantages, although I believe that there is one specific feature that tips the balance toward Canon for the majority of individual photographers. Each brand has their own strengths in color reproduction, with Epson traditionally strong in saturated greens and oranges while Canon blues are unbeatable. For most images, either printer will produce a beautiful rendition, and it is generally possible to match a print from one brand on the other. It is only in images with extremely strong, saturated oranges, greens or blues that one brand’s color reproduction will become the deciding factor.
Epson has two slight advantages in paper handling, although modern printers from both manufacturers are much easier to deal with than any printer made only a few years ago. Canon printers load roll paper from the lower front and deliver prints from the front , directly above where the paper enters. The paper makes a nearly 180 degree bend as it travels through the printer. The actual platen where printing takes place is a horizontal surface as the paper is about to exit, allowing a conventional placement of the print head. The bend radius is large enough that even stiff fine art papers feed quite well, but a sheet of cardboard, wood or metal will obviously not work. To load a roll in a Canon printer, you put a spindle through the roll core, then lay the spindle in a cradle at the front of the printer. On the older Pro-2000 and Pro-4000, you manually feed the paper a short distance into a slot, where the automatic loader takes over. It’s not quite foolproof, but it’s easy. The newer Pro-2100 and Pro-4100 models make it even easier – the auto-loader takes over as soon as the spindle is in the cradle – no reaching under the front of the printer to find the slot. Canon printers will feed everything from very thin Japanese Washi papers on up to thick art papers and canvas, but those are the limits – I would worry about any fabric so insubstantial that it was on a backing sheet, and really stiff paper may not make the turn (300+ GSM art papers are fine, but the one or two that are in the 500+ GSM range may not be).
Epson has an absolutely brilliant paper path where the roll loads from the top rear of the printer, delivering prints from the lower front. The platen is nearly vertical, with the print head placed at about a 75 degree angle. The advantage is that the paper path is almost completely straight, with only a few degrees of bend required at any point. There is a manual feed slot for sheet media where the paper path IS straight, allowing for printing on completely rigid media. Threads about “weird things that will feed through Epson printers” occasionally crop up on photography forums, and they include thin but rigid sheets of both wood and metal, as well as things like gossamer-thin silk fabrics attached to backing sheets. Epson allows slightly thicker media than Canon, probably to accommodate some of the unusual media that they can feed, and including the very thickest of fine-art papers. Epson printers also don’t require a spindle – you snap adapters onto both ends of the roll, but there isn’t a bar between them. Especially with very wide rolls, this is a superior system.
The advantage to Canon that outweighs the paper feed difference to most individual photographers is the head design. Canon printers have user-replaceable heads, an annoying $500+ consumable that most of us will change only every three to five years. It’s a 5-minute job that wastes a modest amount of ink – the only real challenge is the expensive part. Epson printers are much worse – changing a head requires a service call unless you are extremely handy, and the head plus the service call costs approximately $1500 and wastes a bucketload of ink as well.
For most individual photographers, a Canon printhead will last 3 to 5 years, and sometimes longer. The printhead is considered a consumable item (although it comes with a one-year warranty), and you do have to plan for the eventual expense of replacing it. Canon deals with head clogging by having a large number of spare nozzles in each channel – when you run out of spares, it’s time for a new printhead – expensive, but a quick fix.
The only printer in the current Canon professional line that is uneconomical to fix by replacing a printhead is the 17”, non roll-fed Pro-1000. It takes the same printhead as the other printers in the professional line, which lists for $675 and can sometimes be found cheaper. Unfortunately, the printer itself goes for $1000 after rebate, and it comes with about $700 worth of ink – the ink and the head are more expensive than the printer which includes them.. By the time you reach a 24” Pro-2100, the $2300 printer (which comes with $1000 in ink) IS worth putting a printhead in. A $4000, 44” Pro-4100 is certainly worth it. A printer should last through at least 2-3 printheads, and every time you replace a printhead that fits in the palm of your hand instead of a 200 lb. printer, you are saving enormous resources and the hassle of moving a large machine.
Epson’s printhead is designed to last for the life of the printer (thus the arduous replacement process). Instead of having large numbers of spare nozzles as part of its clog defense, it is designed to circulate ink through the head to keep the nozzles clean. All printers use ink to clear the head, but Epson’s head design is more dependent on it. If you print frequently and heavily, Epson’s head life is excellent, but if you leave the printer idle for a significant time in between jobs, that is dangerous for the head.
For a busy graphic arts shop that runs multiple jobs daily, the Epson head design is more economical than Canon’s, because the head is not consumable – printer life is comparable, but Epson uses one head for the entire lifespan, while Canon goes through several heads. A busy shop could have to change Canon heads every couple of years or even more frequently, while they might keep an Epson for five or six years on a single head. For a photographer who prints at least a couple of times a week, perhaps a wedding or event photographer who does their own large prints, the two are probably comparable – changing a Canon head once in the lifetime of the printer versus dealing with occasional Epson clogging is a pretty fair trade.
Many of us print heavily for a while, then leave our printers idle for weeks or months. Think about a typical landscape photographer printing for a couple of shows per year, plus print orders and other random printing. That isn’t regular enough to reliably keep an Epson head clean. A Canon printer will reliably wake up from a month idle, do a couple of automatic cleanings, then be ready to print in five minutes or less. An Epson often won’t come back without manual cleanings in that situation, and there is a risk of blowing the head, especially with repeated idlings. I’ve owned three Canon printers in the past 20 years, an iPF 5000, an iPF 6100 and my current Pro-2000. All three of them have been used in bursts and the two that have been retired both had long lives. The Pro-2000 is at three years or so and going strong, on its first head.
While the only Canon that isn’t worth changing the head on is the 17” Pro-1000, it’s not worth doing a $1500 head swap on any 24” Epson unless it’s under warranty, and even a 44” printer is a close call. If the 44” machine is on the newer side and a current model, it’s probably worth paying for a head swap, but something 5 years old is almost certainly not worth the repair. The only Epsons where changing a head is an obvious call are the expensive 64” models or specialized machines.
Epson claims that their latest generation of printers have much improved head life and many fewer clogging issues, but there are very few of them in the field, and no reviews as yet. My most recent experience with an Epson was the Stylus Pro 7900, two generations behind the just released SureColor P7570/9570 (P7500/9500 in some countries). It lasted just over three years, before dying to an unclearable clog in one channel – with a Canon, you replace the head, but I ended up having to replace the Epson printer (with my current Canon). The P7000/9000 generation from the last several years seem to be somewhat better than what I had from various online information (including the LuLa forum), and the brand-new generation claims to be improved once again. One noticeable difference on the newest machines is that they have an access port so you can manually wipe the head clean – this may be a real improvement. The new Epsons are still expensive, but may be a great option once rebates and reviews kick in.
HP may have an even better head design than Canon – they use five two-channel printheads, instead of a single 12-channel head. The heads cost slightly over $100 apiece, making the total cost of a set very comparable to a single Canon head – but you can replace only one head when a single channel goes. HP is using a significantly different inkset from Epson and Canon, having eliminated light cyan, light magenta and one of the gray inks. This has allowed them to use 10 inks and 5 heads instead of 12 and 6, while retaining red, green and blue inks plus gloss enhancer. HP claims that they have an accurate method of varying ink droplet sizes that makes the lighter inks unnecessary. If their claims are true, it could also reduce total ink usage significantly – light inks primarily contain more of the water-based fluid the pigment particles are dissolved in, so buying light ink is literally paying for water. If HP is able to apply more concentrated ink in smaller amounts instead of using larger amounts of low-concentration inks, they may have reduced running costs at little print quality cost – but these machines are too new to have many prints out there yet, and there are no independent reviews that I can find.
With all this information, how does a photographer choose a printer?
For a beginner-level printer under $300, make sure it has all the features you need and try to look at a sample of the photo output with a style of image you are likely to take. Convenience printing features are great fun at this level – it’s worth getting something that prints from your phone if you’d ever want to, and a scanner can be nice to have. You aren’t going to get ultimate print quality from a $100-$300 printer, but you can get something pleasing. Ideally, print one of your own images on the printer you are considering or a close relative (any print, on the manufacturer’s photo paper. It would be helpful to have a sample image (a jpeg is fine at this level) on a USB memory stick or a SD card. If you can’t find one to print on, try and look at a set of samples that includes something similar to what you photograph. If you can find these printers at a good camera store, one option or the other should be possible (but don’t go see the printer at a newly reopened camera store and then buy it on Amazon). Remember that the inksets differ significantly, so if the only samples you’ve seen are beach scenes that want a good blue ink, and you prefer portraits that want light cyan and light magenta, they may not carry over. If you can find the Canon Pro-10 or Pro-100 in this price range due to rebates, they are much better photo printers than anything else in the class, although they are slow and expensive to run for text (they have truly full inksets).
Recommended: Canon Selphy CP1300 (tiny portable dye-sub, just for fun)
Highly Recommended: Canon Pro-10, Pro-100 if under $300 (serious photo printers that sometimes end up in this price bracket due to rebates, especially if bought with a Canon camera – the net cost of one of these printers can be as low as $50-$100 after rebates, which is an amazing deal. Pick the pigment-based Pro-10 if you have a choice.)
No experience, but promising: 6 color Epsons using Claria Photo HD inksets
For a serious photo printer in the $300-$1000 range, expect 13” paper capacity, with 17” at the top of the range. The inks should include a minimum of CMYK plus light cyan, light magenta and one gray or light black. Extra grays or a red, green or blue ink are a bonus. Once you reach this range, your printer is going to be attached to your computer via USB, WiFi or Ethernet – a photo printer this good wants edited photos, not jpegs straight from camera or phone, so convenience printing features are much less important. You should absolutely look at print samples before making an investment in this range.
Recommended (lower end of the range): Canon Pro-10. Don’t pay much over $300 after rebates for one, but a nice little pigment ink printer that sometimes shows up for a great price. The April 2020 price of $449-$499 after rebates is too high – they were much cheaper a few months ago, and they are often bundled very inexpensively with Canon cameras.
Highly Recommended: Epson P600, P800, Canon Pro-1000. Look out for deals on the two Epsons, which use a very well tested and respected inkset (although not Epson’s very best), as their replacements come out. The dfference between the two is that the P800 is a 17” machine. The Canon Pro-1000 is a 17” version of their large-format line with an absolutely top-end inkset.
Promising: Epson P700, P900. The replacements for the well-respected Epsons above. Nobody’s seen one yet, and they have a new inkset. They will very likely be excellent choices, although they may be pricey. Unlike the Pro-1000, they don’t use the full top-end inkset.
Neither Fish nor Fowl: Epson P5000. This DOES use Epson’s full top-end inkset, although it’s the version from the P7000/P9000 printers, not the newest version from the brand-new P7500/P9500. It’s also much faster than the P800, and the same speed as the larger printers. It supports both sheets and rolls up to 17” wide, with a competent roll feeder and a built-in cutter. The problem is that it is relatively close in price to the 24” P7000 and the 24” Canons, which come with larger ink cartridges. Consider the P5000 if you need its sheet paper capability, don’t care about printing larger than 16×24”, and have a place to put it (at 115 pounds, it’s REALLY stretching the definition of a desktop printer). Any 24” printer sits on its own stand, but Epson doesn’t supply one here.
If you’re looking at a large-format printer 24” and over, it needs to match your usage pattern – be aware how much you print, and consider the ability of the Canon line to print intermittently if you won’t use it every week or so. Print samples are an absolute requirement at this level, and make sure to measure the spot you’re going to put the printer (and every door it’s going to have to get through). If you have, or will buy (in the next five years – these printers are long term investments) a high-resolution camera above 40 MP, or if you’re going to print canvas, consider the 44” models. The extra area needed around the edges of the image to stretch canvas makes 24” just a little small, and the highest resolution cameras can make spectacular prints in the range of 30×45” to 40×60” The price difference from 24” to 44” is generally around $1500, but Canon throws in $800 of ink to soften the blow by shipping larger cartridges with the 44” models. Epson ships the same cartridges, so the final price difference is greater there.
Make sure the printer will fit where you want to put it, and make sure it can get through the doors and around the corners to get there. Another thing to consider is whether it will get out again. Once they have ink in them, printers have restrictions on how much they can be tilted, so a printer that made it in the door, but only vertically, may not make it out again without an expensive ink draining procedure. Older Canons were notorious for being extremely restricted, while Epsons are much less sensitive. Two strong people can lift a 24” printer, although a third person can be helpful – as long as it gets through the door, it should make it around most corners. A 44” printer will require three or four people, and may not make it through tight turns in older houses. The larger 60” and 64” printers, which are out of the price range of most photographers, require five or six people or a mechanical lift, and they won’t make it around corners in many residential buildings – they really need to be in commercial spaces, and to come in through a loading dock.
Highly Recommended: Canon Pro-2000 (24”), 2100(24”), 4000(44”), 4100 (44”) (the Pro-6000 and 6100 are expensive 60” variants). These are easy machines to run that produce excellent prints, and are surprisingly affordable for their capabilities.
Recommended (if you print enough): Epson SC-P 7000 (24”), 9000 (44”). If you prefer Epson’s colors, or you need their exceptional paper handling flexibility, these are also excellent machines. Just remember to exercise them weekly. If you print a huge amount (a busy commercial shop), the Epsons are more economical because of their lifetime head. The 64” SC-P 20000 does not use the same inkset as the smaller machines – it’s also highly capable, but it lacks green and orange inks while adding an extra gray. Unlike the Canon line, you can’t proof a print on a smaller printer and then make a final print on something really big. The 24” and 44” models of the same generation are compatible, but there’s no 17” with the latest inks, and the 64” uses yet another distinct inkset.
Promising, but too new for reviews: Epson SC-P 7570 (24”), 9570 (44”), HP DesignJet Z9, Z9+. All of these models show real promise – the HP line has a clever head design and includes unique color profiling technology, while the new Epsons may very well offer the widest color gamut of anything on the market. I am hoping to get one or both in for review in the next several months, and it is worth watching other reputable review sites as well. Keith Cooper at Northlight Images writes excellent printer reviews, and will hopefully get at least one of these models.
The printer a lot of photographers would like to see doesn’t actually exist. The large-format printers from Canon, Epson and HP are shared with the graphic arts world, and are quite a bit faster than most photographers need. Because they’re fast and have huge ink capacities, they’re heavy and bulky, taking up a lot of space in our studios and workrooms. They are also primarily designed to use roll paper, having no ability to feed more than one sheet at a time. Some years ago, HP made a neat little printer called the DesignJet 130 that solved many of those problems. It wasn’t anywhere near as capable as today’s fine-art printers, since it was only a 6 color printer using dye-based inks. What was unusual about it was that it was a 24” wide printer that actually had a paper tray, so it could use both rolls and sheets. It also weighed about 50 lbs, literally ¼ of what my Pro-2000 weighs. It was slow, but it was fast enough for artistic printing, although not for a commercial shop.
Will someone make a modern, pigment-ink DesignJet 130? It would need many more ink channels (maybe as many as 14 – take a modern 12-color ink set, include both green and gloss enhancer, and add one more gray). It should have the paper tray and roll feeder combination, with a better roll feeder than the old DesignJet had. With those additions, it wouldn’t be as compact and light as the old DesignJet, but if it was slow and used modest-sized ink cartridges in the 150-200 ml range, it could be half the size and weight of today’s behemoths. Design it for the kind of use photographers favor, rather than for 100 prints per day in a sign shop.