Big Test

Is it bet­ter to print your photos your­self or to have them printed by an online lab? Matthew Richards weighs up the pros and cons of each op­tion, and puts four print­ers and four labs to the test

NPhoto - - Contents -

What’s bet­ter, print­ing your­self or go­ing through an online lab? We put four op­tions in each cat­e­gory to the test

Sooner or later, ev­ery pho­tog­ra­pher will want to make prints of their best shots.

A high-end photo printer from the likes of Canon or Ep­son is, there­fore, an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion. In best-qual­ity mode, you can ex­pect an A4 (11x8.5 inch) or A3+ (19x13-inch) photo print in around a cou­ple of min­utes or 12 min­utes re­spec­tively. That’s of­ten less time than it takes to fill in an online or­der form and upload your im­ages to an in­ter­net-based print­ing lab, let alone wait for your prints to be sent to you in the post.

It’s not just the im­me­di­acy of home print­ing that makes it so ap­peal­ing – it’s the fact that you’re in full con­trol of the whole process. Take care to cal­i­brate your mon­i­tor and ad­just your printer set­tings, and what you see on screen re­ally should be what you get on pa­per.

Inkjet print­ers are usu­ally sup­ported by the man­u­fac­turer’s own range of glossy, lus­tre and matte photo pa­pers, as well as tex­tured fine art or ‘photo rag’ media. We’d rec­om­mend stick­ing with the man­u­fac­turer’s own ink and pa­pers for the best qual­ity and colour fi­delity, but ICC (In­ter­na­tional Color Con­sor­tium) pro­files are of­ten avail­able for gen­er­at­ing ac­cu­rate out­put on high-qual­ity pa­pers from the likes of Hah­nemühle, Il­ford and oth­ers.

Inkjet print­ers us­ing dye-based inks typ­i­cally give won­der­fully smooth out­put on glossy photo pa­per. Pig­ment-based inks of­ten lack the same level of smooth­ness for glossy out­put but give bet­ter look­ing prints on matte media. Nowa­days, the choice be­tween dye and pig­ment inks is re­served for larger-for­mat A3+ print­ers; you’re lim­ited to dye-based inks if you opt for an A4 printer. A3+ print­ers also of­ten have both photo black and matte black inks, plus ex­tra shades of grey. This en­ables en­hanced out­put tai­lored to glossy or matte media, as well as greater fi­delity in black-and-white photo print­ing.

Play­ing away

As ver­sa­tile as they are, run­ning your own photo printer can be less than ideal. First, you have to buy the de­vice, and they don’t come cheap. Ex­pect to pay around £150 ($150) for a high-qual­ity A4 printer, and at least £500 ($700) for a top-grade A3+ printer. And that’s just the start. Inkjet print­ers can be thirsty beasts and ink car­tridges are ex­pen­sive, as is photo pa­per. You can’t re­ally de­fine the ex­act cost of an inkjet photo print, be­cause the denser or more sat­u­rated the im­age, the more ink it’ll re­quire (see ‘10 things we learned’).

When it comes to pa­per size, home print­ing is some­what lim­it­ing. Nei­ther A4 nor A3+ is a good fit for the 3x2 as­pect ra­tio of Nikon D-SLRs. Good online labs, like those fea­tured in the fol­low­ing pages, of­fer an amaz­ing range of print sizes, so it’s easy to get ex­actly the size and shape that you want. For en­large­ments, they’ll of­ten stretch to 30x20 inches or even 60x40 inches, which puts an A3+ printer in the shade. But how does the print qual­ity com­pare be­tween home print­ing and tra­di­tional sil­ver halide out­put from a good lab? Let’s see…

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