By David D. Busch

Digital SLR owners have only one special consideration when choosing a personal printer for their hard copy needs. As a serious photographer, you likely want really, really good prints to match the stunning images that you create with your sophisticated camera. As a result, just any old printer probably won’t do. You want a printer that’s especially good for outputting photographs, such as the snapshot photo printer.

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Fortunately, printer quality and flexibility have improved dramatically in the past few years. Although, in the past, photo printers have included an array of competing technologies (including inkjet, dye-sublimation, thermal-wax, and even laser printers), inkjet printers are by far the most popular option today.

These models produce images by squirting tiny droplets of ink onto paper, using various methods to control the size and placement of the drops. For example, Epson uses piezoelectric crystals sandwiched between two electrodes to vibrate the ink cartridge with different levels of voltage, causing the crystals to vibrate in ways that adjust the colors and the amount of color sprayed through a nozzle onto the paper.

Other inkjet printing systems use heat or other properties to control the flow of ink. With resolutions ranging from about 300 dpi (dots per inch) to 1440 dpi and higher, inkjets can easily produce photo-quality images, assuming you use good-quality photo paper.

Current models run the gamut of features and prices, with many excellent models available from less than $100 to $300. To pay more than that, you probably need to buy a wide-carriage printer capable of handling paper wider than 8.5 inches. As a photographer, you may indeed want to make 11-x-14-inch or larger prints. Here are the features to look for in a printer:

  • Size and design: Some printers hog your desk space or feature clumsy paper paths that require a lot of space behind or in front of the printer for the paper trays. A few printers weigh a ton, too. If a printer is so unwieldy that you can’t locate it near your computer, you end up doing a lot of walking or reaching to retrieve your printouts.

  • Speed: Output speed is likely to be important to you only if you make a lot of prints and don’t like to wait. Some printers can be two or three times faster than others, so if speed is crucial (say, you’re toting your printer around to events to output prints for customers on demand), check your intended printer’s specifications carefully.

    Make a test print, too, because vendors use best-case figures for a printer’s specs, even though you probably end up printing under worst-case conditions.

  • Number of inks: Most photo printers today use at least six colors of ink: black, cyan, magenta, yellow, photo cyan, and photo magenta. The two latter inks are “weak” versions that provide more subtle gradations of tone. A few printers add red and green tanks, allowing the printers to create richer reds, additional orange tones, and more realistic greens.

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    Some printers have both a photo black and a text black ink. Generally, in terms of quality, the more ink tanks, the better. But you have to replenish those inks at a cost of $11 or so per tank. (Ink prices vary by brand and cartridge type.) If you have slightly lower quality needs, you may be able to get away with using a printer that has fewer colors.

  • Resolution: More resolution is usually better (some models provide 1200-x-4800-dpi resolution), but the higher resolutions have some trade-offs, such as the traditional gamut versus dot-size dilemma.

  • Paper handling: Some inkjet printers produce only 4-x-6-inch prints. They’re designed to output snapshots only, quickly and economically. Others let you print 5-x-7-inch or 8-1/2 -x-11-inch prints, as well as other sizes. Investigate your printer’s capability to handle various paper stocks and thicknesses, too.

  • Connectivity: The capability to print wireless to your output device is extremely valuable. It’s convenient and lets you use a single printer for all your computers rather than buy a separate printer for each.

  • Memory card access/PictBridge capabilities: A printer that has built-in memory card slots or a PictBridge-compatible camera-to-printer cable connection is especially convenient.

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    Your digital SLR may allow you to specify images for printing right in the camera. Then you insert your memory card into the printer’s slot or connect the camera to the printer by using a cable, and start the printing process.

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  • Duplex printing: You can use the capability to print on both sides of a sheet automatically for more than just creating text documents. If you’re preparing an album or portfolio, you can print on both sides of the sheet by using special dual-sided photo paper on printers that have duplexing capability.

  • Input/output trays: The input tray(s) holds the paper that you’re printing on; the output tray(s) catches the finished prints when they come out. The higher the capacity of each, the better for you. Your output tray should be large enough to catch all the prints that you make in a session without spilling any on the floor.

  • Controls: Printers have a plethora of controls that can adjust every function, perhaps an LCD that you can use to preview images, and a keypad that you use to navigate menus and options. Others may have a power switch, a paper-tray select button, and little more, requiring you to control every parameter from your computer by using the printer driver.

    The driver is software that enables your computer and printer to communicate; check your printer manufacturer’s website for the most up-to-date driver for your printer model and operating system.

    Each approach has its advantages: You can use printers that offer you a lot of controls in portable or stand-alone mode without a computer attached (if those printers have memory card slots or local area network connectivity). Printers that rely heavily on the printer driver usually operate quickly and allow you to store groups of settings on your computer for reuse at any time.