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Printing Your Digital Photography

            Among the advantages of digital photography is the ease by which you can control the entire process from taking the picture to producing a copy of the image.  With film photography, the process involves optics with special lenses for the camera and print maker, chemicals, light and a lot of patience.  With digital photography, each of these steps in the process is electronic until the final act of putting ink on paper to produce a print of the image.  The digital photographer has a wide range of choices in displaying his work, printing images on paper being just one of those choices.  He or she also will find a wide range of alternative printing methods, speeds, papers, and options available to choose from.

             Printers have come a long way from the impact and dot matrix printers of the early years of the PC.  Print quality is remarkable, prices are downright low and reliability and ease of operation are taken for granted.  With this, printing your digital photographs at home is easy, fast and inexpensive.  With so much to choose from the question isn’t making the right or wrong choice, but making the choice of the alternative that best meets your individual preferences and objectives.

             The intent of this article is to help you define those individual preferences and objectives by comparing the various printing alternatives available for digital photography and considering some of the features offered on digital photography printers that are available to suit your individual preferences.  You will be able to find in depth reviews of digital photography printers in a number of magazines including PC Magazine, Digital PC and Smart Computing that can add depth to the discussions included here.  We encourage you to first define your objectives, then identify your preferences, then use the available literature to find the best printer for you.

Options Available for displaying Your Digital Photography

             Once you have created a digital image file on your PC you can create an endless number of copies in a wide range of formats.  Since your image file is electronic, you can make multiple copies, edit copies, combine copies, etc., all without loss of quality in your original image.  With this in mind, some of the ways you may display your image include:

  • Electronic Picture Frames:  An electronic picture frame is just that, a picture frame with a small memory chip that stores a number of images (12, 24 or more) and then displays the images on a LCD screen within the picture frame.  Most of these permit some kind of slide show rotating between images and maybe even with fades and blends between the image changes.  Electronic picture frames can be found for as low as $75.00, depending on the screen size and memory capacity.
  • Display on Your Computer:  You can easily link your computer screen saver to your My Documents/My Photos folder to use photo images you choose to include in the selected file folder as a screen saver.  Or you can use your digital photography editing software to prepare a slide show of selected photographs.
  • Display on Your Television:  Popular software is available to permit a link from your computer to your television to make your television a display for your photo slide show.  You can now replace the photo slide projector with a digital slide show complete with fades, titles and other enhancements on your television.
  • Email photos to family and friends:  You can email your photo images as attachments to regular email messages or often directly from your digital photography editing software.
  • Print Photo Albums:  Many photo album programs will assist you in compiling photographs by topic and printing specialized photo albums.
  • Print Individual Photographs:  The remainder of this article addresses some of the choices you have in selecting printers, printing medium and inks for printing individual photographs from your digital image files.

Printing Digital Image Files

             You can either print your digital photographs yourself or have someone else print them for you.  With film photography the choice was clear, if you didn’t have a photography darkroom and know the techniques of chemical processing, you sent your photographs out to a commercial processor.  Today, commercial processors still provide expertise, consistency and reliability in producing your photographic prints.  And today you also have more choice in accessing the services of a commercial processor.  Generally, you have the choice of sending your digital image files to your processor over the Internet; going to a kiosk (a stand alone user directed digital photography processing machine) or going to a commercial processor directly.  Each of these is basically the same in that the commercial processor will take your digital image files either from your computer; from your camera’s memory card or from a disk you prepared on your computer, and will give you back your prints along with your digital images on some kind of storage disk (often at an extra charge).

             As with film processing, the commercial processor doesn’t know your subject and your objectives so he can only correct obvious image problems such as brightness and contrast, then print the image for you.  Aside from this, commercial processing offers high paper and ink stability, consistency in size and print format and convenience.  If you like the convenience and consistency, but want more control over the image, many traditional commercial processing outlets offer kiosks where you can input your digital camera’s memory card, view the images and make some image modifications, then have the kiosk print your photo for you.

             Those of us that opt for more personal control over the image printing process will find numerous options await with printers for home use.  You can even print your digital photographs on a printing unit that works directly off of your camera or your camera’s memory card, without ever connecting to your PC.  This offers a fast and easy approach to processing snapshots that need a minimum of editing.  As we will explore below, camera direct printers range from those producing prints with no editing capability to those with LCD displays to review the image before printing and providing basic image editing software built into the printer, again without ever going to your PC.  Of course, your can still use your PC for advanced editing and again most camera direct printers will accept the image from your PC as well as your camera or memory card, giving you the best of both worlds.

             Finally, if you choose to print your digital photographs at home, you have a choice in selecting the printing process that best suits your preferences and objectives.  Basically, you can choose among laser, ink jet and what is termed dye diffusion thermal transfer printing.  Each has specific advantages and limitations that you will need to explore to find which best suits your style and needs.  Each of these processes is discussed below.

The Three Common Digital Photography Printing Techniques

             Printing your digital photographs is the process of transforming your electronic digital files into dots of ink on paper.  In doing so, there are lots of variations to consider, from the size of the dots, the spacing of dots, the characteristics of the paper and the ink, the process for adhesion of the ink onto the paper and the coatings or other process to enhance longevity of the image once printed.  Below, we discuss each of the three primary digital photography printing technique, laser, inkjet and dye transfusion, in regards to these characteristics. 

  • Color Laser Printers:  When thinking about laser printers, that high volume workhorse laser printer in the office comes to mind.  Laser printers have become cost effective, reliable and consistent in providing clean, clear images.  Now, color laser printers have become affordable to the individual or small office and offer the same reliability and consistency found in the black and white mainstay.  The difference is in the resolution and color range required for good digital photography work.  A color laser printer will serve well in making numerous copies of a newsletter, brochure or flyer, but when used to produce a portrait of grandma for the living room, it will leave much to be desired.  Because laser printers are best suited for the business environment, the range of choices of color laser printers for the home is limited.  Laser printers, although they have become reasonably affordable, still cost substantially more than other printer options available to the home digital photography enthusiast.  The laser printing process becomes cost effective where large volume printing jobs can benefit from the lower ink and paper costs as compared to alternatives.
  • Dye Diffusion Thermal Transfer Printers:  A relatively new, but growing, printing option for home printing of digital photographs is the dye diffusion thermal transfer process.  Basically, this process uses a dry pigment dye that is vaporized through heating and impregnates a paper with color to produce the desired print.  The result is a very permanent image, usually with the look and feel of the photograph we are used to getting back from the processor when we developed the film of our old film camera.  Finishing coatings on the printed image insures protection from scratches and wear while the process itself gives a long life of clear, crisp colors.  Dye diffusion thermal transfer technology, however, is relatively new and has its limits.  The paper and ink packs required for the process are unique to the manufacturer.  In addition, these printers are generally limited to printing only one size or a very limited number of image sizes of prints, generally 4” by 6” prints.  The dye diffusion thermal transfer printer is specifically for printing digital photography and is not compatible with other printing jobs, requiring that you keep a separate printer for your non-photo needs.  Dye diffusion printers are only available from a limited number of manufacturers and, although reasonably priced, cost somewhat more than comparable inkjet printers.  Due to the specialized paper and ink packs, the cost of dye diffusion thermal transfer printing also tends to be in the higher range for home digital photography printing.
  • Ink Jet Printers:  The bulk of today’s home photography printing is done on ink jet printers.  In fact, as the interest in home digital photography has grown, the quality of ink jet printers has developed significantly, while the cost of these printers has fallen below reasonable to down right cheap.  Ink jet printers produce their image by spraying small dots of ink onto the paper.  The resolution of the printer, measured by the number of “dots” per inch, provides the limit of resolution in the final print.  Technology has made most of the today’s ink jet printers capable of producing well in excess of the 300 dots per inch or so that is probably the limit of the human ability to define resolution.  But there are a number of other factors that influence the quality of the final print produced on an ink jet printer. 

         Foremost of these other factors is the availability of colors to be used in the process.  Many ink jet printers have two ink cartridges, one of black and one containing the three primary pigment colors; magenta, cyan and yellow.  A black can be produced with a mixture of the three primary colors, but it is not a true black and will produce photographs that lack the depth of contrast and color validity that one expects.  Ink jet printers are available today with more that the three primary colors, often with six colors, that permits enhanced color presentation and depth.

         Price competition among printer manufacturers has pushed the prices of inkjet printers to as low as $100 or even less.  Most inkjet printers are capable of printing on a range of media, ranging basic office copy paper to premium photographic papers.  Most of these printers are also capable of printing on transparencies, “T” shirt transfers and other specialty media.  The competition among inkjet printer manufacturers has led to low purchase prices for their printers, but it has not led to low prices for the custom ink cartridges and papers required.  Even so, the cost per print for inkjet photographs printed at home is quite reasonable compared to alternative home and commercial printing options.

What to Look for in Selecting a Printer for your Digital Photography

             Don’t be overwhelmed by the alternatives you see before you in selecting a printing option for your digital photography.  As we said before, there are a lot of right choices for every user.  By knowing some of the major options available to you and realizing what your personal objectives are beforehand, you will be well prepared to make an excellent choice.  Focusing now on home PC printers for your personal digital photography works, here are some of the significant features to be considered:

So What’s Right for You?

             Consider your objectives and preferences.  Then look over the alternatives discussed above.  Here are a few steps to consider as you work through this process: 

  • Do you want to print at home or use a commercial printer?  If you have limited time and want to see your prints as soon as possible and just like you’re used to seeing your film prints, maybe you should just use a commercial printing option, or maybe a kiosk processor, for your prints.  Printing at home takes time, patience and equipment.
  • Are you going to edit your work or do you just want prints of what the camera saw?  You can save a lot of time and trouble by printing directly from your camera.  You can even have some basic editing right on your printer without the time requirement of transferring to your PC and going through a robust digital photography editing software program.
  • What is the best printing technology for your needs?  If you plan to print many copies of your photographs with minimum concern for high resolution or color quality, such as in small business brochures, newsletters, etc., a laser printer may be ideal for ease of use, consistency and reliability.  If you are limiting your digital photography printer to one-size prints of photographs only, dye diffusion printing may offer a good alternative.  Inkjet printing can do either of these or just about everything in between, considering the features of your printer.
  • How important is printer speed?  Generally, photograph printers will be rather slow when compared to printing work from your word processor.  You can print while working on your PC on other projects or print unattended if necessary for large projects.
  • You want good quality.  Quality is a combination of the printer capability, the inks used and the paper you print on.  Laser printers offer relatively low quality for photography work; dye diffusion printers offer good quality and generally provide coated, stable images that compare well with what your can get with commercial printers.  Inkjet printers generally offer good to excellent resolution, but the number of ink colors, ink permanency and paper you use are important to the final product.
  • Do you need flexibility in the size and type of your output?  Digital Photography Editing Software offers a wide range of printing configurations, image sizes and print media.  If you plan to use these alternatives, be sure you printer can accommodate your desires.
  • Consider the cost of supplies.  Paper and ink can be quite expensive.  Consider the availability of supplies (are they sold at a store nearby or do you have to order them) as well as the cost involved.  Convert supply costs to cost per print made if you can to get a good comparison.  A $15 ink cartridge probably prints fewer 8”x10” prints than a $35 ink cartridge, but each printer has different characteristics that can greatly affect the total cost per print you make.
  • What Features should you consider?  We discussed some popular features above that may be available for your consideration.  Once you have proceeded this far in your selection process, these features will be the deciding factor.  Some are required, such as printer ports that are compatible with your computer configuration.  Others are mere preferences such as the color of the printer case.  Manufacturers use features to differentiate their product and to achieve pricing differences among models.  Consider your needs and preferences, and then consider the cost differences involved in making your selection.


             Using a commercial printer for your digital photography has its advantages, but it bypasses all of the advantages of having the print making process under you control that you now have in your own hands with a PC and a digital camera.   Don’t be afraid to explore digital photography editing and printing at home.  It’s easy, inexpensive, fun and takes only a little time and interest.  If you have any questions, problems or comments, we at Photo Talk are anxious to read your emails and offer whatever help we can.





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