The Joy of Printing: Owning a printer

I honestly and thoroughly enjoy making prints. It takes extra time, extra money, extra effort, and requires extra skill compared to just making images displayed on a computer screen, but I like it.  After watching Sean Bagshaw’s and Zack Schepf’s new Producing Better Prints video series, I realize part of this comes from the fact that, over the years, I’ve developed a workflow where I can control the printing process well enough on my home printer that outputting an image as a print is not only easy and fun, but also an integral part of my workflow.

The Producing Better Prints course details the best practices for making prints from digital photographs. It’s an in-depth look at the variables associated with printing and teaches you how to control them. NOTE: The “Producing Better Prints” course is available on the Panels an Videos page, and during the month of May is 20% off using code: BP20

This article lists several advantages of having your own photo inkjet printer to make prints.  I’m currently on my third printer, a 4-year-old Epson SureColor P800 model. I primarily use it to make 12 x 18-inch images.  Owning a printer is not essential to making good prints or benefiting from the course, but having one readily available shortens the learning curve as you get near real-time feedback from the printed images.

Cost

There are definitely two sides to this: the upfront cost and the cost per print. The upfront cost is, of course, the printer. A good photo inkjet printer from Epson or Canon, for example, runs from $800 for a 13-inch model to $1300 for a 17-inch model. So, it’s an investment similar to buying a camera and a lens. Sometimes there are rebates ($200 at B&H Photo on Epson printers until the end of May), but it’s still a lot of money, especially if you’re new to printing and are unsure about whether you want to go this route. Fortunately, these printers are durable, so this is potentially a purchase that could last for years. Personal note: I buy new cameras and lenses more frequently than I do printers.

Paper and ink are a continual cost with printers, and ink cartridges for photo printers along with boxes with 50 to 100 sheets of “premium” paper aren’t inexpensive. However, on a per print basis, the cost is extremely reasonable. I checked my purchase records for 2021. I spent $348 on ink cartridges and $450 for 250 sheets of premium 13×19 luster paper. If you do the math, that works out to $3.20 per print, which, of course, is ridiculously cheap, since that wouldn’t even cover shipping and handling for a print from a commercial lab (which maybe uses the same type of printer). If I make 1,000 prints with my $1000 printer that will add just one dollar to the price of each print, in which case they’d still be a bargain.

Based on the prices I was looking at on the internet, an inkjet print on premium paper from a photo lab would cost over ten times what it costs to make the same print on my home computer and photo printer. So, while the upfront cost of making prints at home is not insignificant, the cost per print (even with the cost of the printer factored in) is almost trivial compared to paying someone else to do it. Long-term, an inkjet photo printer can be a good deal.

Print Quality

Photo inkjet printers make excellent prints, and that’s WITHOUT using the highest quality setting for the printer. In fact, I think using the “maximum quality” setting for prints is probably a waste of ink. Cameras (including smartphone cameras), Photoshop (and associated software), and printers have gotten so good that the images taken with my old first-gen iPhone SE and then printed on my Epson printer are better than the photographs I made in the darkroom in the 1980s that started with 4×5 negatives. Detail and sharpness with photo inkjet printers are absolutely incredible and precision manipulation using Photoshop and Lightroom far exceeds what was ever possible in a darkroom. In addition, the papers and inks used with modern inkjet printers are excellent. Fading, discoloration, and paper degradation aren’t an issue with premium papers and inks. A properly processed black and white silver gelatin print might still be more archival than a color inkjet print, but I doubt I will live long enough to see any difference. I still enjoy looking at traditional photographs, of course, but also feel that inkjet prints are now better on several different levels.

Speed

Let’s talk instant gratification. Initially, it took a bit get to set everything up for home printing, but, now that it’s all in place, I can resize and sharpen an image and finish outputting it as a print in less than 15 minutes. The process is accurate and repeatable, and I know the drill well. I get to see a finished print in less time than it takes to order a print from a lab and upload the file.

Control and creativity

In my opinion, this is the primary reason for owning a photo inkjet printer because, like many photographers, I have my perfectionist tendencies. Once I start working on an image, I want to make it as good as I can. As discussed in the previous post, I can uncover issues concerning color, contrast, and brightness better when looking at a print than by looking at the same image on a computer monitor. Because of this, prints have become an important part of my workflow. Waiting time and cost are no longer barriers with a home printer, and removing these impediments generates creative energy. Each print tells me something new about how to make the image better. The ease at which prints can be generated means I can quickly move back and forth between prints and Photoshop to polish the image to whatever level of perfection I like. It usually only takes around five prints to get everything right, but it’s hard to imagine properly finishing an image now without producing a satisfactory print. The process is a lot of fun and a good example of the joy of printing.

Lots of paper choices

There are a lot of papers that can be used with home inkjet photo printers, and, at least initially, you’ll want to experiment until you find one or more with a look and finish that you like. However, to be a master printer of your images, you don’t need to be able to print on every different paper out there. I’ve been using the same paper (a premium luster paper) for over a year as it meets my needs quite well. Being able to print on a variety of papers is a definite plus, but each requires small (or sometimes not so small) changes to your overall printing routine. So, definitely check out the different options, especially the different surfaces, to see what you like. Once you settle on a few favorites, you’ll be able to quickly make images that look good and require little effort to produce.

It’s not that hard to learn

There’s certainly a learning curve to printing your own images on a home photo printer, but, as point of reference, I’d say it’s easier than learning to navigate the menus on your DSLR camera. Basically, you need to do it step by step, but just once. When you get something in place, like calibrating your monitor, you’ll be able to move on to the next step. What you did or what you learned in that previous step will provide reproducible results going forward. For example, I use nearly the same process for each print. One paper, one basic sharpening method, one print adjustment for brightness/contrast before printing, and the same printer settings (except for paper orientation). It took a little time to figure out what works best for my monitor, paper, and printer, but now that I know these things, it’s very simple to make a print. Sean and Zack’s Producing Better Prints course walks you through all these variables, so you’ll know what needs to be addressed. Printing can be quite automated once you have the various settings in place.

Photo printer or printing press?

A photo printer doesn’t just print photographs. Having a printer that prints on larger-size paper, and even rolls of paper, greatly enhances what you can print. Photos, sure, but you can also print signs and banners for your children, for yard sales . . . or for a protest march. You can make greeting cards and postcards, and, if word gets around that you know what you’re doing, you can make prints for other people . . . and perhaps create some income in the process. All types of art, not just photos, can be printed with a photo printer. Text and graphics print just as well as photographs. If you can get it into Photoshop or create it there, you can then print it in a color-managed fashion with your “photo” printer. The cost of ink and paper will still be a factor, but the overall price will likely still be much less than you’d pay if you hired someone to do the same job. Bottom line: Photoshop plus a photo printer means you have a high-quality printing press at your disposal and can print whatever you want.

Prints are real

For almost the entire history of photography, prints were the only way to view the art form. My personal history with photography dates back to “instamatic” cameras in the 1970s, and prints were still the only way to see your pictures in that era. So, while I probably do have a fondness for prints based on my initial experience with photography, I don’t think it’s nostalgia alone that makes me want to see and hold a photograph as a print. There are other reasons. As a photographer, I want to inspect the image close up in order to determine the quality of the initial capture and to appreciate (or critique) the photographer’s skills. I also want to view the image at a distance to see how it interacts with the ambient light and whether it draws me in for a closer look. I also like the tactile qualities of some papers and admire the surface finishes of several of them. More than anything, though, when it comes to photography, I want to interact with something that is real. While much of my world seems to function just fine via the virtual simulation created by my computer, I’m too close and too connected to photography to be satisfied with only computer images of photographs. A print is the photographer’s ultimate expression of their art, and it tells me things about the artist that I can’t see on a monitor. At some point, to truly appreciate photographs and the people who made them, prints are required. Our virtual lives can only take us so far. When we really want to connect, we need something real.

Summary

Owning an inkjet photo printer is a great way to improve your photography. It allows you to see your images in a new light (literally) and to find additional ways to improve them. There will be some new skills to learn in order to be consistently successful at printing, but once you understand and control the different variables, the process is easy and rewarding. Having a home printer lets you explore new paper and image options, and, once you get past the initial costs, the price for printing at home is very economical. A home printer should be seen as another creative tool. It will help find new directions for your photography, allow you to explore new techniques, and ensure that you stay excited about taking pictures.

9 thoughts on “The Joy of Printing: Owning a printer

  1. Tony,
    Your workflow of using a darks mask and a screen blend mode to prevent images that are too dark is a real winner. My problem with home printing is if you don’t print for a time the print nozzles get clogged and a real waste of ink occurs to clear them.

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      1. Tony, your idea to print something every week to keep the printer from clogging – I imagine it need to be something with every ink color used? What do you choose to print weekly?

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      2. I just print my latest color image. Your printer is likely using all the different colors on every image. It needs to combine the different color inks CMYK-wise to make the colors you see. Just don’t print with the black inks to make a black and white print (which some printers will do). If you print a color image you’re probably going to be fine.

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    1. Hey Dean…I had great success using Magic Bullet to help keep my nozzles unclogged. I included a link in the printing course resources document. You can also just do a google search for Magic Bullet.

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  2. I am excitedly printing, but the walls in our home are filling up! What do you do with your beautiful photographs printed and processed so nicely if you do not want the pressure of a full on side business?? Does anyone have good ideas?

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    1. I save the boxes my sheets of paper come in and refill them with printed photos. I might not ever do anything with these boxes of photos that will benefit me financially, but I do look through them occasionally for inspiration and just to enjoy looking at the older prints again. I don’t throw away my “final” printed image. I always hang onto that as it represents the best I could do with that image. Other proofs before the final image I do throw away. I just keep the final image.

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  3. I recently bought a Epson SC P900 printer. That printer with their Epson Print Layout software works better for me than proofing in Lightroom or Photoshop. It’s so easy you can’t help but want to print. It’s the first time I’ve found printing to be fast and accurate.

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    1. Glad to hear you found a good printing solution, Barbara. I’m using a printer that’s at least generation older (Epson P800) and, as mentioned in the article, have figured out what works best for me. I still think that things like monitor calibration and an appropriate working color space are important. However, if you’ve been able to circumvent the soft-proofing and ICC profile conversion issues, then that would indeed simplify things even more and make printing even easier.

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