I’ve written in the past a number of times that I believe photographers should own a printer and get in the habit of printing their own work. If you only view your images online, you’re going to miss a lot of subtle detail and images that look fine on the screen will show flaws when printed out even at 8×10. I try to print out my better work at 8×10 while working on them, and then when I’m happy with the 8×10 print I’ll often print them at 11×14. If I can make them look good to my satisfaction at 11×14, they’ll look good in almost any situation I use them with, including up on my wall.
I am also a big fan of printing out an image and living with it for a while, by which I mean taking at 8×10 or 11×10 and clipping it up where I can look at it while I’m doing other things, and go back and study it and really look deeply into the details and structure of the picture over a few days. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found problems with an image I want to print and use or give to someone after two or three days of looking at it over time.
Even if your primary use of images is online — true for most of us — improvements you make to the images to make them good on paper will improve the online images as well. It doesn’t have to be a big printer or an expensive printer, but one that can use good, basic glossy 8×10 photo paper can be had very inexpensively and you can use that to get a good print of an image that way at low cost. You don’t want to use a lab for these prints, because the reason you’re oding it is so you can explore and experiment and fix things and try again, and doing that via a lab is slow and expensive, so you won’t do it. Once you do the in-house printing and make sure the image is good, then you can use a lab for final images and at larger sizes with confidence.
If you want to explore printing, a good basic starter printer is the Epson Expression XP-620 ($90 at Amazon). For a bit more, the Epson Expression XP-950 ($150 at Amazon) will let you print 11×17. I will warn you — once you start printing and studying your prints in larger sizes, you may well get addicted to the look and get bitten by the printing bug. I would argue, of course, that this is not a bad thing. For paper, you don’t need to get too fancy. I use Epson Premium Glossy as my basic testing paper and Epson Ultra Premium Luster 8.5×11 as my final print paper at that size.
The reality, though, is that fewer and fewer photographers are printing their work and instead only look at their images on screen and online. Beyond that, people at home and at work have gotten comfortable with email and viewing things online, so printer usage, and therefore printer sales and ink sales, have falled significantly over the last few years. This has hurt companies like HP that used to depend on ink sales, especially to the corporate world, as a big part of their revenue.
One thing to keep in mind about printers is that all of the printer companies price their printers very inexpensively and expect to make most of their money over time when you buy new cartridges. The least expensive printers may not be bargains because the amount of ink you get in an ink cartridge can be quite small and the cost of replacing the cartridges when they run out gets very expensive — I’ve seen printers where it was literally cheaper to buy a new printer than to buy a new set of cartridges to refill the old one. In general the more expensive printers have less expensive ink cartridges on a “cost per page” basis, so if you find the amount of printing you do going up, it’s usually a good idea to upgrade to a higher end printer at some point.
Since companies that sell printers have typically seen ink sales as where their profit is, most of their effort has gone into trying to make sure you buy their ink and not some third party ink refill. Epson was the most aggressive at this, adding DRM to their cartridges to try to prevent non-authorized cartridges from working in their printers.
It looks like this game is ending, though. With overall printer and ink sales falling, Epson has decided to try something different. They have announced and are releasing a new line of printers with what they are calling “Eco-Tank” capability. Instead of replaceable cartridges the printer has refillable tanks, and you can but small bottles to refill the tanks when you need them. The estimates I’ve seen on the cost difference over cartridge refills is about a 10X reduction in price. The new printers are more expensive to buy (the low-end ET-2500 is $379 and the high end ET-4550 is $500) but if you do a fair amount of printing you’ll get the cost back in ink savings fairly quickly and the tanks and refills are large enough that purchasing refills is going to be a very rare event.
It’s an interesting concept and I’m going to be curious to see how this works. It seems clear to me that Epson has shifted its target here from trying to prevent third party ink sales to trying to take away sales directly from the other printer manufacturers, and the higher end models are clearly designed to replace a color copier in business environments.
Epson’s decision here seems to be that the old sales volumes aren’t coming back, so they’re positioning themselves to take away sales from their competitors, and they’ve made it clear they’re looking at Canon and HP and Lexmark instead of the third party cartridge sellers as their primary target now.
Canon is also reacting to this drop in printing and drop in ink and printer sales. They’ve just released a series of ads explaining why you need a printer in a fairly lighthearted way. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t expect it to change too many minds.
So it’s clear printer manufacturers see the writing on the wall and are reacting to the changes in the market. I think these new epson printers are interesting and I may pick one up to test and replace my fairly old basic printer that we use mostly for plain paper printing. The ink-tank technology has been in use in high end printers for a while so I expect there won’t be many glitches with these new setups so perhaps when I need to replace the cartridges on that printer it’ll be time to upgrade.
For all photographers, though, I want to encourage you to print your work. It is an important step in the non-ending process of improving yourself as a photographer, and if you haven’t started doing it, having your favorite images up on the wall is a great way to enjoy your photography.