Judging the quality of a digital photo print can easily become very complex. Decide between several types of printing technologies (ink-jet, laser, etc.), photo papers and inks. Each of them gave advantages and inconveniences, all depend on what you are looking for. Let’s try to break down how you can choose the best technology regarding what you want to print.
This article will be technical about photography and printers. I will give you tips to understand why some (internet) prints are cheaper than others. If you are a professional printer, I won’t go that deep. Print quality could be the subject of an entire book about photography and printing techniques! But I will make a quick summary, in order to give you some insights to understand more about this obscure world invaded by marketing names can confuse!
To select the best for wedding books I offer and client prints, I focused on 3 parameters: the definition of the image, the dynamic range of colors and the ability to resist the years.
I will explain to you why, for your wedding albums, I have chosen what I think is the best print quality to create an album that will last in time: the Fujifilm Fuji color DPII Crystal Archive Digital Paper. The DPII Crystal is an RC (resin coated) paper, and its weight is 1000 grams per square meter. (1000 g/m2).
Table of Contents
Important terms involved in the printing process and their definitions
What is the print’s definition?
The print definition is the ability to offer the viewer little details. We usually give a definition in DPI (Dots per Inch). It’s the number of individual ink drop than you can find along a single inch.
The higher number of DPI, the more detailed and sharper is your picture.
Some “new” printers can print up to 600 DPI (and even more).
But, for the record, do you know what is the human eye capacity? Well, when you look at a picture at 1 feet distance (which is usually the distance you look at your wedding book), the human brain cannot distinguish any difference over 300 DPI. So, except if you love looking at your print with your nose pressed again on them (the way we used to look at tiny contacts print in the old-time), I think a 300 DPI print is more than decent for a wedding book. A higher number would be a marketing trick!
600 DPI is sharper, so it is better, right?
To be honest, a few years ago I was excited to see photos printed with the new printers, in 600 DPI resolution. Well, my enthusiasm quickly calmed down. The difference is so subtile that I would recommend a bigger print (album) better than a higher resolution print.
What is the image’s dynamic range of print?
A blue sky is not made of only one color. It’s composed by an infinite variation of blue tones, which means a wide dynamic range of colors. The dynamic range is the ability to record the colors inside the spectrum not only from the darkest to the lightest color, but from the more to the less saturated color.
The capacity to record and reproduce those thin color variations are first limited by the quality of the camera sensor, later by the software used to develop the image, and finally by the printer.
Infinite variation of color> sensors> software and ways to develop the digital file> printer
My aim is to find the printer that can bring all the colors stored in the digital image.
If today, all printers are almost equal regarding the print definition, there is still a tremendous gap regarding the dynamic range color sensitivity. In other words, the very best image file printed on cheap local printers will look like faded, washed out, bleached, colorless, decolorized, or over-saturated, with weird colors.
Why image durability is important?
Image durability is the capacity of your print to resist to alteration throughout the years.
All kinds of prints are all made with chemical products. Undoubtedly you will see the aspect of the paper and the ink changing their aspect over the years. The question is: how many years will your picture remain in a good shape? You don’t want your prints to become yellow in five years. Do you?
What can alter a print?
The most common reasons for image alteration at home are
- exposition to the sun light
- finger prints
- scratch resulting in ordinary manipulation with Sharpe element (nails, ring, watch)
- droplets of saliva
- cigarette smoke
- cooking fumes (when close to the kitchen).
Wedding albums and durability
Wedding albums are made to be open often, to be manipulated. And, even if we don’t see it, each time we manipulate an album, our fingers leave thousands of chemical substances on the surface of the paper. That is why the photo paper needs to be strong enough to resist to physical and chemical alterations. And that’s also why all the wedding albums I suggest, including a box to protect them from dust and all other products.
The three different kinds of photo paper’s texture
Even if every technology uses a different paper, I will make it simple and quickly define the three most common kinds of texture: glossy, mat and pearl.
- Glossy paper: it will give you the feeling to have a more precise print (but it also shows imperfections). The big disadvantage of glossy, it’s that it becomes dirty as soon as you touch it (and you don’t want to see all of your fingerprints).
- Mat paper: traditionally the definition of mat texture is the opposite of the glossy, it is dull and not shiny at all. Let’s say it is usually a thick paper that absorbs all the ink and has a texture close to the velvet. The effect makes the dark colors darker. It is very nice for fine art prints, but needs a specific setting for your prints (if you don’t want to have too dark prints). Mat papers are usually good for ink-jet printers, especially the Hahnemühle. Be careful with the brand marketing. Indeed, today some brands can name “Mat paper” some very different kinds of paper, from a glossy/Pearl paper, to real mat paper.
- Pearl paper: it is a mix between a glossy paper (keep the shiny effect), and the velvet texture of the mat paper. The color is vibrant, and the paper doesn’t get dirty when you touch it.
Photo Paper Thickness:
Here again, it can change depending on the print technology and the ink. But let’s put it simply: the thicker is the paper, the better it is. The thicker is the paper, the longer it will last in time.
No big surprise that the thicker paper is also the most expensive one!
The three main technologies for printing photos
Professional photo market is mainly divided in two technologies: ink-jet, argentic, laser. (Indeed, there are many more, like the thermal printers, but I won’t speak about all of them.)
1/ Inkjet printers
The concept is simple: a printer spray liquid ink on paper through a nozzle. The paper absorbs the ink.
The ink-jet printer that we “all” might have at home provides a very poor result for photo printing. But professional inkjet printers can produce amazing results. They are called plotter and can usually print an A0 format! During many years we have seen a marketing war between printer builders (Canon, Epson), regarding who will manage to have the thinner ink drop and will provide the better print resolution (DPI). Today, all of them are almost well, and the war moved to another level (the colors range dynamic).
Professional inkjet printers use many colors of inks (not only the cyan, magenta, blue and Black). The ink, and the way to mix them will provide the dynamic range of colors.
Basic printers use 3 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) and black. Professional ink-jet printer often uses 6 colors and some use up to 12 different inks! Mixing them together allows creating a very wide range of colors.
The best inks are made with pigments. A pigment is a kind of dust from natural rocks. And rocks do not fear the chemical reaction, so color is made to last forever.
Inkjet Paper and Photography
There are a lot of brands of paper (Ilford, Hahnemühle, Kodak, Fuji, Canon, and many more). They all offer different kinds of paper: glossy, matted, satin and pearl paper. The paper affects the colors’ aspect (whiter or more yellow/blue), and the contrast (the deepness of the dark). But, let says that in most cases, changes due to the brand will be so minor that can’t really notice. That’s why I do not choose a paper based on the brand, but more on the texture of the paper.
The texture of the paper will also affect the way you feel the image.
One of the specificities of professional ink-jet technology printer is also to print very large prints, which is not possible with all the technologies.
Fine art prints
Print on soft and high quality Archival paper, fine arts prints are usually framed and hang on the wall. Artist love the textures of the fine art paper previously mentioned, and usually print limited edition prints, as a work of art.
Limits of the Ink-jet
I think that the only concern I have on the ink prints is that it is too delicate. Indeed, the paper is designed to “absorb” the ink. It means that if you accidentally spit on a print… well, the image will be irremediably damaged.
Constructors have thought about that, and now printers have an option to add a protective lacquer layer. But I think this protection is still delicate, and it is not made to be manipulated.
To Summarize the Ink-jet Printer
I recommend ink-jet printers for posters you will hang in your living room under a protective glass. I use professional ink-jet prints for my exhibitions. They offer a huge dynamic of colors, and a high definition. Even with a protective varnish, I think ink-jet prints are too delicate to be manipulated for your wedding book. The paper has the propriety to “drink” ink, and also every chemical particle in suspension in the air.
Thus, the paper will turn yellow in a couple of years. And I guess it is not what you want for your wedding album.
2/ Laser Printer and photography
Laser print technology can widely change from one brand/model to the other. There is a very wide range of quality. Basically, quality goes from the copy machine (to avoid for photography) to a professional laser printer.
The technology is an electrostatic reaction. First the paper entering the machine is charged with electrostatic. The laser creates a hot point on a drum, charging it with an opposite charge. When the paper and the drum come in contact, the magic happens. The ink, which is a powder stocked in a toner, melt, and through the electrostatic reaction is to be transferred to the paper. That’s why basically all kinds of paper can go into a photocopy machine.
Advantage and Disadvantage of Laser Printers Regarding Photography
The professional laser printer resolution is now high enough to create decent images for photography. Even if the image range is not amazing, the result is good enough to have an idea of the photography.
The major inconvenience comes from the paper and the ink themselves. First the paper (who can be any paper), is not protected, and will easily react with all the chemical particles in suspension in the air, which means having the corner turn yellow. Secondly, given the inked is applied to the top of the paper, it means the ink is not protected. In other words, when you touch it, ink will stay attached to your fingers, and the prints are extremely sensitive to alteration (saliva drops, for instance).
Laser prints on the internet
Laser prints are indecently cheaper than other technology, and that’s usually the technology you will find on the internet.
Today, the printer can apply a layer of protection to the print, which is great to manipulate them. But yet, the paper won’t last very long before turn yellow, and the color dynamic range is pretty poor (black is not deep black, and white, the white of the paper).
3/ The Traditional Argentic Printer
Even if the printer are now digital and use digital image, they still print on the same argentic paper, using the same technology (the one at your mini-lab). The only difference is how the image is projected on the paper. Before the light went through the negative photographer film and exposed the photographic paper. Today it’s usually a laser that is used to light the photographer. That said, we should not make any mistake, it’s not a Laser printer.
Indeed, here, the paper still passes through several a chemical steps: developer, bleach/fix, a wash, and dryer. It’s the same old photo RC paper that had our parents.
One kind of Paper, several brands and several texture
Basically, the paper used is a photographic photo paper, cold RC paper. There is a Resin Coated that protects the paper. There are several brands on the market. They may change the result, but not that much.
Given it’s a chemical reaction, the number of color dynamic is very large.
What will change the aspect of the print would be the texture (glossy, mat, pearl, etc?)
The Good Quality Prints Selected for Weddings
Professional Photographer focus on the RC paper that I consider as the best paper for the wedding prints and enlargement up to large print sizes. The RC paper is designed with a layer of paper and a layer of plastic (only one side is printable). The ink comes in between the two layers. So the RC paper naturally protected the picture! This means that you can drop a coffee on the picture, quickly clean it, and there will be no problem. RC paper is often named argentic paper.
Good printers will also print in very high definition and have a very large dynamic of colors.
RC paper can have several textures. The plastic layer can have a velvety texture trying to imitate the mat paper of the ink-jet paper.
To Summarize Argentic Printer
I believe that a professional photo print, on argentic paper (RC paper), is what is today the best for the wedding album. Indeed, RC paper provides a huge definition, a wide range of colors, and is water resistant. It will last in time. Chose a paper with a pearl texture, and you will forget finger prints.
Other existing technologies to print pictures and mistakes to avoid
There is many printing technology, depending what you want to print. For instance, magnet, mugs, canvas, desk calendar, or blanket, won’t use the same technology than a photograph or a poster. Even if they all pretend to a Quality photo.
Polaroid and many other brands (such as Fuji) sell Instant film. Even if those pictures are really fun (they are printed quickly), I have a big doubt that they will clearly not last in time. After a few month you can already witness the color fading.
The Offset print quality
Offset prints: it is a very confusing word, because it can refer to several technologies. It basically means that the ink is transferred from one drum to the paper and not directly applied on the paper.
Offset print often designs the technology when the paper received numerous layers of ink in successive way (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, etc). It’s the technology used to print your cereal box.
Thermal printer, Dye-Sublimation prints
Those printer heat a solid dye-ink (usually an ink-roll made with cyan, magenta, yellow, grey) and transfert them on different kind of surface. It’s pretty quick and clean (to use), and it’s used to print photography. Major “photography lab” such as Walgreens, Walmart use those kind of printers. We also use a similar one for our photobooth because it’s easy to transport. But those image would probably not last forever.
Indeed, thermal paper is a heat-sensitive paper, and will continue to react continuously to the temperature!
What to pay attention on when printing your wedding pictures yourself
Every lab will pretend to use “photo quality” or “photo paper quality” for the wedding books they sell. Do you understand the difference?
Some labs make the distinction between photo quality paper (which is usually cheap and thin paper) and the real photo paper! So even for me it is confusing. Be careful, there is only one way: touch the paper.
Internet Prints: How to Judge the Quality of a Print
First you need to know what is the definition of the print (must be over 240 dpi), then the technology used (laser print or RC paper), and then the thickness of the paper. There is no secret: a cheap package with a lot of prints for a cheap price means cheap quality.
Can you trust Walmart/Walgreen to print your images?
I have tried both. They use what I consider as a very cheap paper, very thin, with a very poor dynamic of colors. I do not recommend that at all.
on mini lab: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minilab
The RC paper https://www.freedompaper.com/inkjet-photo-paper-resin-coated
a laser printer: https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/laser-printer
Thermal and Inkjet printer: https://www.toptenreviews.com/computers/articles/printer-showdown-inkjet-vs.-thermal-vs.-laser/