Shopping for a Photo Printer

The holidays are upon us, which means you'll be seeing more friends and family in the next few weeks than you usually do the rest of the year. You'll be taking a lot of photos and sharing them. Rather than sending your guests a digital file in e-mail (how festive!), consider printing some photos and sending them home with bright, sharp prints. Need a printer? No problem. I've got four tips to help you make a smart choice when you go to buy a photo printer. And after you get that shiny new printer, be sure to check out my five tips for getting great-looking prints with it.

1. Choose the Type of Printer

Printers are as varied as snowflakes. Well, maybe not quite that much, but there are three main varieties of photo printers you'll need to think about when you go shopping.

Inkjet: You're probably familiar with traditional inkjet printers, which print text documents as well as photos. Inkjet printers accommodate standard 8.5-by-11-inch paper, which means you can make 8-by-10-inch prints. With an oversized inkjet, you can make larger prints, like 14 by 17 inches. It all depends upon the printer's specs. Inkjet printers also vary by how many inks they use to create the color on the printed page. You'll find printers that use anywhere from four to a dozen cartridges. More colors usually help generate more photorealistic images, especially when reproducing flesh tones and shadows.

C olor Laser: Color laser printers are another affordable option. Inkjet printers are mainly photo printers that can also do duty for text; think of color lasers as superb document printers that also do a respectable job with photos. You won't want to rely on a laser printer for all your photo printing duties, though. Laser-printed photos lack the brightness, saturation, and clarity you'll want in photos to frame or share. I use a laser printer to make drafts of photos that I will print on a photo printer later.

Snapshot Printer: If all you want is the ability to make great prints, then check out a snapshot printer. These compact printers are generally about the size and shape of a lunch box, so they don't take up much space (and can even be somewhat portable).

Snapshot printers typically use a printing process called dye sublimation, which means they work by transferring heated dyes to special paper. You might not care about the process itself, but the results are some of the best-looking photos you will ever see from a home printer. The downside: You'll have to look long and hard to find a model that prints any bigger than 4 by 6, so these printers are designed for sharing small prints. And the printers are photo-only--they're not designed to print text.

2. Compare Real Print Samples

Printer specifications are fine, but they don't tell you any more about what a printer will print than megapixels tell you how good your photos will be. For the best results, go to a store that has printers on display and ask to see real samples. Often, there will be samples on display with the printer. Some stores will let you print something on the spot. Don't be wowed by bright colors and deep saturation. Instead, check out fine details like hair and the weave in fabric. Also, look for how much detail you can see in the brighter and darker regions of the photo.

3. Think About the Future

No matter how great inkjet prints look today, they'll eventually fade. How long your prints will look good is called lightfastness, and it's a selling point for some printers (like, for example, the Epson Stylus Photo 1400). Printers like this one use "archival" inks, which are supposed to resist fading for 100 years or more (which, honestly, is longer than old-fashioned prints from film cameras were designed to last). You can also look for printers that use pigment-based inks; these are typically archival.

4. Consider Convenience

In the Days of Olde, you'd usually print by transferring photos from your camera to your PC, and then sending the prints you liked to the printer. You can certainly still do that if you like, but these days, it's often easier to print directly from your camera to your printer, leaving your PC out of the loop.

Of course, you'll want to make sure your potential printer has a PictBridge connection (most do), which allows you to connect your camera directly to the printer. But an LCD display is also important so you can see your photos and edit them before printing(some models allow you to crop, remove red eye, and make other changes). Another option: Some printers have memory card slots, so you can transfer photos without connecting a cable to the camera.

One snapshot printer, the Epson PictureMate Zoom, even includes an integrated CD burner, so you can copy your photos to CD as you print them.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "On the Road Again," by Erica Maxine Price, Gallatin, Tennessee

Erica writes: "This photo is from one of my regular weekend drives. I use Photoshop to create miniature scenes from regular photos that I have taken."

This Week's Runner-Up: "The Wave" by Scott Whitehill, Keene, New Hampshire

Scott writes: "I shot this photograph using a Canon G9 as I rode in an amphibious boat on the West River in Brattleboro, Vermont."

To see the November winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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