Digital Focus: Fix Printing Problems

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Feature: Fix Printing Problems

In a perfect world, printing would be easier than it is. But our world isn't perfect--for proof, just try finding a parking spot at the mall on a Saturday--and printing digital photos can be a real hassle. It's no wonder more and more people are starting to give up on inkjet printers and just send their image files off to online services like Club Photo, Ofoto, and Shutterfly.

Don't lose hope, though. This week, let's discuss how to coax the best prints possible from your inkjet printer.

Start With Good Ink and Paper

I've said this before, and I still firmly believe it: You can't expect to get great-looking prints if you're cutting corners on ink. Modern printers (especially from Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard) are engineered from the ground up to work best with inks sold by their parent companies.

Are brand-name inks more expensive than generics? Yes. But this isn't just a scam to keep you from buying cheaper, third-party inks. My own experience shows that you'll get noticeably inferior results when you print photos on high-quality paper if you pass on your printer vendor's branded ink and get generic cartridge refills for your printer. Odds are, the prints will not last as long without fading, either. (Decent, cut-rate inks are probably fine for printing out first drafts of your latest novel, though.)

Speaking of paper, and longevity, regular inkjet paper is fine for day-to-day printing. But when you want to share photos, frame a picture, or keep your prints for the long haul, use glossy photo paper. This paper is specially formulated to absorb the ink without letting it spread (which makes for weird colors and fuzzy prints). Generally speaking, using the paper your printer vendor sells will contribute to print longevity. And if you really want to keep your prints for the ages, bite the bullet and buy the best-quality paper your vendor has. Make sure you frame your masterpiece under glass, and place it where direct sunlight won't strike it.

Leave the Printer On

It's generally a good idea to leave your inkjet printer on, even when you have no intention of printing. Why? Because when it's powered on, the printer keeps its print heads clean. Shut your printer on and off frequently, and you end up mucking up the print system--which you'll have to clean, wasting ink in the process.

Align and Clean Your Print Heads

Though it's important for getting the best possible image quality, most people fail to care for their inkjet's print heads. Routine use can cause the nozzles to lose their proper alignment, which can result in the printer laying down ink inaccurately. Worse, nozzles can get clogged, so ink doesn't come out uniformly on the paper. Both of these problems can contribute to less-than-ideal pictures.

Occasionally, you should run the utilities that came with your printer. By occasionally, I mean about once a month, or every time you get ready to print if you use your printer very infrequently. Check your printer's user guide for details. Can't find it? Go to the vendor's Web site and check its support section. You can usually find the manual there, even for a discontinued model.

If worse comes to worst, and you can't come up with the manual, go to the Windows Control Panel and open Printers and Faxes, then right-click on the icon for your photo printer and click Properties. You'll probably find the utilities and options you need there. For example, check out the options for my Epson Photo Stylus 1280.

Run the print head alignment tool and perform a nozzle check. If the resulting output doesn't look right, fix the problem by cleaning the print heads using the printer's head-cleaning program. Don't forget that you may have to run the head cleaner a number of times before the nozzle check prints look perfect. (Don't go nuts though; the cleaning does use up a fair amount of ink.)

Send Enough Pixels to the Printer

The image file itself also contributes to the overall quality of the print, obviously. I highly recommend printing no less than 200 pixels per inch, and 300 ppi is ideal. How do you measure that? Multiply the print size you want, like 5 by 7 inches, by 300. In this example, you'd get good results from a picture that has at least 1500 by 2100 pixels, which is what you'd get from a 3-megapixel camera.

Let the Prints Dry

After you make a print, don't handle it right away--especially if you're making a print on glossy photo paper. It can take as long as an hour for the ink to stop feeling tacky, and printer manufacturers usually recommend waiting 24 hours before placing the print under glass or plastic to be sure the ink is completely dry.

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