How do you define a professional photo printer? Basically it’s any photo printer that’s used by professional photographers or printing services to produce prints for sale. Since requirements vary from 4×6 dye-sub prints produced on location to framed 20×24-inch and larger display inkjet prints for home or office, there’s no single set of parameters that defines the category.
However, print quality in terms of color rendition and fine detail (resolution), printing speed, convenience, cleanliness, portability, durability, Wi-Fi connectivity, workflow compatibility, color management capability and paper-handling flexibility are key elements pros look for in a printer. Prices for large, ultra-high-capacity production printers can top $10K and some run $25K, but we’ve concentrated on the moderate-priced segment of the market that ranges from under $1,000 to just under $2,000.
While not all the following apply to all pro printers, here are specific features professionals are likely to consider when choosing a printer for specific applications.
Comprehensive pigmented ink set: Older inkjet printers and current low-end models employ a tri-color and a black ink cartridge or separate cyan, magenta, yellow and black cartridges to produce color prints. Pro printers typically use 8–12 color cartridges and 3–5 gray-to-black ink cartridges to achieve a significantly wider color gamut, more precise color nuances and a wider black-and-white tonal gradation.
Many also use pigmented inks rather than dye-based inks for improved fade resistance. Prints from current pro printers using pigmented inks are claimed to be truly archival, lasting 300 years with minimal color loss, based on accelerated ageing tests.
Large print sizes and paper-handling versatility: Most professional inkjet printers make prints of at least 13×19 inches, and many can produce 16×20-, 20×24- or even 44-inch prints by various lengths. Most can handle a wide range of paper types, including textured art papers of various weights (thicknesses), including canvas and metallic.
Color management capability and connectivity: Pro inkjet printers allow users to input color calibration profiles for precise color management and enhanced workflow efficiency. Many incorporate existing profiles for specific paper brands and types to simplify this process. The latest inkjet and dye-sub printers offer network connectivity, enabling instant sharing and remote printing.
High resolution and greater speed: Current inkjet printers produce prints with much finer detail than before, using printheads with 12,000+ precision nozzles to enhance resolution, sharpness and color. Maximum resolutions of 4,800×2,400 dpi are common, with impressive print quality. Many also have upgraded heads and mechanisms to reduce mass, allowing faster printing speeds.
Inkjet versus Dye-Sub Printers
Dye-Sublimation Printers. These printers use heat to transfer dye onto the printing material. This is a process that transitions the dye from a solid state in the form of color panels on a cellophane ribbon to a gaseous state that’s deposited on paper. This special paper is overlaid with a clear, water-resistant overcoat to protect it from discoloration, oxidation and UV radiation. The fact that the dye is never in liquid form means the print can be handled immediately after coming off the printer—a great advantage for event photography where prints can be handed out without waiting for them to dry.
Dye-sub prints are continuous-tone, much like a traditional silver-halide print, whereas the image formed by an inkjet print consists of minuscule discrete dots of single colors that are visible at high magnification but not at normal viewing distances.
On the downside, dye-sub printers cannot handle special papers such as heavyweight and textured art papers. And dye-sub prints are not quite as sharp as those from the best inkjet printers due to slight gas diffusion before the ink reaches the paper. However the difference is not visible in modest-sized prints.
The longevity of dye-sub prints was vastly improved over the last several years, with some dye-sub prints claimed to be archival for 100+ years.
Reliability and clean, durable output are two more reasons why event and on-location photographers favor dye-sub printers. Typical inexpensive, home-use dye-sub printers are slower than comparable inkjet printers, but heavy-duty pro models are much faster, turning out 4×6 prints in about 7 seconds. Large dye-sub studio printers, aka dry minilabs, are also used by many printing businesses. These commercial grade units are expensive, but the cost is justified when factoring in output and durability.
Inkjet Printers. By far the most popular pro printers for large-size prints, they deliver superior color fidelity and resolution, important considerations when printing with subtle hues and making fine art or legacy prints. Generally, inkjet printers are affordable and very flexible, since they can be used for general printing as well as photo printing.
Many pro models can accommodate a variety of paper and printing profiles. They have a greater number of moving parts, generally require more maintenance than dye-sub printers, and the head-cleaning process does consume ink, which adds to their cost of operation. Since ink usage in an inkjet printer depends not only on the square area but also on the color characteristics of the subject being printed, cost-per-print calculations are less predictable.
Editor’s Selection of Professional Photo Printers
Mitsubishi CP-D70DW. This dye-sub color photo printer outputs 300-dpi images and can print a 4×6 photo in 8.4 sec or a 3.5×5 inch in 7.7 sec. It is compatible with media from 3.5×5 to 6×8, including 5×7 prints. Despite its compact (10.8×17.6×6.7-inch) size, it can turn out 400 4×6 prints in a single run and print matte or glossy pictures using the same media. Other features include: fine (high speed) and super fine (high res) print modes; a jam-free, roll-type paper-transport mechanism; built-in energy-saving mode (under 1.0W); and 8-bit color depth. $1,069. me-vis.com
Canon Pixma Pro-100. This wireless inkjet photo printer delivers 4,800×2,400-dpi output with ink droplets as small as three picoliters using Canon’s ChromaLife 100+ dye-based eight-cartridge ink system, which includes three monochrome inks. It produces prints up to 13×19 with excellent technical quality and saturated colors as well as rich blacks and grays. The Pro-100 is compatible with a range of papers, including glossy, luster, matte, museum etching and fine art papers. A rear paper tray handles fine art and glossy photo papers, and there’s a manual slot for thicker media. Notably, it can print onto CDs/DVDs, enables computer-free printing via PictBridge and provides Wi-Fi/Ethernet connectivity to allow multiple users to print from remote locations. Print speed for a full-color 8×10 is 51 sec, and an 11×14 is produced in 1 minute, 30 sec. Other features include: bundled creative software; a high-speed USB port; and AirPrint support to directly print photos, e-mail, web pages and documents from an Apple device. $499. usa.canon.com
DNP DS80. This advanced unit combines high-speed with dye-sub printing to deliver high-quality, 600-dpi prints from 4×8 to 8×12 inches. It can output an 8×10 print in 30.2 sec and an 8×12 in 35.2 sec, offering high-speed and high-resolution modes. The DS80 measures an impressively compact 12.7×14.4x6x7 inches. As the user’s printing needs increase, they can quadruple their print speed by connecting four flattop DS80 models and stacking them to save space. Other features include: front panel media loading; an internal print method to prevent dust and contamination; and a heat-control IC. The printer can turn out 130 8×10 sheets per roll or 110 8×12 sheets per roll, and it accepts five paper sizes. $1,549. dnpphoto.com
HiTi P510S. This stand-alone, dye-sub, 6-inch roll-type printer is designed for on-location printing and photofinishing without a computer. It outputs 10-bit color for vibrant prints and excellent RGB levels. It comes with a built-in card reader and USB interface, and it offers three printing modes for event, personalized and ID photos. The P510S is bundled with a professional image software package that includes PC-based ID Creator, and it can be customized for various event operations. It also converts JPEG files to HiTi event templates for enhanced workflow efficiency. Its maximum resolution is 300×300 dpi, and surface options include super glossy and professional matte. Print sizes for the P510S include 4×6, 5×7, 6×8 and 6×9, with speeds of 12 seconds for a 4×6 and 21 sec for a 6×9. $825. hiti.com
KG ProPhoto Color Stream CS2, S6145. Powered by Sinfonia technology, this 6-inch, compact, roll-fed dye-sub thermal transfer printer delivers 300-dpi resolution and turns out 3.5×5-, 4×6-, 5×7- and 6×8-inch prints plus an optional 2×6 size for photo booth applications. It produces a 4×6 print in 11 seconds or less, measures a compact 10.7×6.6×3.8 inches, weighs less than 22 pounds for exceptional portability, provides a USB 2.0 port and a 32MB buffer memory. The S6145 and its larger 8-inch CE1 sibling also offer low waste and jam-free operation. $849. kgdigital.com
Mitsubishi CP-D707DW. This double-deck dye-sub printer features two printers built into one compact unit. It can output 300-dpi photos in sizes from 2×6 to 6×8, turn out a 4×6 print in a mere 5.9 sec (10 per minute!) and print matte and glossy photos on the same media. Featuring high-speed and high-res modes, it can print two jobs simultaneously to save time, and its built-in memory stores up to eight images to enable printing large files without slowing down the computer. Other features include 8-bit color depth and a 1.0-watt power-conserving sleep mode. $1,649. me-vis.com
Canon Pixma Pro-1. Using a set of 12 Lucia pigment-based, anti-clogging inks—including five grays and blacks—it delivers tonal differentiation and shadow detail in B&W images. An expanded color range reproduces subtle hues with impressive accuracy, and a chroma optimizer provides a clear coat to enhance uniform glossiness, provide truer blacks and suppress graininess and bronzing. Its 12,288-nozzle printhead enhances fine detail rendition and provides an extended color gamut as well as 4,800×2,400-dpi resolution. Inks are delivered via a tubular system that holds more ink while decreasing the mass of moving parts in the head, permitting faster speeds; a 13×19 can be printed in 4 minutes, 20 sec. Other features include: an optimum image generating system to optimize color reproduction and tonal gradation; on-board ICC profiles; print drivers interface with a 16-bit expert module that provides 1,000+ gradations; and a low-angle paper path enables printing on thicker media from 4×6 to 14 inches wide, including 14×17. $999. usa.canon.com
Epson Stylus Pro 3880. A compact, 17-inch-wide inkjet printer, it delivers black-and-white prints up to 17×22 inches using Epson’s nine-color UltraChrome K3 pigmented ink system with vivid magenta for an enhanced color gamut with blues and violets. Providing 2,880×1,440-dpi resolution and advanced black-and-white photo mode, the printer creates neutral-toned B&W prints from color or monochrome images. It also features auto-switching matte and photo black ink for a high DMax and superior contrast on matte and fine art papers. Other features include: AccuPhoto HD2 screening algorithms for smoother color transitions and enhanced highlight and shadow detail; calibrated output from printer to printer; a minimum ink droplet size of 3.5 picoliters; a minimum 4×6 print size; and a maximum paper thickness of 1.5mm. It reaches photo print speeds of 4 minutes, 8 sec for an 8×10 and 10 minutes, 59 sec for a 16×20. $1,295. epson.com