Defining "Pro Printer"
A professional printer:
- must have accurate image profiles. Among other things, image profiles translate the color, contrast and brightness you see on your monitor into the color, contrast and brightness you see in your final prints. You need a different profile for each type of media you use (e.g. various kind of paper, plastic and canvas). The major image profiling format is based on specs from the International Color Consortium (ICC). In addition to printer profiles, your monitor must be profiled among other things for the computer you are using (e.g. PC or Mac) and the light prints will be viewed in (e.g. daylight or incandescent light). There are a number of products to do this and higher end monitors can even profile themselves. Pros also profile their cameras and scanners. Pro printers must come with accurate image profiles and you must be able to get such profiles for media not covered by the printer manufacturer. A new trend in pro printer hardware is to allow you to automatically profile different media with the printer itself. This is very helpful because each individual printer unit and each batch of a particular medium might behave slightly differently, making the more generic profiles included with the printer less than perfect. There are various products for doing your own printer profiles. Most of them don't work all that well or at least all that easily.
- must be able to produce quality black and white images in addition to color images. Without getting into specific terminology, in the past, pigment based inkjet pro printers tended to produce somewhat off-color black and white prints, especially on glossy paper. The problem has been solved and virtually all modern pro printers are able to produce exquisite black and white images.
- must be able to produce the same result repeatedly. Whether a large number of images are printed on the same day or prints of the same image are made a year apart, each print should look exactly the same as the last, given the same type of media is used.
- must be able to print on a wide variety of media, including glossy, matte, semi-gloss and other papers, as well as thin plastic sheeting and various types of canvas. The ability to print on thicker media is also important. Ideally, a pro printer should be able to print on and cut roll paper. This is important in production environments where lots of prints of varying sizes and contents are made. All of this requires multiple paper paths and perhaps multiple paper trays.
- must be able to print an image at least 13" wide by 19" long. Aside from smaller prints, this size allows for standard 11" x 14" and less standard 12" x 16" and 13" x 19" prints. Pro prints are often matted, which, if done right, enhances images and increases frame size. Though pros worry somewhat less about the issue, matting is often done to allow for the use of a standard size frame, 16" x 20", 20" x 24", etc.
- must be able to easily and attractively print different images on the same piece of medium. This is more software than hardware based. It usually involves the use of raster image processor (RIP) software. RIP software often includes profiles for specific printers and media. RIPs are used either to optimize the use of media or to produce aesthetically pleasing sets of images on a page. In the latter case the medium is cut apart and the photos treated as separate images. In the former case the piece of medium with all images intact is presented as a completed product, e.g. as a page in a photo book. RIP software is usually custom designed for a particular printer and is, thus, often quite costly, at least as viewed by a non-pro printer owner.
- must print using inks and paper that produce archival output. Pros expect their prints to last at least 80-100 years. Henry Wilhelm of Wilhelm Imaging Research (www.wilhelm-research.com) is the godfather of print permanence testing. He has developed tests to predict the life of prints depending on the inks and paper used. Generally, pigment-based inks produce prints that last longer than those created using dye-based inks. Until recently pigment-based inks did not produce the best images, but those problems have been pretty much solved and Epson, Canon and HP all use pigment-based inks for photographic printers. Pro printer papers have also improved over time, with most today able to hold photos printed using pigment-based inks for the targeted minimum of 80-100 years.
- must have ink options that are economical. Professionals print lots of stuff in large sizes. Sometimes, in spite of the profiles they have painstakingly produced, they find themselves printing proofs before making a final print. They want the best quality output. They expect to pay one-quarter to one-third the price of their printer for a set of new inks, but pros don't want to pay exorbitant prices for ink on a per page basis. The best way to keep ink prices down is to sell it in larger size cartridges. The costs of making a cartridge, filling it and packaging and shipping it play a significant role in the price of ink. The more ink manufacturers can stuff into a cartridge the better they amortize cartridge related costs and the less they have to charge for the cartridge and its ink. Larger and smaller cartridges are available for some pro printers. The cost per ounce of the ink is usually considerably less when larger cartridges are purchased.
- must be well built. Pro printers are expensive. They should suffer fewer breakdowns than less expensive printers and it should be possible to replace parts quickly and easily. Warrantees should provide fast, preferably in-house repairs.