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June 24, 2013


I would love to try darkroom printing. It seems like a lot of fun.

But I never print at home. We have an inkjet printer, but my wife is the only one using it. It takes hours of fiddling with software versions, settings and tweaking to get decent output. But I deal with software all day, every day already, and my photography is supposed to be a break from work, not an extension to it.

It's the craft AND the process that make owning an inkjet great. Yes, there are less expensive ways to get nice prints, but I think you give up some of the control and some of the joy. It's the same magic that used to exist in the darkroom; like when you saw a nascent image begin to appear on blank paper.

From a technical perspective, sending your files away for printing will probably net you a larger color gamut, and very consistent results. However, sometimes it is the limitations that stretch you to do your best work. If your printer cannot hold a certain hue, then you have to correct, re-imagine, re-work, and compromise to make the best of one printer and one sheet of paper. The fact that inkjets require a bit of care and feeding makes sure that you are in practice and do not neglect the discipline. This leads to improvement. Many inkjet printers are not so demanding, either.

I loved Ctein's article from a little more than a year ago. His recommended adjustments are great, whether you are sending away, or printing from your easy chair.


Hi Gordon - I too have gone through many ink cartridges, ruined paper (some of which is more fickle than others) and three printers. I'm using an Epson 3800 and I'm surprised how well it runs (with little to no nozzle clogging) after sitting dormant for months at a time) but still, I don't print as much as I used to and I know this will catch up with me (and my printer) eventually.

My main use (when I do print) is to make working prints (4"x6"). I rarely print exhibition size prints. I'm more interested in online and print-based publication of my work than have photos hang in a gallery where very few people, myself included usually, will ever see them. This makes my 3800 overkill for what I typically use it for.

I'm wondering if you can share the contact informaton for the online printer that you use? This may be the route I need to take when the 3800 eventually chokes.

AMEN, Gordon! My sentiments, exactly. Sitting here looking at my Epson R800, perfectly capable of beautiful prints when set up and operating correctly, now relegated to the occasional household print job, for all the reasons you so ably stated.

AdoramaPix has been the answer for me; great online service, high quality, and quick turnaround.

Is it a good idea to own an inkjet? Sometimes I'm not even sure it's a good idea to own camera equipment! How about, was it a good idea to build a darkroom 20 years ago? I guess it really comes down to your definition of “good idea.”

I have been printing from an Epson 3800 printer for the last 5+ years and am a bit embarrassed to say that for various reasons, I haven't printed a lot, in fact my ink cartridges last well past what the sticklers would say is an acceptable shelf life. I'm only on my 3rd set of cartridges in that time. I've had one clog in all that time that was fixed by running the epson utility cleaning routine. I bought the 3800 versus its lesser priced sibling the 2800 because of the additional capacity of the ink cartridges. A financial analysis at the time suggested that the additional ink I would receive installed in the printer at the time almost made up for the entire additional expense of the 3800 vs. the 2800, plus the additional cartridge capacity price per ml was far less than the cartridges on the 2800. The price of a set of cartridges is hundreds of dollars, but you get a lot of ink. So to recap the hardware aspect, I've not experienced clogging issues even after extended periods of little or no use and I would recommend a printer in at least the mid size of the range just to get the bigger ink cartridges and perhaps a little more robust build, this last point being unverified.

But on to the printing... I have never found the print quality to be lacking in my 5 year old printer, in fact it is superb. When my prints are lacking, it is clearly my failure to provide a suitable image, a problem that no commercial printer can solve! Yes, the paper can be expensive but it is beautiful and it is never a limiting factor, the range of paper available is vast.

I have never tried to evaluate whether I would be “better off” financially just using a commercial printer because I value the control I have making my own prints as well as the personal satisfaction of making my own prints. I know of some commercial photographers that don't even do their own image processing, much less, their own printing and that might be what they need to do as a business necessity or maybe just because that was very common in pre-digital days. Just to be clear, I am not a professional photographer, I don't put food on the table or pay a mortgage or save for retirement based on photographic output, I'm just a guy that has loved and practiced photography steadily for the last 25 years. And you've just reminded me, I need to print more.

I came to the same conclusion, Gordon. A home printer is neither cost nor time effective for me. AdoramaPix does a nice job. I use White House Custom Color for more important prints.

Speaking only for myself, as a hobbyist (with a day job) and living outside of the US, I find my own printer, an Epson R3000 (starting small) to be heaven sent. Yes, it is expensive to operate. But my alternatives are poorly run print shops which I have to visit to take files for printing (no online submission) and visit again to pick up (no delivery).

I do order from an online retailer in the US from time to time, but because of high shipping costs (US$100 shipping from the US to Guyana alone) I can only do this when retailers offer deep discounts and I purchase many. Also, only very large prints make sense.

While the print shop I use in Guyana from time to time produces reasonable quality, the cost per print is a non-neglible amount more expensive than my prints.

And I have the whole instant gratification thing. It does help that I studied writing and video from many experts before even choosing a printer. I print at least once a week, on the weekends and I sell about 6/10 of the large prints (13x19) and give smaller prints (8x10+) to the people on the street who allow me to photograph them.

So I'd estimate I get a reasonable benefit from at least 75% of the prints I make.

If I had the option of easy external printing available to me, as you do in the US, I am fairly sure my options would not be this clear cut.

Like you, I learned the trade by spending thousands of hours in a darkroom in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And I loved it in spite of the foul acidic odor and stuffy ventilation. But I never had the same love for digital printing. Maybe I never "got" digital color management enough to get great results (probably) or maybe it was my printer (probably not), but the results didn't reflect the effort. To be honest, I was happy when my Canon printer gasped its last breath. It finally gave me a reason to replace it with a super-fast, inexpensive-to-operate, non-photography printer that I now use for letters and memos for my home-based business. My old Canon, while reasonably good at color reproduction, was terribly slow with everyday documents and waaaay too expensive on a per-page basis. It won't be missed. And like you, I'm now printing through a dedicated business where they guarantee outstanding results at a reasonable cost. I'm happy with this new arrangement. And so is my wallet.

You're right about the cost and time, but I love making my own print. Something about handing it to a friend and saying "Here, I made this for you." I don't do it often, but when I do, it just seems to bring the whole act of photography to completion.

I try to mitigate the costs by looking for sales. A few years ago, I found an HP 8700 for $50 at a yard sale. It worked great with cheap Staples 13x19 paper (especially for B&W), and had a decent print driver until Windows 7 came out.

Now I'm using a Canon 13x19 Pro100. It was $89 after rebate from B&H (I think it runs until the end of June... they're probably introducing a new model) with a free pack of 13x19 Canon paper. At the price I paid, I could use up the free pack of paper and call it a day. It's a dye printer, so it shouldn't have near the print clog issues as a pigment printer. Sure, the prints will fade over 30-50 years time if hung on a wall, but I'm not making great art and I'm long enough in the years where they'll probably outlast me. The first print out of Lightroom was fantastic.

I'll still print little 4x6s at Costco. But look around for deals and rebates and you might find a printer worth picking up to make a few prints for your friends.

Hey Gordon. I, too, found that the smaller printers are a big hassle to use and maintain, especially considering the price of the ink cartridges. My solution was to get a 3800, during one of the frequent rebate programs. After the first set of cartridges I switched to using inks from ConeColor. Jon Cone has been in the business since inkjets began, and his inks are probably at least as good as the OEM inks, from my informal fade tests. ConeColor also sells resettable ink cartridges, so that once you buy the carts you never have to buy them again-just refill with any quality ink. I say all of this not to promote his products, but to show how I have managed to bring my printing costs down considerably. I have been using the 3800 for 5-6 years, printed hundreds of pictures from 4"x 6" to 17" x 24", and my ink costs are less than $100 per year, maximum.

As for using the printer, just make sure to print something every week, even if it just running a nozzle check. This will keep the printer happy, and you can have the convenience of on-demand custom printing without having to outsource. There is nothing like the immediate gratification of creating an exciting picture and being able to hold it in your hands within minutes.

Hi Gordon. I have been using a Canon 9000 mk2 for a couple of years and have found no need to clear heads with this (I gather both a Canon trait and a [dye] ink jet trait as opposed to pigment), but have found that my cartridge costs increase if he printer is not used often! Regular printing requires roughly one cartridge per session, but after a break I seem to loose a few in short order.

I am strictly an amateur photographer and have no more room on my walls for additional artwork (I bought my first piece of art before I bought my first piece of furniture and have an artist as a parent) and so, although I look longingly at new printers, I realize that I wouldn't print enough to justify buying one. We also travel, sometimes for two months at a time, and so the idea of buying a pigment printer which requires regular use, is simply unrealistic. I talked with my local shop about buying a new printer and the sales clerk, when she heard that I had an old Epson Photo 870, said, "Keep it! They don't make them like that anymore."
It's good enough for cards and the occasional small print; anything else I have printed for me. Eventually upgraded computer systems will render it obsolete, but until then...

WYSIWYG - how, with an external print shop, do you assure that the print matches what you think it should? Even with a color managed workflow, I find that it takes at least 2 or 3 iterations to get a print to where I want it. Soft proofing "sort of" helps, but it's not spot-on.

>>how, with an external print shop, do you assure that the print matches what you think it should?

First, I calibrate the monitor on my iMac -- which is generally very well calibrated to begin with, by the way. Second, I've made enough digital prints to know when a lab is producing a close enough match to what I see on screen. I expect neutral tones (grays, whites, etc.) to be neutral and skin tones to look natural. I also expect contrast kept in check: If shadows and highlights have detail on screen, they should have detail in the print. I recently sent two dozen files to AdoramaPix to be printed and they did an excellent job. That said, if I often needed to print on a special paper or was dealing with colors that can't be printed on normal commercial prints, I would either opt for a custom lab or bite the bullet and buy an inkjet printer.

Gordon, I am with those here who are happy with their 3800. I don't print a lot, I don't (yet) sell prints and often the machine sits idle sometimes for months. Yet, no maintenance problems.

As for inks, sticking with OEM inks means you can look up their archival properties, and have reasonable expectations of consistency batch to batch. Important, especially if you plan on exhibiting or selling.

The printer cost less than a grand, refurb from Epson. Not cheap but one that can keep going for several years. Probably will come to less than $150 a year. Ink is indeed expensive (astronomical if you look at per gallon prices) but that varies by use and adds pennies to the print cost.

Reasons I need to make my own prints include:

a - paper options (not just surface and weight but also tone of "white" and archival qualities)
b - quickly testing to see what an image looks like on paper without much fuss (easy proofing)
c - despite the best of calibrations, optimizing an image on paper often needs tweaks that cannot be anticipated from the monitor view (see recent post by Ctein on TOP).

I use the cheaper Epson papers for proofs, fancier ones from various brands for finals.
I would use a lab for, say, larger than 17x20, or a large volume of small prints (4x6 etc) to share.

Perhaps because I grew up in an era where photographs only existed as prints and transparencies, I consider an image to be truly for real only when it is committed to paper. These days most digital pictures don't deserve the time and expense, but the few that do are worth the extra work.
And no matter how well organized and backed up those hard drives may be, pulling up a box of nice prints to look at or to share is its own reward, I say.

Gordon, Great Photo. To my eye there are 2 elements that help to pull you in and make the picture work. The red swing in the right fore ground (color and contrasting shape of) and the woman with child on the swing . I think this is one of those pictures that work in color, but may not look as well in B&W.

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