In the late 1990s inkjets began to emerge capable of a print quality that enabled them to produce photographic quality output. In the early days many so-called photo inkjets were simply high-end inkjets, typically four-colour printers with one or two photo-friendly features – such as the ability to plug in a digital camera directly to print photos – added. Epson soon established themselves as market leader, their Stylus Photo range of printers being the first inkjets capable of delivering a print density of 1,440 dpi (1,440 x 720).

By early in the new millennium Epson launched a complete solution – comprising new printers, papers and inks – that, for the first time, genuinely rivalled the quality and longevity of output from a professional photo lab. Not long after, photo printing had established itself as a mainstream PC application and the appeal of photo printers had trickled down to the masses, along with consumer interest in digital cameras.

A specialist photo inkjet printer uses more shades of ink – so-called photo inks – and smaller-than-usual dots, enabling it to achieve smoother blends and a greater range of colours than its general purpose counterpart, A six-colour inkjet uses dilute versions of cyan and magenta as well as the normal CMYK. Eight-colour models are also available, typically additionally using a light shades of yellow and a grey ink. The latter addresses the traditional problem with the printing of black-and-white photos on an inkjet, eliminating the green tinge that can result from diluting black ink into shades of grey.

Of course, such printers also require more sophisticated driver software to effectively translate a digital camera’s data into instructions for the printer’s ink sprayers. The net result, however, is that a photo inkjet is capable of creating a huge gamut of colour, enabling it to realistically reproduce complex hues, such as flesh tones.

For a number of years the types of inkjet printer could be differentiated by the type of ink they used, photo printers typically employing pigment-based inks, rather than the dye-based inks in most ordinary inkjets. Pigment-based inks generally have better archival qualities – resistance to colour fading – than dye-based inks. The downside is that they often have a more restricted and less vivid gamut – the range of colours they can produce. Some printers shipped with dye-based inks are also capable of using pigment-based inks, enabling the user to decide the trade-off between quality and longevity.

By the early 2000s the quality gamut between dyes and pigments had been reduced sufficiently for the type of ink to no longer be a valid differentiator between photo and ordinary colour inkjets. Rather, as well as the variety of inks it supported, the marketing focus for photo inkjets was more to do with the number of direct printing options a printer had.

Standalone photo printers – aimed at printing directly from a digital camera without any involvement of a PC – had begun to emerge in the late 1990s. In the early days, many of these were dye-sublimation rather than inkjet printers, and limited in the size of paper they were capable of handling. Moreover, they were also generally manufacturer specific, designed for use only with the same manufacturer’s digital cameras.

By 2003, standalone photo printers had evolved into far more versatile devices. Many used conventional inkjet technology and, while optimised for printing high-quality photos, were also capable of general purpose printing, using normal paper sizes. Also, by this time the major manufacturers had got together to establish the PictBridge standard, enabling any compliant printer to be used with any make of digital camera. Moreover, an increase in the number of inkjet printers capable of dye-sublimation techniques was further illustration of the trend towards all-purpose inkjets.

Typical photography-related features offered by this new breed of photo-orientated inkjets include:

  • the ability to print directly from compatible digital cameras.
  • storage card readers such as CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard and Memory Stick.
  • specialist photo-size paper feeders.
  • the ability to handle roll paper.
  • output of borderless prints.
  • the creation an index sheet (the equivalent of a contact sheet in the film world).
  • a built-in LCD screen that lets you preview images.

Some devices go as far as emulating the functionality provided by photo kiosks, providing a menu-driven system via the LCD that allows users to crop, choose a size and resolution, print multiple copies on one sheet and so on.

Whatever technology is applied to printer hardware, the final product consists of ink on paper, so these two elements are vitally important when it comes to producing quality results.

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