If you’ve tried your hand at printing your own photos and been disappointed in the results, you may be making some mistakes that are easy to correct. Most inkjet and thermal dye printers today can print photos at drugstore quality or better with little or no work on your part. However, it sometimes helps to follow the 80-20 rule, although in this case it’s more of a 90-10 rule: you can get 90 percent of the best possible photo for 10 percent of the effort it would take for the absolute best. Here’s an overview of the most important things you need to know to get to 90 percent. (A companion article, Easy Photo Printing Tips and Tricks, is geared to beginners learning the different ways of printing: from PictBridge camera, USB key, direct from computer, etc.)
A word on printers. For a start, it helps to know what you can expect from your printer, which will also be worth thinking about before you buy your next printer. The most important issue is the printer’s technology. There are only two printing technologies today that can print at true photo quality: inkjet and thermal dye (aka dye sublimation, although that’s a misnomer).
Laser technology is getting better at printing photos, but it is well behind inkjets on that score, and only a few color lasers today even come close to true photo quality. ZINK technology, which is relatively new and improving quickly, may soon join inkjet and thermal dye as suitable for high-quality photos, but isn’t quite there yet.
Most general-purpose inkjets, whether the manufacturer labels them photo inkjets or not, can print photos at about the same level of quality as you’d expect from a typical drugstore photo or online site. If that’s more or less the quality of the photos you’re printing, you’re probably getting the most you can out of your printer.
Two categories of inkjets usually do better than drugstore-level quality: dedicated photo printers and near-dedicated photo printers. Dedicated photo printers, a category that also includes thermal dye printers, are limited to small-format photos, which usually means a maximum 4- by 6-inch photo size, although some print panoramic sizes and some print photos as large as 5-by-7. Printers in this category generally focus on ease of use along with photo quality. Most can print better-looking photos than you’d get from a typical drugstore, but if they’re not printing at least at drugstore-quality level, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Near-dedicated photo printers are aimed at serious photographers, both amateur and professional, and are among the most expensive inkjets you can buy. They’re near-dedicated because they can typically print at sizes up to about 13 by 19 inches, which means they can print standard letter- and legal-size business documents. However, using them for such non-photo printing would be a waste of their talents (and ink).
Printers in this category almost always have a wide range of choices for photo paper—including several fine art papers meant for professionals—instead of the one or two choices typical for most inkjets. Their output quality is a match for the kind of photo lab a professional photographer would go to for custom prints. If you’re not getting exceptional quality with this class of printer, odds are you’re doing something wrong.