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Review Spotlight: Photography

Four top photography printers.

Photo-only inkjet

Epson’s Stylus Photo 2000P

The Epson Stylus Photo 2000P, introduced a couple of years ago at around $1,000, remains Epson’s premier photo printer, and it’s now selling for less than $800. The 2000P is a wide-body inkjet printer that can handle stock up to 13 inches wide by 44 inches long (a roll adapter and several roll papers are available for production printing). The 2000P uses six colors, adding light cyan and light magenta to the usual array of cyan, magenta, and yellow in one cartridge, with black in a separate cartridge. With a maximum resolution of 1,440-by-720dpi, prints from the printer’s higher-quality modes look like true photographs.

The 2000P’s pigment-based inks provide archival print life–some 200 years on its Archival Matte paper. Contrast this with the typical dye-based inkjet print, which will fade noticeably in only a few years if continually exposed to light. These inks also come with a minor but much-discussed down side: Because of their micro-structure, they exhibit varying degrees of “metamerism”–the tendency of the image colors to look noticeably different in different light. The solution is to balance your prints for the intended viewing light source, if possible.

There are currently five Epson papers available for the 2000P, ranging from Archival Matte to a moderately high gloss surface. My favorite is the former, which yields a lustrous, glare-free “fine-art” look. Consumables run from about $1.50 to $2.00 for an 8-by-10 photo at the highest quality. The 2000P is no speed demon; that same 8-by-10 will take around 25 minutes to print. It can also print excellent text, but at around 90 seconds per page, even at lower quality levels this is not a general-purpose printer.

In summary, the 2000P is an excellent medium-format photo printer for the discerning amateur or pro without high-volume needs.

Multipurpose inkjet

HP’s PhotoSmart 1315.

As its name suggests, the $399 Hewlett-PackardUSB/parallel PhotoSmart 1315 is designed with printing photos in mind, but it’s also a flexible, quiet, general-purpose printer. For the computer-challenged (or a few quick prints), the 1315 fully supports standalone printing. It has slots for SmartMedia, Memory Stick, and CompactFlash cards (Type I and II, including the IBM Microdrive, but only up to 528MB). A complete set of front-panel controls works with a crisp 2.5-inch color LCD screen for fairly versatile editing and direct printing. The printer is DPOF-compliant, for in-camera image selection. An IR interface supports wireless printing from IrDA-equipped cameras, laptops and PDAs.

I was particularly impressed with the photo results on HP’s Premium Plus Matte (really more of a semi-gloss) paper. These showed neither the typical inkjet layering effect when viewed in oblique light or the very faint traces of banding in the blacks I saw on their gloss paper–though I did note a bit of skewing (2mm) with letter-size paper. The printer can handle paper stocks up to 8.5-by-14, and it has a separate 4-by-6 photo tray underneath the main tray. A duplex-printing attachment is available for $99. Print speeds per page from my Mac G4/500: draft text (excellent), 15 seconds; best 8-by-10 photo, 9 1/2 minutes. Printing directly from a CF card was slower–up to 20 minutes for a 35-thumbnail photo index page. Consumables cost from about $.035 per page of draft text to over a dollar for a best 8-by-10 photo.

I experienced a difficult-to-clear paper jam with the 4-by-6 tray, but I was using sheets I had cut down from larger stock; precut paper should fare better. Also, while I had no other problems with installation or operation from my Mac, I saw user complaints online about Windows installation problems–particularly with Win2000. General opinions about the printer and print quality also were all over the map.

The budding digital photographer looking for a single all-purpose printer will find the HP PhotoSmart 1315 a highly versatile but relatively expensive choice. If you only intend to print from your computer, you can do better.

Affordable dye sub

Olympus’s P-400

The Olympus Camedia P-400 is an $800 USB/parallel printer for both PCs and Macs, and it produces true photo-resolution (2,400-by-3,200) 8-by-10s on metric A4-size paper. It uses the dye-sublimation thermal transfer process, well known for its photo-realistic continuous-tone colors, and is strictly a photo printer; the only surface/paper option is glossy photographic stock. With its vertical layout, the P-400 has about the footprint of a typical inkjet.

Slots for SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards (Type I and II, including the IBM MicroDrive, via an inexpensive PC-card adapter), front-panel controls, and a small grayscale LCD screen allow direct printing without the benefit of computer. Unfortunately, editing this way is slow, limited and tedious, and direct-printing times vary widely. A single 8-by-10 took only 4 minutes and 15 seconds, but a 45-image index page took an abysmal 83 minutes, because of the printer’s limited processing horsepower. Printing these from my Mac G4/500 took about four and eight minutes, respectively. That said, the front panel can be a handy way to go directly from camera to paper. The P-400 supports DPOF (in-camera) image selection.

The P-400 makes three color passes, plus a fourth for a protective lamination layer, providing protection from handling and UV/pollution fade superior to that of conventional color photos. The paper travels through the printer for each pass, leading to possible color-registration errors, but I noted none. I did observe a slight (1mm) overall skewing of the image–probably an adjustment issue with my much-used review unit. Paper and ribbon are sold separately, and paper is available in several configurations, including micro-perforated postcard and snapshot versions. Consumables are about $1.80 per page, similar to photo-quality printing on a high-end inkjet.

High-end dye sub

Sony’s UP-D50

The Sony UP-D50 is a 5-by-7 (actually, metric A5, a bit larger) PC/Mac photo printer designed for commercial duty, with a price to match ($2,900 – $3,400 street). Intended for professional digital photographers, the UP-D50 produces very high-resolution (1,480-by-2,048) prints, indistinguishable from conventional glossy photographs. Especially important to event photographers, the UP-D50 is both relatively portable (a stackable 29-pound desktop computer-sized box) and very fast. Actual print time is 30-40 seconds; with the UP-D50’s speedy SCSI II interface, throughput with my Mac G4/500 was about a print per minute.

The UP-D50 uses the dye-sublimation thermal-transfer process, in which the inks permeate the paper as a gas rather than as discrete drops as with an inkjet printer, creating true continuous-tone images. Also unlike an inkjet, a full page worth of ink-bearing ribbon is used (in one pass each for cyan, magenta, and yellow), whether one prints a full-size photograph or one typewritten character. This is a dedicated photo printer.

The only paper stock available is glossy, but there’s an laminated paper/ribbon option that applies a protective topcoat (in a fourth pass) and allows a “matte” or “silk” pattern to be embossed in it. I found this texturing underwhelming, and rarely use it. Embossing notwithstanding, I recommend the laminated version; it adds both handling and UV/pollution protection, improving fade-resistance from somewhat less than a standard color photo (with its nominal 30-year life) to somewhat more. Street prices for paper/ribbon packs are about $.70-1.00 per print, depending on source and lamination.

If you have high-volume needs up to 5-by-7, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better or faster photo printer than the UP-D50.

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