Prior to the widespread adoption of digital cameras, the majority of photographers would drop off their rolls of undeveloped film at their local drugstores, or some other convenience stores that would send out the day's batch of film rolls, to be processed by an outsource film development lab, and returned often days later. Those of us who know what the term "LP" stands for can even remember how delighted photography buffs were when the industry introduced overnight developing services, to say nothing of "one-hour photo".
Regardless of the processing time, the end result was always the same: an image developed on photo stock (or slides). To the end-user, the print was the photograph. Nowadays, with people snapping digital photographs with their high-tech cameras, the photograph is now an online image, stored in a computer file with a particular image format.
Fortunately, for early adoptees of digital camera technology, color inkjet printers had already begun to proliferate in the late 1980s, and had come down far enough in price to be a viable option for anyone who wanted to produce printed versions of their favorite digital photographs. But the printers' output was not always ideal — curled pages, smeared edges, and off-color colors that didn't quite match the online photograph, much less the actual photographed subject. Photography purists would occasionally emerge from their dark rooms to chortle at the offending results.
But the march of progress continued, specifically in the form of better color printers, digital cameras with greater resolution and color capabilities, and even the occasional digital camera owner who would sit down and actually read the micro-print manual that explained how to use their camera. All of these brave souls — apparently both of them — reportedly learned how to get better results from their cameras.
Blurry and the Jets
If you just need to print a black-and-white document, or even a color flyer in which the quality of the colors is not that critical, then just about any inkjet printer will do. But if you want to produce attractive prints of your photographs, then that is a whole different ballgame.
One option is to pay more and get a much higher quality inkjet printer. Despite the reputation for muddy colors engendered by the earliest color inkjet printers on the market, the image quality has progressed steadily and dramatically — in terms of color trueness, image resolution (measured in dots per inch, "dpi"), and the overall crispness of the printouts generated. There are many factors to account for this, with a major one being the precision of the ink jet itself produced by each color cartridge.
However, the color image produced by inkjets, even those of the highest quality, can be a letdown to anyone who was hoping that the image quality would equal that of a standard photograph on photo stock, or, even more so, the kind of top-quality images seen in glossy brochures, magazines, and other publications.
If you want hard copies of your color photographs even better than what can be achieved using one of the high-end color inkjet printers, and you are willing to make the financial investment to get those superior results, then you should consider a different type of printer.
Dye sublimation printers are specifically designed to handle color images extremely well. Inkjet printers, no matter the quality of construction, will never be ideal, because they work by squirting out a tiny stream of ink onto paper — a process fraught with technical difficulties, regardless of the engineering wizardry.
In contrast, dye sublimation printers take a different approach. In fact, they don't even use traditional link! Rather, they utilize a long roll of transparent film to transfer the color onto the paper. Consequently, the printouts are more crisp, with richer colors, and an overall more attractive appearance. In addition, the printed images tend to last a lot longer than those created by inkjet printers.
One downside to dye sublimation printer is the aforesaid greater expense — not just for the printer itself, but also the transparent film that contains the color that becomes your photographic masterwork. Like so many other consumer product areas, dye sublimation printers and their accessories are pressured down in price by industry competition and innovation, but pushed upward as well by escalating costs for the component resources used in their manufacture.
Another downside is that many of the models on the market, especially the cheaper ones, are not designed to produce large printouts — specifically, anything bigger than the standard 6 x 4 inches. This hurdle is being overcome, but not at a pace that would be preferred by heavy users of dye sublimation printers.
All of the major consumer printer manufacturers offer some type of dye sublimation products. The players include Canon, Kodak, Olympus, and Sony. HiTi may sound like the name of a new, exotic cocktail, but it is actually the nickname for Hi-Touch Imaging Technologies, a manufacturer of card printers, but even more for dye sublimation printers known for pushing the size and quality/price boundaries.
The Color of Money
If and when you decide that you have spent enough money paying the photo printing services offered by the local retailers and online vendors, then you may wish to invest in a color photo printer of your own — either inkjet or dye sublimation. Naturally, which type you opt for depends upon how high a quality you demand of the printouts, whether the size limitations of dye sublimation printers would prove a hindrance, and how much your budget allows — both for the initial purchase, and the ongoing accessories, i.e., paper and color cartridges/films.
As you are comparing the various models available within whichever of the two categories you choose, pay attention to extra features such as whether or not the printer offers some sort of connecting port that allows you to directly connect your camera to the printer itself, thereby bypassing your computer and also the time and steps needed for downloading the photos into your computer and then sending them to the printer. An additional benefit of this feature is that the docking connection usually charges up your camera at the same time that it is fetching your latest photos.
Another consideration is whether or not you want the printer to be portable, i.e., able to run off of a battery, whether built into the unit or housed separately. Dye sublimation printers are known for being portable, more so than inkjet printers, partly because of their smaller form factor, and partly because they are more specific for photographers, who oftentimes are requested to produce a printout of their work, on a job site, away from electrical power. Inkjet printers, in contrast, are much more commonly used in business and home environments.
Whichever route you take, don't forget to read the manual!