For years now I've wrestled with inkjet printers to produce the lingua franca of amateur photography: the 4x6 print. I've used Epsons, HPs, and Canons, only to meet the same frustrating fate. It just takes too much fiddling around to squeeze out a few borderless snapshots. Don't get me wrong, I've had great results producing colorful forms, 8x11 enlargements, and even business cards. I expect to spend a little more time on those types of output. But 4x6 prints, whether from Photoshop or iPhoto, should be fast and simple.
I've had some concerns with the permanence of inkjet prints. I realize "archival" inks and papers are available, but how do you know the stability of any particular paper/ink combination without having to do a fair amount of research? Again, this is to be expected when working with fine art enlargements. But c'mon, I'm talking snapshots here. Am I naive for wanting an easy process for simple prints?
After much frustration with inkjet printers for printing snapshots, I decided to try a compact dye sublimation unit.
So, I began researching dye sublimation printers (dye sub, for short). Not the big ones that cost lots, but those little portable units that specialize in snapshots. I settled on testing a Canon CP-220 that sells for between $140 and $190, depending on where you shop. There seem to be many good choices from different manufacturers (and I'd love to try them all), but I chose the Canon because I have two digital cameras and a DV camcorder of the same brand. Testing just seemed more simple this way.
I won't go into all the specs here, but what attracted me to this unit is its ability to crank out photo-quality snapshots in a variety of sizes (4x8 or smaller), compatibility with Mac OS X and Windows computers, connectivity with Canon and other PictBridge-compliant digital cameras and camcorders, and its compact size so I can take it on the road. I'm happy to say that I haven't been disappointed in any of these categories.
Watching the CP-220 at work is an education in dye sublimation thermal transfer printing. After you send the image to the printer, the paper makes four passes across the printing element. The first pass is yellow, and you don't see much image detail at this point. With magenta, the second pass, it begins to look more like a photograph but not a pretty one. After the third pass, cyan, the image snaps to life and looks beautiful. The CP-220 adds one more layer, a coating that protects against UV rays and moisture. A very nice touch! You can actually run water across these prints without damaging them.
The Canon CP-220 prints in four passes: yellow, magenta, cyan, and a protective UV coating.
Canon keeps this process simple by matching the "ink" cartridges (which actually contain colored ribbons) with the specific paper types. You buy both at the same time. If you change paper size, you also have to switch the ink cartridge. This isn't really a problem since they're both very easy to change (less than a minute), and the ink is still good when you reinsert the cartridge at a later date.
The result, however, is worry-free printing. You send the job to the CP-220 and 85 seconds later you have a saturated, durable, borderless print. You can choose to have a white border instead, but why? The protective coating resists finger prints too, so a border isn't really necessary unless you just like the look.
One of the most difficult concepts for my students to grasp in photo workshops is how to adjust the resolution for printing digital images. Somewhere in between the phrases "Your camera captures images at 72ppi, but in order to print them, you have to adjust them to the neighborhood of 240ppi," and "Open the Image Size dialog box in Photoshop and unclick the Resample Image box," I start to see eyes glaze over like the protective coating on a dye sub print. None of that is required with the CP-220. Just send the job to the printer and it works with your computer or camera to ensure the best quality possible.
I like to shoot at the highest jpeg resolution (when not recording in RAW). And printing directly from the camera is no problem, even at high resolutions. The camera and printer figure out the adjustments on the fly. I simply plug the camera into the CP-220 using the USB cable, navigate to the image I want to print, click OK, and a little over a minute later I have a print I can share with others. Simple.
This process is also painless when I send print jobs from a computer instead of a camera. The real test, as far as I was concerned, was printing directly out of iPhoto on Mac OS X. I use this application as my digital shoebox (and even coauthored iPhoto 4: The Missing Manual with David Pogue), and I think it's the model of simplicity, that is, until I tried to print a snapshot with an inkjet printer.
Printing from the CP-220 was the opposite experience. No matter what I did, I couldn't screw it up. I printed the first image without even opening the Print Setup dialog box. In "Organize" mode I just clicked an image to highlight it, clicked the Print button, chose the CP-220 from the drop-down Printer option, selected "Standard Prints" from Style, chose 4x6 from Size, and checked the box next to "One photo per page." The print was perfect.
Then I got more serious and opened the Print Setup dialog. I used these settings:
The Print Setup dialog box in iPhoto.
Then, when I clicked the Print button, I used the same settings that I mentioned before:
The Print dialog box in iPhoto.
Again, a perfect print. Notice that I have the Print Orientation set wrong, and the image was still positioned properly. I didn't have to crop, either, for a good look. However, if you want exact control over the composition, I recommend that you use the cropping tool in iPhoto with "4x6 Postcard" selected under Constrain. But trust me, it's really hard to screw up when using the CP-220 in iPhoto.
Photoshop, being as precise as it is, was a little more temperamental. I did have to have everything set correctly in the Page Setup dialog box, including the orientation. And it was necessary for me to crop the image to 4x6 inch proportions to have it positioned properly on the paper.
I chose the "Print with Preview" command so I could see how Photoshop was interpreting my settings, which were fine, then I hit the Print button. The output was beautiful.
You do have a little more fiddling around to do when using Photoshop, but then again, I expect that. The bottom line is the process was still fast, and I nailed the print the first time.
One of my favorite improvements in today's DV camcorders is megapixel still image capture. I'm currently using the Canon Optura 40, which enables me to shoot 2-megapixel pictures. The images are recorded to an SD media card and are easily transferred to the computer.
Two megapixels is plenty of resolution for photo-quality 4x6 prints, so I was happy to learn that I could connect the Optura 40 directly to the CP-220 printer and produce lovely snapshots. The process is the same as from a digital camera. Simply navigate to the image you want to output, and push the Print button. Since these printers are so compact, you can easily take one with you on the road and produce still images as well as record video.
Now I love my inkjet printer again. Why? Because I'm no longer swearing at it while trying to get borderless 4x6 prints out of it. I use the inkjet for what it does best, and it works great.
When I want snapshots, however, I use the CP-220. It costs me 40 cents a print (that includes both paper and ink), and it produces images that I know will stand up to lots of handling as well as looking good in a picture frame or photo album for years to come.
These printers are also excellent choices for those who want to make the move to digital photography, but who don't want to deal with computers as part of the bargain. Lots of fun. Great quality. I highly recommend checking in to portable dye sub printers.