Picture-perfect printer options for photogs of all types
by Judy Jefferson -  9/25/2010

A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, there isn't much to say if the prints made from digital photos are of poor quality or just don't do the captured image any justice when it comes to color saturation and balance.

While most any inkjet or laser color printer is able to create acceptable-quality prints, producing higher-quality and even gallery-level prints requires a specialized photo-quality printer that typically relies on multiple individual color ink cartridges to accurately reproduce images. These printers may also (but not always) include larger built-in image displays for viewing and manipulating images, a variety of editing tools for quickly removing glitches like red-eye and cropping sizes, multiple memory card slots and separate photo paper trays for different paper sizes and finishes.

These photo-quality printers are photo print stations that are capable of turning out better-than-average to professional quality prints depending on the features and capabilities of each printer. The most popular types of photo-quality printers include all-in-ones, which can also be used to scan, copy and fax photos or documents; compact printers, which are small, lightweight and can easily be taken on the road or to the site of a shoot to quickly produce test photos; and professional-quality units that can typically use five or more ink jet cartridges to quickly and accurately pump out superb photos.

Truth be told, most inkjet printers today can produce reasonably good color photographs. However, if you are looking for professional photofinishing quality that rivals outside services, then you'll need a printer that can reproduce a wider color range and can deliver rich and deep color saturation. You'll also want a system that allows you to tweak the color output; whether through a built-in menu and LCD viewer or through software color management tools that can be used from your host PC.

Wireless connectivity is also an attractive capability, when you want to eliminate cables or swapping memory cards from a camera to printer to make prints. Wi-Fi can also be a way to share the printer with other users in your home or office. But, the real benefit of these printers is their ability to create outstanding photo-quality prints that rival professionally finished photographs.

Analyze your output needs
Before deciding on a photo-quality printer, it is important to analyze your own current and future needs. For example, if you are a casual snapshooter, then a relatively inexpensive single function multi-inkjet cartridge printer should do the job. If you have a small office or work from home, then a multi-function color printer might be the best choice since it can be used to copy and fax documents as well, or even scan and store non-digital photos.

Serious shutterbugs and professionals may opt for more advanced inkjet printers, solid-ink devices that rely on thermal dye-transfer technology and even high-performance color LED printers when at home or in the studio. These systems usually have a variety of on-board color management tools, support a range of different paper types, and even support trays for wider-format papers for specialized print jobs. They may also offer very high print speeds and built-in server technology for resource sharing, as is the case with the OKI C711n, reviewed earlier this year on PrinterComparison.

But, when pros, serious amateurs and even snapshooters with a bit of wanderlust are on the road or at a shoot, then a highly-portable mobile color printer could be a welcome addition to any gadget bag. These light and luggable printers can be used to produce quick prints and lighting/composition test photos - a task that was previously accomplished with Polaroid instant film before color inkjet technology caught up with the applications demands.
The following is a quick rundown of the three major photo-quality printer categories, and some examples of products in each of these areas.

Single Function Color Inkjet Printers
Single function color printers are designed to perform one task very well or at least as well as its capabilities and features allow. Most feature multiple ways to connect a camera or video device to the printer (through USB, wireless, etc.), and many offer a variety of memory card slots that can support multiple card formats and sizes. A large number even have tiny LCD viewing screens that let you view and even manipulate images before hitting the print button.

Good examples of these printers include:

Multifunction Color Inkjet Printers (MFPs)
Multifunction printers (MFPs), sometimes called all-in-ones, are the highly flexible workhorses of the home office and small office world since they can be called upon for a variety different functions outside of printing, including copying, scanning and sometimes faxing. Despite some challenging times in the printer market, primarily due to the recession, sales of laser color MFPs are expected to grow about 12 percent through 2013, according to a report from Lyra Research. Prices for an entry-level MFP start at about $100, but can easily cost more as more features are packed into the printer and you get into models that use multiple ink cartridges.

Some examples of newer color MFPs include:

Compact Color Inkjet Printers
Compact color printers and dedicated photo printers, the latter designed just for pumping out high-quality photos and not for general printing.