Quality of prints

 

Judging the quality of a photo print can become very complex. There are several types of print technologies (ink-jet, laser, etc.), paper and inks. Each of them has advantages and inconveniences, all depend on what you are looking for.

For your wedding albums I have chosen what I believe to be the best quality print to create an album that will last in time: the Fujifilm Fujicolor DPII Crystal Archive Digital Paper. It’s a RC (resin coated) paper, and its weight is 1000 gsm (1000g/m2).

This article will be a bit technical about photography and printers. I will give you tips to understand why some (internet) prints are cheaper than others. Nevertheless I won’t get in deep details here, because it could be the subject of an entire book about photography print techniques! But I will make a quick summary, in order to give you some insights to understand a little more this obscure world invaded by marketing names that can be confusing!
To select the best for wedding books I offer and client prints, I focused on 3 parameters: the definition of the image, the dynamic range of colors and the ability to resist the years.

Before diving into the subject, here is a quick definition of important terms.

What is the print’s definition:

It is the ability to see little details. Definition is usually given in DPI (Dots per Inch). The higher the DPI is, the more details you have.
Some “new” printers are able to print in 600 dpi (or even more). But, for the record, the human eye looking at a picture at 1 feet distance (which is usually the distance you look your wedding book), is not able to see any difference over 300 DPI. So, I think it is a marketing thing!

What is the dynamic range of an image:

A blue sky is not made of only one color. There is an infinite variation of blue tones. This variation is first limited by the quality of the camera sensor, then by the software used to develop the image, and finally by the printer.
My aim is to find the printer that can bring all the colors. If all printers are almost equal regarding the printed definition, there could be a huge gap for color dynamics. In other words, the best picture printed by a cheap printer will look like fade.

How to know the ability to resist time:

Please, keep in mind that prints are made with chemical products. Paper will change with time. You don’t want your prints to become yellow in five years. Do you?
Wedding albums are made to be open, manipulated. And, even if we don’t see it, each time we manipulate an album, our fingers leave a lot of chemical substances on the pages. That is why the paper needs to be strong enough to resist to physical and chemical alterations. And that is also why all the wedding albums I suggest include a box to protect them from dust and all other products.

Different kinds of paper texture:

Even if every technology uses a different paper, I will make it simple and quickly define the three most common kinds of texture: glossy, matt and pearl.
– Glossy paper: it will give you the feeling to have a more precise print (but also you see more the imperfections). The big inconvenient of glossy, it’s that it becomes dirty as soon you touch it (and you don’t want to see all of your fingerprints).
– Matt paper: traditionally the definition of matt texture is the opposite of the glossy, it is not shiny at all. Let’s say it is usually a thick paper that absorbs all the ink, and has a texture close to the velvet. The effect makes the dark colors darker. It is very nice for fine art prints, but needs a special setting for your prints (if you don’t want to have a too dark print). Matt papers are usually good for ink-jet printers, especially the Hahnemühle. Be careful with the brand marketing. Indeed, today some brands can name “Matt paper” some very different kinds of paper, from a glossy/Pearl paper, to real matt paper.
– Pearl paper: it is a mix between a glossy paper (keep the shiny effect), and the velvet texture of the matt paper. The color is vibrant and the paper doesn’t get dirty when you touch it.

Paper Thickness:

Here again, it can change depending on the print technology and the ink. But let’s say that the thicker is the paper, the better it is. The thicker is the paper, the more colors the paper will have, and the longer it will last in time.
No big surprise that the thicker paper is also the most expensive one!

 

The two main technologies for printing photos:

Professional photo market is mainly divided in two technologies: ink-jet and laser. (Indeed there is many more, but I wont speak about all of them).

1/ Ink-jet printers:

The concept is simple: a printer put some ink on a paper, the paper absorbs the ink.
The Ink-jet printer that we “all” might have at home provides a very poor result for photo printing. But professional ones can bring amazing results. They are called plotter and can print on A0 format! During many years we have seen a marketing war between printer builders (Canon, Epson), regarding who will manage to have the thinner ink drop and will provide the better print resolution (DPI). Today, all of them are almost very good, and the war has moved to another level.
Professional ink-jet printers use many kinds of inks (not only the cyan, magenta, blue and Black). The ink, and the way to mix them will provide the dynamic range of colors.
Basic printers use 3 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) and black. Professional ink-jet printer often uses 6 colors and some use up to 12 different inks! That makes possible printing a very wide range of colors.
The best inks are made with pigments. A pigment is a kind of dust from natural rocks. And rocks do not fear the chemical reaction, so color is made to last forever.

 

Ink-jet paper:

There are a lot of brands of paper (Ilford, Hahnemühle, Kodak, Fuji, Canon, and many more). They all offer different kinds of paper glossy, matted, satin and Pearl paper. The paper can affect the result by affecting the colors (whiter or more yellow), and the contrast (the deepness of the dark). But, let says that in most cases, changes due to the brand will be very minor that you would not really notice. I do not choose a paper based on the brand, but more on the texture of the paper.
The texture of the paper will also affect the way you feel the image.

One of the specificities of professional Ink-jet technology printer is also to print very width prints, which is not possible with all the technologies.

Limits of the Ink-jet:

I think that the only concern I have on the ink prints is that it is too delicate. Indeed, the paper “drinks” the ink. It means that if you accidentally spit on a print… well, the image will be damaged.
Constructors have thought about that, and now printers have an option to add a protective lacquer layer. But I think this protection is still delicate and it is not made to be manipulated.

To summarize the ink-jet printer:

I do recommend ink-jet printer for posters you will hang-on on your living room. I use professional ink-jet prints for my exhibitions. They offer a huge dynamics of colors, and a high definition. Nevertheless, even with protective varnish, I think ink-jet prints are too delicate to be manipulated for your wedding book. Moreover, the paper has the propriety to “drink” the ink, and also every chemical product in the air. Thus, the paper will turn yellow in a couple of years. And I guess it is not what you want for your wedding album.

Laser printer:

Laser print technology can widely change from one brand/model to the other. There is a very wide range of quality, from the cheapest copy machine (to avoid for photography) to the professional photo printer. To simplify the technology of the laser printers, let’s say that a laser creates a hot point on a drum, where the ink (in powder stocked in toner) will melt, and then with an electrostatic reaction will be transferred to the paper.

Everything from the cheap to the good quality:

The paper will also play a big role. Some printers work with ordinary paper (you can buy it in the supermarket, with both sides printable), some other printers only work with special paper like the Resin Coated paper (called RC paper).

The limit of the laser technology: the cheap internet prints to be avoided

The cheapest internet prints are usually a kind of copy machine used with ordinary paper. The ink stays on your fingers when you touch it, definition is not good, and color dynamics are very bad. Like the ink-jet paper, the ordinary paper won’t last in the future.

The good quality prints selected for wedding

I will focus on the RC paper that I consider as the best paper for the wedding prints. The RC paper is designed with a layer of paper and a layer of plastic (only one side is printable). The ink comes in between the two layers. So the RC paper naturally protected the picture! This means that you can drop a coffee on the picture, quickly clean it, and there will be no problem. RC paper is often named argentic paper.
Good printers will also print in very high definition and have a very large dynamics of colors.

RC paper:

RC paper can have a several textures. The plastic layer can have a velvety texture trying to imitate the matt paper of the ink-jet paper.

To summarize the laser printer

I believe that a professional photo print, on argentic paper (RC paper), is what is today the best for the wedding album. Indeed RC paper provides a huge definition, a wide range of colors, and is water resistant. It will last in time. Chose a paper with a pearl texture, and you will forget finger prints.

Other technologies or mistakes to be avoided:

Polaroïd

Polaroid and other brands sell thermal printers. Even if those pictures are really fun (they are printed quickly), I have big doubt that they will last in time. Indeed, thermal paper is a heat-sensitive paper, and will continue to react continuously.

Off-set

Off-set prints: it is a very confusing word, because it can refer to several technologies. It basically means that the ink is transferred from one drum to the paper.
But let’s say that usually it refers to a poor quality print you can find in your copy store, or on the internet.

What to be careful if you want to print your wedding pictures?

Photo paper:

Every lab will pretend to use « photo quality » or « photo paper quality » for the wedding books they sell. Do you understand the difference?
Some labs make the distinction between photo quality paper (which is usually cheap and thin paper) and the real photo paper! So even for me it is confusing. Be careful, there is only one way: touch the paper.

Internet prints: how to judge the quality of a print

First you need to know what is the definition of the print (must be over 240 dpi), then the technology used (laser print or RC paper), and then the thickness of the paper. There is no secret: a cheap package with a lot of prints for a cheap price means cheap quality.

Walmart / Walgreen

I have tried both. They use what I consider as a very cheap paper, very thin, with a very poor dynamics of colors. I do not recommend that at all.