Although the digital darkroom can give you both impressive results and a degree of control unmatched by a chemical darkroom, digital printing can be complicated, expensive, and frustrating. Don't give up. Here are answers to 20 common questions about putting your pictures on paper.
1. What's the difference between dye-subs and inkjets, and which is better?
A dye-sublimation printer uses heat to apply three layers of primary-color dye and a fourth layer of protective laminate to a paper substrate. An inkjet deposits tiny ink droplets-usually three to seven colors, plus black-on the paper.
Dye-sub prints look very smooth, with subtle gradations. However, prints from a good desktop inkjet can look, at least from a normal viewing distance, just as smooth, with more detail and resolution, denser blacks, greater dynamic range, and a larger palette of colors.
While dye-sub prints may not last as long as the most durable inkjet prints, their cost and speed to print are much more predictable, one reason many portrait and event photographers prefer dye-subs, such as the Mitsubishi (top) and Kodak (bottom) printers shown here. But if you shoot a variety of subjects and want a lot of creative flexibility, inkjet is the way to go.
2. Does droplet size matter?
On an inkjet, droplet sizes can be as small as 1 picoliter (one trillionth of a liter) for dye-based inks and 1.5 picoliters for pigment-based inks. The combination of printer head and ink determines how small a droplet a printer can produce. The smaller the droplet, the greater the resolution of the print. Small droplets also let you produce finer tonal gradations and highlight details with fewer inks.
But, unless you inspect printswith a loupe, you probably don't need to worry much about droplet size once you go below about 4 picoliters. Factors such as paper type and image processing are more likely to determine how smooth and detailed your prints look.
3. Is pigment-based ink better than dye-based?
For fine prints that you want to last as long as possible, yes. Generally, prints made with dye-based inks will deteriorate more quickly when exposed to light, pollutants, and humidity.
The main advantage of dye-based inks? It's easier for them to reproduce a broad and vibrant range of colors with a modest number of inks. They're also much less prone to metamerism (when a color changes hue under different light). And, unlike most pigments, they don't cause low-sheen patches on glossy papers.
Fortunately, pigment ink sets have improved greatly. The current top-of-the-line desktop inkjet printers from all three major manufacturers-Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard-use pigment ink sets that compete with dye-based inks in color rendition.
4. Do I need six or more inks to make high-quality prints?
The more inks an inkjet printer uses, the more adept it will be at rendering colors predictably and accurately, with smooth gradations. You can make excellent color prints with a printer that uses fewer than six inks, especially those with smaller droplet sizes, but some colors may not come out exactly as you expect, especially if you're using pigment-based inks. More inks may also help produce black-and-white prints with a broad tonal range.
5. For printing, should I shoot in RAW or JPEG format?
It depends on the quality and size you want. Shooting RAW lets you retain a higher color bit depth, which gives you more editing flexibility and better color fidelity. But for snapshots and images that won't require much processing, especially when precise color accuracy isn't your main concern, JPEGs are fine. Besides, they eat up less memory.