Big prints are the order of the day in the lively world of fine-art photography. That's why this year's models are all large format, producing long-lasting pigment-based prints from 17 to 44 inches wide. Their output matches or exceeds the quality of comparable silver halide prints. Bigger is apparently better.
PRINTER OF THE YEAR: HP DESIGNJET Z3100
When HP set out to challenge Epson and newcomer Canon in the large-format pigment printer category, it knew it had to do something different to attract the attention -- and the business -- of serious photographers. But the difference between HP's DesignJet Z3100 and competing models is more than just a marketing ploy. The 12-ink Z3100 (available in two sizes, for 24- and 44-inch-wide prints) and its eight-ink sibling, the Z2100 (which comes in the same two sizes), are the first inkjet printers to incorporate a built-in, professional-level spectrophotometer. This feature removes the guesswork from the all-important task of paper profiling.
Instead of searching for the paper you want to use on the printer's profile menu, or struggling to find the closest match, you simply load a sheet or roll of it and answer a couple of onscreen questions. In less than half an hour the Z3100 creates a custom profile, saving it automatically into the correct directory on your computer. The message from HP: You don't have to use a printer maker's own papers to get spot-on prints.
There are other reasons the Z3100 is an inkjet printer's dream, however. It has a built-in 40GB hard drive, for spooling files and storing profiles. It has a Web server, also built-in. It has user-replaceable heads, six in all, kept consistent over time by the printer's automatic calibration. Most important, though, is the fact that the Z3100's Vivera pigment inks, which include red, blue, green, and four separate blacks, produce stunning yet subtle color and monochrome print quality.
All 12 of the printer's 130ml cartridges load simultaneously, so there's no need for expensive, time-consuming ink swapping when switching between matte and glossy papers. One cartridge has a "gloss enhancer" that minimizes gloss differential and bronzing on glossy papers. When you make black-and-white prints on matte paper, the printer enlists all four of its neutral inks -- photo black (glossy), matte black, light gray, and medium gray. The results are spectacular, exceeding the quality of comparable prints on silver halide paper in their maximum density and tonal range.