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Printer Ink Ranges


Most printers used by photographers are either inkjet or thermal printers. These two systems use different types of ink pigment inks and dye-sub inks. Most of these printers are RGB printers and use a wide colour space to get their colours from, where as printers such as laser printers use the CMYK colour space. Photoshop can produce files whether photos or files containing photos for both the RGB and CMYK printers.

Before we get into the inks lets just take a look at the colour spaces.

RGB  stands for Red, Green and Blue. An RGB colour model is where these three colour elements of light a added together in various ways to reproduce a wide array of colour. The main purpose of the RGB color model is for the sensing, representation, and display of images in electronic systems, such as televisions, computers, and today in photography. RGB is a device dependent colour space so will change dependent on the device it is working with unless the device is colour managed. RGB has a wider colour gamut than our next colour space CMYK.

CMYK on the other hand is short for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black) and is often used to refer to a printing process which uses 4 colours. The process works by masking colours on a typically white background, it is called a subtractive process because  in inks take away the brightness from the white and it achieves this by combining each colour on a different printing plate to make up the full colour image. Whereas as with RGB black is the natural colour, with CMYK colours white is the natural colour.

Typically laser printers and those used for printing magazines, newspapers, books, litho printers etc are CMYK printers, where as inkjet printers are RGB printers.


There are primarily two types of ink found in printers suitable for photo printing, these are Pigment inks and Dye-Sub inks.

Pigment inks are pigments of colour ground down very fine and suspended in a liquid to make ink. This produces a more lightfast material or ink that will take longer to fade, and it is said that current pigment based inks on the market can be anywhere up to 100+ years lightfast, but this depends on a number of factors such as ink manufacturer, paper type and storage conditions. They tend to have a smaller colour gamut than dye based inks. Pigmented inks contain agents, such as resins that binds the pigment to the surface and prevents it from being removed by mechanical abrasion. They are advantageous when printing on paper because the ink stays on the surface of the paper, and because of this less ink needs to be used to create the intensity of the colour. These are the inks generally found in inkjet printers.

Dye-sub inks on the other hand are generally much stronger in colour, however they can be more susceptible to fading, especially when exposed to ultraviolet light as with sunlight. The Dye-Sublimation Photo Printing process is a technique that uses a film ribbon for the printing process. The film ribbon contains 3 colours of cyan, magenta and yellow in panels and then a 4th panel which appears clear but in fact is a laminate which seals the colours onto the paper. The ink is diffused by heat onto the paper and the colour is generated by varying the temperatures of the heat to give different shades. The laminate layer seals the dye onto the paper but also protects the image against UV light, fingerprints and even water. There is no smudging, running, or blotching because your prints are dry and ready to touch as soon as they leave the printer.

Toner is a dry powdery substance used in laser printers and photocopiers which forms the text and images on the printed paper. In order to improve the quality of the printout the individual carbon particles are blended in a polymer. These polymer particles are then melted by the heat of a fuser unit, causing it to bind to the fibres in the paper. The paper is taken around a drum mechanism which acts as a magnet to draw the toner to the surface, it then passes through the heated fuser unit to bind it to the paper. Typically, you can print thousands of pages with a single cartridge.

Branded Inks

Most printer manufacturers produce their own branded inks and toners. These have usually been tested to work with the printer, paper and ink combinations of that particular manufacturer. The size of the ink cartridge will depend on the type and model of the printer and most manufacturers provide a range, such as with Epson inkjet range who have 3 colour, 4 colour, 6 colour, and 9 colour systems and the likes of Canon have up to 12 ink colours with their professional models. Most manufacturers will say that anything they quote in terms of lightfastness, number of copies from a cartridge and so on will only be based on their own products being used and under their test conditions. So there is never a guarantee.

Colour Laser printers on the other hand only usually have 4 toner cartridges, as they work on the CMYK print process.

Branded inks are usually more expensive than compatible inks, but in studies I have carried out I find that although compatible inks are cheaper, they are not always as efficient in getting the ink onto the paper so you will not always get more copies out of them.

Compatible Inks

Compatible inks as the title suggests are inks that are made by other manufacturers to go into the printers of the well known manufacturers. They are usually cheaper per cartridge, and their quality is probably just as good, although it may be difficult to tell. They produce the inks in the same number of cartridges and colours as the originals and so makes it easy for you to swap and change about. There are many different manufacturers producing these inks and looking at any good ink online retailer, such as Cartridge Monkey will give you an idea of what is available.

There are two points I would like to mention here. The making of the ink may not be exactly the same as the original, unless it is the original manufacturer who made it for the printer company that is producing a cheaper compatible version. If not the make up of the colours will be different. The second point is partly due to the first, it is not a good idea to mix the branded and compatible inks at the same time in the printer. If you change over to using compatible inks it is always wise to re-do your printer profile for the printer/paper/ink combination you are using to allow for any possible differences.

CIS systems

As well as branded and compatible inks, for the A3+ Epson Stylus Photo printers and a couple of the Canon photo printers there is another option. It's called a CIS (Continuous Ink System) and is produced by Lyson. This was originally developed so as to allow larger ink volumes to go through the printers without the need to keep changing the ink cartridges.

The system works by having larger ink containers which sit beside the printer and via plastic tubes connects to cartridges that sit in the printer where the normal ink cartridges would sit. As the printer prints, the ink is sucked along the tubes into the cartridges. They have also produced their own ink to go with this system, which you can buy in larger volume bottles and pour into those that sit by the printer as they need topping up.

They have two main ink brands Photochrome a pigment based ink, where the Photochrome PRO mirrors the latest Epson Ultrachrome K3 inks, and Fotonic a dye based ink where the Fotonic XG is said to be a good colour match to the Epson 'Claria' range. Both these ink sets are said to have a longevity test of 75 years, the same as the original manufacturers inks for colour. The ink can be bought in 125ml or 1lt bottles, where they reckon the 125ml bottle is the equivalent of 10 traditional ink cartridges.

To use one of these systems initially you have to purchase the start up pack, which includes the cartridges, bottles, syringes which costs around 200 and then the ink, 125ml bottle at 30 per colour. But after the initial outlay you are then only buying the ink bottles.

Changing to this system from the original ink set will require you to do another print profile for your printer/paper/ink set.

Ink types by manufacturer

Each of the manufacturers produce different types of ink for their printers, and as technology improves and new models come out then these are improved and modified to give better results. Epson for instance currently as 3 types of ink for its range of printers and these are Ultrachrome K3, Durabrite Ultra,  and Claria.

Canon on the other hand in the PIXMA printers use an ink which is combination of a pigment based black ink and dye-based colour inks. Whilst their iPF range uses pigment only inks.

Longevity of inks

When printing out our photos and particularly if we are thinking of selling them on as prints or limited edition prints then some of us may take an interest in the longevity of the prints produced quoted by the various companies. Of course nobody really knows for sure how long they will take to fade or last, as the technology is new and no print produced with these new type of printers/inks have got beyond 10 or so years. What they do is to carry out tests under certain lighting conditions based on an industry standard and come up with an expected life span for a print produced on their printer. However in most cases the number of years quoted are based on their printer/ink/media combination, so there is no guarantee that it will give the same lifespan if any of these elements is changed. Typically manufacturers are currently quoting 100 years for black and white prints, and 75-100 years for colour prints. Many paper manufacturers are also now starting to quote longevity times based on their own tests, but it is unlikely any of these are going to be accurate.

Note for Inkjet Printers

Inkjets can block - Whichever ink you use in your printer it is likely at some point that the inkjet nozzles will block. In most cases this can be overcome by using the nozzle check and head cleaning utilities provided within the printers driver. However it is worth pointing out that most of the top manufacturers like Epson do recommend that you turn on your printer at least once a day, and print something at least once a week to prevent this from happening. Canon on the other hand say their models don't block, but models such as the iPF5100 come with a sleep facility which means if you leave it switched it will stay in sleep mode and switch itself on at least once a day to make sure the ink doesn't clog and therefore block jets in the print head.

If you are not going to be using the printer for a while it is likely that the nozzles will block as the ink dries, so I have seen some suggest that putting a timer on the printer so that it can switch itself on at least once a day should prevent this from happening. When the printer is first switched on it goes through a short cleaning cycle and this is what stops it from clogging. If it does clogg and after running the cleaning routines it is not cleared then it is likely that the print head will need replacing.

If your head should block to the point that the print head needs replacing then Canon print heads are designed to be replaceable by the end user, whereas Epson's are not.


See Also:

Taking a Look at Printers for the Photographer

Economy/Small Printers

Print On Demand Desktop Printers

Event Printers

Printer Profiling

Printing on a Budget

No Cost Low Cost Media



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