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Advertisment feature: third-party printer inks are a false economy

Get more from your digital snaps with a home inkjet printer

Home printing can seem an expensive business, but with the right ink and a quality printer getting the most from your digital photos has never been easier.

Every summer, without fail, online photo printing labs publish research showing that while we’re taking more snaps than ever, fewer and fewer of them ever see the light of day in printed form. There’s still a lot to be said for prints you can pass round and pore over. See also: Group test: what's the best printer?

You don’t have to send huge batches of photos to an online copy shop, though. You can print the best shots at home and get the printed results in minutes, ready to frame and put on your wall. Almost any home printer can produce 6x4in photo prints as well as standard text-only A4 documents, so why don’t more of us make use of this handy option?

Home printing can often seem like a luxury – and one with uncertain results. Perceived wisdom is that DIY photo printing is expensive. This is a situation that has recently been mitigated by the introduction of better value high yield ink cartridges (explained in this buying advice feature), but it’s also true to say that the cost of printing in colour varies a great deal by model and by manufacturer. As many of us have realised, it can be a false economy to buy a low-cost printer as keeping it in inks can quickly outstrip the savings made in the purchase price.

But let’s assume we’re keen to create prints of those family photos you took on holiday. There are a few rules that will ensure those prints live up to your expectations and do the occasion justice. First, ensure you’re printing on a suitable medium. Most of us have sent the odd photo to print in colour and found the grainy, washed out results disappointing. That’s because the paper used to print out tickets, emails and written reports is very different from photo paper. Plain office paper is very fibrous and absorbs most of the richly coloured ink your printer lays down. Nor can it ‘fix’ the ink in place, so colours bleed into each other. See also: Why your next office printer should be an inkjet printer.

Get more from home printing, read: What to consider when buying a printer and Inkjet vs Laser - what you need to know.

Print better photos at home

It’s tempting to cut costs by using thick paper stock rather than specially coated photo papers. A thicker paper stock may look like a better bet than 80gsm plain paper, but thicker isn’t the only criteria when printing photos. The paper also needs to be able to absorb the right amount of ink, offer sufficient whiteness to ensure the colours pop out from the page, and have the right coating to hold the colours in place. That’s why printer manufacturers produce a range of papers that work optimally with their printers to produce specific results. It’s also why, as a user, you need to tell the printer to print a photo print and that you’re using matte or glossy paper stock and its weight. The printer driver will offer you a dropdown list of papers to make the choice straightforward.

The ink you use is also critical. Different types of ink and different types of photo paper are specifically designed to work together. For example, professional photographers will probably choose a printer that uses pigment-based inks. These have different properties to the dye-based ink that most home and small business inkjet printers use, but the inks and the printers themselves are often several times more expensive than the £80-£150 most of us are likely to spend. Pigment inks aren’t as vibrant as dye-based inks, but they bond better with the paper and are more resistant to both moisture and light, so printed images last longer. Even placed under protective glass, photos of both the digital and film variety fade over time. Cheap inks are particularly prone to this. Photos printed using them may fade dramatically in as little as five years.

Dye-based inks offer the best of both worlds, with good colourfastness and permanence and deep but natural-looking colours. Mounted in a glass or plastic frame, your photo prints should look as fresh when you first took the shot for decades.

Independent testing lab Wilhelm Imaging Research reported in June that the Kodak Hero 9.1 pigment-based inkjet printer can produce photo prints that will last up to 132 years when used with its Ultra Premium Glossy Photo Paper, while prints on Kodak’s Matte Premium Photo Paper would last up to 234 years. Even unframed and subject to standard lighting and environmental conditions, the photos would survive for 43 and 70 years respectively. By contrast, Wilhelm Imaging found that non-branded third-party inks used in HP printers would last a matter of months.

These results are no accident. Printer manufacturers and their chemists have spent decades perfecting the inks themselves and the way the inks are distributed on the page. From the finest ink nozzles and sub-atomic ink particle sizes to ensure the finest levels of detail, to the inclusion of UV- and ozone-resistant agents, branded inks are designed to work specifically with your printer.

Avoid third-party inks

While there’s little to stop you choosing a non-branded ink, there’s also little reason to do so. A survey by Which? in 2011 found that the third-party inks for Kodak printers actually cost more than those from Kodak itself.

Of course, none of this takes away from the fact that you have to choose your prints carefully, perhaps giving them the once-over first and making minor tweaks such as cropping and removing red-eye – both easily done in free photo-editing software such as Picasa (picasa.google.com). If it’s a photo taken on a smartphone that you’re keen to print, you might want to use Camera+ or another on-device tweaking app. After this, you can use the Kodak Pic Print app on your iPhone or Android smartphone to send the shot straight to the printer. And if you’ve got a Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera, there’s also a direct-from-camera printing option. Just make sure you’ve got the right photo paper in place and your printer is active. Such tools allow you to beat even the convenience and speed of an online photo lab.

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