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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July 2005, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Digital quest for perfect prints
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Reporter, BBC Click Online

With digital camera sales going through the roof, people are demanding more and more from their home printers. Printer manufacturers have a problem on their hands - how to produce pictures that are as good, if not better, than professional photographs.

Kodak digital camera and printer
Sales of Kodak digital cameras soared by 42% last year

If the salesman are to be believed, your trips to the local chemist to develop your photos are no longer necessary.

The home printers on sale today are, they say, at least as good as the high street developers.

"Our small format printers are using exactly the same technology as the ones we are using in our kiosks," said Antoine Dreyfuss from Kodak.

"We have the same functionalities in terms of auto-enhance capabilities. We're using the same kind of paper and the same kind of printing technology."

With home digital cameras now capable of producing stunning images, home printer manufacturers finally have something to work with.

And they also have a target market - everyone who owns a digital camera.

The main push in printing at recent trade shows has been to increase ease of use, which includes stand-alone printing using compact printers that produce digital photos straight from the camera, without the need for a PC.

Most new printers have slots for every kind of camera memory card imaginable, plus USB keyrings and Bluetooth, which means you can send your photo from your phone to the printer.

Ambitious features

If you cannot be bothered to take the memory card out of the camera, many printers feature a dock for the camera itself.

And if you cannot even wait till you get home to print your photos, some even have batteries and handles, so you can take them to parties.

In order to move away from the PC, but not lose digital photo-editing tools, many printers have grown small LCD screens and can now perform basic operations on your photo, such as cropping and resizing.

Some are more ambitious, with features like automatic red-eye removal, which uses the on-board processor to look for two red circles separated by an area of flesh-tone; sounds clever, but the results are still a little hit and miss.

The pictures themselves now last a lot longer - between 80 and 100 years, which is actually better than a photograph.
Peter Urey, Hewlett-Packard

Away from the budget end, things are getting bigger and better.

With cameras now taking five or six megapixel photos as standard, there is enough detail to print A3-size pictures, and the results can be stunning.

"There have been significant advances in the hardware, the inks and the papers, so it's the whole print system that's improved," said Epson's Richard Baylis.

"You'll see now that the droplet size has decreased, which gives you a finer grading of printing.

"You'll see that the paper, and the chemistry between the paper and the ink, has significantly changed, so you're getting something that looks at least as good as a photograph that you get from a laboratory."

'Chemically connected'

According to Peter Urey from Hewlett-Packard the inks that are now used have been chemically connected to the surface of the paper.

"Rather than simply staining the paper they're now there for life. And the pictures themselves now last a lot longer - between 80 and 100 years, which is actually better than a photograph."

Although every printer picture is made up of millions of tiny dots, there are several different ways of getting those dots onto the paper.

One way adds three colours of dye onto the paper in separate passes, in a process called dye sublimation, whereas thermal inkjet printers superheat the ink as it passes through the print head, which then sprays the ink onto the paper.

Other printers use something called piezo inkjet technology, in which the ink stays cold and is mechanically fired onto the paper.

Each manufacturer will of course argue that their method is better, but to this humble reporter's eyes, they all produced very high-quality pictures.

It is not just about the detail - it is about getting the colours right too.

Most printers make up their colours from the four printing primaries of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, but these cannot recreate the complete set of colours we can see.

It has meant that subtle shades of colour, such as skin tones, were difficult to get right.

The overlap between the range of a printer and the range of a digital camera is especially small.

Lighter shades

In order to increase the colour range, or gamut, and therefore increase the quality of image printed from digital cameras, mid to high end printers are now armed with more than four inks, some using as many as seven, eight or even nine.

Richard Baylis, Epson
These cartridges are made by guys in space suits because it's really important that we get absolute purity of ink
Richard Baylis, Epson

Of course there are times when more colour is the last thing you want, for example in black and white photography.

"In the past some of the lighter blacks were created by using different colours combined to make a light black, and you had something called metamirism, which is a slight background tint that you would get," said Richard Baylis.

"It might be a slight red or a slight green background, because the colours needed to build up in order to make the lighter black colours.

"Now you're using a pure black, you're using a black, a light black, and believe it or not a light light black, in order to make up a proper black and white photograph."

If there has been one cloud hanging over the printing world, it has been complaints that the ink is expensive.

It is many times more costly to produce than vintage champagne, and it does not taste as nice.

There are cheaper, non-branded inks available, which means you can manually refill cartridges, but the manufacturers are not keen for us to use them.

"The cartridges themsleves are manufactured in clean rooms, and it's essential for the longevity of your print head that the ink that's going in is absolutely pure," said Mr Baylis.

"These cartridges are made by guys in space suits because it's really important that we get absolute purity of ink because you don't want to damage the investment that you have in your hardware."

An American imaging lab called Wilhelm Laboratories have found a weakness in non-manufacturer inks - they don't last as long.

"Wilhelm Laboratories have tested imitation ink and original manufacturer ink, and they've been unable to find a photograph that lasts more than a year using imitation ink, whereas they're finding one hundred years of light fastness by using an Epson ink," said Mr Baylis.

The inks may be expensive, but they are part of the whole printing system, according to the manufacturers.

If you want something to hang on your living wall for years, you will want the image to last.

But here is the irony: even if you do print a picture using a cheaper and less permanent inks, and it starts to fade, you could just go back to your printer and print out another copy.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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