Photography by Jim Doty

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The short story: True photographic quality prints with great color, with a respectable print life, in sizes up to 8x10 (or even 8x44 panoramics), all in your own home from a printer that costs $100.


When I acquired an Epson Stylus Photo EX printer in late 1998, I was impressed by how close the ink jet digital prints came to a true, photo-quality traditional print. Unfortunately, the expected color life of the prints without objectionable fading has been around 2 or 3 years.

Every year has seen the release of better and better printers.  I have read the reviews and pondered the best time for an upgrade.

When Galen Rowell reported a couple of years ago that he can get enlargements from digital files that are better in quality than traditional prints, I took notice. Unfortunately, Rowell was talking about the use of some pretty high dollar equipment.

All that has changed.  For $100 you can have a printer that gives quality equal to or better than traditional photographic prints.


Before getting on to the printers in question, a couple of definitions. In a traditional color photographic print, a slide or negative is put into an enlarger and a light source shines through the film and projects an image of the film onto light sensitive paper. This creates a latent image in the paper which becomes visible when the paper is processed in a series of liquid photographic chemicals. Tiny colored dye clouds in the paper make up the photograph.

To take the same photo and make a digital colored print, the slide or negative is scanned and turned into a digital file which is composed of rows and rows of different colored pixels (tiny squares) that make up the photographic image. The more pixels in the image (the larger the file size) the bigger the image can be printed and still look real. The digital file is then output by a computer to a digital printer that prints rows and rows of tiny colored dots onto paper. The smaller the dots, the more photo realistic the image, especially if the dots overlap each other in an effective way.


Digital printers can now produce prints that are just as good to the naked eye as traditional photographic prints. Images can be easily color corrected in the computer before they are even sent to the printer.  Many of these color corrections would be difficult or impossible to do in the traditional "wet" darkroom. The net result is the production of digital prints that can be even better than a traditional print.


I recently acquired an Epson Stylus Photo 780 printer. It prints on paper up to 8 1/2 inches wide and up to 44 inches long.  (The bigger version, the Epson 1280, can print on paper up to 13 inches wide.) I have taken some of my color corrected digital files and printed them out as 8x10 inch prints.  The quality is better than I could ever get with a traditional photographic print produced directly from the original slide.  The colors are rich and saturated. What a boon this is to photography! And I can do it all at home.

What makes this printer so good is the use of 6 colors of ink, the tiny dots produced, and the way the dot patterns are produced.


More good news is the longer life of the prints the Epson 780 and 1280 produce.  On Epson Heavyweight Matte Paper, the expected print life is around 25 years.  This is a life span that is up there with many traditional photographic papers.  On some of the Epson glossy papers the print life is expected to be around 10 years. More information on print life can be found at Henry Wilhelm's site. (Note: Wilhelm's site was down the last time I checked.)


These printers are not fast. 8x10 inch prints on Matte Paper with the printer set to 1440 dpi take between 7 and 8 minutes. 8x10 inch prints on Glossy Paper with the printer set to 2880 dpi takes three times as long. (You can shorten this time by choosing a lower printer resolution such as 1440.) This is still faster than driving to a local lab and waiting several days to get a print back.


The Epson 780 is a thirsty beast. Fourteen 8x10 color prints on Matte paper used all of one color ink cartridge ($17.96 when ordered from Epson) and 1/4 of the black ink cartridge ($22.46 per cartridge).  Total cost for ink per print was $1.68 and the paper was another 33 cents, so an 8x10 costs $2.01 on Heavyweight Matte paper.

You can, at least at the present time, order ink cartridges directly from Epson and pay no tax or shipping charges, and the cost per cartridge is less than any place I have checked locally.


If you have a computer and a way to get digital photographic files into your computer, the Epson 780/1280 will give you photographic or better quality prints with a respectable lifespan.  The 780 will do this for a great price. Office Max, Meijer's, and other places in SW Michigan are selling this printer for $100 - $110. You can even order it directly from Epson (click on INK JET PRINTERS).  The 1280 sells for about $500. Update: In December 2001, B&H Photo has been selling the Epson 780 for $69.95.


For the ultimate in archival quality, The Epson 2000P (at $900) produces prints on Epson's Matte Paper that are expected to last between 100-200 years. At the present time, the colors produced by the 2000P are very good, but not quite as good as the 780/1280.

What is high on my photographic wish list? A printer with the color of the 780/1280 and the print life of the 2000P.

Update: See my review of the Epson 2200

More on the Epson 780

September 24, 2001
Updated Aug 20, 2002

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