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The color-printing revolution is here. Print quality from consumer-level ink-jet printers has soared over the last couple of years, while prices have plummeted. For less than $300 you can buy a color printer that cranks out gorgeous full-color glossy photographs.

But even with high-quality, affordable color printers from Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Canon now available, printing is often the biggest disappointment for newcomers to the world of digital photography. Images look bright and crisp on screen, but when you try to print them on paper, the results look washed out and crude. It's easy to assume that your printer is simply not good enough to do the job.

That's because creating dazzling digital prints takes more than using the correct printer; it requires a little printing know-how.

In the world of color ink-jets, the type of paper you use has a huge impact on print quality. Plain copy paper may be inexpensive, but it doesn't make for the best digital photos. Plain paper tends to be too absorbent for most ink-jets, causing blurred images and damp printouts.

Generally, there are three grades of paper available for most printers: plain paper (the kind you use in most photocopiers and laser printers); a "premium" ink-jet paper that has a whiter, smoother finish on one side; and a photo-quality paper with a glossy surface for printing photos. Some companies, such as Epson, also offer an even more expensive glossy film (polyethylene material rather than paper) that lets you print photos that have more of the look-and-feel of traditional photographs.

For the best results at the lowest cost, try using plain ink-jet paper to create preliminary test prints. Then break out the good stuff (which can cost up to a dollar or two per sheet) to print glossy photos. To get great-looking photos, you simply can't skimp on the paper.

One of the most common printing mistakes has to do with using the wrong resolution. For best results, make sure the pictures you print have a resolution of at least 300 dots per inch (dpi). Lower-resolution images, such as those you may see on a Web page, may look fine on screen because most computer monitors display images at a considerably lower resolution (usually between 72 and 96 dpi). But they look jaggy and out of focus printed on a high-resolution printer. Even a 1,440-dpi printer will do a terrible job on 72-dpi images. Don't forget to take scaling into account, too. If you start with a 300-dpi image but scale it by 200 percent to make it fit nicely into a page on your newsletter, you'll reduce its effective resolution to 150 dpi and the image quality will be lower in the final printout.

On the other hand, there's also no benefit to using pictures that have too high a resolution. Saving a photo at 1,200 dpi when you have a 720-dpi printer won't make the finished picture look any better; it will just take longer to open and edit the image. The image will also waste space by taking up much more room on your hard disk.

Virtually every digital camera and scanner comes with an image-editing program, such as Adobe PhotoDeluxe, that lets you change the brightness, contrast, and color balance of your pictures. Consider such image editing a necessary step. Many ink-jet printers tend to render images a bit darker than they look on screen. Use your software to compensate for this by brightening images slightly before you print them. Once you get to know your printer, you'll be able to make the right adjustments so that the printed images look more like the original photos.

Some printers, such as the Epson Stylus Photo Printer, come ready to produce photos right out of the box, but others (some Canon models, for example) require a special six- or seven-ink photo cartridge that has to be swapped in for the standard color ink-jet cartridge. Because printers equipped with such cartridges work with a broader palette of ink colors (usually a light cyan, light magenta, and light yellow in addition to the standard CMYK), they can render the subtle tones of a photograph with much greater accuracy. Check to see if a photo-ink cartridge is available for your printer. Swapping cartridges in and out can be a hassle, but it is worth your while.

Fine Tuning Deep within the Epson Stylus Photo Printer driver (as well as other printer drivers) are software controls that let you tweak the printer's output. For the best possible output, you may have to adjust these settings. (A) Check these settings; the defaults may not be configured for optimal print quality. (B) If a print looks washed out, you could try varying these settings. (C) Play with these settings if you experience a color shift in a printout.

Ink-jet printers generally aren't equipped with many switches, levers, or buttons. Instead, most of the controls are found in the printer's software (the driver) that gets installed on your computer. The printer driver provides the options you see when you use the Print command from within a software program (see "Fine Tuning").

Understanding this software is vital if you want to get the most out of your printer. For example, you usually have to use the printer-driver software to set the printer's output quality (such as normal, best, and photo quality) and tell the printer what kind of paper you intend to feed through it. Changes in these settings affect how much ink the printer will spray on the page. Using the wrong settings can yield terrible results. The printer driver also lets you calibrate your printer's overall color balance, dialing up more cyan, for example, or turning down the magenta. If you're ignoring this software–and simply hitting Print without adjusting any settings–you may not be tapping into some of your printer's best features.

Admittedly, some of this takes some trial-and-error experimentation, but with the right combination of printer settings, paper type, and image tweaks, you can truly do justice to your pictures and make your work look as good on paper as it does on screen.

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" The Cost of Color "

July 1999 page: 98

Color printers are more affordable than ever, but the cost of color printing involves more than just the printer–there's also the cost of ink and paper, which can really add up. Canon's high-gloss photo film, for example, lets you print out pictures with the look-and-feel of photographic glossies, but it costs $17.95 for ten sheets–or $1.79 per sheet.

The small ink cartridges found in most ink-jet printers don't last long, either. A photo-ink cartridge for one Canon printer, for example, costs $44.50 and is rated to last up to 90 pages–but that's assuming that the ink covers only about 15 percent of the page. In reality, when printing full-blown color photos, most photo-ink cartridges have the capacity for only a fraction of their official page yield. If you print full-page images using your printer's highest resolution settings, you may find yourself replacing ink cartridges after only 20 pages–or fewer.

So follow a few rules of conservation: Always proof your work on plain paper rather than on the high-priced film stock. Also, try proofing your work by printing at a lower resolution–printing at 720 dpi uses less ink than printing at 1,440 dpi.

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