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Choosing a photo printer – OMG what a challenge!

Tuesday 6 September 2011

It’s now well past the time for me to get some serious printing done. For the last number of years, I’ve printed  small stuff on my HP PhotoSmart (does quite a good job actually) and larger stuff using – really good prints, but I feel I can do better – oh how I miss the darkroom! In particular, I would love to explore some of the fine art papers for my “Platform” portfolio and some new shots of moving landscapes (more on that later).

So where to start? First of all, I needed to define exactly what type of printer I wanted. Modern fine art standards dictate:

  • pigment inks since they have much greater longevity (over a century for colour and 200+ years for B&W) than the dye inks common in inkjet printers
  • wide carriage – 13″ will produce beautifully sized prints (although 17″ would be preferred, it might be more printer than I can handle financially right now).

BTW, I should point out that I’m not approaching this as someone who has money to burn as we too often read about in the reviews and blogs, but rather as someone who, like most people, must count every penny!

Next – which manufacturer? There are only three in the running: Canon, Epson and HP. All of there printers in this league produce excellent results and are competitively priced. None, however, are sold locally. In fact, there is no local source for pigment inks for any of the machines, let along fine art papers in 13″ or 17″, so T.O. is my destination).
After checking out all three, it seems there is generally more support for the Epson printers
  • more pros whom I respect using them;
  • there are a greater variety of models available in stock at, for e.g. Vistek;
  • if the printers are more common, then the inks will also be easier to obtain.
So, now, which of the myriad Epson printers will suit my needs. A kick look at the list includes (from least to most expensive): R2880, R3000, Pro 3880, Pro 4900, Pro 3800, Pro 4880, 7800, 7890, 7900, etc., etc. I friend of mine has the 9900 – at 44″ width and $150 per ink cartridge, it’s too rich for my blood. Looking back at the photos of mine  that have been most popular with people, it seems that 13″ should be large enough, but I should keep my mind open to a 17″ which would really fit the bill.
One of the things I’ve learned over the past few weeks of reading up on the various printers and decisions to be made is that buying a printer is actually less costly than the consumables you will purchase over the life of the printer: paper and ink. Paper use will be the same no matter what printer you purchase, so let’s look at inks for a moment. It seems, from what I’ve read, that a printer is simply a vehicle for companies to sell ink –- that’s where the real money lies. For example, a standard ink cartridge for an Epson R2880 13″ printer costs $15 and holds 11mL of ink. that’s $1.36 per ml or $1363 per Litre! Imagine if gas or wine was that much!! However, buying ink in larger cartridges reduces the per mL cost of ink. The ink my friend buys at $150 per cartridge holds 350mL = 43 cents per mL – a big savings when you cost that over a number of prints and years. Something to keep in mind…
Back to the printers: of the 13″ printers offering pigment ink, Epson offers the R2880 for $620 (all prices in CDN from and the R3000 for $880 less $20 less an Epson rebate for $200 until October 1st = $660. Well, there’s no contest here, the Pro 3000 is a better deal: it is newer and it also comes with more than twice as much ink.
Ignoring printer price for the moment, the Epson R3000 is a more serious printer with larger ink capacity (25.9mL, the r2880 inks are 11mL). A replacement cartridge for the R3000 is $35 = $1.35/mL – no real difference to the R2880, but the fact that it arrives with more ink for about the same price is good enough for me. However, what about the equivalent 17″ printer – the Epson Pro 3880?
The Epson Pro 3880 is significantly more expensive ($1279) but has had wonderful reviews (e.g. Michael Reichman on Lu-La and the great modern photographer Ctein). It has 80mL ink tanks (3x the size of the R3000)  that retail for $64 which is only 80 cents per mL – not that’s a savings! But wait – here’s where it gets interesting. Although the Pro 3880 sells for $1279 – a significant $619 more than the R3000 – it arrives with 80mL of ink per tank, not 25.9mL per tank like the R3000. So let’s compare apples to apples. Start with the Pro 3000 and add 2 sets of ink to bring it up to near the 80mL of the Pro 3880 and the price is: $660 plus 2 ink sets at $280 each = $1220 or $59 less than the Pro 3880. So, for $59 more, the Pro 3880 offers 17″ printing and ink that costs 55 cents less per mL (80 cents per mL versus $1.35 – a 40% savings!). While the Pro 3880 won’t take photo paper in rolls, it will print to about 37″ (officially to 22″ but that can be extended) for the odd panorama. BTW – rolls are not always cheaper on a per sheet basis, but that’s another blog article.
So, guess what I’m ordering from Vistek – that’s right, an Epson Pro 3880, 17″ printer. More printer than perhaps I need right now, but is one I can grow into.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ezio permalink
    Wednesday 14 September 2011 11:49am

    I totally agree with you and your conclusions. I also have to decide between the R3000 and the 3880 Pro. The only concern I have is that the 3880 looks a little old now and I expect that Epson will come up with an update like they did for the 4900 which is having the new HDR inks.

    Best regards,

    • Wednesday 14 September 2011 12:04pm

      A good point – there is, no doubt, one of the horizon. How much better is to be seen and may not be that much. No doubt you have read Mark Segal excellent and thorough review of the 4900 on Lu-La. In it he compares the 4900 to the earlier 3800 and says:
      “Looking at these images side-by-side, I would have easily confused them had I not written their source identities on the back of the prints. That said, I did observe a slightly more accurate sky-blue rendition in the 4900 print, but it isn’t a “knock-me-over” difference.”
      and previous to that:
      “It also means that the Epson 3800 reached such a high standard of print quality that we weren’t likely to see earth-shattering, in-your-face advances per new model release since then – and indeed I did not. ”
      For me, this was a good enough reason to buy now – especially with the discounts available.

      • Ezio Micheletti permalink
        Wednesday 14 September 2011 12:39pm

        thanks for your kind and quick reply.
        Unfortunately here in Italy and we do not have any discount available on the Epson 3880 yet.

        Congratulations for your blog !


  2. Friday 6 September 2013 5:55am

    Thank you for the information you provide. Really descriptive post you have shared with us.Thanks a lot for sharing.

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