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What sort of printer options do we have to deliver photo prints quickly for low operating costs?

We tried to set up our HP Color LaserJet to work for the speed. The image is just not good enough to sell. Too grainy. We would like to offer genuine photo prints without breaking the budget.

Main concern on inkjet is ink costs, laser printers with high enough quality and a good paper suggestion would also work.

These will mostly be 4x6 size prints and sometimes 5x7.

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If ink is the major cost here, is it possible to go into the pro lines? SOmething where the printer is on the order of $3k or the like, but ink lasts (comparatively) forever? –  mmr Apr 18 '11 at 2:25
    
I don't think we can fit 3k into the budget right now but I would be interested to know what sort of printers these are. –  Imagen Apr 19 '11 at 4:55
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2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Until a couple of years ago, there was an easy, automatic answer for the entry level -- get a couple of Epson R800s with outboard bulk inking systems, use roll paper and go to town. Unfortunately, the R800 is with us no more, and while you can do the same job with larger inkjet printers, transportation, setup and tear-down, consumables management and so forth make it altogether impractical for more than a makeshift solution.

There is a cost of doing business, and making on-site printing manageable and profitable comes with a little bit of up-front pain. The weapons of choice these days are dye-sub printers that will run you $2-4K (depending on the maximum print size you need). As business expenses go, it's something that amortizes quickly -- and since the profit is in the print, not the image, it doesn't make sense to be penny wise and pound foolish here.

The brands I keep hearing songs of praise for are the Sony SnapLab series and Mitsubishi. Both appear to be robust and bullet-proof (the Sonys are designed for retail kiosk use as well as event photography). Both use system consumables -- if you have paper, you also have ink. Yes, the consumables seem expensive up front, but when you consider that you've already sold the print before you print it, it's really not so bad. They're monolithic -- you just plug them in and turn them on, and they're ready to go. (Inkjets that see a lot of banging around often need to go through a head-cleaning/ink charge cycle before they're ready to use. Even lasers may need to have the toner carts jiggled so the toner level is, well, level.). And they're fast (you can get a 4x6 in under 20 seconds).

It's probably more up-front expense than you were hoping to deal with, but a good printer will pay for itself in only a very few events, and the consumables pay for themselves as you go.

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Thanks for the advice, I think we will go with a SnapLab after looking at the pricing. Hopefully we'll be able to recoop equipment costs fairly quick! –  Imagen Apr 19 '11 at 5:55
    
Out of curiousity, would you say the R800s are any better than the snap labs in case I ever come across a used one? –  Imagen May 20 '11 at 20:31
    
Not better, just cheaper up-front. They're a bit of a hassle to move around, and you can't really give them any time off -- if you're not printing for any more than a couple of days, you're clogging the heads. The only real advantage is that you can print a bit larger on demand (5x7, 8x10), as with any inkjet printer. It was the third-party bulk (continuous) inking systems that made it a popular low-end pro printer -- HP was using cartridge+head consumable units, while Epson had permanent heads (and Canon, at the time, wasn't nearly up to snuff). –  user2719 May 21 '11 at 4:25
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I have owned a mid-level Canon iP4500 for quite a number of years. The printer cost about $180 back in the day, and has comparable modern counterparts for around the same price. When it comes to economical printing of 4x6 and 5x7, I wouldn't look farther than this level and quality of printer. Despite only using four ink colors (CMYK), the color quality and ink density is excellent. A 4x6" or 5x7" print can be spit out in a matter of a few seconds (less than 20 in most cases), and the printer supports bulk feeding of small format photographic papers (I think stacks of 50 using the feeder cartridge.)

This level of printer from Canon is a dye based printer, so its resolution is very high (the printer DPI is 4800x2400, prints at 600PPI). Tonal gradients and gamut are very good, and colors tend to be quite vibrant. The gamut is certainly not as large as a modern pigment based printer like the Canon PIXMA 9500 II or Epson Stylus R2880, however it is incredibly cheap to run (dye ink is pretty cheap compared to pigment.)

A couple cons of note regarding dye inks. They dry extremely fast, but tend to be more water soluble than pigments. The quick drying time is a boon for quickly handing out prints, but they need to be handled with more care. A quick dye-safe sealing spray could help improve their resilience. They don't have quite the permanence of pigment inks either, however their longevity when cared for properly is upwards of 75-90 years. If you need good longevity and greater durability, it might be worth spending $500 or so to get a pigment based printer, rather than a dye based printer.

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+1 for our resident printing expert. –  labnut Apr 19 '11 at 18:24
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