Photo Printer Tips: Get Great Photo Prints Without Breaking the Bank

As many photo-printer owners have found out, paper and ink costs can quickly exceed the cost of the printer. These six tips will help you get the most bang for your photo-printer buck. And see April 2004's "The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing" for great cost-saving tips for any printer.

Raise the resolution: Any digital camera less than three years old can capture at least 1 megapixel of data with each shot. This is sufficient to print a good-quality 4-by-6-inch photo; a 2-megapixel image holds enough information to output a higher-quality print of the same dimensions. To generate an 8-by-10-inch print worth framing, you'll need a resolution of at least 3 megapixels. You're in a good position if you have a new camera. As our May point-and-shoot camera chart indicates, most new models offer from 4 to 8.1 megapixels.

Adjust your camera to its highest resolution when taking shots you might want to print. Some newer cameras, depending on the manufacturer's menu setup, make it very easy to change resolution on the fly--on purpose or by accident.

Save your originals: Don't save the images you plan to print as JPEGs or in any other compressed file format. Each time you compress an image, you lose data. Before working with an image, make sure it's unaltered and in the TIFF format.

Enhance the image: Experiment with your image-editing program's cropping, brightness, contrast, and other controls until you're entirely satisfied with the image's composition. Always save the altered file with a new name.

Plan your print drafts: If you plan to make test prints that you'll discard later, reduce the image size and load the printer with plain-old $2-a-ream paper. Your printer software may let you print multiple images on one sheet.

Use matte-finish photo cards instead of glossy photo paper when printing 4-by-6-inch images (assuming that your printer supports this paper size; most do). The cards have a nice look and feel, and they cost about 10 cents each, versus 20 to 25 cents each for full-size photo paper. Place the images that you print on 8-by-10-inch glossy photo paper behind glass for added protection from ultraviolet light, and hang them away from direct sunlight.

Save on your ink: Special photo inks such as those that come with Canon's i960 printer can provide your printer with a more refined color palette. Unfortunately, if such ink didn't come with your model, you may have to buy it separately and install it in place of the standard ink cartridges.

In some instances, photos printed using general-purpose cartridges look almost as good as ones printed using photo ink. Another effective trick is to print your black-and-white photos in color mode (with standard color cartridges). This forces the printer to use all of its inks to create the tones in your picture. The resulting prints can be as subtle and precise as pictures printed with photo inks.

Get your cartridges in line: Use your printer's controls to realign your cartridges--especially if you see horizontal or vertical bands, unwanted lines, gaps, or bleeding colors in your prints. Right-click the printer's entry in Control Panel's "Printers and Faxes" or "Printers" applet, click Properties, and look for a cartridge maintenance option (see Figure 1

Figure 1: Avoid lousy prints by making sure your printer's ink cartridges are properly aligned.
). If aligning your cartridges doesn't solve the problem, clean the cartridges with a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol. Use water only as a solvent, and clean just the cartridge itself, never the printhead or the nozzle plate. Always align new cartridges.

Keep Your Nozzles Clear

Leaving any inkjet idle for even a week or two can allow the ink in the tiny tubes that feed the nozzles to dry. The resulting clogs cause streaks and other anomalies in your pictures. If the tubes become too blocked, you'll need the services of a professional (at upward of $85 an hour). The results of inkjet cleaning kits (which cost from $15 to more than $50) are mixed at best. To avoid clogs, print at least once a week. Some printers run a maintenance routine on startup, meaning that you can keep the nozzles clear simply by turning your printer on and off once a week. Check your device's manual to see whether it has this feature.

Jeffrey Fuchs is a Northern California-based freelance writer.
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