Posted by: AG | August 12, 2010

Printing posters in small quantities

Today it’s much easier to print short runs of large posters thanks to newer and less expensive generation ink jet printers. Many large office supply stores, such as Office Depot, along copy shops like Kinko’s, have a poster printer available.

The customer brings their files on either CD or a flash drive, and can even email them. The printers can usually print posters up to 3 feet wide by a variable length, sometimes up to 20 feet!  Until recently, these poster printers were only available at specialty graphic arts shops, who used their own software and your image file to output to their in-house printer. Cost was also substantially higher as your work was also getting more personal attention and possibly better quality.

Some history about large format printers might be helpful: One of the more well-known printers, called the Iris, was until recent years, one of the few able to produce superb high quality prints. In fact, many graphic firms still use these due to their miscroscopic and irregular ink patterns, which created a more natural print similar to a photograph or original art. They were also notable in their ability to reproduce images on watercolor or canvas papers, giving even a closer resemblance to an original piece of art. Sometimes even using a magnifying glass made it hard to tell the difference.

The name “Giclee,” from the French, was the common term used by art galleries and artists to describe Iris prints. In any case, anything with a French name will command a higher price (apparently.) However, today the term is also used to describe any high quality ink jet print. But Iris prints still seem to have the edge on reproducing better quality for fine art prints, although they cost much more.

This higher cost for Iris prints was due to the much higher cost of the printer, which relied on a more analog type of ink application using drum technology. The ink was also able to penetrate various types of art papers and give a more even coloration. But over the last few decades, large format printers have mostly replaced Iris printers as they rely on established ink jet technology, similar to that used on many low cost desktop printers. Ink jet, in any case, can now reproduce near photographic image quality matching traditional darkroom techniques, but at a fraction of the cost and time.

The main reason for the better quality today is the finer dot size that can reproduce images up to 2,400 x 2,400 dots per inch (dpi), where large format printers over 10 years ago were mostly limited to 300 x 300 dpi. Hold up a magnifying glass, and it was simple to spot the dot patterns for each of the 4 colors used.

The two main companies that have invested the most in manufacturing large format printers are Epson and HP, although other competitors are out there. Epson became the leading fine art printer for large formats after it introduced the Ultrachrome ink printers in 2002. One can also find desktop printers with Ultrachrome inks. Ultrachrome, the trademarked name, used a more advanced ink pigment that gave its prints an “archival quality.” This archival ability meant that prints could be displayed under indoor lights for decades without losing color saturation. In theory, prints can last up to a 100 years. That means if you notice fading after 80 or so years, you can get a refund!

Previous inks, and most of the prints from desktop printers, will fade quickly if exposed too long to natural or artificial light. Epson also introduced 6-color printers, over the traditional 4-color, which gave a wider color range, or gamut, especially noticeable in photographs.

But getting back to the main topic, today anyone can take their files to an office supply store that has a poster printer, and get a poster printed within a few minutes. They can also be laminated for an additional cost. Last time I checked, posters cost around $15 each and lamination about $6. If you need more than a few dozen, you should check with some local printing companies that have a large 4-color press, since the cost will get competitive after a quanity of 25. A printer can also add a water-repellent varnish, instead of lamination, as another option to save on cost.

But there are still things to worry about. For instance, one of the disadvantages of using an ink jet printer from the office supply store or copy shop is that the colors will often be different than your original. Don’t be surprised if you notice a distinct color shift in certain colors, especially the blue tones, along with different color saturations. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to those problems yet, since the clerk will only be able to take the file your give them and output from whatever printer they have. But at least we have another option when size and speed matter.

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