Sunday, August 10, 2008

TOTW#3: Laser or Inkjet; White Balance

Computer Tip: Laser or Inkjet

Computer users looking to buy a printer are faced with a decision... should I buy an inkjet printer, or get a laser? Most people seem to go right to the inkjet, but that is probably not the best choice.

Generally I steer people toward laser printers; they are faster, more reliable, and the cost per page is a tiny fraction of what it costs to run an inkjet. But if you need to print photos, a laser won't provide the quality you desire at any price. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each type of printer.

Laser Printer

Pros: Printing cost is generally about 2 cents per page (B&W), including paper, no matter what you are printing. Color is a little more expensive, but still relatively cheap. Fast, with most printers spitting out 12 pages per minute in the real world. Reliable. Very high quality output for text and graphics. Toner cartridges last for thousands of pages between replacements.
Cons: Even color laser printers do a very poor job with photos. Toner cartridges are expensive because they last so long. Color laser printers require purchasing four separate toner cartridges periodically, and the printers are considerably more expensive than B&W-only models, as they actually contain four printer engines (one for each color) in one unit.
Purchase Price: $100+ for B&W, $300+ for Color.
Recurring costs: Toner cartridges, usually $40+ every 3000-6000 pages.

Inkjet Printer

Pros: Quality color photo printing is not just achievable, but with photo paper you can yield excellent results.
Cons: Very expensive per page, with costs ranging from 10 cents per page for B&W text to up to more than a dollar per page for full page color photos, just for ink. Crisp, rich, accurate printing requires expensive paper. The jets on the print head tend to clog and must be cleaned periodically, wasting ink. Many inks fade over time.
Purchase Price: Usually $80+, though you can find promotional deals frequently.
Recurring costs: Multi-color ink cartridges generally run about $30 and up for a few hundred pages of text, or a few dozen full-page prints; black cartridges are usually cheaper with similar capacities. Printers that utilize separate ink cartridges for each color typically run $15-20 each; for a printer with 6 cartridges the costs really add up quickly.

For me it boils down to this: If you absolutely have to print photos at home, get an inkjet. But for everyone else, invest in a laser printer; the cost might be higher up front, but the laser is actually much cheaper in the long run. And everybody should use an online service or local photo finisher for printing photos; you'll get much better results, much more cheaply than doing it on your own.

Bonus Tip: Many printers sold today are available with network interfaces, either wired or wireless. Having this feature makes dealing with your printer much easier. I recommend spending the extra money to get a printer with this feature.

Mac Users: Make sure before buying a printer that it has a Mac compatible driver available. Of the five printers I own, only one is compatible with the Mac, and it was quite difficult to install a working driver for it.

Multimedia Tip: White Balance

Have you ever noticed that videos shot indoors, or pictures taken in low light without a flash are often very yellow/orange in color, when it didn't look that way at all in real life? It's because of white balance.

Despite what our eyes tell us, different sources of light around us are actually different colors. We perceive them all as white, but they really vary quite widely as to their real color. Noonday sunlight and camera flashes, for example, look very blue when compared to indoor lighting, while indoor lighting looks orange if compared against sunlight. We don't normally see this because our eyes and brains adapt very well to different color lighting without us even being aware of it. (See Wikipedia's article on Color Temperature for more information.)

Video and still cameras aren't quite so smart. While many have Automatic White Balance options, they don't always work the way we'd like. For example, any time you fill the viewfinder with a scene that has little or no "white," or a lot of blue or orange, the camera will attempt to use the wrong white balance setting, and you'll end up with a picture or video that just looks... weird.

The way to fix this is to tell your camera the color of light that is illuminating your image. Most newer video cameras have pre-set white balance settings for Outdoor (sunlight), Indoor (incandescent lighting), in addition to an Auto mode. And many of these also add a Hold setting, which lets you lock in a particular setting so the observed color doesn't shift over time. Still cameras usually add Fluorescent, Shade, and Cloudy on top of the Outdoor and Indoor settings. In either case, if one of these settings matches your lighting, go ahead and use it. But under any conditions you can utilize the Hold or Custom White Balance setting of your camera to make sure that it knows the proper white balance. Place a white piece of paper or neutral gray card in front of the camera while it is in the Auto White Balance setting, zoom in until it nearly fills the screen, then select the Hold or Custom White Balance setting. Consult your camera's manual for full instructions; the full list of steps varies by manufacturer and type of camera.

By taking the time to white balance your camera you'll end up with much more realistically colored pictures. Even when your pictures look fine without adjusting the white balance, you'll usually see a dramatic improvement in colors by manually setting the white balance. It only takes a few seconds to set it up, and you'll end up with drastically better images. No more orange mess!


Colleen said...

Great post, I've been shelling out the cash for inkjet cartridges for far too long, I had no idea laser was so much more reasonable. I'll definitely get a laser printer next time around.

And white balance was probably one of the best things I learned in my Photo 101 class. Thank goodness for Photoshop to fix it when I forget. :)

DoubleDeej said...

The problem with correcting white balance in Photoshop is that some of the picture information has to be discarded in order to make the adjustment. And because the white balance setting is applied before picture gamma and the normal tools you use to attempt to correct white balance don't take gamma into consideration, it's never going to be quite perfect, and shadows, midtones, or highlights will likely be left with a color cast. Maybe someday Photoshop will add a true White Balance tool, but for now anything you do is going to be just an approximation.

Shooting with RAW is the best way to go so you can choose your white balance when importing pictures, but the next best thing is to have it set correctly when the picture is taken.

Colleen said...

Yeah, that's just my lazy "crap-I-screwed-up-a-perfectly-good-photo" fix. :)

I took your advice and bought a laser printer. I ran out of printer ink again and couldn't stand to buy a new $40 cartridge that I knew would only last me a month or two. I got a Brother HL-2170W. So far so good, I'm just looking forward to saving some serious ink money.

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