Dye Sub Printers

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Today’s Question: What, if any, are the downsides to owning a nice dye sub printer for professional output? I wonder why nobody talks about these printers. From my experience they are “picture perfect” and would be hard pressed to see any difference between a dye sub print or a film print (not digital) but I wonder about the ink-jet vs dye sub as well. What am I missing? Even my local Wal-Mart uses dye sub printers for their “professional” output.

Tim’s Answer: As with just about any comparison between two categories of products, when it comes to evaluating dye sublimation (or “dye sub” for short) printers there are both advantages and disadvantages. In my opinion, it is entirely plausible that dye sublimation printers could have originally become the most popular way for photographers to print their images, but instead photographers favored photo inkjet printers.

Let’s first consider some of the advantages of dye sub printers.

Dye sub printers get their name from the process of sublimating solid dye into a gaseous form and impregnating that dye into the surface of the paper being printed to. This produces several significant benefits.

Dye sub prints are truly continuous tone, rather than being made up of a series of tiny “dots” as is the case for photo inkjet printers. That results in smoother transitions of tone and color, and higher perceived quality. Of course, recent inkjet printers are capable of producing such tiny ink droplets that they can be thought of as being virtually continuous tone, but that wasn’t the case with earlier inkjet printers.

Because of the way solid dyes are sublimated into the surface of the paper, dye sub prints are also generally more durable than photo inkjet printers. For example, the prints from dye sub printers are better able to withstand being exposed to water, almost to the point that you could consider a dye sub print to be “waterproof”.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to dye sub printers as well, and I believe these are the primary reasons these printers did not become more popular with photographers early on in the history of photo printers. It should be noted that it is altogether possible that if dye sub printers had been more popular early on, they would have also been more profitable and therefore manufacturers might have invested money to improve upon these shortcomings.

Dye sub printers are generally slower compared to most photo inkjet printers, although some of the top-end dye sub printers will perform on par with many inkjet printers.

Dye sub printers are more limited in size, with the ink ribbon cartridges being matched to the paper size. In general you can think of a dye sub printer as only supporting a single print size. Thus, dye sub can be a great option for producing a large number of 4×6 photo prints, but not a good solution for photographers who need to print at a wide variety of sizes.

Dye sub printers also tend to be more expensive than photo inkjet printers in terms of overall operation. This, again, is probably mostly due to the very large market for photo inkjet printers compared to the smaller market for dye sublimation printers.

As you may have gathered by now, the limitations of dye sublimation printers relate more to a lack of flexibility, which is probably the primary reason that photo inkjet printers gained much higher adoption rates than dye sublimation printers. That said, dye sub printers are still an excellent choice for certain applications. If a dye sub printer suits your specific needs, I would certainly not hesitate to make use of such a printer. That said, you may very well find that a good photo inkjet printer will also be able to meet your specific needs, with additional flexibility as a bonus.