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Dye-sublimation printers

Some digital photographers use an inkjet printer to put their images down on paper so they can see their printed pictures as soon as possible. Others upload their digital files to an online photo finisher to get the durability of photo paper. Both options yield high-quality images, but what if you could get the immediacy of an inkjet and the durability of a photo print combined with smooth, rich prints? Your solution is a dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printer, a technology that has been used for digital printing for many years. However, these models were geared toward professional photographers who needed a reliable way to produce high-quality, high-volume images (think pictures with Santa), and they came with a professional price tag for both the hardware and the consumables. We think it's time to take a closer look at this printing technology, since the price of dye-sub printers is falling, and this technology is becoming more attractive to digital photographers of all skill levels.

How the dye-sub process works

Instead of using ink droplets, a dye-sub printer uses a transfer ribbon to print images. The ribbon is really a plastic film that contains patches of cyan, magenta, and yellow dye, and a layer of protective material. To make a full-color print, the paper must make four passes through the printer to apply these four layers. When a print is made, the paper passes under a heating element that causes the dye on the ribbon to vaporize precisely to correspond to the density needed in the print. As the paper passes under the heating element, the vaporized dye diffuses onto the surface of the paper. The paper then retracts into the printer to repeat the process and receive the other two color layers and the final protective layer. After the fourth pass, you're left with a print that can be immediately handled (no drying required).


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