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Printers: Dye sublimation

Dye-sublimation printers produce dry prints that can be handled straight away, and this can be a huge advantage if you need prints in a hurry. Although they were designed for the consumer market, they are popular with professional photographers who work in the event photography field (photographing sporting or social events, for example).

Most Canon Selphy printers are dye-sublimation printers. Their compact size, together with the ability to run off battery power and produce touch-proof 6 x 4 inch prints in less than one minute means they are ideal if you want to sell prints on-site at an event where you are taking photographs.

How it works

Dye-sublimation printers work by the use of heat. The printer cartridge contains a roll of thin plastic film carrying cyan, magenta and yellow dyes in sequence. The print head moves over each of these coloured films in turn, and as it does so it heats them and causes the dye to transfer to the photo paper as a vapour. The vapour embeds itself within the structure of the print paper, and then cools, returning to a solid state.

The temperature of the print head determines how much dye is transferred. As it passes over the films, the print head changes temperature very rapidly, allowing it to lay down different amounts of dye in each area of the print and build up a full-colour image.

A fourth section of the film carries a protective coating that is laid across the print.

The transparent dyes transfer as a vapour rather than as a sprayed dot (as in ink jet printing), so dye-sublimation images look just like a traditional photographic print from a processing mini-lab, with smooth tonal gradation. The prints also usually have a wider colour gamut than a bubble jet or inkjet printer can produce, which means that the prints appear more colourful and vibrant.

Before the print is finished, a final layer is applied to produce a high-gloss sheen, protecting the print from smudging, smearing, water splashes and fingerprints. The gloss layer also helps to protect the print against fading and moisture for up to 100 years.

Some dye from each sheet of colour film is transferred to the photo paper, so a fresh sheet of film for each colour is needed for each print. This is why the Canon’s Selphy printers use cartridges of paper and film. Only a fixed number of prints can be made with each cartridge.

The cellophane sheets are the same size as the maximum print size, which in the case of Selphy printers is 6 × 4 inches.

Passing from a solid to a vapour and back to a solid without going through a liquid stage is called sublimation, hence the name of the process – dye sublimation. It was used for textile printing in the 1960s, and now has many applications in manufacturing industries in addition to its use in photo printing.