All about ink

What's the difference between pigment and dye-based inks, or between ink and toner? Which ink is best for printing photos, or business documents? We answer some key questions about inks and printing.

In the world of printing, there are many varieties of ink to choose from. Different types of ink and toner are best suited for different print needs, whether it's printing vibrant photographs on glossy photo papers, producing eye-catching marketing materials on card, or outputting crisp and professional business documents on plain paper.

In practice, however, it's not possible to choose an ink type for each specific job – if you have a mono laser printer, to take an extreme example, you can't choose to fill it with colour inkjet ink to print a photo. The type of ink you use is not really a choice in the way that paper type may be: inkjet and laser printers can handle a range of paper finishes, weights and sizes, but when it comes to ink, you simply have to supply the type of ink your printer is designed to use. Instead of choosing inks for a job, you are likely to choose a printer based on the type of ink or toner it uses, bearing in mind the print requirements you expect to have.

Here, we'll introduce the different types of ink available, explore what print tasks each is best suited for, and explain ink-related concepts such as page yield and cost per page, so that you can make an informed decision about the best printer for your needs. For more, take a look also at our answers to some of the most common queries about printing, ink and paper.

A set of one black and three colour inks in bottles for refilling the ink tanks of a Canon MegaTank printer, visible in the background.

Canon offers a range of inks and toners to meet different printing needs and fit different printers, from FINE cartridges with three colours in one cartridge to bottled inks (like these) for MegaTank printers with refillable ink tanks.

 A pink Canon Zoemini portable printer, with a photo emerging from it, sits alongside a smartphone and various packages of media for the printer beside it on the surface.

The Canon Zoemini range do not need ink cartridges – they use special ZINK 1 paper that contains embedded dye crystals, which activate when heated to produce vibrant, smudge-proof prints. This makes the printers small, easy to use and ideal for printing photos on the go.

Ink vs toner and other printing technologies

Let's start with the basics. Different types of printer use different printing technologies. Among the differences between laser and inkjet printers, a key distinction is that laser printers such as Canon's i-SENSYS range use toner, a dry powder that is fused to the paper by heat, while inkjet printers use liquid inks, which are ejected onto the paper. There are different varieties of ink, as we'll see shortly.

Canon's portable SELPHY photo printers use a dye-sublimation process, with water-based dyes on a plastic ribbon or film. The printer heats the ribbon, turning the dye into a gas. When it makes contact with the paper, the dye turns back into a solid, which means the prints are dry and ready to use as soon as they emerge from the printer. The process produces high-quality, long-lasting, water- and scratch-resistant prints with a colour gamut of 16 million colours but is generally less cost-efficient than inkjet technology and requires specially coated paper (stickers are also available), which you can usually buy together with the dye-sub cartridges.

Canon Zoemini printers employ ZINK1 ("Zero Ink") printing technology, which uses special paper embedded with colour crystals that activate when heated by the printer, producing vivid, smudge-proof and water-resistant prints. This clever technology requires no inks and is perfect for on-the-go printing. Prints can also be turned into stickers by peeling off the underside to reveal an adhesive surface.

A hand replaces a magenta toner cartridge inside a Canon i-SENSYS laser printer.

Canon toners designed for i-SENSYS laser printers use a blend of resin and pigment to produce sharp, durable prints.

A Canon i-SENSYS laser printer open at the front, showing four toner cartridges that slot in from the front.

Like inkjet printers, Canon laser printers use different shapes and sizes of cartridge with different types of toner inside, depending on the model.

Inkjet varieties: pigment vs dye-based inks

There's a huge variety of inkjet cartridges designed for different printer models, but basically two types of inkjet ink: pigment and dye-based. Inkjet printers generally use dye-based inks, which consist of soluble colourants dissolved in a liquid medium. Dye-based inks are absorbed into the paper, producing vibrant colours, smooth gradients and a wide dynamic range, making them ideal for photo prints, particularly on glossy papers. There is little smearing because drying times are short. However, the dye remains water-soluble, so if the paper gets wet, depending on the paper, blurring may result.

Pigment inks are made up of solid particles suspended in a liquid carrier, offering exceptional longevity, water resistance and lightfastness, with better UV resistance than dye-based inks. Colours are stable immediately after printing and relatively insensitive to environmental factors. This makes pigment inks suitable for professional-level printing, especially for fine-art prints, with deep blacks and colours that remain stable over time. Their durability also makes them suitable for printing on textiles or other applications where resilience is critical.

However, pigment inks sit on top of the printed surface rather than permeating it as dye-based inks do. This means that dye-based inks more accurately reflect the character of the paper – and, if pigment ink is used on glossy paper, careful handling may be required because the ink may come off if scratched.

Most Canon inkjet printers use a hybrid system of pigment-based black ink (with the code on the ink cartridge starting PG for "pigment") and dye-based coloured inks (cartridge code CL, for "Colour Life", Canon's high-longevity dye-based inks technology). This combination delivers crisp black text for documents with vibrant colour rendition for photo printing. Some Canon MAXIFY business printers and some professional printers, such as the printers in the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO series, use pigment-based inks.

A Canon PIXMA printer, open at the top, reveals one black and one multi-colour FINE ink cartridge within.

Some Canon PIXMA printers use FINE cartridges – usually one containing black ink and one multi-colour. You may see the logo (inset) on the packaging. As you'll notice, exactly how you access the ink cartridges will vary from model to model – your device manual will have full details.

A user's hand removes one single-colour ink cartridge from a Canon multi-function device with its scanner lid and access flap open.

Other PIXMA models, along with other printers and all-in-one devices in Canon's range, use single-ink cartridges. There's usually a light or other indication of which cartridge has run out of ink and needs replacing.

FINE cartridges vs single ink cartridge printers

Some Canon printers utilise Canon's PIXMA FINE ink cartridges. FINE (Full-Photolithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering) cartridges are designed for ease of use, with just two ink cartridges in the printer, one black and one colour, which can be replaced in seconds when required. In FINE cartridges, the print head is integrated into the cartridges, meaning that the print head is renewed each time you replace the cartridge.

Instead of a combined-colour cartridge, some Canon printer models have individual cartridges for each colour of ink. In theory, this could save you money over the long term because you'll need to replace only the colour that has actually run out, rather than an entire multi-colour cartridge in which there could still be some ink left. In everyday use, however, unless you're printing a lot of images with a predominant colour in them, printing will tend to consume all the colours at much the same rate on average.

Also, in printers with individual cartridges for each ink, the cartridges sit in a tray that feeds the print heads, meaning that the print heads are not replaced when you replace the cartridges and will need cleaning from time to time. The printer does this itself, but cleaning consumes a little ink each time. For each Canon printer, an estimate of this supplemental ink usage is shown on its web page alongside the ink yield figure (see below).

A user's hand removes one ink cartridge from a Canon MAXIFY printer, open at the front.

Canon MAXIFY ink cartridges are designed for high-volume printing in some MAXIFY printer models. These cartridges contain a pigment-based ink that produces sharp, smudge-resistant text and graphics, and their high capacity means you don't need to replace cartridges as frequently as you might in a smaller home printer.

A user refills the yellow ink in a Canon MAXIFY MegaTank printer, the other three CMYK colours on the table beside, along with stacks of printed documents.

Canon's MegaTank printer range feature high-capacity refillable ink tanks, not cartridges.

Other inkjet cartridge types

For the home office and small office, Canon MAXIFY MB and iB series printers use MAXIFY pigment ink cartridges, which have outstanding colour fastness and are marker and friction resistant as well, making them suitable for high quality business documents. What's more, MAXIFY ink also has quick-drying properties, making it ideal for fast output of documents that need to be handled immediately.

For higher print volumes, MAXIFY GX models and some PIXMA G-series models have Canon's MegaTank technology, with refillable ink tanks that offer even higher page yields and cost-efficiency. These generally hold sufficient ink for thousands of pages,2 compared with 150 to 200 pages for cartridge-based printers. The front-facing ink tanks make it easy to track ink levels, and filling the tanks is mess-free and foolproof – each handy non-squeeze ink bottle has a unique-shaped nozzle that fits only the correct colour tank.

How many colours of ink?

Most inkjet printers use three colours of ink – cyan, magenta and yellow – in addition to black. Combining these colours on the paper in different proportions produces all the colours of the spectrum. Depending on the model, some Canon professional inkjet printers use additional colours – the PIXMA PRO-200 uses eight dye-based inks, while the imagePROGRAF PRO-300 uses 10 inks, and the imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 uses 12 LUCIA PRO pigment-based inks.

These extra colours are designed for a wider colour gamut and greater colour accuracy for demanding professional applications such as producing large, gallery-quality prints for display or sale. For example, the Matte Black ink delivers greater black intensity and better reproduction of shadow details on absorbent papers than Photo Black, which is formulated for use on glossy papers. For everyday printing requirements, from home photo prints to business documents, three colours should suffice.

A hand replaces one of six ink cartridges in a Canon inkjet photo printer.

Printers designed for photo printing may use more than three colours of ink, like this Canon PIXMA TS8250 series printer, which uses six individual ink cartridges. The idea is that for demanding professional applications, more inks can provide a wider colour gamut and improved colour fidelity on different papers.

What is ink yield?

If you're buying a motor vehicle, you want to know about its fuel consumption. It's the same with ink and toner cartridges. Ink yield is usually expressed in one of two ways:

  1. Page yield: the total number of standard pages that a single cartridge (or full tank) can output.
  2. Cost per page: the average cost of printing each page, calculated by dividing the cost of the ink cartridge by its page yield. Even if it has a higher initial price, a cartridge with a lower cost per page could be more cost-effective in the long run.

Page yield is measured using standardised testing methods specified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – ISO/IEC 24711 for A4 document printing on plain paper on colour inkjet printers, ISO/IEC 29102 for borderless 10x15cm photo printing on photo inkjet paper, and ISO/IEC 19752 for mono laser printers. These standards ensure consistency across different manufacturers and models, enabling you to make informed comparisons.

However, the standard test page contains a precisely specified mixture of text, graphics and images, designed to reflect typical, average real-world usage. Like fuel consumption, your results may vary depending on factors such as the content of your printed pages, printer settings and environmental conditions. The same ink cartridge can also deliver a different page yield depending on the printer in which it is used – the specifications for each printer on its product page on the web will give you a figure for this.

High-yield ink cartridges

Some types of ink cartridges are available in XL and XXL variants as well as standard. These cartridges are the same size and dimensions as standard but simply contain more ink, meaning a higher page yield. To help you choose, each XL and XXL ink cartridge is marked with a logo on its packaging indicating how many more prints it will produce compared to a standard Canon ink cartridge.

A set of Canon high-yield XXL ink cartridges, four colours and black.

Canon XL and XXL ink cartridges contain more ink than standard cartridges, meaning you can print more pages before having to change cartridges.

A user looks at a packaged ink cartridge, with others in a cardboard box in front of her and a Canon printer in the background.

With a Canon print subscription plan (available in selected regions) you can have ink conveniently delivered to your door when you start running low, and save money too.

Do you have to use Canon inks?

There are third-party inks available, just as there are specialist fine-art papers from makers such as Hahnemühle and Canson. However, for consistent print quality and longevity, Canon inks are formulated to work together with Canon papers and Canon printer technologies. With its combination of ink, paper and print technologies, Canon can claim 100 years light-fastness for prints made using genuine Canon products with the ChromaLife 100 badge.3

Save with a subscription

A Canon print subscription plan could save you time and money (availability may vary between countries). With Auto-Ink Delivery (compatible with selected printers), you can get ink sent to you automatically whenever your printer is running low, and pay for ink only when an order has been created. With a PIXMA Print Plan (compatible with selected printers), you can choose a tailored print plan and pay a fixed monthly price based on your print usage, with ink delivered when you start running low. With Repeat & Save, you can save 5% when you place repeat orders on ink or toner.

Recycling used ink cartridges

Canon is committed to sustainability and, back in 1990, was the first printer manufacturer to launch a toner cartridge recycling service. Today the Canon Cartridge Recycling Programme offers an eco-friendly solution for disposing of your used ink and toner cartridges, reducing waste and contributing to a more sustainable future. Here's how it works:

  1. Collection: Canon offers several collection options for empty Canon ink or toner cartridges, including pre-paid return shipping labels, local drop-off points, or recycling bins at authorised Canon dealers. You can find the most convenient option for you by visiting the Canon website.
  2. Recycling: Once the used cartridges are collected, they are sent to a specialised recycling facility, where they are carefully sorted and all recoverable materials, such as plastics, metals and residual ink, are separated. These materials are then processed and transformed into raw materials that can be reused to manufacture new products.
  3. New cartridges: The recycled materials are used in the production of new Canon cartridges, reducing the demand for virgin resources. Canon is committed to a "no waste to landfill" policy. Each element of every returned cartridge is reused or recycled, be it as a component in a new cartridge, as a base material in other industries, or as a substitute for fossil fuels. No part of the cartridge is sent to landfill.

Jeff Meyer and Alex Summersby
  1. ZINK, Zero Ink and the ZINK logo are trademarks of ZINK Holdings, LLC, registered in the US and other countries.
  2. Page Yield is the estimated value based on Canon individual test method using the ISO/IEC 24712 chart and continuous printing simulation with the replacement ink bottles after initial setup.
  3. Permanence figures are projections based on tests conducted by Canon under accelerated environmental conditions and are not guaranteed. Temperature, humidity and exposure to sunlight and atmospheric gases can all degrade the quality of a print over a period of time.

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