How To Choose The Best Photo Printer

Want to print photos from your smartphone? Or do you need exhibition-quality prints? Here’s what you need to know — and the questions you need to answer — to find the photo printer that’s perfect for you.


October 19, 2021  MIN READ

You’ve decided you need a photo printer.

Perhaps it’s the convenience, and knowing that you will save money on ordering prints from a lab. If that’s the case, make sure you’ve done your arithmetic.

If you spend a lot of money on a photo printer, you’ll need to do a lot of photo printing before you start seeing any savings.

As long as you are making at least 10 photo prints per month then you should see some cost savings in the first year or two. After that time frame, if you’re not printing enough pictures for the amount of ink used up by the printer, you’ll probably end up paying more than what you would have spent ordering them from a lab.

Perhaps you’re a serious or professional photographer, wanting more control. You know that doing your own photo printing will mean you get exhibition-ready prints you’re happy with.

No matter which type of photographer you are, there are many different kinds of photo printers on the market, and it can be difficult to choose which one will best suit your needs.

You need to consider several factors when buying a new photo printer to make sure it is worth the investment. Think carefully about the type of prints you want to make, and what features are important to you, when picking the printer you want.

How big do you want your prints to be?

Naturally enough, the larger the size of photo prints you want, the larger your photo printer will need to be.

Ask yourself what sizes you will be printing most often, and what other sizes you’d like to print. Dedicated photo printers (meaning printers that can only print photos) don’t need to be large if you only want to print 4 x 6 and 8 x 10 photos. You can stick with a standard-sized photo printer that produces prints up to 13" wide, or pick up a pocket-sized portable dye-sublimation printer (sometimes called a snapshot printer) for prints that are up to 4 x 6 in size. 

Professionals will want a photo printer that’s at least 17" wide. Many large-format photo printers also support roll paper, so that you can output panoramic prints. 

Large-format photo printers (24" wide and above) don’t just take up a lot of space — they need frequent usage if they are to continue working properly, and require expensive large-capacity ink cartridges. If you only occasionally need prints this size, the sensible option is to use a photo lab when you do.

Prints without Borders

Many, but not all, photo and inkjet printers can produce borderless images (like the photos you get from a photo lab). Check printer specifications if borderless prints are important to you.

woman working on laptop

Do you need a photo printer or will an inkjet printer do?

The answer to this question will depend on what type of prints you need.

If you just want to print family photos and snapshots so that you have your own personal copies or prints to share with family and friends, you will probably be happy with an inkjet printer. Pick up an all-in-one MFC inkjet printer if you also want to scan, copy or fax.

The big advantage in opting for a standard inkjet printer over a dedicated photo printer is that your printer isn’t limited to printing photos and images and nothing else. You can print good quality text documents too. Look for one that makes it easy for you to swap between printing on photo paper and plain paper.

On the other hand, if you plan to use your printer to create large format prints such as posters, canvas artworks, greeting cards, calendars, and the like, you may find yourself looking for something much larger than a desktop inkjet printer. A good quality photo printer can give you all these options and more, letting you make beautiful colour prints from your photographs.

What type of inks will you use?

If you are a professional photographer, or simply someone wanting prints that match what you can get from a photo lab or what you see on your screen, you’ll need to pay attention to the type of inks each printer uses, along with what type of paper you print on.

The big question you need to answer is this: Will you be using dye-based or pigment-based inks?

Dye-based inks work best when you want glossy photo prints that pack a real punch.

The majority of inkjet photo printers use dye-based inks, and won’t accept pigment ink (it will clog the inkjet nozzles) so your answer to this question will narrow down your choice.

Unless they are photo printers, regular dye-based inkjet printers only come with four different colours. Dye-based photo printers, on the other hand, usually come with at least five or six photo-quality inks, including a light cyan or light magenta (or both). Although you may still get acceptable results from a four-ink printer, for better quality you need to look for a photo printer with six or more colour cartridges. When it comes to the number of ink cartridges, more is better if you want deep, rich colours and want to see a greater tonal range in shadows.

Pigment ink printers, not surprisingly, often come with eight or more colour pots (and sometimes as many as 14).

Long story short (and simple), stick with the more common dye-based photo printer unless:

  • You frequently print black and white (monochrome) images

  • You need to produce archival-quality prints that, if displayed or stored in the right conditions, won’t fade in your lifetime (or that of your children)

  • You are producing art prints for sale or gallery display and dynamic range (colour gamut) and smooth tone gradation are critical

If you opt for dye-based inks, your wallet will thank you for it.

If print quality is more important than cost, go for pigment inks.

Dye-based or pigment Inks — the gap is narrowing

New photo printers have addressed many of the shortcomings associated with both ink types. And some photo printers now come with a hybrid ink set combining one or more pigment-based black inks for printing text documents and monochrome glossy or matte prints, together with four or more dye-based inks.

Still, the main reason to pick a photo printer that uses pigment inks is to produce longer-lasting archival quality prints, or because you are primarily printing photographs that are black and white (see below, Do you need Black & White photos?)

Prints made with dye inks are not waterproof and were once prone to fade within a few years. However, newer dye-based inks from Canon, Epson, and other brands are better formulated not to fade and will last considerably longer when you use archival paper.

Pigment inks, in contrast, have always been UV-resistant and test results predict they will last for over 200 years.

Regardless of the type of ink, photo prints will only last for longer than our lifetimes under the right conditions. Bright light will make any print fade over time. And unless you are a professional photographer with customers who demand archival-quality prints, dye-based inks are still a viable (and cheaper) option.

If you are printing on ultra glossy papers, dye-based inks produce richer and denser colours. Pigment inks tend to struggle with the shiny finish which prevents ink from being fully absorbed, although some gloss papers give better results than others.

Whichever printer you pick, check that it can accommodate sufficient inks for the output quality you want. Additional inks don’t just extend the colour range but also improve the tone gradation in your prints.

Meet the no-ink printer

If you’re simply printing personal snaps and not too concerned about print size or quality, you may be interested in a ZINK (Zero-ink) printer.

Available from Brother, Canon, HP, Polaroid, and other brands, ZINK printers produce 2- by 3-inch or 4- by 6-inch prints in a single pass, without requiring ink cartridges, toners, or ribbons.

The secret is in the special paper these printers use — all the colours are embedded in the ZINK paper which is waterproof, tear- and smudge resistant, and adhesive-backed.

What’s more, some ZINK printers are about the size of a smartphone if you want to print photos on the go.

man working on laptop

Do you need a dye-sub photo printer?

While most dedicated photo printers use inkjet technology, some use dye-sublimation technology.

Compact dye-sub printers like the Canon Selphy CP1300 deliver postcard-sized (or smaller) continuous tone prints with minimum fuss. If you simply want one of these snapshot printers, look to see if it takes batteries (and how long batteries last when printing) if you plan to use it wherever you go.

Dye-sub printers aren’t just for the snapshot market — larger desktop models are for professional use, and are commonly used in photo labs. They are also used for printing photos on surfaces other than photo paper, including plastic, canvas, and 100% polyester fabric.

Dye-sub printers use longer-lasting inks than dye-based inkjet printers and produce very vivid, rich prints. They print from edge to edge using a ribbon to transfer colour dye in multiple passes to dye-receptive paper, before finishing up with a clear protective coating. Because they don’t apply colours in individual dots, the way that inkjet printers do, printed images look more realistic, even when viewed close up.

Dye-sub printing is more expensive but, because the same amount of ribbon is used no matter how much colour is in the image, the cost per print is always the same.

Do you want Black & White photos?

Black and white prints are the Achilles heel of many colour photo printers. That’s because many dye-based printers mix colours to get black, all too often resulting in prints with different colour tints rather than subtle shades of grey.

If black and white photography is your schtick and you want realistic greyscale hues, then you need a printer that uses pigment inks and has three or more individual black ink pots. When you have three or four black and grey colour pots (with gloss and matte paper variations), you will see greater tonality in your prints. Your printer will do a better job in rendering highlights, reducing colour casts and colour shift, and can deliver prints up to the most demanding expectations. 

Most printers will switch between the inks for glossy and matte papers automatically based on what’s in the paper tray, but some purge ink each time with each switch. To minimise wasted ink when this is the case, stick to one or the other paper type each printing session.

If you regularly need exhibition-quality black and white prints, consider dedicating one photo printer to the task. That will save you the effort of having to clean colour ink out of the printer heads (in order to prevent colour bleed), each time you switch from printing colour to black and white.

How much printing will you do?

When choosing a photo printer, look closely at the monthly duty cycle (the maximum prints you should make per month) and the recommended duty cycle (the number of prints you should be making each month).

The amount of printing you do should be close to the recommended duty cycle. If it’s much higher, and higher even than the monthly duty cycle, you need to pick another printer if you want one that will last.

Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t always provide the monthly duty cycle for photo printers. If that’s the case and you’re worried that you might be doing too much printing, don’t buy any printer where the duty cycle may be an issue. Look instead for one you know to be up to the task, even if that means looking at printers intended for pro photographers and photo labs.

What will your printer cost you over the long run?

Check the running cost and total cost of ownership if you can. Unfortunately, this may be impossible for near-dedicated photo printers, since there’s currently no widely accepted standard for calculating cost per photo. For dedicated photo printers, however, the cost per photo is typically easy to calculate, because most manufacturers sell print packs with enough ink and paper for a given number of photos.

To get the cost per photo for a dedicated photo printer, simply divide the cost of the print pack by the number of photos it will print. To get the total cost of ownership, multiply the cost per photo by the number of photos you expect to print over the printer’s lifetime, and then add the printer’s initial cost. This total is the best basis for comparing prices.

What print quality do you need?

The higher the resolution, the more professional your prints will look.

For an inkjet photo printer, to see satisfactory detail in your prints you shouldn’t settle for anything less than at least 4800 x 1200 dpi (dots per inch). Dye sublimation printers produce images differently, and you will get great results at 300 dpi and up.

Printer resolution aside, the photo paper you use will make a big difference to the final result. Most printer manufacturers provide their own fine-art and other specialty papers, and you can also match the paper-specific colour profiles (ICCs) for third-party papers to get prints that are a close match to what you see on your monitor.

How fast should your photo printer be?

When it comes to photo printers, the number of prints you will be able to print per minute is unlikely to be your biggest concern. You might be waiting a matter of seconds, or a couple of minutes, for a standard 4 x 6 photo, but getting a quality image is more important than print speeds.

If your printer is intended for professional use, where you will be doing more than the occasional print and output time is important, then, yes — take a close look at the print speed. Print speeds can vary widely based on printer design and print size and, depending on your needs, speed might be the deciding factor when you are choosing between one printer and another.

Make sure your printer is compatible

Printers can be fickle — they won’t work if your computer is a Mac, or they will work with a Mac but not a Windows PC. Similarly, if you have a Chromebook, not all printers are compatible with Chrome OS.

Before buying any new printer, check the specs to confirm they will work with your computer’s operating system first.

Know how to get connected

Most photo printers come with basic wi-fi or Bluetooth connectivity, cloud photo sharing and printing options, and can connect via a USB cable to your computer. Ethernet support is less common.

Look for PictBridge support if you want the convenience of a printer that can accept and print from the memory cards in your camera or smartphone. Make sure, too, that the media slots in your chosen printer accommodate your type of memory card (you may need to purchase a special adapter if you have a miniSD or microSD card).

You may also be able to print directly from a flash drive. Printing from a memory card or USB stick can save time but, since your editing options are limited, you need to be sure your images are correctly exposed and framed.

Portable snapshot printers will usually print photos straight from a smartphone, but may not connect directly to your computer, except via Bluetooth or wi-fi.

If a printer has NFC (Near-Field Communication) capability, you can connect it to your phone or tablet simply by touching the device to the NFC label on the printer.

Do you have a Mac computer or an iPad or iPhone? If so, check to make sure the printers you are considering support Apple AirPrint.

The best photo printers

There’s no one “best” photo printer out there. But you can find the best photo printer for you.

Think about how much money you’re willing to spend, look for the features you value most, and pick the photo printer you decide will deliver the kind of prints you want to make.

About the Author

Our gadget guy. Jeremy’s love for new technology dates back to his first computer, a Mac SE with 2MB RAM and a 20MB hard disk. A former editor of Australian MacUser, he has been writing about the internet, consumer technology and software for over 30 years.

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