Thoughts on choosing a photo printer (updated)

Maybe it has been the pandemic, or just timing, but the idea of printing your photographs seems to have some new resonance with photographers. I receive more questions these days than ever before from people who are interested in the idea of printing, but who aren’t quite sure how to even start thinking about buying a photo printer. The questions are varied, many of them along these lines:

  • Which printer should I buy?
  • Doesn’t it cost a lot more to print with your own printer?
  • Don’t photo printers clog all the time?
  • Pigments vs. dyes — does it matter?
  • Epson vs. Canon — who really is the best?
  • Why shouldn’t I just use an online printing service?

This post is an outgrowth of an email that I’ve been sending out to those folks with questions (a variant of this was first published on our sister site, Complete Digital Photography). It includes a few thoughts regarding things to think about when choosing a photo printer — or whether you should just use an online print service for your prints. It’s not intended to be the final word on the matter, but more of a conduit to get people thinking about the idea of printing their work, and the things to consider about the process.

Why bother with a photo printer in the first place?

I believe that printing is as important a part of your photographic journey as the camera and lens. A print is tangible and intimate. Holding one in your hands — or looking at one on a wall—can provoke a completely different feeling than what you get when looking at a photo on a screen. Not only that, but when you print your own work, printing informs your photographic practice. It helps you in the field and in your post-production editing.

I print both family stuff (snapshots and the like) and art prints. I use a pigment-based printer because I believe it gives me the best color gamut for the work I do. Dye printers are cheaper, and they do a good job, but they’re (largely) optimized for bright color and glossy papers, which most people like. For most photographers, there is nothing wrong with dye-based printers, and regularly I recommend them to people who are more interested in snapshots and glossy prints, or for those who don’t want to spend the extra money on something they’re not sure about.

Printing is an art, and it’s nowhere near as simple as it might seem. The biggest thing I hear from people new to printing is that, “I’m not getting what I’m seeing on screen,” and that’s real, especially if there’s been no attempt to calibrate their displays. (A colorimeter is a really good thing to have, especially if you’re printing fine art for sale, but there are things you can do to improve your color without one.) 

Some of this disconnect is also that most people have their brightness cranked up when they’re editing their photos, and the differential between reflective (paper) and transmissive (screen) illumination is huge, so prints often come out dark. (Turning down the brightness on your display really helps with this, even if you’re mostly sharing photos online.)

People also tend to over-saturate their work, and in general apply too much clarity/dynamic contrast globally to their photos, which also sends things out of whack. With time and experience, however, the concept of ‘editing for the print’ will help your post-production work, as you see your photos in a different light.  

Epson Surecolor P900

Don’t printers just eat ink? 

People who just want to print here and there don’t like this. Or, they want to use third-party inks and refillable cartridges to save money, which is great for printing maps and web pages, but kind of defeats the purpose in the photo printer space. For people like this, it really is better to use a service like Mpix, Bay Photo, or even Shutterfly. If I were planning to go this route. I’d narrow down to two or three services, send a bunch of photos printed at 5×7 to evaluate, and pick the service that had the best mix of quality and cost. I know lots of people who do that and are happy with it.

Epson and Canon have gotten much better about the cartridges in their printers — many of them are higher in capacity (or cheaper in cost per ml) — and you don’t go through all colors equally, so it’s not like you’re constantly buying ink. Again, for me, because I like and want to print my own stuff, the cost of the ink isn’t a huge deal for me. No matter what type of printing you do, it costs money to get a print.

For example, I had a new set of inks in my Epson SureColor P800 last January, and printed about 15 images at larger sizes (8×10, 13×19, 17×22), and more than 200 of a limited series of prints (half-letter size), and didn’t run out of any ink. With regular usage, I had to replace two of the cartridges after four months.

Here on this site, years ago, I worked towards creating a methodology for quantifying the cost of printing on a printer-by-printer basis. My friends at Red River also worked on this idea, and refined it over time. They’ve kept testing new printers over the years, and have a dedicated web page on their site, Cost of Printing. Their tests will give you a good idea of what it really costs per page (per printer), which I think is the best way to think about this topic. But remember too, that ink is one part of the equation: media costs money as well. That’s one reason why I do a lot of printing of images on smaller size paper, or in test strips — so I’m not unnecessarily wasting larger sheets of fine art paper.

It takes practice to get printing down; don’t overcomplicate it.

Time and a bit of effort helps to get things right. Some people print a bunch of stuff out, get frustrated, and then give up (or just accept what they’re getting). I tell most people to buy a couple of boxes of 4×6/5×7 glossy or luster paper (from Epson or Canon, depending upon the printer manufacturer, or a good third-party vendor like Red River or Moab), and use those as test prints, then adjust editing as they see fit. That’s the cheapest way to do it. Don’t start with every different paper type, or go out and buy the expensive stuff. Work your paper decisions as you get better, and get to understand the basic qualities of printing. (When you’re thinking about printing on different papers, print samplers are a great way to look at lots of different companies’ media types.)

You have to learn how to use ICC paper profiles when printing (which almost every good paper manufacturer offers). You also have to understand printing from your primary editing app, and the difference between driver- and app-based color management. None of these things are hard, but some people never know about them, and they add to the confusion about getting good prints.

But, don’t printers clog up, wasting more ink?  

Yes, printers clog from time to time. And pigment-based printers tend to clog more easily than dye-based ones. That said, I’ve been running five printers regularly for the last few years — printing in spurts, not continually — and I don’t get a lot of clogs. I primarily do two things: (1) I put a cover on top of the printer, to keep dust out, and (2) if I haven’t been printing for a while, I’ll print a ‘maintenance’ sheet on plain paper, which will tell me if there are any of the nozzles having a problem. If so, I run a head cleaning cycle. It really doesn’t use that much ink, or take that much time. I view this like checking the oil in my car before a trip.

I think the whole ‘inkjets clog all the time’ thing is a holdover from the old days. Yes, if you don’t print regularly (10-20 prints a month, of any size, even 4×6), you’ll have to run a head cleaning from time to time. And, if you don’t print occasionally (10-20 prints every six months to a year), you’ll definitely want to do a head cleaning before printing. The real problem comes when you go a year or more between prints. You might end up using a lot of ink trying to get 20-30 nozzles clean. At that point, you would have been better off using a print service.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300

Notes about print life

Pigment printers offer the best in terms of longevity, but it’s not like a good dye printer will fade tomorrow, especially if you use good paper, and put them under glass or acrylic (UV coating really helps here), laminate them, or keep them out of direct sunlight. If you take care of either type of print, you should be fine. If you expect to either sell your work or exhibit it, however, I would choose a pigment printer.

Choosing a printer

I am a fan of the Epsons. I think their pigment printers are the best, in terms of quality and ease of use. I’ve been using a Surecolor P600 and P800 for years now, and they’ve been workhorses for me. The big knock on those Epson printers was that, if you wanted to switch between matte black ink (for matte/art papers) and photo black ink (for glossy and semigloss papers), the printers used one channel to the print head. So, switching took time and ink to make that happen. The newer models, the Surecolor P700 and the P900, don’t have that restriction. I used to rarely switch between paper types, so it wasn’t a big issue to me, but as my tastes have evolved, I do go back and forth between matte and glossy (baryta, actually), so I’m glad to see Epson remove this last obstacle. I’ve had some issues with paper feeding on the P900, but the print quality is amazing (see my review for more).

The Canon printers I’ve used have been decent; historically, it was harder to get neutrally toned prints out of their printers (Epson’s Advanced B&W mode is pretty great that way), but that is largely be a thing of the past. There is no question that Canon’s inks produce excellent photographic prints. I know plenty of people who love their Canon printers, and I don’t think that they’re wrong.

I am currently finishing up a review of Canon’s imagePROGRAF PRO-300, and I have found it to be a a great addition to the 13-inch pigment category; their PRO-1000 is an excellent 17-inch printer, if a bit dated compared with Epson’s entries.

If you think you want to start with a dye-based printer, Epson’s Expression Photo line is quite good, and they have a pair of new photo printers (letter-size, and 13-inch) in their Ecotank Photo line. These printers have refillable ink tanks, which makes pho quite economical. On the Canon side of things, the Pixma PRO-200 is a great dye-based printer.

For desktop printing, I’ve tended to go with the printers that can handle 17-inch-wide papers, like the Epson Surecolor P800 and the P900. I print a lot of work at 16×20, so the wide-carriage printer makes sense for me — as does the better cost per ml metric of the larger printers’ ink cartridges — but the lower cost (and smaller) 13-inch printers are ideal, especially if you think 11×14 or 12×18 are about as large as you would want to print.

What about HP?
Years ago, HP spent quite a bit of time and effort cultivating the advanced amateur and professional photographer community. (The DesignJet Z3200 remains one of my favorite printers of all time.) Today, while they have a line of large-format printers that produce good photographic output, they really aren’t a presence in the desktop photo market.

Thinking holistically about printing

Printing is a funny thing, and there are a lot of opinions about it all. I have lived with printers of all types and sizes for nearly three decades, Epsons and Canons and HPs extensively, and I can’t imagine photography without printing. The things about printing that people talk about as negatives — ink costs, paper costs, clogs, learning curve, etc. — don’t bother me. It’s worth it for me to have control over my prints, to be able to print more, and to print on different media types. I have used most of the print services, and they’re fine, even for really good stuff, but if you want to print big, or frequently, or experiment with different papers, a good printer is essential. You have to want to print, though. That’s the bottom line.

Links to products mentioned in this post:

Epson printers

Canon printers

Calibration devices

  • X-Rite i1 Studio: excellent colorimeter that profiles displays, cameras and printers (can create ICC paper profiles). [product page | Amazon]
  • X-Rite i1 Display Pro: excellent device for calibrating displays. [product page | Amazon]
  • Datacolor SpyderX Studio: similar to the i1 Studio, profiles displays, cameras and printers. [product page | Amazon]
  • Datacolor SpyderX Pro: similar to the i1 Display, for monitor calibration. [product page | Amazon]

When you buy via an affiliate link, I may earn a small commission.