If you own a digital camera, or simply just use your phone to take pictures, a photo printer can offer you professional, semi-professional, or quality amateur standard prints of your photographs without you having to get them developed by another party.
Types of product
Small-format photo printers
These compact printers are a different animal to the printer hooked up to your PC and represent standalone devices able to be carried around by professional photographers. The compact nature of these devices does however limit the print outs to small/traditional photograph size, typically not going larger than 5×7 inches.
Regular – Large size photo printers
Depending upon the size of the model, these printers can produce A4 or A3 size photographs and typically resemble more your standard PC-attached printer.
Some printers can solely be used to print photographs and usually produce a better quality print (dedicated photo printers), others can also be used to print standard office documents and such but can fall short of producing truly professional grade images or at least offer less options when it comes to tailoring the image (near-dedicated photo printers).
If purchasing a near-dedicated printer, one should be aware that some models require more effort when switching between document and photograph printing than others. Usually this is due to having to switch between plain document paper and photograph grade paper or the different ink cartridges used on both, so be sure to check the functionality of the printer in this area
Factors to consider
Costs over time
Different printers have different levels of ink efficiency, which, if one intends to print a lot of high quality photos, can mean large differences in long term cost of printing. For near-dedicated photo printers comparable efficiency is not so easy to ascertain, as there is often no standardised information available.
Manufacturers of dedicated photo printers however sell ‘print packs’ containing paper and ink for a set number of photographs. Dividing the cost of the print pack by the number of photos it will print gives the cost per photo. Total cost of ownership can then be worked out by (cost per photo x no. of photos expected to be produced in the printer’s lifetime) + the initial purchase price of the printer itself. This can then be compared between different models.
One has to bear in mind this is only an estimated figure useful for comparison between models, rather than an accurate figure of how much ink will be definitely be used by yourself per photo (and therefore the cost) as this depends heavily on the sorts of images being printed out and how much ink they require of different colours.
Black and White printing
Conversely to regular document printers which often have issues producing colour accurately, photo printers can sometimes struggle with black and white. If you intend to print monochrome photos it is advisable to check the black and white print quality independently of the colour quality, paying particular attention to the accuracy of the tints in the grey scale.
USB connection is the standard for any printer, and many new models come with Wi-Fi connectivity to allow direct printing from camera phones or tablets. Dedicated, small format photo printers often also allow direct connection of USB pen drives for file transfer and some have the option for Bluetooth.
Some of the larger printers have multiple USB sockets for connection between different PCs and possibly Ethernet connection for network linking, perhaps in an office environment. ‘PictBridge’ is the name of the technology used to transfer files directly from a camera to a printer, without the need for a PC in between. Depending on the version, this can be done via USB, Wi-Fi or through inserting the camera’s memory card into a card reader port on the printer, if it has one. In this latter case one should make sure the memory card and the printer are compatible. Finally ‘Airprint’ compatibility means a printer can wirelessly transfer files from any iOS (Apple) device equipped with the feature.
When it comes to photo quality printouts, the slower models on the market generally take about 2 mins for a 4×6 inches photograph, which should be sufficient for most peoples’ needs. If this is a factor of importance in your decision making process, bear in mind that the quoted speed on a product’s description is often an optimistic figure, and average speed (depending on data source etc) can vary and tends to be lower.
Printing onto different media/materials
Some photo printers will allow the image to be copied onto fabric, card, synthetic polymers or other media. Obviously these are relatively specialised compared to your average photo printer and are thus more expensive so keep this in mind.
Even for a photo printer which is limited to paper, there are many different types available for use which can make a significant difference to the final product. It pays to research into this area to understand both what kind of paper you will most likely be using and which types are available for each model before you buy.
Quality of Image
The obvious primary consideration when looking for a photo printer. Generally speaking any dedicated photo printer should match the quality of the prints of any supermarket or high street photo development store. Near-dedicated printers are more variable in quality, and need to be researched in each instance.
One way of measuring this is through resolution (measured in dpi – dots per inch). A dpi of 4800×1200 is the minimum resolution one should probably accept. Of the different image producing technologies, nowadays there is not much difference in quality between high-end ‘Inkjet’ printers (which used to be of a lower standard), and ‘thermal dye’/’dye sublimation’. Both produce images of a high standard, however the dye sublimation method arguably produces more durable prints, and avoids issues that can occur in inkjet printers over time due to clogging, particularly if not used for a time. Newer ‘Zink’ technology printers at present produce images of a notably lower quality than the other two methods.
Ultimately two different model printers of the same quality level will still produce slightly different images to the trained eye, therefore for the professional photographer an element of personal taste comes into play.
Preview screens/editing menus
Many, though not all, printers come with a preview screen that allows easier movement of imported files without the need to be connected to a computer. Some, generally dedicated photo printers, also feature rudimentary editing software as part of their interface – allowing cropping or the removal of redeye etc.
A few higher end models can come with built-in scanners, allowing the scanning of paper images or even film negatives in some cases.
Some printers contain their own permanent memory in which you can store photos, this is particularly the case with small-format dedicated photo printers.
Paper Trays and feeds
If producing large amounts of photographs, paper tray size and design, as well as the input feed mechanism to the printer can be important to reduce jamming. Some printers even allow for multiple trays and feeds on which different types of paper can be used and switched between efficiently.
Usually regarded as a brand leader due to both the edge on quality of photo (for at least the past decade) and also price over it’s main competitor Canon. One downside is the lack of optimised transparent ink for use on white areas of the print, which can cause undesirable reflections.
Despite Epson’s overall edge, Canon’s printing quality has recently improved to a similar level. Canon prints also do not suffer from the aforementioned white print reflections. Canon printers do generally however remain more expensive.
Fairly ubiquitous, HP printers generally fall behind the two market leaders, but still produce some high-end models capable of producing good quality prints.
What Consumers Say
Small format dedicated photo printers can come with their own battery pack, aiding portable printing, however on some models this can drain quickly so read some tests for your chosen model before purchase.
Ink cartridge detection
The recent Epson Expression Home XP-320 has had issues with detecting relatively new cartridges as old, forcing the owners to spend more money on new ones before it will print. Unless this problem is rectified it is advisable to avoid this model.
Upon purchase it is strongly advised to do a full calibration of the printer and a test of its printing quality across the chromatic and grey scales to make sure everything is in order. If not, return to the manufacturer.