Is it better to print your photos yourself or to have them printed by an online lab? Matthew Richards weighs up the pros and cons of each option, and puts four printers and four labs to the test
What’s better, printing yourself or going through an online lab? We put four options in each category to the test
Sooner or later, every photographer will want to make prints of their best shots.
A high-end photo printer from the likes of Canon or Epson is, therefore, an attractive proposition. In best-quality mode, you can expect an A4 (11x8.5 inch) or A3+ (19x13-inch) photo print in around a couple of minutes or 12 minutes respectively. That’s often less time than it takes to fill in an online order form and upload your images to an internet-based printing lab, let alone wait for your prints to be sent to you in the post.
It’s not just the immediacy of home printing that makes it so appealing – it’s the fact that you’re in full control of the whole process. Take care to calibrate your monitor and adjust your printer settings, and what you see on screen really should be what you get on paper.
Inkjet printers are usually supported by the manufacturer’s own range of glossy, lustre and matte photo papers, as well as textured fine art or ‘photo rag’ media. We’d recommend sticking with the manufacturer’s own ink and papers for the best quality and colour fidelity, but ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles are often available for generating accurate output on high-quality papers from the likes of Hahnemühle, Ilford and others.
Inkjet printers using dye-based inks typically give wonderfully smooth output on glossy photo paper. Pigment-based inks often lack the same level of smoothness for glossy output but give better looking prints on matte media. Nowadays, the choice between dye and pigment inks is reserved for larger-format A3+ printers; you’re limited to dye-based inks if you opt for an A4 printer. A3+ printers also often have both photo black and matte black inks, plus extra shades of grey. This enables enhanced output tailored to glossy or matte media, as well as greater fidelity in black-and-white photo printing.
As versatile as they are, running your own photo printer can be less than ideal. First, you have to buy the device, and they don’t come cheap. Expect to pay around £150 ($150) for a high-quality A4 printer, and at least £500 ($700) for a top-grade A3+ printer. And that’s just the start. Inkjet printers can be thirsty beasts and ink cartridges are expensive, as is photo paper. You can’t really define the exact cost of an inkjet photo print, because the denser or more saturated the image, the more ink it’ll require (see ‘10 things we learned’).
When it comes to paper size, home printing is somewhat limiting. Neither A4 nor A3+ is a good fit for the 3x2 aspect ratio of Nikon D-SLRs. Good online labs, like those featured in the following pages, offer an amazing range of print sizes, so it’s easy to get exactly the size and shape that you want. For enlargements, they’ll often stretch to 30x20 inches or even 60x40 inches, which puts an A3+ printer in the shade. But how does the print quality compare between home printing and traditional silver halide output from a good lab? Let’s see…