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As newcomers to photography and printing we would like advice on the best way(s), regarding both quality and cost, of printing. In the main my wife is photographing birds and insects, so natural colour and clarity are paramount. I have had one recommendation to a previous question for a photo lab (Photobox), thanks James. I was just wondering if any one else can give me advise?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Jrista's article is an excellent explanation of the cost of making these prints. It's actually quite a bit cheaper than I'd expected.

I'm just starting to make my own prints using my new Canon Pixma Pro9000 printer. I must say the results are stunningly beautiful and pop out of the printer with very little effort once I figured out how to load the paper.

Here are a couple of notes on cost that are worth noting.

First, if you are willing to settle for the Pro9000 instead of the Pro9500, it can be had very inexpensively if you check the "used" area of Amazon. Just look for the Pro9000 in Amazon and note the "new and used from $199" part of the page.

What you will find is that there is a whole secondary market in these machines thanks to the $400 rebate provided with the purchase of the printer with a new Canon DSLR. It turns out a lot of people want these rebates and then resell the printers once the rebates are collected. So even if you are a Nikon shooter like me, you can easily buy these printers for about $250 delivered. This makes the Pro9000, in my opinion, an unbeatable deal for anyone who has even a marginal desire to own a great photo printer.

A major benefit of printer ownership is that the marginal cost of making a print goes way down. Take Jrista's example of someone who buys the printer and uses it once a month. His first print, including the monthly amortization of the printer cost, costs $10 (if we count the printer as costing $250 instead of $700+ as in his example). But any subsequent print he wants to make costs only about $6 ($3 for paper and $2.80 for ink). A print from a lab will cost about $13, so he is actually paying much less than what a lab would cost, as long as he makes at least one print a month.

A reasonable scenerio in my case might be to give prints as Christmas gifts to ten of my friends, and then printing one print a month for the rest of the year. This would mean I would make about 22 prints in a year. If I amortize my printer over three years, that's $83 a year, plus $127 for making the 22 prints. So it costs me a bit over $200 a year, or less than $10 per print. This is considerably cheaper than a photo lab, and my prints come out of the printer instantly, which is partiuclarly useful during the Christmas season when photo labs are bound to be very busy and thus slow.

One really interesting consequence of purchasing your printer is that you should really act as though the printer didn't cost anything at all when making your calculations. Why? Because you should encourage yourself to make prints whenever you have even the slightest desire for them.

The reason for this is that if you leave your printer idle for long periods, you are risking ink clogging, which uses a lot of ink to resolve. You would be better off using this ink to make prints! Unless you are printing photos for a living, it's highly unlikely that you can overload your printer's duty cycle.

So don't say your print cost $10 including the cost of the printer. Say it costs under $6, and make as many prints as you would want to have at that price.

Incidentally, I found Canon's Photo Paper Platinum at $12.99 per 10 sheets, including shipping. So my paper costs about $1.30 and my ink (presumably from his example) around $2.80. So my 13x19 print costs only about $4.10. Your mileage may vary, as always, but look around for deals and you may find photo printing considerably cheaper than you might think.

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When it comes down to quality, outside of the general consumer ink jet printers which are generally not recommended for quality photo printing at home, the difference between a commercial wide-format printer in a lab and a professional wide-format printer for home use is minimal. At worst, the overall quality between a lab print and a print from a Canon PIXMA Pro9000/9500 II or an Epson Stylus Pro 2880 (both "entry level" pro wide format printers) will be the same. At best, the fine art quality from either the Canon or Epson pro printers will be a bit better given some advancements in printer technology that is generally available on the more consumer-oriented lines than professional lines, The ability for you to calibrate the printer yourself to most ideally match what you see on your screen will also give you an edge when printing yourself.

When it comes down to cost, a lab may be cheaper (depends on size and volume), however that will ultimately depend on your volume and the number of years you use the printing equipment you buy. A lab can often generate a medium format print (say 13x19") for around $10-$15, excluding any shipping costs if the lab is not local. Excluding the cost of the printer equipment itself (we'll factor this in later), a similar print from your own gear may cost about $5-$8 (details later).

Some additional factors you'll need to include when deciding whether to purchase your own printing equipment, or use a lab, include turn around time. If you find a lab close by, it may not be an issue, however many of the highest quality labs only exist in one place. Shipping film there and back will cost time and additional money. With digital, you can simply transfer the images over the net in most cases, however the final prints will have to be mailed back, which will cost time and money. Given these factors, printing in bulk will get you more bang for the buck with a lab, and given the cost of some consumable materials for home printing, higher volume printing will also often be cheaper at a lab.

Analysis of Cost: Lab vs. Personal Printer

The cost of a lab can be cheap, however the difference between a lab's cost and the cost of using your own printing gear is a lot smaller than it used to be. In some cases, the cost may be the same, or even cheaper with your own gear.

A wide variety of quality papers are available for professional home printing these days. 20-50 sheets of glossy, luster/semigloss, matte, and fine art papers can be found in a wide variety of sizes, weights, and tones for decent cost. An example of a paper I prefer myself for my landscape photos is Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Fine Art paper. Its a medium weight paper with a fantastic texture and nice natural tone. A package of 20 sheets costs about $60, which boils down to $3 per sheet.

Professional wide format printers are also pretty cost effective these days. Two of the most popular in this class are the Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II, and the Epson Stylus Pro 2880. They both run for about $700, and offer superb quality, high resolution prints on almost any gloss, luster, matte or fine art paper you can imagine on up to 13x19" paper (third-party papers will generally require custom calibration, more on this later.) These printers also offer very high quality black and white printing capabilities with pure grayscale inks, eliminating unwanted color casts to B&W prints. For around $1200-$1400, you can get similar printers that support larger papers (17x22" and roll), and higher volume ink tanks (8-10 times more ink per tank.)

The ink cost for professional wide-format printers is relatively high, compared to commercial printers. Both Epson and Canon use individual colored ink tanks, containing 13-14ml of pigment ink. Each tank costs about $14-$16, so about $1.07 - $1.23 per ml. Most commercial ink jet printers use much larger tanks, from 80ml to 700ml, usually costing less than a dollar per ml. Several tests done in recent years have indicated the ink usage for professional wide-format printers is about 0.00075 tanks per square inch. (Black ink usage statistics, one of the highest-used colors in most prints, can be seen here: Canon 9500, Epson 2400).

Between the cost of the paper and the cost of ink, an average 13x19" borderless print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Fine Art media would cost $3 for the sheet of paper, and about $2.60 for the ink.

inkCost = paperWidth * paperHeight * costPerCartridge * 0.00075
inkCost = 13" * 19" * $14 * 0.00075

To get a more real-world cost per sheet for 13x19" prints on a Canon PIXMA Pro9500, you would need to factor in a couple more things. In addition to the ink usage just for the print, there is also some ink waste due to cleaning cycles. Some variation will use more ink than others...generally the lower the key of an image, the higher the density of ink. Economic forces often affect the price of individual tanks or colors (i.e. gray and black are often highly used colors, and may have a higher cost per tank than other colors). A margin of error of about 10% should be factored in to ink cost for these various factors, leading to a cost of about $2.80-$2.90 per 13x19" sheet.

Finally, the cost of the printer itself will need to be factored in as well. This is a difficult one to factor, as it will be dependent upon how often you print, and how long you intend to use it before replacing it with a newer model. A modern professional-grade wide-format printer from Canon or Epson is a quality investment, and can be used for many, many years without serious failure. Ink heads are usually replaceable in this grade of printer, as well as commercial gear, which greatly lengthens the life span of the printer housing. Assuming you generate 5 13x19" prints a month, every month, for a mere three years, the "printer cost" per sheet would be about $4. Smaller prints would make more efficient use of ink, so this would be more of a maximum cost per sheet. This is a fairly low volume, and if you sell prints for a living you may generate considerably more. If you create 20 prints a month for three years, the printer cost per sheet would shrink to about $1. At the very least, one print a month is generally necessary to keep a professional wide-format printer in good, working condition, as ink can dry and cause tremendous ink waste and possibly even require a new print head. At only one print a month, the printer cost per sheet would be a painful $20. If your volume is particularly low, using a lab would be far more cost effective.

A final cost factor if you choose to use your own print gear would be calibration. Generally speaking, out of the box, a Canon or Epson professional printer is able to print high quality prints on a fair variety of Canon or Epson brand papers. If the quality is not up to your (or your customers) standards, or if you need to use third-party papers (there is a tremendous variety of amazingly high quality papers out there), you may wish to invest in printer calibration. Very good calibration devices can be had for about $500, or you can send calibration sheets you print off to one of a variety of service centers who can perform calibration for you for a small cost. If you choose to send out for calibration, the cost is minimal, and generally only needs to be done once or twice for any given media. If you need the maximum possible quality, the cost of a printer calibration system would also need to be factored into your per-sheet print cost. Similar to the printer cost, it would depend on how frequently you print on media types you've calibrated, and how long you use the calibration system. An additional cost of a couple dollars per sheet is probably warranted.

Overall Costs

Overall, between ink, paper, printer, and calibration costs, you can print a sheet of 13x19" fine art media for about $8-$12. Thats pretty on par with a lab for moderately low (5 sheets a month) to higher (20+ sheets a month). The more volume you do, the more cost effective your own printer will be, however for large format (greater than 17x22" size, up to around 40x60"), the cost of printers begins to become prohibitive (thousands of dollars just for the printer.) A lab is the obvious choice for printing on larger format media.

Below is a shot of my own setup. I print about 5-20 prints a month, many of them for my portfolio, the rest for friends/family/gifts and for sale. I've had the printer for about a year, and the calibration equipment for about a week or so.

Printing Equipment

Pictured equipment above includes the printer, a full workflow calibration system, the papers I currently have at hand, as well as some print calibration patch pages and some pre- and post-calibration sample prints from a recent calibration. The total cost of everything pictured is about $1500:

  • Canon PIXMA Pro 9500 Mark II ($700)
    • Full set of Lucia Inks (very lower right, $140)
      1. Gray
      2. Photo Black (glossy/luster paper)
      3. Matt Black (matt/fine art paper)
      4. Yellow
      5. Photo Magenta (lighter, desaturated)
      6. Magenta (darker, saturated)
      7. Photo Cyan (lighter, desaturated)
      8. Cyan (darker, saturated)
      9. Green
      10. Red
  • DataColor Spyder3Studio SR, Full-workflow Calibration System ($500)
    • Aluminum carrying case (right of picture)
    • SpyderCube (left corner of printer)
      • Used as a full white, 18% gray, dark dray, black color checker
      • White provides a target to pick a white point
    • Spyder3 Elite (right corner in front of printer)
      • Colorimeter used to calibrate screens, TV's, projectors
    • Spyder3 Print (on patch paper lower left)
      • Strip-reader spectrocolorimeter used to calibrate printer, paper, ink
      • Includes guide to help when scanning patch strips
      • Includes base holder with full white patch used to baseline calibration
  • Various papers valued at approx. $200
    • (Canon) Hahnemuhle Photo Rag "Fine Art"
      • 13x19"
      • 8.5x11"
    • Canon Photo Paper Plus Semi-Gloss
      • 13x10"
      • 8x10"
    • Canon Photo Paper Pro Platinum
      • 13x19"
    • Canon Photo Paper Plus Glossy II
      • 8x10"
      • 5x7"
      • 4x6"
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Excellent answer, especially given how I've used your printer advice in the past. I would add that the third party paper options can be much cheaper. Red River papers can be had for a fraction of the cost of the official canon paper, and since you can calibrate for that paper with your profiler, you can go ahead and save there as well. –  mmr Sep 18 '10 at 17:55
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Aye, I've started purchasing third-party papers. I actually should have pictured some. I am partial to Hahnemuhle, which is what the Canon Fine Art papers are anyway. The true stuff is about as expensive, but there are far more options directly from Hahnemuhle. I also like Museo DFA and Breathing Color, they have some nice fine art papers as well. I've never seen Red River, I'll have to look into them. I'm becoming a bit of a paper snob, but its amazing the variety of tone and texture available. This Spyder3Studio was definitely worth the $500...I'll be able to print on anything now. –  jrista Sep 18 '10 at 19:51
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Thanks jrista, once again you have supplied me with the information for making a measured decision. We have not yet decided if we need prints above 8.5"" by 11". I see your equipment allows you to go well beyond this. Is there an equivalent quality Canon Pixma printer as small as this? –  Dennis Sep 18 '10 at 20:38
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Yeah, the PIXMA Pro9000 is a great printer too, and cheaper to run as it uses dye inks, rather than pigment (almost half the cost). I kind of got trapped by all the "pigment" hype, but after some recent research, it seems dye inks have great longevity, and tend to produce more vibrant results than pigments. Dye particles are also a lot smaller, so the tonal range with the Pro9000 should be better than the Pro9500. When it comes to fine art papers, I think the pigment is a more stable colorant, but on luster/semigloss or gloss papers, nothing beats dye. –  jrista Sep 19 '10 at 18:56
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I have "stumbled" on this answer various times and each time I concluded that it's one of the best answers on this site. –  Francesco Mar 31 '12 at 20:55

The advantages of having your own printer are:

  • You don't wait for prints
  • Your cost per copy can be lower (the more you print, the quicker your average print cost decreases).
  • You don't pay for shipping
  • Directly control the results

Labs on the other hand:

  • More printing options (canvas, wide-prints, extra large prints etc).
  • Cost to Quality Ratio is higher (it's very possible to get lab-quality prints at home, but the upfront equipment cost is higher than buying prints from a lab)
  • Experience (there is a learning curve to putting out good looking prints)
  • Time (you don't have to spend your time tweaking print settings to get optimal results)
  • Space (You dont need to store a bulky large/wide format printer)
  • Materials (You pay per print. You don't need to stock up on photopapers or ink cartridges)

For simple pictures (passport, desk frames) I will use my run of the mill home inkjet printer. For any wall hung prints, I will send them out to a lab (ezprints).

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Not sure about the "Quality vs cost" comment. I think part of the reason many photographers make their own prints is to eek every las ounce of quality that they can out of a print. (Many have wide-format printers capable of wide gamut, canvas and roll printing, etc., and many do their own print calibration, often with very precise equipment, and the cost is not very high.) Sometimes, you get what you get with a lab, since you don't control all the factors, and quality, while it may be good, may also not necessarily be the best it could be. –  jrista Sep 17 '10 at 21:01
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@jrista: I agree with your assertion, but let me clarify what I meant. There is a huge price difference between a wide-format printer for home-use, and the ones employed by professional labs. You can buy better quality printers, but the price increases. You only begin to recoup your costs after you print a lot of images. When you order a print from a pro lab, you only pay a fraction of that cost. So the quality is higher, for a lower cost at a lab. –  Alan Sep 17 '10 at 21:55
    
@Alan: I understand what your saying, however despite the fact that there are "wider" printers that cost a ton and are usually used by professional labs, my point is that they are not necessarily higher quality. As an example, the upper end of the "consumer/home pro" lines from Epson and Canon tend to offer higher maximum quality than the top of the line wide format commercial printers. A Canon iPF8300 costing $6000 has a lot of powerful features for commercial entities, but has a maximum DPI of 2400x1200. It uses Lucia Pigment Ink. –  jrista Sep 18 '10 at 1:29
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@jrista: Right, so the cost of your first print is $6000+(materials). Where as the cost for a similar quality print at a lab is going to be $5-10. The OP is new to photography and printing, so the learning curve is going to reflect that. That is point I was trying to make. –  Alan Sep 18 '10 at 1:33
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@Jrista: Sorry, I did not mean that the lab prints would look any better than what you could do at home. You can get lab-quality prints at home. It's that ratio between quality and cost is actually higher with a lab (similar quality for lower cost). At $700, it starts to be a wash at around 70 prints (at full size, not including ink and paper costs). In order to get a similar upfront cost-ratio at home, you need to sacrifice quality (ie buying a cheap printer) –  Alan Sep 18 '10 at 2:31

Being a photo printer owner for many years I now get everything printed at a lab. The inconvenience of having to send off is more than offset by the quality and versatility offered. Not having to deal with ink cartridges, different types of photo paper, cropping etc. is worth the small additional cost.

There's not a lot to chose between the major online labs these days, they all use calibrated fully digital print processes so the output is very consistent.

It's still worth getting a few test prints before doing a large order to make sure your screen is calibrated and you know the effects of going from RGB to CYMK (some colours will be altered as a result as the standard inks can't reproduce the full range of colours you see on the screen).

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Certainly Matt, your proceedures are the simplest outlined. Certainly we will be experimenting with your method prior to making any decision to purchase an expensive printer and all that goes with it. –  Dennis Sep 18 '10 at 20:42

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