I recently returned to using a DSLR after several years of just using a point-and-shoot. I would like to get a home printer that's good enough that, when I'm not satisfied with the photo, I can rule out the printer and concentrate on the 101 other variables that contribute to photo quality. I'm a bit overwhelmed right now and just want to find some systematic way to start improving my work. I kind of broke the bank buying this gorgeous Nikon D5200 and a couple of good lenses. I already had a Mac and Photoshop CS6. Is there any relatively inexpensive printer that has both good inks and a straight paper feed? Don't laugh, but, say $300 or less? The photos don't have to be archival and don't have to be larger than 8.5x11 (though it would be nice if they were). I don't care about bells and whistles like wifi or in-printer photo fixing. It doesn't have to be a multifunction printer. I mostly want something that's good enough to experiment and learn on. I suppose for the occasionally really special photo I could have it done professionally somewhere. Thanks very much for any suggestions.
This printer is not $300 or less considering the original price tag, but it comes with a $200 rebate, and up to $300 rebate when buying photo paper. And since you are trying to find a deal I think this could be appropriate as an answer.
Canon PIXMA PRO 100 printer @ Adorama for $389 with a mail in rebate of up to $300 depending on what else you buy.
The best deal in my opinion and for someone looking for a printer is to buy the Pro Luster photo paper (9"x13") 50x sheets for $69.99.
Read the rebate carefully first, for instance everything must be purchased from Adorama.
The printer is rather large (which is a good thing) and I imagine the shipping alone would be at least $50, but Adorama has free standard shipping to make the deal even more sweet.
Pair this printer with high quality paper like the Canon Pro Luster and learn a thing or two in the fantastic How do I generate high quality prints with an ink jet printer? and you could really go above and beyond the level you were hoping to achieve.
I'd recommend either the PIXMA Pro 100 that DavyCrockett mentioned or if you want something cheaper and don't mind being limited to 4x6, one of the Canon Selphy die-sub printers will give really nice quality and a fixed cost per print of around 25 cents.
For the cost, the Selphy is the best bang for your buck, though if you use good papers, the Pixma will do a better job, particularly if you calibrate it, but also will cost more (the paper alone for a similar 4x6 will run you more than the $.25 for the Selphy print, even without ink which is typically similar in cost to the paper.)
I personally was using a Selphy as my primary photo printer until I upgraded to a PIXMA Pro 1 (which is the big, big brother of the Pro 100, but I seriously considered the Pro100 as well). I'd also suggest that before you pick up a Pro100 if that's what you think you want, check out TryMyPhoto where you can give Canon a photo and they will send you a print from the Pro 100.
Today just about any printer is good enough, even my cheap office fax/scanner/printer combo has pigment-based "ink" and prints amazing photos if you feed it high quality photo paper.
An actual photo printer like the PIXMA is better than a random printer designed for office use, obviously, but I believe normal people (that is, not photographer or people who work in print) wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Don't laugh but I recommend you just go into a large office supply store and ask for the cheapest inkjet that has a strait paper path and pigment based ink, I wouldn't suggest this for professionals or for producing museum pieces but it's good enough for learning and you can spend the money you save somewhere else (like a screen and printer calibration device or ink and paper).
By the way, while I do think just about any modern junk inkjet in good enough you do need high quality ink and paper - use only original ink and only good photo paper, also, don't forget to set your printer quality setting to high quality photo.