Oct 24, 2005

How to print digital photos at home cheaply

Don't let anyone tell you that printing digital photos from home is inexpensive. Sure, the price you pay for a digital photo printer seems reasonable at first glance, but appearances in this case are definitely deceiving.

That's because the cost of a printer is usually just a small part of the home photo printing equation. If you add up all the money you need to spend for the printer, ink, paper, colour profiling equipment, and software, it adds up quickly.

It is easy to end up spending over five times what a local printing service would charge for each photo. The cost of printing and related equipment is so high that it makes sense for anyone who uses a digital camera and prints photos at home to do a cost analysis of how much is being spent for each print. But regardless of whether the figure you arrive at makes printing at home worth your while, there are ways to save on digital photo printing costs.

In-store printing

It used to be that your local photo developer was not set up to handle your digital photographs conveniently. That has changed in most places around the world. You can now typically copy your digital photographs to a rewritable CD or DVD and take the disk to your local photo developer for processing. Of course, you choose beforehand which photographs to drop off, so there's no development of photos that you might not want, as in the old film days.

Plus you'll have the advantage of having your photographs developed using equipment that is probably much more sophisticated than what you can purchase yourself for home use. And a good photo development shop will use traditional photograph paper, not paper intended for inkjets.

To prevent surprises when you get your digital photos back, you should make sure that your monitor at home is correctly calibrated to match the equipment used by your local printing service. Calibration is achieved by loading what's called a colour profile data file into the software that you use to edit and adjust your digital photographs. If your local service doesn't offer a colour profile, look elsewhere until you find one that does. A good quality photo printing service should provide profiles, as well as instructions on how to use them, and you shouldn't have to pay more for one that does.

Online printing

Professional photograph printers in your neighbourhood have plenty of online counterparts, and these may be more to your liking if you don't want to leave the comfort of your home to deliver your digital photos to the printer.

With online printers, you upload your photographs using a web browser while logged on to the service. You then order the sizes and number of prints that you want, pay your money, and then wait for the photographs to be mailed to you.

As with non-Internet printers, you'll want to get a colour profile to make sure that your monitor matches the colour qualities of the service's printer - either that, or you should do a small order to make sure that the quality is what you expect.

Home printing

Cost aside, there are plenty of good reasons why printing your digital photographs at home may be a good idea. You get complete creative control over the printing process, almost instantaneous gratification when seeing a print come out of your printer, and the freedom to reprint photos if they don't come out just the way you want them to.

But to print at home economically, you'll have to pay attention to how ink-hungry the printer you choose is, preferably before you purchase it. Some printers are known to consume more ink during operation than others, and some manufacturers charge a lot more for refills than others. It's a good idea to check online forums before purchasing a photo printer.

You can also turn to third-party ink manufacturers to save on printing photographs at home. Just keep in mind that using a third-party ink will typically void the warranty on your printer; many manufacturers will not even service a unit that has been used with third-party inks. So take this into consideration before going the third-party route.

Also, it's a good idea to minimize your experimentation with different photo papers. Find one or a few that work well with your photo printer, and stick to them. Going through the experimentation phase while tweaking colours and settings with different papers can consume a lot of ink and time, increasing your overall printing costs.

Here are a few digital photo printers to choose from-

HP Photosmart 7960 (a ZDNet Editors' Choice)
HP Photosmart 7960 Printer
The industry's first eight-color printer, the 7980 is our pick for a photo specialist. It stands out for its superior photo print quality and extra features, such as a built-in LCD to preview images and direct printing from your camera.

Canon i560 (a ZDNet Editors' Choice)
Canon i560 Desktop Photo Printer
Like the Epson Stylus C84, this printer is both inexpensive and a solid performer. The i560 doesn't guzzle ink and offers something the C84 doesn't: the ability to print directly from a digital camera.

Canon i70
The i70 is one of the speediest inkjets around--and it's small enough to carry along on trips or to and from the office. It connects directly to digital cameras and can churn out borderless photos and 8.5x11-inch prints.

HP Photosmart 245
HP PhotoSmart 245 Compact Photo Printer
Another portable, lightweight option, the 245 costs less than the Canon CP-300, but doesn't come with a battery option. It produces nice-looking photos, but only in 4x6-inch and similar-sized formats.

Canon CP-300
Canon CP-300 - Printer - color - dye sublimation/thermal transfer - 3.95 in x 5.83 in - 300 dpi x 300 dpi up to 1.4 min/page (color) - USB
The most compact and sleek of the portables, it's also the most expensive. If you've got the money, it includes a battery and uses the dye-sublimation technology mentioned above. Because of its small size, it only prints 4x6's.