Buy a photo printer or use an online photo printing service?

Printer or service? The answer relies on a combination of your comfort level with digital photo manipulation and color management, the amount of time you have to spare (or are willing to spend on printing), your level of patience/need for instant gratification and the target audience/location for the prints.

I've owned an Epson 1280 for over two years and although I love it and have gotten many wonderful prints from it, the time and effort spent in doing so is not usually worth it (for me) if all they're doing is going into a photo album or being sent to relatives.

I recently set up a Canon i860 for my parents and was able to print out fantastic looking photos (on epson semigloss paper) and even at the medium level quality (I think it was 720dpi), they looked fantastic and only a very critical eye would see anything wrong. Although I love my Epson 1280, I do remember struggling to find the right "magic combination" of settings to make the colors print right in the beginning. I have also set up Epson 820s and 890s in the past for family members and have had no end of problems getting them to work (multiple printers, multiple machines, multiple ink cartridges, multiple times... they just all come out with funky color casting, in one case it was cyan, another case it was orange, etc - that's why I finally gave up and made them go to Canon). I did get the 820 working after two hours of struggling and test prints, and then my sister moved houses and bought a new laptop, and after several more hours of troubleshooting I was unable to get it to print in anything other than cyan.

Ofoto, shutterfly, snapfish and the other such services are so tremendously easy to use and affordable, assuming you have the bandwidth to upload large JPGs. If you aren't already skilled in photoshop, they provide very nice services to sharpen, saturate, B&W, crop, etc. Also, I find that the glossy photo paper Epson provides doesn't look nearly as good as their semigloss, but they don't sell the semigloss in 4x6 or 5x7, so I end up trimming 2-3 prints on an 8.5x11 sheet down to size which just makes it more of a hassle and I frequently have sheets of 8.5x11 waiting to be cut lying around. My family's used to glossy shots from 35mm, so they don't care.

One downside I've found from ofoto is that if your photos look at all professional, they will refuse to fill the order (every single time) and require you to fax in a consent form that swears you own the copyright (and I'm told that this form wouldn't stand up in court were I actually breaking a copyright). That wouldn't bug me so much for my occasional order of holiday cards or whatnot, but it happens every time my family orders prints I upload as well - separately for each person. I have not found a way to sign a form that promises that I own the copyright of everything I upload. I believe their definition of professional is "decent lighting with a solid color backdrop", so watch out if do crazy things like use a bounce flash and drape a sheet over the couch. 🙂 Whereas with snapfish, I uploaded a shot from a pro studio (which did give me the rights to reproduce along with the JPG) and they printed out cards with no complaint.

After my experiences with Epson and Canon, whenever I decide it's worth it to upgrade my printer (or whenever I get tired of buying a single ink cartridge for all colors), I will definitely be going Canon. My requirements are support for large format (13x19) and individual ink tanks; thus, I have my eye on the Canon i9900.

Comments (12)
  1. Sean Harding says:

    You know, at this point I pretty much just use Costco for all of my digital printing. I’ve been very happy with the results. I’m an extremely picky customer — not only have I worked on and off as a professional photographer for years, but I’ve also worked in photo labs. The results I’ve gotten from Costco have been outstanding, and only once have I had to take something back to be redone (which they did immediately without question). Using the color profiles, I get even better output. On top of all of that, the prices are hard to beat and I can usually get my prints back in an hour or less (unless I have a huge number of images to print).

    I used to use Ofoto, and sometimes I still use West Coast Imaging for important big prints, but for the vast majority of my color printing from digital files, Costco is king…

  2. Michael Teper says:

    Buy a cheap printer. The last one I bought (Canon i470D) cost me around $50 after rebates and the ink is super cheap as well ($15 for Canon color cartridge). The quality is good enough for 4×6 to give out to family as well as for a few 8×11 portraits. Btw, when I say "good enough", I mean as good as any 4×6 35mm film developed at a high end pro lab. At least to my eye.

  3. Michael Teper says:

    Oh, so the reason I am advocating buying a printer is that you just can’t beat the convenience. (unless you find yourself at Costco frequently enough such as that is not an issue).

  4. Jon Galloway says:

    We used Shutterfly quite a bit, but switched to the printer (we also have a Canon i470D). The convenience is nice, it’s a bit cheaper, and the print quality is good.

    Shutterfly (and the others) are still good for the "value add" sort of things – mini album, postcards, etc.

  5. theCoach says:

    I could be hurting my own cause by promoting it, but makes gorgeous prints cheaply. Very high quality. Highly recommended.

  6. Michael Teper says:

    Incidentally, there are two issues here: one is printing and the other is picture storage and sharing. I use for the latter.

  7. KC Lemson says:

    Michael – I think convenience is something that different people would define differently =) My mother, for example, would define convenience as having digital photo development at places she is frequently at, such as the grocery.

    If Epson made 4×6 semigloss paper and they had a decent program for mass-printing 4x6s, I would probably use it more for that size. They used to have this program called PhotoQuicker that was great, but it was one of those things they only made available on certain CDs for a limited time, and if you misplaced the CD you’re pretty much out of luck. They try to foist their Film Factory software on you instead, which has the most godawful user interface on the planet.

  8. Jason Luther says:

    Changing the subject slightly, do you have any experience doing batch scanning of 4×6 photos? Lots of people have been sending us non-digital photos of our wedding, but I’d like to put them on my website.

    Can anyone recommend a cheap service or a scanner (or scanner/printer combo) that makes the task of digitizing a stack of photos easy?

  9. BigJimInDC says:

    Well, seeing that I own a photo printer/scanner (HP PSC 2110), I will say they look good and are extremely convenient. At the same time, I did the math on the price of home printing them and it just isn’t worth it, from a purely financial side of things. For me, when needing a lot of prints made, and especially for larger than 4×6’s, I simply use that I have been using for years now.

  10. Michael Teper says:

    KC, you’re right on the difference in definitions. My advice is based on pretty rare printing (I print probably < 2% of what I shoot). I use Adobe PhotoAlbum 2 for organizing photos (and its great for that) but for printing I go to Windows Picture and Fax viewer.

  11. Kevin Respecki says:

    I’ve recently bought the Epson Personal Photo Lab. It’s a dedicated 4"x6" printer and works like a charm. Photos are archival and the colors are fantastic. 100 pages + ink cost 29.99 (all in one package), so prints end up at .30/ea. If I ever need anything bigger,It’s back to my regular Canon inkjet.

  12. Matthew says:



    100 pages + ink cost 29.99 (all in one package), so prints end up at .30/ea.


    30c each PLUS part of the cost of the printer. Lets say you print 600 photos (ALOT of photos – plus don’t forget you will probably replace the printer in 2-4 years) from a printer that cost $150, that is an extra 25c per photo (ie almost doubles the cost). And that is assuming the printer lasts that long. 😉



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