Choosing a Photo Inkjet Printer

You’ve decided to take the plunge and begin printing your own digital pictures using a photo inkjet printer. But how do you decide which model to buy? What are the important features to check out? In this article, I provide you with some guidelines to help you choose.

First, I want to make a distinction between an office inkjet printer and a photo inkjet printer. While you can print pictures on photo paper using an office inkjet model, you will generally get better quality and longer lasting results using an inkjet printer that was specifically designed to print images. Among the advantages of a photo inkjet printer are individual ink cartridges, more paper choices (size and surface) and more permanent ink. If you already have an office inkjet, you may want to start learning the printing process with it. But when you’re ready for more control over your results, consider a dedicated photo inkjet printer.


When you go shopping for a photo inkjet printer, there are three characteristics to consider:

• Size
• Ink
• Computer connection


The most fundamental question you can ask before you start shopping is: How big do I want to make my prints? You may also consider how much space you have available to set up a printer.

Size refers to the largest sheet of paper the printer can accept. If the printer uses roll paper, then size refers to the width of the roll. This characteristic effectively divides photo inkjet printers into four groups:

• Letter (8.5” x11”)
• Tabloid (13” x 19”)
• Wide format (17” x 22”)
• Floor standing (24” – 64” wide)

There are inkjet printers that make only 4×6-inch prints, but these models often cost as much or more than a letter-size printer that can make bigger images as well. So I don’t recommend 4×6-inch printers for serious photographers.


Letter (8.5”x11”) printers are an inexpensive way to get started with making your own prints. They don’t take up much space and can produce outstanding results if you don’t need anything larger than an 8×10.

Tabloid (13”x19”) printers are probably the most popular size. They allow you to make prints bigger than an 8×10, yet don’t take up too much space on a desk or table. Some have additional options such as the ability to print on roll paper (for long panoramic prints) or printable CDs or DVDs.

Wide format printers (17”x22”) can make prints up to 16×20 easily. Some models have more than one paper tray to allow easy swapping between media. Others use roll paper for less waste. But a wide format printer is just barely a desktop model. You need a big, sturdy surface to hold one of these units.

Floor standing (24” and up) printers (often called “large format” by printer manufacturers) are designed for producing large prints in large quantities. They are production level machines using rolls of paper to cut down on paper handling as well as cost. While you can print on sheets of letter-size paper with floor models, you must load the paper by hand, making the printer much less efficient to use. (Some photographers “gang print” multiple 8x10s on a larger area of paper and cut the prints apart later.) You also need a lot more physical space to set up one of these printers, which needs a special stand to support it.



Once you’ve decided on how big you want to print your images, your next choice is the type of ink the printer uses. There are two kinds: dye or pigment. Dye ink is liquid color; pigment ink has tiny solid pieces of color suspended in liquid. Dye ink has a slightly shorter expected life before fading than pigment ink does, and dye ink costs a little less than pigment ink. Historically, dye inks were able to reproduce a wider range of colors (called color gamut) than pigment inks, but this difference has largely gone away with modern ink formulas.

When you choose a printer, you’re also choosing one of these types of ink. You can’t swap dye for pigment (or vice versa) if you’re using the printer manufacturer’s inks. The nozzles that spray the ink are designed to work with either liquid or solid colors. Using pigment inks in printers with nozzles designed for dye would mean lots of clogs. (There are third-party companies that make alternative sets of ink, but again you waste ink and time switching between dye and pigment on a regular basis).

After you decide on the type of ink you prefer, you also need to decide how many different colors of ink you want. Over a decade ago, the first photo inkjet printers used only four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Today’s models usually have a minimum of six up to twelve different colors. The additional colors (such as lighter versions of cyan and magenta) help with reproducing subtle changes in tone, such as across a sunset sky, or printing more vivid hues (such as red or green). Some printer models forgo one extra color in order to include a “gloss optimizer.” This is not an ink color but a clear coat printed over the whole image to make all parts of the image equally “shiny” when printed on glossy paper.

Also consider the size of ink cartridges the printer uses. Cartridges with a larger capacity mean the ink costs less per milliliter. This is one of the advantages of the bigger printers; they usually accommodate bigger cartridges so you change them less often and the cost per print is lower. If you expect to make a lot of prints, then cartridge size should be a factor you consider.

Black & White Printing

If you intend to make black and white prints, then you want to pay special attention to the number of black inks that come with the printer. Better quality b&w prints come from using more than one black ink cartridge. Many photo inkjet printers now include two or three black inks to produce monochrome prints: black, medium gray and light gray (the names vary with the manufacturer).

Some companies tout four black inks but this is misleading. A few printers have two different types of the darkest black ink, one for printing on glossy papers and a second black ink for printing on matte surfaces. Some models have both photo and matte black ink cartridges loaded in the printer at the same time, the source of the “four blacks” statement. This is convenient because you don’t have to manually change the black ink when you want to print on a different kind of paper. (Note that this glossy or matte black swap applies to color prints as well.) But the printer is still using only three blacks when it makes a print.



Computer Connection

While you contemplate print size and type of ink, don’t forget to check how the printer model you’re considering connects to your computer. These days you can choose between a wired or wireless connection. All printers provide a USB connection standard. (You may have to provide your own USB cord.)

Some printers are available with wireless connectivity. If you make use of a smart phone, tablet or other mobile device and want to be able to print from them, look for compatible mobile printing technology included with the printer.

A few wide-format (17” wide paper) and floor-standing printers (24” wide paper rolls or bigger) may have an option for Firewire connections (useful if you have a Mac). More often, these large printers come with an Ethernet connection. Ethernet is a larger “pipe” that can carry more data at once, so it speeds up the process of transmitting your image file to the printer. Ethernet is most useful for networking multiple printers shared among multiple computers.

While there are many other technical specifications, such as resolution and print speed, advertised by the printer manufacturers, these numbers are difficult to use for making reliable comparisons between brands. Each company employs different methods to measure print speed or count ink droplets, so referring to these characteristics is not actually helpful. In the end, any photo inkjet printer on the market today can produce great color images that will look outstanding when displayed on your wall or in an album.

Additional Resources:
Choosing a Photo Printer by Amadou Diallo
Factors to Consider when Choosing a Small Photo-Quality Inkjet Printer by Andrew Darlow

Images from


Kathy Eyster will be teaching two sessions of our Basic Photography workshop in 2013. Consider joining her in one of these courses:
Basic Photography in Missoula, MT – May 4 – 10
Basic Photography in Missoula, MT – August 10 – 16
She also teaches the printing segment of our Summer Intensive course which runs June 3 – August 16, 2013

Kathy is also instructing an upcoming PHOTOfocus course on February 23-24.
Understanding the Basics of Adobe Lightroom 4

One thought on “Choosing a Photo Inkjet Printer

Grace Powell

You did a great blog! I love to read your next post.

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