“True” photo printers—in contrast to standard inkjets that manufacturers merely call photo printers—fall into two broad categories at the consumer level: dedicated snapshot printers, and near-dedicated photo printers.
As the name indicates, dedicated (also known as “small-format”) snapshot printers are designed to print nothing but smaller photo prints. You simply can’t use them for outputting documents, because they don’t accept letter-size paper stock. They are limited to snapshot sizes, in paper sizes of 2 by 3 inches, 4 by 6 inches, or 5 by 7 inches (or panoramic variations on these sizes). Not all such printers print all these sizes (most support just one), and generally, the smaller the printer, the smaller the maximum paper size.
But this category of printer isn’t defined just by its limits. These printers are relatively small and portable. They’re also much less computer-centric printers than they are standalone consumer electronics products, with an emphasis on ease of use.
In contrast, near-dedicated photo printers, at least the ones at the consumer level, are aimed at serious amateur photographers. They offer professional-level output quality, can typically print at sizes up to 13 by 19 inches, and often demand a reasonable level of sophistication to get the best results.
What both categories have in common is that they focus on printing photographs. Here is what you need to consider to make the right choice.
Do You Even Need a Photo Printer?
First, note here that we are talking mainly about snapshot printers, and near-dedicated photo printers that are built for and marketed to the photography set. Apart from them, many inkjet-based home and office all-in-one printers do print excellent photos; see our guide to the best all-in-one printers for our tops picks there. You can do photo printing on other kinds of printers, and some of them are indeed photo-focused. But they are more general-use printers than the crowd we’re talking about here.
Near-dedicated photo printers and snapshot models both are made mainly for printing photos, but that is where the similarities end between the two. By definition, near-dedicated photo printers are also capable of printing standard business documents, although it’s a waste of their talents—like using a brand-new Porsche as a town car. Some are harder to use for standard office printing than others, because you may have to swap out paper stock or even ink cartridges when you switch between printing photos and everyday documents. If you must use a near-dedicated photo printer for office printing as well as photos, even occasionally, be sure to pick one that lets you switch easily between paper types.
Snapshot printers are a whole different animal. At one time, snapshot printers often included screens with menus and basic editing features that let you crop an image, remove red-eye, and the like. A few added so many editing choices that they were essentially home photo kiosks, often including a large touch screen to let you easily give commands. Nowadays, though, snapshot printers tend to work with mobile devices over a wireless connection, and your phone or tablet can serve as both the image source and the “control screen.” If you’re mostly interested in printing quick, small snaps from your phone, these are more your speed.
What Does It Cost to Print?
With any photo printer, check the running cost and total cost of ownership if you can. (Our reviews are helpful in this regard.) Unfortunately, this may be impossible for near-dedicated photo printers, since there’s currently no widely accepted standard for calculating cost per photo with devices like these. For snapshot-style printers, however, the cost per photo is typically easy to calculate, because most manufacturers sell print packs with enough ink and paper for a given number of photos.
To get the cost per photo for one of these, simply divide the cost of the print pack by the number of photos it will print. To get the total cost of ownership, multiply the cost per photo by the number of photos you expect to print over the printer’s lifetime, and then add the printer’s initial cost. This total is the best basis for comparing prices.
One additional photo-cost consideration is with certain inkjet printers (not generally photo-first models) that work with ink-subscription services, like HP’s Instant Ink. In these cases, you pay a monthly fee for a set number of pages you can print in a month, whether photos or text (the company mails you ink as you need it). So it’s easy, in these cases, to calculate what a photo-printed page will cost if you go that route, and it can be a way to get cheap photo prints.
Do You Print in Black and White?
When shopping in most categories of printer, you need to consider whether you really need color printing. Photo printers turn the question on its head, making you consider whether you need black-and-white (monochrome) printing of images, which many printers can’t handle particularly well.
The most common flaw in black-and-white image printing is a color tint, or multiple tints, that show up in different shades of gray. If you intend to print lots of black-and-white photos, you’ll need to check out black-and-white photo quality separately from the printer’s color photo quality. This is more often a problem for dedicated, rather than near-dedicated, photo printers, but you need to consider it in either case. (In our reviews, we note such tints and their severity when we encounter them, but note that we don’t use monochrome images to test small-format snapshot printers; that’s very much an edge case.)
Assessing Printer Size: Portable or Desk-Bound?
Inexpensive dedicated snapshot printers range in size from small enough to fit in a pocket to too large to carry very often. If you want to bring a printer with you to events like parties or Little League games, pick a size you won’t mind carrying. Also, consider whether you’ll need to run it from batteries. If so, make sure there’s a battery available, if only as an option, and find out how many photos you can print on a full charge.
Most near-dedicated photo printers are larger than most standard desktop-style inkjets, because they’re typically designed for printing on cut-paper sheets as large as 11 by 17 inches or even 13 by 19 inches, as well as banner-size variations, in some cases. Some can print from roll paper, as well. Beyond the printer size itself, some printers in this class need additional room behind them to feed large paper stock or accommodate a roll feeder.
To print on large paper with some near-dedicated photo printers, you have to feed a single sheet from the front, after which the printer loads it by feeding it all the way out of a back slot on the printer, and then prints while moving the paper forward again. If you don’t have enough free flat space for this approach to printing, look for a printer that can handle roll paper, that can feed large-size cut sheets from a standard tray, or that can do both.
Connection Options: Wired or Wireless?
More broadly, what do you want to print from? Some dedicated snapshot printers can print from a computer over a USB connection, but most are really meant as standalone devices. Older models tend to come with Wi-Fi connectivity, and many can print directly from PictBridge-supporting cameras and memory cards, or from a USB flash drive. (Make sure the printer is compatible with the memory card format you want to use.) A few print from internal memory, but you need to transfer the files to the memory first, so find out what connection you need to use to transfer the photos. Most common, nowadays, in new models is Bluetooth connectivity for printing from a smartphone, tablet, or other Bluetooth-enabled device.
The connectivity options for near-dedicated photo printers are much the same as for standard office printers. Some models offer just a single USB connector. Others add an Ethernet jack for easy sharing on a network. Most now offer Wi-Fi connectivity, as well, and a few offer all three options: USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. Few models at this level offer PictBridge connectors or similar direct-from-device printing choices, because the assumption is that serious photographers will want to print from photo-editing programs on their computers after they’ve tweaked their images.
Is the Output Quality Up to Par?
Whatever printer you’re considering, be sure to check on the output quality before buying. With dedicated snapshot printers, the main print technologies used are inkjet and thermal dye. A printer of either kind will at least match the output quality you’ll typically see in drugstore prints. With an inkjet, you’ll typically buy your ink and your paper separately, so you’ll want to match the printer maker’s paper recommendations. With thermal dye, you’ll get the ink cartridge and matching paper in a single pack, designated for a fixed number of prints.
Another technology seen in small dedicated photo printers, and gaining in popularity, is known as Zero Ink, or ZINK. As the name implies, it uses no ink cartridges; instead, special ZINK paper, when heated precisely by the printer, generates the image from chemicals impregnated in the stock. ZINK technology is currently limited to printers with print sizes ranging from 2 by 3 inches to 4 by 6 inches, and the output quality doesn’t always stack up to inkjet or thermal dye. ZINK output is best described as “good enough” for photos that will wind up in a wallet or behind a refrigerator magnet.
Snapshot printers may vary a bit in quality, but any near-dedicated photo printer should offer output quality suitable for a professional photographer’s exhibition prints. Still, you should obviously check to make sure by reading reviews or looking at print samples at a retailer. Keep in mind, too, that different people have different tastes, so choosing between two or more printers with superb, but slightly different, output may depend entirely on which one you like better.
Note that the type of paper you use can make a difference in the overall effect for a given image, so ask what papers are available for the printer. Most manufacturers offer an assortment of fine-art papers for near-dedicated photo printers. In many cases, you can also get paper-specific color profiles for a given printer so you can use it with third-party fine-art papers, as well.
Finally, two other issues fall loosely under the heading of quality: ruggedness and lifetime. Don’t expect much in the way of ruggedness for fine-art papers for exhibition, but you do need it for stacks of 4-by-6-inch snaps that you might hand out for people to look through. Photos from most printers today are reasonably waterproof and scratch-resistant, but some fare better than others.
Claimed photo lifetimes also vary, with longer lifetimes obviously preferred. As a point of reference, traditional silver halide color prints last about 20 years when exposed to air.
Print Speeds and Quantities: Do They Matter?
Don’t worry too much about print speed in these classes of hardware. For photos, quality matters more, and even the slowest printers today offer tolerable print speeds, at about 2 minutes for a 4-by-6 on our tests. Keep in mind, too, that measured speeds are typically slower than claimed speeds, and (as we note in our reviews where applicable) the speed for any given printer may vary depending on the source from which you’re printing.
The usual rule for printers is to find out the printer’s monthly duty cycle (the maximum number of pages or photos the manufacturer rates that you can print per month), as well as its recommended duty cycle, and make sure the latter number covers more pages than you plan to print. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible with most dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers.
That’s because most manufacturers don’t rate the duty cycle for these classes of printer. That’s as inexcusable as a car manufacturer not telling you how often to change your oil, but, for now at least, it’s the state of the business. Our rule of thumb for these printers? If you’ll be printing enough photos that you’re concerned about the duty cycle, and the manufacturer doesn’t rate the duty cycle, don’t buy the printer. You may need to look instead for printers aimed strictly at professional photographers and retail stores.
So, Which Photo Printer Should You Buy?
Whether you’re a casual photographer or a pro, one of the photo printers below is sure to fit your needs. Whichever you choose, you’re guaranteed to hold evidence of that great moment in your hand almost as soon as you capture it with a click. We’ve included our favorite near-dedicated photo printers and snapshot models, as well as a few inkjet all-in-ones across the price spectrum that do an especially good job with printing photos but can also service general printing needs in a home or small office.
For a wider view of printers, check out our guide to our favorite printers overall. And for photo hounds getting started in the photo-printing world, see our guide to fixing bad photos and our collection of advanced photo tips.