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This is a summary of the pros and cons of printing your digital images on an inkjet photo printer at home versus sending them via the Internet to a photo lab. Find out which is the right choice for you, the answer may surprise you.



To work out which type of printing would be best for you, there are 4 things that you need to take into account; cost, time spent, quality and longevity. They are in no particular order because the first thing you have to do is, decide this for yourself. What is most important to you; to make the cheapest prints, the fastest prints, the highest quality prints or the longest lasting prints.


If one of these options is absolutely vital to you then it will make your choice a lot easier. For example, if you need prints as quickly as possible, then only home printing will do. However fast the lab can print, you still have to wait for your prints to arrive by post.


So, how do the two different types of printing shape up to each other when it comes to the things that matter?




It's easy enough to find out the cost per print from a photo lab and there are review sites where someone has worked out the same figure for different printers, but that doesn't tell you the whole story. Certainly the photo lab price is accurate, but the price per print for inkjet printing varies tremendously depending on how many prints you make and what materials you use.


Taking into account the cost of a good quality photo printer means that if you only ever intend to make a few prints, it will always be cheaper to use a lab. For the cost of the printer alone, you could have at least 50 10x8 prints or over 1000 6x4 prints. That's not including the cost of the ink and paper required.


As you can see, you would actually need to make quite a lot of prints before it would actually become cheaper to use an inkjet. Exactly how many depends very much on whether you use the printer manufacturers original inks and photo paper or the much cheaper compatible alternatives.


This would seem to make working out the actual cost of printing a bit complicated, but in practice, it's not really. It means that if you don't already own a printer, then buying one is not the cheapest way to print (at least in the short term), unless you intend making hundreds of prints. The greatest benefit you will get from printing at home is the speed at which you get your hands on the finished results.


If you already have a printer, the situation is different. You probably won't want to factor in the cost of your printer, especially if it came bundled with your computer. It's more a straightforward situation of material costs versus lab (and postage) costs. Even here however, it's not all that easy to compare like with like.


The size and quantity of prints you would make in any one batch has an effect on which method is cheapest. For instance, a lab will make a 6x4 print for a few pennies but charge you 10 or 15 times that amount to post it. On the other hand, the same lab will charge a lower price if you order more than a certain number of prints. On the inkjet side, the price difference between original and compatible materials an be as much as 400% - 500% and your choice here is obviously a major factor in the overall cost.


Complex as it might seem, with experience the answer turns out to be quite simple. The cheapest possible print will come from an inkjet printer using non original inks and paper, especially if you make just a few A4 or 10x8 prints at a time. If you use your printer manufacturers original inks and paper, then the cost per print is very similar to that of a lab. Factors like size and quantity come into play but, over a period of time, these things will even each other out.


So, that's how much the prints will cost, relative to each other, what about how long it takes to make them?


Time spent


Clearly, you will get your hands on your inkjet prints much faster than any postal service could ever deliver them. But before you run off thinking that this obviously makes home printing by far the fastest, you have to remember that high quality photo paper needs to "rest" after it has been printed. This is in order for the ink to fully soak in and leave a completely dry surface. Sometimes, the colour of the print will subtly change as the ink dries. Paper makers usually recommend 24 hours for this.


With luck, a good postal service can deliver even faster than that and your prints will arrive bone dry. Of course, not all types of paper need this long resting time. If getting your finished prints in the fastest time is vital to you, then you should use fast drying matt-coated papers.


That's just the time from pressing the "print" button on the lab's website to receiving the finished article in your hands. The actual time that you have to spend preparing your digital image for printing is exactly the same, regardless of which method you choose. Whether you just want to print your images exactly as the camera recorded them, or you want to enhance them for printing, it's the same process for both kinds of printing and therefore takes the same length of time.




Both methods are capable of printing excellent photographic quality prints that you can be truly proud of, but there are two aspects to this quality. There's the quality of the printing process and there's the quality of the original image. If you start with a high quality image, then there will be little difference in the quality of both methods.


There are subtle (and sometimes greater) differences in quality between printers and, indeed, between different labs. This is only to be expected. You can read lots of different forum threads on the subject and find out which is the current favourite. The only absolute way of deciding whether the quality is good enough for you is to look at a test print from one of your own images.


For a great many people, the subtle difference in quality between labs (or printers) may not be very noticeable. In fact the real difference is that, whilst the lab's quality is very consistent, the inkjet's is wholly dependent on the materials and settings used. Printer manufacturers sell inks and papers that can produce results of the highest quality. However, with independent manufacturers, the results can vary. Again, only you are really qualified to make a final judgement about quality.


What this means is that, if the highest quality print is the most important thing to you, then you should use either a lab or your printer with original photo papers and ink.


The other quality issue is what happens if your original image is not very good, Perhaps it's a bit over or under exposed, or maybe the colour is not quite right. These types of picture problems show up a fundamental difference in the two printing methods. This is important to know if you are the sort of person who does not want to edit their images to fix or enhance them for printing.


Most photo printers have some built in software that can help to make a better print when the original image is less than perfect. On the other hand, the lab will do nothing for you. If you send them a dark picture, they'll send you a dark print. We are talking about the sort of thing that you could fix in a photo-editing program. However, if you don't have one or don't know how to use one, you could be disappointed with the results from a lab compared to inkjet printing at home.


All is not lost because a good lab will do any photo fixing or enhancement you want, but you will have to pay extra for this work.




The final issue. How long do you want your prints to last? 100 years, 20 years, 1 year, 1 month? The longevity of prints is roughly defined as the length of time before any noticeable fading takes place and can range from 1 month (or less) to over 100 years.


Of course it matters a great deal just how the prints are stored because sunlight is the major cause of print fading. All other things being equal, you can expect the shortest times if your print is on display out doors in bright sunlight and somewhat longer if it's kept in an album.


The longest lasting prints come from labs that use archival quality paper, not all of them do. These have been independently tested and are guaranteed to resist fading for over 100 years. This is when displayed indoors and not in direct sunlight. That is the standard condition for this type of test.


Second in the longevity stakes are labs that don't use special archival paper and specific long lasting inks and papers made by printer makers and independent suppliers. The claims made for these are around 10 - 25 years.


Unfortunately, some compatible inks and papers are extremely prone to fading very quickly. Less than a month under some conditions. Of course, this might not be a problem for you. If you are making prints for an exhibition that only lasts one week, it doesn't matter at all.




Inkjet printing - pros


Potentially fastest results

Potentially cheapest prints

(Both of these are dependent on the ink and paper used and may involve a sacrifice of quality and/or longevity)

Automatic enhancement of "poor" images


Inkjet printing - cons


Lowest quality and longevity with some inks and papers

Potentially highest cost if you include the price of a printer and don't make many prints.


Lab printing - pros


Highest quality

Longest lasting

Lowest cost (if you include the printer and don't make many prints)


Lab printing - cons


No help with poor images (or you pay extra for it)


I hope this information helps you to sort out the quite complicated issue of which type of printing will suit your needs best. If you have never tried an Internet printing service (or even if you have tried and been disappointed with the results), I recommend you try the one I use - Photobox.


They use archival paper and their quality and speed of service is the best I've come across. They will give you 30 free prints just for signing up to their free service, that should be enough to find out if their quality and speed is good enough for you before you even have to buy a print from them.


You automatically get free space to store and share your pictures online. You can even get a free gallery where you can sell your own photographs and set the prices yourself. Photobox take care of all the printing and delivery, you just collect the money.


Sign up for the free Photobox printing service here




Inkjet printing or photo lab