This article was first published on 2007-07-19. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  All I really know is that they’re invaluable and irreplaceable.

The quality and longevity of printed photos depend entirely on the ink and paper used.  That’s true of traditional photography as well as digital.  I’m sure many of us have seen family photos from the 50’s and 60’s where the color is off or faded.  The early color photos degraded at a much faster rate than the black & white photos of old.

Printing Them On Your Inkjet

The recommendations vary greatly on exactly the best way to print photographs on an inkjet printer.  There is a lot of information out there on the internet to research (see Dig Deeper below for links).  However, things have certainly simplified over the years.  Now you can print from iPhoto, Photoshop, the software your camera came with or even directly from your camera.  And you can typically get a decent print by just following the basic software/printer settings.  More advanced users will want to research DPI, color adjustments, etc.  For the best results, follow these general recommendations:

  1. Buy a decent quality digital camera.  There is some real junk out there.  At the risk of inciting a riot, 5 megapixels is plenty for most users – the quality of the camera, lens and CCD is more important than the number of megapixels.  See David Pogue’s article for more information.
  2. Buy a decent quality photo printer.  It doesn’t have to be the most expensive.  Macworld and CNET are a couple of sources that regularly review photo printers.  In addition, I personally seek out customer reviews for that real-world perspective.  Avoid printers without the “photo” designation.  These are typically only suitable for printing documents.
  3. Buy the printer manufacturer’s ink refills.  Yes, they’re more expensive, but independent testing by the respected Wilhelm Imaging Research group shows that third-party inks can begin to degrade and fade within a year.  You read that right.  Original manufacturer ink is rated between 11 to over 200 years depending on storage method, paper, etc.
  4. Use the printer manufacturer’s photo paper.  Again, independent testing shows that you will get better results.  The ink and paper are designed to work together.  Use only photo paper.  Avoid standard paper, as it is not designed for photos.
  5. Consider a printer with “archival” ink.  Epson’s version is “Claria” inks, HP has Vivera, etc.  These inks combined with the manufacturer’s photo paper produce sharper images and can last over 200 years or more.  “Standard” ink is rated to last 25-50 years.


Third-Party Print Services

You have two options here.  Head down to your local photo processor or upload to an online service.  Quality can vary greatly.  CNET has the most recent review of the online services.  Macworld has an older review that also includes traditional photo processors. 

For traditional photo processors, you take the memory card from your camera, insert it in the kiosk, and follow the onscreen prompts.  It is less intimidating than you might think.  And don’t worry about compatibility – most kiosks accept every form of memory card plus CD-ROMs and even floppy discs.  You’ll be able to resize, crop, remove red-eye, etc.  If you manage your photos in iPhoto, you can manipulate them, export to a CD-ROM or memory card, and insert it into the same kiosk to print.  The processor then prints your photos on professional equipment, usually while you wait.

For online processors, you either use their web site to upload photos or specialized software.  iPhoto even has built-in Kodak photo processing.  Pricing for the various services starts around 12 cents for a 4×6 print and goes up from there.  Online printers use the same professional equipment as your local processor.  You’ll definitely want to research the quality of the services as they vary greatly.  If you don’t trust the reviews or recommendations out there, you could always send a test photo to each and see which one provides the best combination of quality, ease of use, price and service.  Snapfish personally works for me, but your mileage will vary.

For the best of both worlds, Walmart, Wolf/Ritz Camera, Walgreens, CVS, Sams Club and Costco all let you upload online and pick up at your local store within an hour.  While this will save you shipping costs (which begin at a very reasonable 99 cents and go up depending on the number and size of prints), it’s might not be enough to offset the cost of gas, your time and wear & tear on your car (a quick way to figure this out is multiply the number of miles you’ll drive by 44.5 cents, the amount the US government and many corporations compensate employees for driving their own car for business).  But if you make it part of errands you had to run anyway, it might be worth it.  Plus you get your photos a lot quicker.

There are many choices in printing your digital photographs.  Experiment a little to find out what works best for you.

Chuck Konfrst uses a Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR camera and rarely prints them from his Epson RX 580 all-in-one printer.  On the rare occasions he prints photos (he usually shares them online), he uses the SnapFish online service.