True photo printers – as opposed to standard inkjets that manufacturers merely call photo printers – fall into two broad categories at the consumer level: Dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers.
As the name indicates, dedicated (also known as small-format) photo printers can print nothing but photos. They are typically limited to a maximum paper size of 2 x 3in, 4 x 6in, or 5 x 7in (or panoramic variations on these sizes), but the category isn't defined just by its limits. These printers are relatively small and portable. They're also much less computer printers than they are standalone consumer electronics products, with an emphasis on ease of use. There are few of them still on the market these days.
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 x 19in, 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 are the questions that will help you home in on the right choice of photo printer for you.
Do you need a photo printer or something more?
There's no such thing as a dedicated or near-dedicated photo printer all-in-one, but some dedicated photo printers add functions beyond printing. Most include menus with basic editing to crop an image, remove redeye, and the like. A few add so many editing choices that they're essentially home photo kiosks, often including a large touchscreen to let you easily give commands. These often also add features like the ability to scan slides and film negatives. Some also include enough memory to store hundreds of photos, so you can bring the printer with you, show the photos, and print them out on the spot. Finally, some dedicated photo printers are built into other kinds of devices, like a photo frame or a camera.
Near-dedicated photo printers don't offer the same kinds of extras as dedicated models. By definition, however, they're also capable of printing standard business documents, although it's generally 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, mainly because you have to swap out ink cartridges when you switch between glossy and plain paper. 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 easily switch between photo paper and plain paper.
How much does the printer cost to own and run?
Check the running cost and total cost of ownership if you can. Unfortunately, this may be impossible for near-dedicated photo printers, since there's currently no widely accepted standard for calculating cost per photo. For dedicated photo 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 a dedicated photo printer, 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.
Do you print black and white photos?
With most printer categories, you should consider whether you really need colour. Photo printers turn the question on its head, so you should consider whether you need black and white, which many printers can't handle well. The most common flaw is a tint, or different colour tints for different shades of grey. If you print black and white photos, you'll need to check out black and white photo quality quite apart from the printer's colour 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 we don't use monochrome images to test small-format printers).
How big a printer are you comfortable with?
Inexpensive dedicated photo 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, 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.
Near-dedicated photo printers are far larger than most standard inkjets, because they're typically designed for printing on cut-paper sheets as large as 13 x 19in, as well as banner-size variations in some cases. Some print from roll paper as well. Beyond the printer size itself, however, some printers need additional room behind them.
To print on large-size 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 device, 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, or can feed large-size cut sheets from a standard tray, or both.
How are you going to connect?
Or, more broadly, what do you want to print from? Most dedicated photo printers can print from a computer over a USB connection, but they're really meant as standalone devices. Most newer models come with Wi-Fi connectivity. Most print directly from PictBridge cameras and memory cards (make sure the printer is compatible with the memory-card format you want to use). Nearly as many models can print from USB thumb drives. 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. Finally, some can connect by Bluetooth to print from cell phones and other Bluetooth devices.
The options for near-dedicated photo printers are pretty much the same as for standard office printers. Some models offer just a single USB connector, while others add a second USB connector for sharing between two computers, or an Ethernet connector for easy sharing on a network; some offer Wi-Fi connectivity as well, and a few offer USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. Few models offer PictBridge connectors or similar choices, because the assumption is that serious photographers will want to print from photo editing programs on their computers.
What level of output quality do you need?
With dedicated photo printers, almost any inkjet or thermal dye printer will at least match the output quality you'll typically see in drugstore prints. A newer technology called ZINK, which is currently limited to printers with either a 2 x 3in or 4 x 6in print size, offers lower-quality output, which is best described as good enough for photos that will wind up in a wallet or behind a refrigerator magnet. Whatever printer you're considering, be sure to check on the output quality before buying.
Any near-dedicated photo printer should offer output quality suitable for a professional photographer's exhibition prints. However, you obviously have to check to make sure. Bear in mind 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 colour 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 x 6s that you might hand out for people to look through. Photos from most contemporary printers 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 colour prints last about 20 years when exposed to air.
How much speed do you need?
Don't worry too much about speed. For photos, quality matters more, and even the slowest printers today offer tolerable print speeds, at about 2 minutes for a 4 x 6 in 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 you're printing from.
How much will you print?
The usual rule for printers is to find out the printer's monthly duty cycle (the maximum you can print per month) and its recommended duty cycle, and make sure the recommended duty cycle is more than you plan to print. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible with most dedicated and near-dedicated photo printers.
Most manufacturers don't rate the duty cycle for these printers. That's as inexcusable as a car manufacturer not telling you how often to change your oil, but, for now at least, it's what you have to live with. The rule of thumb for these printers is: If you'll be printing enough that you're concerned about the duty cycle, and the manufacturer doesn't rate the duty cycle, don't buy the printer. Instead, you may need to look for printers aimed strictly at professional photographers and retail stores.
While you're here, you might also want to check out our handy tips to help you get the most out of your printer.