Updated on 02.08.11

Does Home Photo Printing Really Save Money?

Trent Hamm

During the fall of 2010, I posted a series of articles on homemade Christmas gifts. Among these were personalized photo cards and stationery and photo cubes, both of which required a pretty solid supply of photographs.

Rachel's examples

Thus, I had the opportunity to print off quite a few photos at home in order to make these projects happen. I purchased a couple boxes of blank 4″ by 6″ prints at Sam’s Club, along with some fresh printer cartridges, and had a great deal of fun printing off photos for these projects (complementing some prints ordered from stores – we used a lot of prints).

This seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity to do a real cost comparison between buying prints from a store or printing them yourself at home. So, that’s exactly what I did.

Most of the costs were clear and straightforward.

For the pictures, I purchased a Canon PG-210XL/CL211 combo pack for $59.88. Since I really only utilized one of the three cartridges in this pack (the other two were black and white), my cartridge cost was $19.96. The other cartridges will provide a lot of black and white printing over the next year or so.

For the photo paper, I purchased two packages of HP 4″ by 6″ photo paper, which included 200 blanks each, for $19.88 each. This makes for a cost-per-sheet of approximately $0.10.

After searching around, I was able to get 4″ by 6″ photo prints from Target for $0.15 each.

The one piece of information still needed is how many prints can I get out of a single cartridge?

Obviously, I wanted the prints to have a high degree of quality, so I turned the quality settings up pretty high for these prints. Having said that, I got 116 prints out of the cartridge before I began to notice color problems.

Thus, the cost per sheet for the ink is $19.96 divided by 116, or $0.17 per sheet. Add that to the cost of $0.10 for the paper itself and you have a cost of $0.27 per print. This is substantially more expensive than the store purchased print offer I had in hand ($0.15 each), and it does not include the prorated cost of the printer (a fraction of which comes from each document printed with it).

So, clearly, if you have a large set of prints to make, you’re better off price-hunting for a service to handle it for you than printing it yourself at home.

Three finished cubes

Of course, as with anything, it pays to shop around in every regard. Some printers are certainly going to have a lower cost per sheet. You may also be able to find prints to buy for lower than fifteen cents per sheet if you shop around, particularly if you have introductory coupons for sites like Shutterfly.

What role does home printing really have, then?

For us, home printing works for things like snapshots needed for home art projects. Home printing is useful when my son needs a picture for a preschool show and tell about his family.

In short, it’s still a good option when convenience is at a premium. If you simply need a print or two for some immediate purpose, home printing really works quite well. It’s far less expensive and less time-consuming than going somewhere to make an instant print.

However, if you have any simple capacity to plan ahead or delay the printing, wait and use a service. Home printing is a great convenience, but it’s a costly one that quickly adds up.

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  1. Andrew says:

    I was under the impression that some of the black ink would be coming from the black cartridges as well. That would increase your per print cost.

    Also printing at home does not always help you to attain the best looking color from your photographs due to monitor and printer irregularities.

  2. mary says:

    Just this weekend I was at a friend’s house and she was printing off photographs and I wondered about this. So this article was a great insight, though I expect costs vary depending on what kind of printer you have and how expensive the ink is for your printer. Also, if you bought a dedicated photo printer (which is what my friend had, and she said it cost about $100), that would add to your cost per print.

  3. Julie says:

    When you live in the city or suburbs, you barely even have to plan ahead to use a service. My daughter needed pictures for a science project this past Sunday. She took the pictures at 2:00 PM on Sunday and I emailed them to Costco. I picked them up at the local Costco (5 minutes from my house) by 3:10 PM. I also did some grocery shopping while there. Thank heavens for small conveniences like these!

  4. Alexis says:

    $.15 per sheet is an expensive cost for printing, too. If you go thru a mail -order service like Snapfish or Shutterfly, the cost per 4×6 is $.09 or less. Makes it an even better deal….good to know.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I don’t know how I missed the photo cube post, but I LOVE that idea! I may paint the cubes first to have a fun theme going (pink and white, or green and beige, for example). We also use Costco for all of our photos, since our inkjet printer is an ink HOG! Costco is fast, and the prints are far superior than what I can find at Sam’s club or Target. This is a great post Trent, I love reading your articles.

  6. Mister E says:

    This was our experience when my wife bought a photo printer a few years back.

    I never did the math but had a general sense that we were paying more than needed based on how many cartridges we had to buy. It’s good to see the math.

    We did use it for small one off jobs like going to a parents and wanting to give them a recent photo from a trip or something before we’d gone through them all to have a whole batch printed.

  7. S01 says:

    I do a fair amount of printing due to one of my hobbies and so track my costs very carefully as it’s not uncommon for me to print 100 A4 pages a month. You can pull your ink costs down significantly by getting hold of refillable cartridges for your printer. There specially designed cartridges to be continually refilled not a refill kit, you can get hold of them all over ebay.

    You’ll also find if you buy standard A4/sized sized photopaper you should get a better price per sheet and per photograph than when buying the special 4×6 sized paper.

    Anyways saying all that I do tend to print mostly in full sheet A4 so my cost comparison tends to be a little different but running my printer/paper etc my cost per A4 print on matte photopaper is between 20-25c (thats for me downunder)a page depending on what deal I get on the ink/paper at the time :). I know people in the US who have got there printing costs down to <15c a page due to the cheaper and more avaliable sources of photo paper and Ink.

    So shop around you should be able to beat those 15c target prints if you really want to.

    I use an Epson photo RX510 if anyone wondered :)

  8. Riki says:

    I’m a photographer and I fully recognize that I am way pickier than the average consumer.

    I find at-home printing to be way, way too expensive for the quality you usually end up with. Not to mention, the ink-jet inks just don’t have the same longevity as professional inks. They typically fade over time and come nowhere near producing accurate colour. Also, if the printer doesn’t get used regularly, the nozzles will clog and you run the risk of wasting a lot of the ink before it gets used.

    Personally, I use a professional print house (and it costs a lot more than $0.15 per 4×6) but most big box stores do decent prints now. In Canada, I recommend Shoppers Drug Mart.

  9. Jules says:

    I usually go for 5×7 inch prints or larger, rather than 4×6–and no, I don’t print that many photos. I’ve never really trusted inkjets to match the quality of getting a print service to do it…

  10. Leah says:

    I also have found that it is much cheaper for me to use an online printing source. I print at Walgreens if I need photos _that_day. Otherwise, I use winkflash (they regularly run good deals). Bonus, too, that I can often get other neat products. I just received a canvas 16×20 print from them for ~$45 with shipping. It turned out really awesome, and my photo honestly does look like a painting (tho part of that is due to the photo itself). I’m a huge fan of printing online and all the different things you can put a photo on.

  11. Thank you so much for this. I can’t believe I didn’t think to figure it out myself. Not only is it more expensive, it’s a complete pain in the *(&#%^&*&@Q! The best reprint price I have found for images in 9 cents each, so that’s a significant savings!

  12. valleycat1 says:

    My spouse uploads photos to SmugMug, where we can share them online with family & friends. If we want a hard copy, SmugMug’s prices start at .19 to .21 each depending on the finish (standard 4×6 glossies are .19 each) & we’ve been happy with the quality.

  13. brad says:

    Your Oct. 27th 2010 post summarized all of this information into about four sentences. Thanks for the legwork though!

  14. leslie says:

    I learned a while ago that having a home printer was much more trouble than it’s worth and have not had one for years now. For the infrequent amount of printing I do, I can take care of it at a store, work or at a friend’s house.

  15. Andrew says:

    I happily send my photos to Costco. For those with an interest in color management, Dry Creek Photo provides up-to-date ICC profiles for many Costco photo centers. My monitors at home are profiled and calibrated so with an ICC profile for my neighborhood Costco I can send them files and know I’ll get back a great looking print.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    @Riki — Totally agreed with you about longevity! I have pictures on my fridge, which gets no direct or even indirect sunlight, and the home-printed pictures faded like crazy while the photo lab ones are still going strong!

    In the past when I’ve had colour printers, the ink often dries up or something goes wrong before I get my full money’s worth. Now I pay a print shop to do colour stuff for me on the odd occasion I need something. I still find it much cheaper.

  17. Michele says:

    I learned this a long time ago when photo printers were all the rage…and consequently donated my photo printer to charity. Shutterfly is the way to go!

  18. Mari says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve wondered about this.

  19. lurker carl says:

    Once upon a time, we printed quite a few photos but quickly became disenchanted due to the poor quality, short lived results and expense of the materials consumed. Now we use digital photo frames, most of our family does too.

  20. Jon says:

    About every other flyer that Walgreens sends out has some sort of photo printing offer, and I’ve taken advantage of these to get prints at $0.10 in an hour, by uploading them on their web site, and picking up at the closest store.
    When I figure in the cost of my time to mess around with figuring out how to print the photos on my home printer, etc., it just doesn’t make sense, except for a one-off print to give someone in a hurry.

  21. Karen says:

    @Riki #8
    I had no idea my home-printed photos wouldn’t last. Yikes! I maintain 4 scrapbooks for the grandparents (adding a couple of pages each year) and expect them to be handed down for the next 100 years. Will the photos printed at the corner store last that long, or are there specific pro shops I should be looking at? Obviously the prints don’t see much daylight, and are paired with acid-free stuff.

  22. Squirrelers says:

    Really, I think this is one of those situations where it’s important to consider the value of one’s time. Sure, it’s possible to save a little bit by printing at home. But at what cost in terms of time? Overall, when considering time, convenience, cost, and quality – it works for me to outsource photo printing to someone else.

  23. Anna says:

    Did you figure how much cheaper refiling you ink is the 2nd time around, Walgreens does it for about $6-10/cartridge. Since the printer is already a sunk cost, the next cartridge round of prints will obviously be cheaper.

  24. Carrie says:

    I bought a large format photo printer for some projects at home, such as scrapbook pages, personalized photo announcements, etc. At the time I bought the printer, I found that the price per item for my project specifications would be greater through another business than the cost to print at home.

    I found that that for my printer and usage, 8×10 and larger are where I see savings. I still print smaller things occasionally, since I live in a rural area, and the closest in person photo printer is about 20 minutes away.

  25. I still say these cost breakdowns only apply to 4×6 or 5×7. I mainly print 8×10’s and run about 1$ for matt finish (pro quality paper) prints, or 2$ for high gloss. I haven’t found any online place that’s cheaper (this size is a BIG price jump over 4×6) when you factor in shipping and tax, though I do use online for oversized prints and metallic papers. I have been selling my photos in galleries for the last 4 years and have not noticed a lack of quality or longevity in my home prints. As an artist I need to proof and tweak my prints to make color adjustments, so I need to see and compare multiples of prints for final selection. My current printer is Canon ip4820 which I just bought for 75.

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