photo of a cat emerging from an inkjet printer
PS_2/Shutterstock

With the rise of inexpensive online photo printing services, inkjet printers have fallen out of favor. But, as with any DIY project, some people claim that it’s cheaper to print photos at home. Is that really true?

A Quick Cost Comparison

Let’s break down the price difference between at-home photo printing and online printing services. We’re going to do this by comparing the price of online printing services and at-home printing. For the sake of convenience, we’re only going to look at the cost of 4×6 prints.

There are a lot of online photo printing services, but we’ll stick with the big four. Some of these services offer the occasional discount, but we’re going to pretend that those don’t exist. Shutterfly, one of the most popular photo printing services, charges $0.12 for every 4×6 print. Not bad, but Amazon, Snapfish, and Walmart will print your 4×6 photos for $0.09 each.

Alright, online printing services charge between $0.09 and $0.12 per 4×6 photo. Now we need to compare those prices to an at-home photo printing setup. So, let’s build a modest at-home printing setup. We need a solid inkjet printer, some 4×6 photo paper, and some ink.

nostalgic photos of a toddler at the beach
Iryna Tiumentseva_Shutterstock

Let’s start with the printer. The Canon Pixma IP8720 is one of the most popular at-home inkjet photo printers, and for a good reason. It produces pictures with a 9600 color DPI, and only costs $180. That’s a budget price for a pretty decent printer.

The Canon Pixma IP8720 comes with ink, but we’re going to buy a full set of ink carts for the sake of price comparison. That pack of ink will set us back $55. Canon claims that these ink cartridges will yield up to 780 photos (yeah right), which means that, at best, we’re paying $0.07 in ink for every 4×6 print.

Well, $0.07 per print sounds pretty good. But we still need to buy photo paper. Let’s buy a lot of it to get the most bang for our buck. We’ll grab a 400 pack of CanonInk’s of 4×6 glossy photo paper for $20—that’s $0.05 per sheet.

So if we ignore the fact that our printer cost us $180, we’re paying $0.12 for every 4×6 photo that we print at home. That’s the same price as Shutterfly, and a bit more expensive than some of the other online printing services.

If You Don’t Use Your Printer, Things Get More Expensive

Of course, this math is pretty idealistic. It depends on the idea that we’re using all of the ink and photo paper that we’ve purchased. If we only use our $75 of paper and ink to produce 20 photos, then we’re dropping $3.75 per photo, not $0.12.

Speaking of our printer, exactly how much does the Canon Pixma IP8720 add to the cost of each 4×6 photo that we print? Well, it depends on how much we use the printer. Our Canon Pixma IP8720 cost $180. If we only print 1,000 photos on this printer, then it’s adding $0.18 to each of our prints. If we use it 5,000 times, it’s still adding $0.03 to each print. If we wanted the printer to contribute less than $0.01 to each photo that we print, then we’d have to use it more than 18,000 times.

Geez, printing at home can get kind of expensive. But if printing photos at home costs more than printing photos online, then why would anyone buy an inkjet printer?

Printing at Home Gives You Control and Speed

a man at his laptop holding a DSLR camera
Dustin Petkovic/Shutterstock

There’s one aspect of at-home photo printing that printing services can’t match. When you print at home, you have control over everything. You can use matte paper or glossy paper, you can use special ink, and you can use a printer that produces incredible images. You also have the option to discard or change photos on the fly if you’re dissatisfied with a print, and you don’t have to wait for photos to come in the mail.

Plus, some printers make it incredibly easy to print photos directly from your phone or laptop. The Canon Pixma IP8720, for example, can connect to your phone or computer wirelessly, and it even has a mobile app. The ability to print photos directly from your phone isn’t unique to services like Shutterfly; you can do it in your own home.

Of course, most people don’t need this much control over the photos that they print, and a few days of waiting by the mailbox isn’t a big deal. Not to mention, if you don’t use all of your at-home printing supplies, then you’re going to end up spending a lot more than $0.12 per print.

Printing Services are Cheap and Easy

Aside from being ridiculously cheap, online photo printing services are also super easy to use. You don’t have to deal with a frustrating printer, and you don’t have to hunt down the perfect ink cartridges or photo paper to get the job done. With most online printing services, all you have to do is drop photos into a website or mobile app and choose how big you want your prints to be.

Not to mention, you can print your photos through an online service at any time. You don’t need to be at home, and you certainly don’t need to be anywhere near a printer.

The only real downside to online photo printing is the wait time. Shipping can take a couple of days, although some services like Walmart allow you to pick photos up in-store a few hours after you submit your order.

RELATED: The Best Photo Printing Service For Every Situation


Some quick math reveals that, unless you buy printing supplies at a discount and use them frequently, printing photos at home will always cost more than printing photos through an online service. But at-home printing does offer a level of speed and control that online services will never reach.

Photographers and scrapbookers have every reason to print their photos at home. If you print a lot of pictures, then the extra expense is justifiable. That being said, if you only need to print a few dozen photos a year, then you should probably sign up for an online printing service.

 

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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