There’s nothing quite like a printed photo. No electronic screensaver or digital photo frame can ever truly replace a cherished photo stuck to the door of the refrigerator or framed on the mantlepiece. And even if you don’t particularly like building a collage above your bed, a few well-chosen printed photos make a great gift.
Unfortunately, while everyone has an incredible camera in their pocket, not many people have a printer at home that can do great photo prints. Instead, the best printer you have easy access to is probably in your local drug store or another retail store. Here’s how to get great results.
The Problems with (Some) Drug Store Prints
Drug store printers are, for the most part, pretty good. They’re certainly better than a cheap inkjet for printing photos. While there’s some small variation in quality based on how new and well-maintained a printer is, they’re at least the equal of an online printing service—and you get the results faster so you can check them and try again if you need to.
However, in computer programming there’s a maxim: garbage in, garbage out. It’s the same with photo printing. If someone prints a blurr, low-resolution screenshot, it doesn’t matter how good the printer is, it’s going to look terrible. In fact, it’s probably going to look worse printed out than it does on your phone screen. Printing isn’t some magical fix that can add resolution or image quality; it’s more likely to reveal flaws.
Also, other quirks of the printing process can affect the quality of your prints—even if you start with a good file. For example, screens are backlit: this gives the illusion that an image is brighter than it is, and it’s why so many printed phone photos look drab and dull. Similarly, if the aspect ratio of a photo on your phone probably doesn’t match the aspect ratio of the print size, the printer will just crop the edges off cutting out important details.
None of these issues are impossible to deal with, but you have to know they’re there.
Find the Highest Quality File
The best file to print with is almost always the original image straight from the camera—it’s the one with the highest resolution possible.
The problem is that the social media sites and chat apps people use to share their favorite photos generally compress, optimize, and otherwise mangle original files to make them quicker to upload and easier to handle. You just won’t get the best results from a photo you save from Instagram or WhatsApp, which are often the photos people try to print.
If you’re the one who took the photo, instead of downloading the copy you posted to Facebook or Twitter, go back through your photos app and find the original version. If a friend took it, contact them and ask them to send it over. Just make sure they follow our advice on sending high-resolution images.
If you can’t track down the original file, your printing options are a lot more limited. If you uploaded a high-quality file to Facebook, that might be usable for small prints, but otherwise you have to accept a loss of quality in your prints. If something looks a bit blurry when you zoom in on your phone, it’s going to be the same when you print it.
Decide on the Print Size
High-quality files don’t just make for better-looking prints, they also determine how large the print can be. The standard options are 4 inches by 6 inches (a 4×6), 5 inches by 7 inches (5×7), and 8 inches by 10 inches (8×10). You can print in either portrait or landscape orientation, so a 4×6 can either be 4 inches wide and 6 inches tall, or 6 inches wide and 4 inches tall. Most drug stores also offer square prints that are between 4 inches and 8 inches wide.
Generally, photos are printed at 300 dots-per-inch (DPI). That means for a 6-inch by 4-inch print, you want an image resolution of 1800 pixels by 1200 pixels. That’s well under the 4032 pixel by 3024-pixel image size you get from an iPhone 11 or any other smartphone with a 12-megapixel camera, but it’s still bigger than the 1080 pixel by 1350 pixel that’s the largest photo you can upload to Instagram.
If you have the original file, you’ll be able to print at any standard size you want. A 12-megapixel photo printed at full resolution at 300 dpi would be 13.44 inches by 10.08 inches—a good bit smaller than an 8×10. (Note that you can get photos printed larger as a poster or on a canvas, but that’s an entirely different process).
What matters more is the aspect ratio you choose. The aspect ration 4:3, which is the default on most smartphones, doesn’t line up with any standard print size. Here’s a photo I shot on my iPhone in its native aspect ratio.
While here’s what gets cropped at 6×4.
As you can see, whichever print you go with, you’re going to lose things at the edges. For a group photo, for example, it’s tempting to go with the largest print possible—an 8×10—but that often means cutting out anyone standing at the outside of the group. You’d actually get a better photo with a 5×7 print—which crops the ceiling and floor.
Prepare Your Photo for Printing
The basic editing tools most printing kiosks provide are horrible to use. It’s far better to use your smartphone or computer. You can fully edit your photos if you want (and it’s something we’d recommend), but you should make some simple tweaks to any photo you plan to print:
- Brighten it up a little by increasing the brightness or exposure in your editing app of choice. Photos always look brighter than they are on a screen.
- Crop the image to the right aspect ratio. This gives you control over what gets cut out rather than just letting the printer automatically center the image.
- If you’re using an iPhone, convert the HEIC file to a JPG.
At least at first, there’s no need to make any dramatic color, saturation, or sharpness adjustments. Both the JPEG conversion done by your smartphone or camera and the printer itself should give your images enough punch.
Assess the Results
Printing is an imperfect process and, without a calibrated setup, you’re always going to get some differences between how a photo appears on screen and how it appears as a print.
When you get your prints back, compare them to the original photos. If you’re happy with the results, awesome. However, if there are some differences you don’t like, you can go back to the original files and make some adjustments. For example, if the printed photos appear a bit too yellowy, you need to tweak the white balance. If they are still a bit too dark, you need to bump up the brightness a bit more.
The good news is that most printing differences tend to be fairly consistent, at least as long as you’re using the same smartphone and printer. Once you know what tweaks you have to make, you can do them every time and reliably get great prints.
Also, while I’m a huge fan of drug store printers, consider going to your local photography shop. They’ll likely use similar machines but have a bit more experience printing high-quality work—the staff will be able to help you out if things aren’t working out as you hoped.