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How to Pick The Best Way to Print Your Photos

You’ve taken the perfect shot and processed it to perfection…now what? You want to share your image with the world, and to be able to display or sell your work you’ll have to get your photograph printed. Even for experienced photographers, printing can be the most daunting part of the photo-making process, but it really doesn’t have to be! Here, we demystify printing and look at where best to print, and which printing method will suit your budget and desired result. 

printers in color

First we’ll take a look at your options for where to get your printing done, and then we’ll take a look at traditional vs digital print methods. Guaranteed, you’ll find the perfect choice for your project…

1. Where Should I Go to Print My Photos?

Decades ago, printing your photos outside of a dark room used to be a costly process, with fewer trade printers around to do the job. Now, with the spread of digital printing, there are lots more options for getting your photos printed. You can find a printer that will suit your budget, desired finish, and turnaround requirements.

Trade Printers, Photo Labs and Printshops

If you want a job done well, from someone who really knows their stuff about printing, you can’t go wrong with tracking down an experienced trade printer. Google ‘photographic trade printing’ or ‘photo lab’ and you’ll find printers who specialise in printing photos to a very high standard. 

Due to their specialised nature, many photo labs are located in cities, which gives them easy access to their client-base, so you might struggle to find an experienced photo print specialist in a small town. Photo labs are often tasked with printing archival-standard images for galleries, museums and art fairs, so they really do know a thing or two about making amazing prints.

genesis photo lab
Genesis Imaging, a specialised photo lab based in London, UK

Most towns will have at least one trade printer who has experience with printing a wide range of media, including photos, stationery, books, and maybe even signage. If a trip to a bigger city to track down a photo lab isn’t an easy option, these more localised trade printers are well worth talking to. Most trade printers will have years of experience, and will be able to advise you on the best method and paper finishes for producing your prints.

Printshops might be attached to a trade printer as part of their business or stand-alone, providing a broader range of print services for local businesses, such as document and flyer printing. Printshops will still stock a wide range of paper finishes and have access to good printing equipment, and they may be better value too. If you want the face-to-face experience of talking to a printer about your project but don’t want to blow the budget, a print shop is a great choice. You can also request a prepress proof before committing to the full print job. 

The pros: Access to one-on-one professional expertise, superior printing methods, prepress proofs and advice, services for mounting and framing.

The cons: Can be expensive for one-off photo printing jobs and can take more time than print-on-demand methods.

Local Drugstore Printer

Many large drugstore chains offer photo printing as a service. It’s quick and convenient…but is it any good? For printing photos on the cheap it’s fantastic—simply drop your photos off and receive your prints within the same day, if not instantly. 

walmart photo printing
Walmart Photo Printing Service

The quality, however, can be variable and unpredictable, so really this method is only suitable if you just want print copies of your photos quickly, to show friends or family, or as proof prints.

The pros: Inexpensive, convenient and quick.

The cons: Unpredictable results and questionable quality.

Online Print Service Provider (PSP)

Due to advances in print-on-demand (POD) technology, online print service providers (PSPs) have multiplied and flourished the last few years. Google ‘print photos online’ and you’ll find a huge range of options, including Snapfish, Photobox and Shutterfly

snapfish online printer
Snapfish Print-on-Demand Online Service

In this article, Dawn Oosterhoff takes a PSP for a test drive, to find out how to get the best results from these online printshops:

The pros: Budget-friendly, easy to use and a wide range of available finishes, sizes and even products.

The cons: No face-to-face contact or prepress proofs before paying for the full print job can feel like a risk.

Printing at Home

Remember the days when your at-home printer would struggle to push out a stripey, black-and-white, blurry image onto thin office paper? Yep, me too. Now, thankfully, the dark days of dodgy home-printing are well behind us. Digital printing technology has evolved and better printers have become cheaper for at-home customers.

print at home

 An at-home printer might be an initial investment, but the quality and convenience factor makes it a serious competitor for trade printers and PSPs. We’ll take an in-depth look at the different sorts of digital printers you can buy a little later in the article. 

The pros: Immediate results, on-hand calibration and editing while you print, and ever-improving at-home ptinting technology.

The cons: Initial expense of buying a printer and restrictions on print sizing.

2. Traditional Printing Methods

Online PSPs and most printshops specialise in digital printing, but many trade printers and photo labs will still rely, at least for some jobs, on more traditional printing methods. Traditionalists would argue that older printing methods give photographs a particularly special quality. If your heart is set on printing your images the old-school way, you’ve got a couple of popular options to choose from. Let’s take a look…

Darkroom Printing

darkroom printing
Developing photos in a darkroom

You might not have used a darkroom to develop your photos since college, but it’s still a lovely method of producing prints. The technique feels ceremonious, and helps you connect with the photographic method in a much more in-depth way. This is an obvious print technique to use if you’re a film camera devotee, but there are some specialist companies, like Firstcall, who can develop your digital photos using a darkroom technique.

firstcall
Firstcall, a UK-based company who specialise in developing digital prints using darkroom methods

If you want to experiment with darkroom printing yourself, you can create a simple darkroom at home. Jose Antunes and Cameron Knight show you how:

If you’re lusting after the darkroom look but don’t have the space or budget to make one at home, you can instead send off your film to companies like California-based The Darkroom who will develop the prints for you.

The pros: A fun, in-depth photo development experience that makes you feel like a serious pro, and the results, when done right, can be spectacular.

The cons: It takes some practice to get your prints looking exactly as you want them to. The process can also be fiddly and time-consuming.

Offset Printing

Offset lithography printing is an industrial method of printing whereby inks are applied to aluminium plates and transferred onto the paper using a set of rollers. A digital version of your photo is processed on a computer, separated into CMYK colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and ‘Key’ [Black], which together make up the full spectrum of colors) and sent to a plate-making machine. This creates four separate plates, each with its own color, which are then fed into the printer. As the paper moves through each set of rollers inside the printer, the colors on the plates mix, creating a full-color image. 

offset printing checking proof
Checking a prepress proof before offset printing

Most trade printers will use either offset printing or digital printing, or have both methods to hand, to produce your print. So why choose offset printing over digital? Let’s break it down:

The pros: Offset printing produces a very high-quality result, and it’s possible to print onto a wide range of media, such as paper, card, board, aluminium, and canvas. If your photo contains a large amount of solid color, offset printing will ensure that these areas of the image are printed seamlessly and to a very high standard.

The cons: Offset printing can be costly for low-quantity print jobs. If you’re producing a single print for display this can make it an expensive, albeit high-quality, option. If, say, you’re producing a large number of prints for sale however, offset printing can be very good value. Make sure to get a quote for various quantities from the printer—you might well find that the difference between printing 50 and 150 prints is actually quite minimal. The initial high cost is in setting up the print job.

3. Digital Printing Methods

Digital printing is fast becoming the main player in industrial printing, and it’s completely dominated the at-home printing market. Because many large print companies, like Epson and Canon, manufacture machines for both the commercial printing industry and the at-home market, much of the technology is the same across both arenas, which means you can buy into industry-standard technology at a smaller scale for the home.

Digital printing is winning over customers for its convenience, its ability to perform print-on-demand (POD) services, and, increasingly, its excellent quality. There are a number of different digital print technologies, each of which suit particular purposes and budgets. Whether you’re planning to buy a home printer or want to know what to ask for at the printshop, these are the main digital print methods you need to know about.

Inkjet

Affordable inkjet printers changed the face of at-home printing a decade ago, allowing individuals to print their own high-quality photos onto good paper at home. The technology is relatively simple—paper is fed into the printer and a print head squirts small amounts of colored ink onto the surface of the paper as it scans back and forth. Like offset printing, inkjet printing uses a set of four CMYK inks (and sometimes more) to create a full-color image. The final printed image is called a giclée, which comes from the French word for nozzle, gicleur.

Most commercial digital printers will use some form of inkjet technology to produce prints. It’s a tried-and-tested, good value option for printing photos to a very high standard. 

large format inkjet printer from Epson
A large format inkjet printer

The pros: Affordable for at-home and commercial printing, convenient print-on-demand (POD) technology, and ability to print onto a wide range of media.

The cons: At-home inkjet printing is an initial investment, and there are restrictions on the size of prints you can produce at home. For large-scale prints you’ll have to go to a commercial printer. 

Dye-Sublimation

Dye-sublimation printers use heating elements to transfer dye onto the surface of the paper. The dye is stored on a cellophane ribbon inside the printer, which is made up of three colored panels, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, plus a protective overcoat. When the paper is passed through the printer, the dye heats up and turns to gas, which then solidifies on the paper as it cools. When the paper has passed though all three colored panels, the overcoat bonds to the paper to form a protective layer. 

dye sublimation printing
Dye sublimation printing uses a range of colored panels to produce a full-color image

The pros: Dye-sublimation prints are made up of a continuous tone, which gives it a similar appearance to a traditional darkroom print. Some dye-sublimation printers are portable and run on batteries, which makes them a great choice for events photographers who want to produce and sell prints on the day of the event. 

The cons: Paper size is restricted by the length of ribbon in a dye-sublimation printer, which means you will have to seek out a larger printer model if you want a large print. The quality of colored prints is high, but black-and-white prints can vary in quality, mainly due to the lack of a black dye panel in most dye-sublimation printers. 

Conclusion: Making the Best Printing Choice for Your Project

In this article we’ve taken a look at some of the best options for printing your photographs, including where to print and how to print. 

In terms of where to print you have a huge range of options at your fingertips. If you want the convenience factor you can’t beat your local drugstore printer or a handy online print service provider (PSP). If you want more control over the result, trade printers and photo labs can give you expert advice and provide proofs, which makes them ideal for when you want your print to be particularly special. There’s also now a huge range of affordable and excellent at-home printers, which allow you to do the job from the comfort of your own home. 

at home printing

Your decision about where to print might also be influenced by how you’d like the print to look. This is determined by the print method you choose, which will be either traditional (darkroom or offset) or digital. While traditional methods might produce prints with a particular quality that’s difficult to match with digital methods, you might decide that a convenient and cost-effective digital option might be a better fit for your project.

Although there are other digital print technologies in the market, such as laser printing, inkjet and dye-sublimation technologies are the only two print methods which are really suitable for photographic prints. Both of these methods are available at home and at commercial printers. 

Printing your photos can feel like a daunting endeavour. There really is so much choice! Consider your budget and desired result before you begin, and don’t be afraid to shop around. Request quotes from commercial printers and ask for a printing demo if you’re considering investing in an at-home printer. 

Have you experimented with getting your photos printed professionally? Are you a darkroom devotee or a digital printing convert? We’d love to hear about your printing experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly! Let us know about them in the comments below.