HP introduced a new line of printers recently, with one model starting at $40, or barely more than the ink cartridges for it that cost $21. A British consumer magazine has exposed the deceptive and price-gouging practices of inkjet printer manufacturers. No wonder most of HP’s profits come from their printing business, their computer division being a mere hanger-on, and they have adopted King Gillette’s “give away the razor, sell the blades” business model with a vengeance.
Printing photos on an inkjet paper is particularly expensive since most of the paper surface is covered in ink, unlike conventional documents where the ratio is only 5% of so. If you are a digital photographer needing to make prints, you should look beyond the low purchase price for these printers, as there are far better options available.
There are many processes to produce prints from digital originals. You can use inkjet printers, dye-sublimation printers, Fuji’s Pictrography, and digital minilabs. Color laser printers are relatively economical, but are best used for office documents rather than photos as their output is not particularly vivid. Inkjet printers have vivid colors but their results fade very quickly (apart from a handful of pigment-based ink models from Epson in their 2000/2100/2200 series). Dye sublimation printers have excellent smooth colors, and last longer thanks to their protective overcoat layer, but are usually expensive to run and have limited paper size options. Fuji’s Pictrography process is a true photographic process, but both printers and media are expensive, and it is most suitable for professional photographers who need to produce in-house proof prints for clients on a deadline, but cannot afford a $175,000 digital minilab.
This leaves what is in my opinion the best option for obtaining prints, digital minilabs. These are machines that expose conventional (silver) photo paper with lasers or LEDs. The key players are Fuji with their Frontier system, Noritsu (Kodak’s partner) and Agfa with their d-Lab. All of these systems will yield excellent, smudge-proof and durable prints, and are invariably far more cost-effective than the alternatives. You can get 4in x 6in (10cm x 15cm) prints made for as low as 20 cents each online or at many places like Costco. In many cases, you can just insert a memory card or CD in a kiosk system like the Fuji Aladdin, select your pictures, crop and adjust contrast, and they will be sent to the minilab to be printed within an hour.
Digital minilabs are usually limited to 8in x 10in or 11in x 14in prints. For larger sizes, you need to use a professional lab that uses high-end large-format machines like the Cymbolic Lightjet or Durst Lambda, which use lasers as well, but operate on large rolls of photo paper for advertising and other high-end applications. I have had a 4in x 100in panoramic print (yes, you read that right) made on a Lightjet by Pictopia.com, with excellent results. These services are usually more expensive, about $10-15 per square foot, but use higher quality professional grade paper rather than the consumer-level kind (usually thinner and not quite as durable) used by mass-market shops.