How to Choose a Photo-Only Printer
The top performers in our review are the Epson Expression Photo XP-960, the Gold Award winner; the Epson SureColor P400, the Silver Award winner; and the Canon Pixma PRO-100, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on photo printing and how we tested and ranked the best photo printers.
If you’re like a lot of people, photos might be the only thing you print in our increasingly paperless world. Photo-only printers are designed to do just that – print photos and nothing else. Whether you’re looking to print instant snapshots to share with friends or portraits to hang on the wall, we’ve tested and reviewed the best photo printers available. To learn more, check out our articles on printer technology and products.
Types of Photo Printers
Dedicated photo printers are generally of two distinct types – snapshot printers and large-format printers. Snapshot printers are a fun and easy way to make physical prints immediately. Several of these are portable photo printers from companies more closely tied to analog photography or smartphone products such as the Fujifilm Instax Share SP-2, the LG Pocket and the Polaroid Zip. These mobile snapshot printers are designed to print photos from your smartphone on the go.
The second type of snapshot printers makes slightly more substantial prints, but the machines still limit their printing to 4 x 6 photos or a similar size. Coming from established printer companies, these home photo printers include the Canon SELPHY CP910 and the Epson PictureMate PM-400. They produce better overall photo quality but are still aimed at casual users.
A few photo printers make larger prints, up to 11 x 17 or 13 x 19. These devices may not reach the heights of print quality offered by more expensive prosumer photo printers, but they do produce big, beautiful prints that are often suitable for framing. We include three of these large format photo printers in our review: the Epson SureColor P400, the Epson Expression Photo XP-960 and the Canon Pixma PRO-100. If you want to step up to an even higher level of quality or want something to handle light professional-level printing, you’ll pay upwards of $1,000.
Photo-Only Printers: How We Tested, What We Found
The photo-only printers in our review have a variety of purposes, from fast portable printing to fine-art printing, and features vary across the board, so it was no small task to find common threads in their capabilities. Comparing these wildly different devices was even more difficult. Still, the most common concerns when buying a photo printer carry over from one to the next. Whether you need to quickly print cell phone pics or want to print portraits to display on your wall, photo quality, printing speed and the cost of use are the most important things to consider.
Obviously, the importance of each of these priorities will vary depending on how you intend to use your printer, but we took all of them into account in our evaluation to deliver the information that matters most for each printer.
Photo Print Quality
Photo printing is the heart of this review, the raison d'être of the category, and we took two different approaches to measure the devices’ print quality. First, we compared snapshot printing. Every photo printer we looked at prints snapshots in some form, whether it’s 4 x 6 photos or smaller instant prints. For this test, we printed several specially selected 4 x 6 test photos – all were high-resolution images chosen for their sharp details, bright colors and emphasis on various elements of photography. This test set not only let us judge general photo printing, but also the specific capabilities that set apart one printer from another such as the ability to blend colors without muddying, to bring out bold blacks and bright lighting without looking too dark or washed out, and the ability to handle skin tones without any unnatural color variance.
Second, we looked at large-format printing, printing test photos at 8.5 x 11 on capable machines. Not all the devices we reviewed can print at this size, but those that do vary widely in capability and quality. Some, like the Canon Pixma PRO-100, produce near-professional prints – this Canon model has an eight-cartridge ink system that handles certain midtones and blended shades far better than a regular four-color printer. In these tests, we looked for many of the same elements as in our snapshot tests but with a greater emphasis on fine detail, color consistency and color accuracy.
Many of the photo printer manufacturers place an emphasis on speed, advertising the fun of being able to immediately print your photos. There’s a strong drive to recreate the cultural cachet of the Polaroid Instant Camera in an attempt to keep photo printing relevant in the era of Instagram, a trend best exemplified by the Polaroid Zip. These instant printers are fast but produce low-quality photos overall, and they usually print photos that are smaller than 4 x 6. These printers are perfect for people who want fun and novelty more than great photo prints.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are large-format photo printers, which print very high-quality photos in much bigger sizes, but they do so much slower. Patience is required for high-quality printing, but if you want to print off something worthy of framing, it’s well worth the wait.
Most people fall between these two speed and quality extremes, and there’s a middle ground with machines that print pretty good-quality photos at medium speeds. These midrange snapshot printers are perfect for printing off photos for scrapbooks or making physical prints of cherished memories from graduations, baby showers and birthday parties.
If you plan to print a lot of photos, it’s important to know how much each will cost. Regular printers are judged by an industry standard for the cost per page, but photo printers aren’t as standardized – there aren’t any widely recognized standards for average ink use, since each photo varies widely in color and saturation. These printers use a variety of inks and papers and sometimes specialty papers and films that use no ink at all. They also print in many photo sizes and some use up to eight different colors of ink, while others use a single multicolor cartridge.
For most liquid inks, we averaged out the price by volume, calculating the cost for a single milliliter. For printers that use specialty media like instant-developing film, we calculated the cost of a single photo. As a rule, you will pay far less per photo when using liquid inks, but because there is no accurate way to estimate ink use for photos, we can’t provide a breakdown of the cost per photo across the board.
Help & Support
Whether it’s a Wi-Fi photo printer that won’t connect to your phone or a top-rated photo printer that has you confused with too many features, you need good support when things go wrong. When we rate the help and support options for a printer, we look at the warranty, various tech support venues and online support materials for fixing problems yourself.
The best printers for photos have several ways to reach support personnel, be it through phone, email or live chat. You also want information to fix some problems on your own, so we looked at the help materials the manufacturers offer such as online user manuals, FAQs, discussion forums and troubleshooting tools.
What Else Is Important?
A few printers are uniquely equipped to work with today’s many mobile devices, with connectivity support for smartphones over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Several of these wireless photo printers only print pictures through a specific app, while others support the more general protocols of Apple AirPlay and Google Cloud Print. Many also offer simple tap-to-pair functionality with phones that have a near-field communications (NFC) chip built in, which most current smartphones do.
Memory Card Support
Photographers also want to pay attention to printers that support printing directly from memory cards. While SD cards, as well as SD variants like SDHC and SDXC, are the norm, there are still plenty of photographers using cameras that rely on Sony’s MemoryStick and MemoryStick Pro Duo cards or even older formats like CompactFlash. If that’s you, check out the Epson Expression Photo XP-960, since it’s the only printer in our review to handle these alternate memory card formats.
Many cameras also let you print directly from your camera using PictBridge, which may be wired via a USB connector cable or connect wirelessly using Wi-Fi Direct. If you need wired PictBridge support, you also want to look at the Epson Expression Photo XP-960 or the Epson PictureMate PM-400. Other printers only have wireless PictBridge support, but even that isn’t universal.
Not all photo printers have batteries, but battery life is a pretty big deal for mobile photo printers. We made this information as useful as possible by determining how many default-size photos a device can print on a single charge instead of listing the general length of time the battery lasts.
Each printer’s power usage varies depending on a lot of factors, but we tried to keep our testing as close to a user’s real-world experience as possible while still keeping things standard. One major variable is the connectivity option you use, since wireless connections require the battery to power a built-in radio that cable-based connections don’t need. For the results in our comparison matrix, we used a wired connection if the printer has one. We tested both with a wired connection and a wireless connection if the printer has both, with results noted in each individual review.
The time you wait between charging the device and printing also impacts battery life, since the batteries may lose some charge even if the printer goes unused for a while. Unless otherwise indicated in the product review, we began battery testing within an hour of fully charging the printer battery.
Since there are so many small, compact and portable photo printers, we also evaluated the overall portability of each product. This letter grade is based on the physical dimensions and weight of the device, whether or not it has battery power, and our impressions from hands-on testing of how well it will travel and hold up against the bumps and bangs of being moved.
Best Photo-Only Printers: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Our Gold Award winner is the Epson Expression Photo XP-960, which not only prints superb-quality photos, but is also fast, can print large-format photos and supports specialty media.
The Silver Award goes to another Epson printer, the Epson SureColor P400. Unlike the fairly affordable Gold Award winner, the SureColor P400 is one of the more expensive printers in our review. Still, it has the widest variety of print capabilities, prints gallery-quality photos and supports media like fine-art paper.
The Canon Pixma PRO-100 earns our Bronze Award as a prosumer photo printer that’s more affordable than the many $1,000-plus units on the market for professionals. Even at its price, it doesn’t skimp on the professional-grade features.
While they couldn’t match the larger printers for sheer picture quality or feature set, there are some very capable snapshot printers on the market. For mobile printing, we’re big fans of the Polaroid Zip, a pocket-size printer that lets you quickly print photos from your phone. Its compact size, simple functionality and ink-free printing make it a great choice for snapshot printing on the go.
For the most affordable option, look no further than the Canon SELPHY CP910 Wireless, a compact photo printer that’s perfect for running off 4 x 6 images. Though it’s not without its flaws, it generally prints good-quality photos, can be portable and has a very reasonable price.