Photo printers vs online printing services: Which is best?

Photo printers vs online printing services: Which is best?
(Image credit: Epson)

Photo printers versus online printer services – it's a battle that's tougher to pick a side on than ever before as photo printers improve and lower in price while online services do the same. So which is best for you?

We're going to dive into the pros and cons for each so you can best pick the option that suits your needs. Some factors to have in mind are how often will you need photos printed, what size will you need and how much are you willing to spend on the best photo printer  or best online photo printing service for you?

It's also worth noting that some printers like the best all in one printers, also work as photo printers, so you can get more features for your purchase price if you opt for one of these. 

Now, lets run through the pros and cons of both photo printers and photo printing services to help you choose the best option for you.

Photo printers are more affordable than ever

Photo printers used to be something reserved for professional use only but now, thanks to the advances in inkjet and laser technologies, they're affordable enough to have in your own home. But, as is the case with much tech, the more you spend the better the quality and number of features.

So if you want to knock out a few prints to share with friends and family that's an option with these models. The high-end Canon PIXMA PRO-100, for example, will produce some of the best quality photos at up to A3 size at about $1.68. Or go for a more standard size of four by six inches and it works out at about 26 cents a photo. But there are far cheaper options, more on that below.

Best photo printers

(Image credit: Canon)

Online services are great for bulk prints

If the plan is to print a whole host of photos then it might be more affordable and easier to do it in bulk using an online photo service. It doesn't necessarily work out that much cheaper in terms of ink, but when you factor in the cost of the printer and paper too, these service can be more affordable. 

The advantage here is that you will get a very fine print result, in cases like Snapfish or Shutterfly. But also you'll have all those photos at once without the need to buy a printer, ink or paper. These are great for things like mail outs with photos or seasonal cards.

Photo printers are faster

Alright, the photo printer itself might not be faster than the ones the professional services use, but when you factor in delivery, you're going to have that picture in your hand a whole lot quicker. So if it's speed you're after, from taking the photo to having it in physical form, a photo printer is hands-down the best option.

But even this has a caveat since there are walk-in services at places like Walgreens which offer a very fast turn around on prints, offering free same day printing.

Epson Expression Photo XP-970

(Image credit: Epson)

Online printers offer lots of formats

Since you probably will require more than one size photo each time you print, an online service may be more helpful. Sure, there are lots of printers that offer varying sizes, but for the really big options – which can look great in the home on a wall – you may need to think bigger, like pro grade photo printers.

But it's not just about size, online print services offer lots of other options beyond basic photo prints. You can get photo books, calendars, photo albums, canvas prints, novelty mugs, keychains, cushions and plenty more. 

Online photo printing is cheaper than at home prints

The bottom line on price is that online printing, even with delivery, is cheaper. You can use an online service to get a four by six inch photo for as little as $0.09. By comparison the ink in a print from Canon can work out as little as $0.07 per print. 

But then you need to factor in paper. Without even factoring in the cost of the printer itself, this still works out (buying paper in bulk too) at a cost of $0.12 per photo.

Keep in mind these numbers are based on using all the ink and paper for photos, which realistically isn't going to happen and there will likely be waste – putting the price up even higher for at home printing. 

HP Sprocket

(Image credit: HP)

Photo printers can let you go portable

In some rare cases, like the HP Sprocket, it's possible to print on the move, instantly. This portable photo printer uses "Zink" tech with heat-activated paper to get the prints. Admittedly they're not the best quality but they're plenty good enough to be classed as photo prints.

The downside is you're limited to two by three inch photos and the ink and paper aren't cheap. That said, for the novelty factor of taking a photo and printing it right out from a printer that fits in your pocket, it can be well worth the extra few bucks.

A printer at home can do more

If you do shell out on your own printer then you could go for an all-in-one option which prints photos but also serves you in other ways. This can be your go-to printer for text, graphics and more. Some even print labels for CDs and stickers and there are plenty with useful features like scanning and copying – making this a valuable home office addition.

It's also worth noting that some all-in-one printers use bulk ink tech meaning you can get a whole lot of prints for less.

Luke Edwards

Luke is a veteran tech journalist with decades of experience covering everything from TVs, power tools, science and health tech to VPNs, space, gaming and cars. You may recognize him from appearances on plenty of news channels or have read his words which have been published in most tech titles over the years. In his spare time (of which he has little as a father of two) Luke likes yoga, surfing, meditation, DIY and consuming all the books, comics and movies he can find.