Best Photo Printer of 2020
Best Overall Photo Printer
Epson SureColor P600
The Epson SureColor P600 offers professional quality printing to the hobbyist. The color and grayscale resolution rendered are top-notch for the class. Complementing the image quality is the wide variety of material that this home printer can accommodate. This is an expensive machine, indeed. However, if you are frequently printing, the low cost per print can eventually add up to significant savings.
As is often the case with high-end electronics, a product's strengths can sometimes become detrimental to the wrong user. This is undoubtedly the case with the SureColor because its large size and hefty price tag will be a burden for the casual photographer. Additionally, if the machine isn't used regularly, clogged printer heads and desiccated ink cartridges will become a time-consuming and expensive problem. That said, if you want to go all-in on photo printing, or experiment with different print mediums and dimensions, this machine won't let you down.
Read Full Review: Epson SureColor P600
Best Mini Printer
Rekindling the excitement of the Polaroid cameras of yesteryear, the Canon IVY makes photo printing on-the-fly fun and easy. It has a streamlined, compact shape, and seamless Bluetooth interaction with your smartphone. The prints are of reasonable quality and have decent resolution when compared to other mini-printers. Additionally, the ZINK paper that the machine uses has an adhesive back that turns them into stickers.
While the IVY makes printing as easy as pushing a button on your phone, its usefulness is somewhat limited and the cost per print is a bit pricey. This model can only print on one kind of paper and in one dimension (2" x 3"). Moreover, when compared to a desktop printer, the photo quality isn't that great. If you just want to play around with a printer, however, and don't want the fuss of maintaining an inkjet machine, the Canon IVY is the ticket.
Read Full Review: Canon IVY
Great Value for a Full-Sized Printer
Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000
If you want a full-size printer but don't want a full-size hit to your budget, the Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 is the machine to thread that needle. This relatively compact model punches well above its weight. It will print in large format, and with the aid of its expansive color palette, it produces vibrant colors that come out nicely across all print formats.
Although there is plenty to praise this machine for, it has shortcomings in overall resolution and in grayscale where dark tonal transitions can be challenging to discern. Additionally, the dark areas showed some subtle, but noticeable, micro banding. And though the issue seemed to resolve itself over time, we had a few problems staying connected to the printer. Despite these critiques, we'd say this is one heck of a printer that most photographers will find more than satisfactory.
Read Full Review: Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000
Best on a Tight Budget
Canon PIXMA TR4520
If you're interested in photo printing, this is a great mid-sized machine to get you started. What we really enjoy about the Canon PIXMA TR4520 is that it's cheap and straightforward. In contrast, the higher-end printers tend to be overwhelming for newbies. This product supports the use of standard paper types, allowing you to experiment and see why specific papers work well in some situations and not in others. At the same time, the print dimensions are limited to the smaller sizes, so you won't need to break the bank learning the craft. And because this machine is relatively compact, you won't have to sacrifice half your desk to store it.
While this machine will appeal to many a neophyte, it certainly has its downfalls. The prints coming out of this model often lack fidelity to the original image. This disparity is most apparent in orangish skin tones and over-saturated blues. Additionally, because its best color results show on the highest quality paper, the machine has above average printing costs. That said, your efforts won't be in vain, as this machine can render better results than the average photo lab.
Read Full Review: Canon PIXMA TR4520
Best for Easy 4" x 6" Prints
Canon SELPHY CP1300
The Canon SELPHY CP1300 is a significant step-up in quality from the mini-printers, but it maintains the same appeal. The machine is compact, transportable, and can even run off a battery (sold separately). If you are looking to get all those great photos off your phone and onto your friends' fridges, this is the kind of printer to get. Compared with the average chain photo lab, the quality is better and cost not too much higher. It's also fun to watch the machine at work. Seriously. The paper passes back and forth through the machine layering on the different inks, allowing you to see the CMYK color model in action.
The only real criticism against the SELPHY is that it's limited to just a few print sizes and uses Canon's glossy proprietary paper. Additionally, we weren't surprised to see that a printer of this size had some problems with color fidelity and streaking issues. But honestly, they weren't too bad. Conversely, we were pleasantly surprised that the skin tones and transitions in grayscale were pretty much spot-on.
Read Full Review: Canon SELPHY CP1300
Best for Old School Polaroid-Style Prints
Fujifilm Instax Mini Link
Despite being one of the poorest performing printers we have reviewed, the Fujifilm Instax Mini Link scored style points for its use of classic Polaroid-type paper. It didn't matter that the images had low resolution or poor colors. A well-composed photo with vintage fat borders and heavy paper just stirs up feelings of nostalgia that the other instant printers can't match.
On the other hand, there's plenty to criticize about the Mini Link, though it seems a bit ridiculous to point them all out. Sure, it has a limited range of colors, terrible resolution, and a high cost per print. This clearly is not the machine for you if you're looking for high-quality. However, and we might be showing our age here, we just think the format looks cool.
Read Full Review: Fujifilm Instax Mini Link
Why You Should Trust Us?
Our review team brings product-specific expertise to the testing and rating of photo printers. In-House Photographer Jason Peters was born with a sharp eye that was further honed at Brooks Institute of Photography. His education saw him to studio work in L.A. and eventually here at the GearLab. Our seasoned Review Analyst Austin Palmer brings to the mix over five years of consumer electronics testing and photography experience. His attention to such details as long-term printer costs is invaluable. Finally, Senior Review Editor Nick Miley is a photography hobbyist and occasional freelancer who doesn't think a photo is complete until the print is in a frame and on the wall.Together, this trio selected a series of color and grayscale images to cover all aspects of rendering a high-quality photo and printed them on a variety of papers in several different dimensions. In the end, over 320 pictures were printed for the initial analysis. The team set up a viewing room devoid of shadow and glare in which they could comparatively analyze the printers' output. They also had the office staff print their own pictures to test the ease of connecting to and operating the machines. Finally, all features and specifications of each printer were collected, measured in-house (if possible), and organized for comparison.
Related: How We Tested Photo Printers
Analysis and Test Results
Our testing regiment is divided into five weighted metrics — Color, Black and White, Print Capabilities, Set-up, and Operating Costs. These metrics include a deep dive into the visual quality of the prints, the dimensions and mediums used, the machine's ease of use, and the cost of printing. Each metric is weighted to account for a percentage of the final 1 -100 point score based on the impact it has on the user's experience. Below is a detailed account of the tests that make up each metric, and why they reveal the best machines on the market.
Related: Buying Advice for Photo Printers
Our method for assessing value takes two different approaches to reach the same endpoint. What we are looking for is a product that either performs at a similar level to other products but costs less or a product that performs at a higher level than similarly priced competitors. Examples of these two types of value are the Canon PIXMA TR4520 and the Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000. The XP-15000 is a full-sized photo printer that's priced significantly below the cost of other machines that render larger format prints. On the other hand, the TR4520 has a sticker price similar to the mini-printers, yet delivers quality 8" x 10" prints. Both of these machines supply serious savings to consumers.
Most people want to print in color. With that in mind, we weighted this metric to account for 35% of a printer's overall score. As the basis for our analysis of color prints, we purchased seven stock images that spanned subjects from portraits to landscapes, and collectively covered a wide dynamic range. We printed in several dimensions from the mini printers' 2" x 3" up to 13" x 19" with the full-size models. We also tested a variety of paper types when possible to see which rendered the best results.
Our assessment of the prints relied on the eyes of both professional photographers and laypeople. The assessment had two parts. First, we rated each print on the overall impression it gave the viewer. The focus was on clearly defined borders, smooth tonal transitions, and skin tone when people were in the image. The overall impression also focused on the print's fidelity compared to the original image displayed on a high-resolution monitor. The second part of the color metric honed in on the sharpness and resolution of the print.
The full-size printers excelled in this evaluation with the EPSON SureColor living up to its name, and the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 delivering similar results. The standard that these printers set in image fidelity, resolution, and consistency across multiple paper dimensions left a big gap between them and the rest of the class. However, also showing up big, the Canon SELPHY and the Canon PIXMA TR4520 proved that mid-size printers don't have to kick out middling quality prints. The chief complaint was streaking with the former, and micro banding with the latter, but you have to look to notice these shortfalls. That being said, the quality is substantially better than prints produced by many big chain photo labs. Finally, when we compared the Canon IVY to its mini printer peers, it provided the best color images of the lot, though they were far from what the desktop printers can deliver.
Black and White
Black and white prints can reveal more about the boundary definition and tonal transitions of an image than you may see in the busy brightness of a color print. Despite the less frequent use of grayscale, the heavy demands that this format places on a printer caused us to weigh this metric the same as the color at 35% of the total score.
The black and white evaluation protocols reflected those used for the color prints, with the exception that the images chosen for inspection were in grayscale. Again, the EPSON SureColor and the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 shot the moon in this evaluation. These printers have an advantage in this metric because they boast three ink cartridges in shades of black and gray. The Epson has fantastic tonal range, tonal contrasts, and brilliant definition. However, utputs across all dimensions displayed hints of magenta, which yielded a cooler tone. The Canon delivered similarly high-quality results, but the prints showed some green tones that gave the prints a warmer feel.
As with the color metric, there was a significant step-down in quality from the full to the mid-sized machines. However, the Epson Expression and the Epson Picturemate were standouts in their size-class. The large format prints (13" x 19") that came out of the Expression were nearly on par with the full-sized machines. Interestingly, the quality fell off incrementally as the print dimensions decreased, and streaking and banding became more apparent. The PircuteMate was much more consistent across the various print dimensions. Despite displaying tone qualities similar to the full-sized machines, this model suffered from a reduction in resolution.
The print capabilities metric includes a mixture of cataloging and testing features. Specifically, we cataloged the number of ink cartridges the printers use, the range of print dimensions that they can produce, and the applicable print substrates. These are materials like glossy and matte paper, as well as less common mediums like canvas and artboard. We also tested the paper tray capacity and print speed. This metric accounts for just 15% of a printer's overall score.
Yet again, the Epson SureColor was the top dog. There isn't much this machine can't do. Seriously. It can print from 3.5" x 5" up to 13" x 129" making room-spanning panoramic prints possible. Additionally, the SureColor can print on every medium from glossy paper to canvas. Moreover, its nine separate ink cartridges give it a real leg up over the competition. On the SureColor's heels is the Epson Expression, which covers all the standard print sizes from 2" x 6" up to 13" x 44". Although this machine doesn't include the more exotic print mediums, it is compatible with a wide variety of photo papers and has seven individual color cartridges.
The rest of the printers in the class fall off compared to the Epson models discussed above. However, the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 and the HP Tango deserve honorable mentions because they cover a broad range of papers and print dimensions. The former has eight ink cartridges, while the latter has 4.
Finally, we clocked the time it takes each machine to pump out a 4" x 6" color print (or a mini print in the case of the mini printers). While it might not seem that important, if you are printing lots of photos or very large ones, the risk of something going wrong may keep you close to the machine. Thus, all other aspects of the print being equal, faster is better. The class average for this exercise was 56 seconds. On the swift end was the FujiFilm Instax Mini Link at just 9 seconds, though the photo paper develops after the print is kicked out of the machine. On the very slow end of the class is the Canon PIXMA TR4520 at 128 seconds.
Accounting for 10% of a printer's overall score, operating cost measures the long term expense of the machines under review. More specifically, this metric answers the question of how much it costs to produce a single 4" x 6" print. To get this figure, we used the industry's conservative estimate of ink consumption per square inch of color printing and multiplied that by 24 (square inches). The product of this equation was then added to the cost of a 4" x 6" sheet of moderate quality glossy photo paper. Although the higher-end printers produce much less expensive prints, the upfront cost of the printer is significant. The opposite is true of lower-end printers.
The Epson SureColor is in a league of its own in this evaluation, producing 4" x 6" images for $0.36 each, which is about what you'd pay for a print at a chain photo lab. However, the Epson's quality is much better than the store-bought prints. Epson's PictureMate and Expression as well as Canon's PIXMA Pro-100 and SELPHY fall in the 40 - 45 cent range. The mini printers are arguably the most expensive because one needs to print two mini prints to get an equivalent size image that the rest of the machines are rendering.
While the set-up is a one-time operation — or at least an infrequent one — it can make you cross if it's unnecessarily complicated. Yet, given the duration of this phase of printer ownership, we weighted this metric to account for just 5% of a printer's overall score. Our evaluation went as follows: read the set-up instructions carefully, follow them exactly, and see if we can print from our phone or laptop. If the process goes off without a hitch, the printer scores high. If we have to do some troubleshooting, the score goes down. Additionally, we had members of our staff who were not directly involved with this review go through the same process and voice their complaints.
By far, the easiest printers to get running were the mini printers. With these machines, you just download an app on your phone and give the app permission to access your photos and camera. If you know how to download an app, take a picture, edit and share it, you won't have any problems with these machines. On the opposite end of the spectrum are printers like the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 that require you to download a driver onto your computer, but lack an LCD screen to aid you in the set-up. Other annoying aspects of set-up are machines like the HP Tango Smart that get locked into a particular computer at the exclusion of others. For example, if you want to print from a co-worker's computer, you will have to plug it in directly to the printer with a USB — a detail we discovered through trial and error.
In the above review, we elaborated on all the features and specifications that make for a quality printer. We covered all the details of color and grayscale rendering and the challenges of working in each medium. We assessed all the different printing substrates that the machines can print on, the dimensions of those materials, and the rendering time. Operating costs, in the form of price per print, were presented to make plain the long-term expense (or savings) of each machine. Finally, we made an in-depth assessment of the set-up of the printers. Given the breadth and depth of this information, we hope that you now have a clear idea of which machines performed the best, and which machines are best suited to meet your needs and budget.
— Nick Miley, Jason Peters and Austin Palmer