Some say that it's not a picture until you print it. With this in mind, we bought and tested the best 13 best photo printers on the 2020 market. These machines range from battery-powered mini-printers to full-sized desktop machines that will pump out professional-grade images in an array of dimensions and on a cornucopia of mediums. While our in-house photography team tested for image quality, the office egg-heads analyzed the short and long term cost of printing. With the complete picture that our research provides, you'll be able to confidently pick the best photo printer to fit your needs.
The Best Photo Printers 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 by this machine are top-notch for the class. Complementing the image quality is the wide variety of material that this home printer can accommodate. It's true that this is an expensive machine. However, if you are printing frequently, the low cost per print will add up to significant savings.
As is so often the case with high-end electronics, a product's strengths can be detrimental to the wrong user. Such is the case with the SureColor as it's 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 — experimenting 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 yore, the Canon IVY makes photo printing on-the-fly easy and fun. It has a streamline, compact shape, and seamless Bluetooth interaction with your smartphone. The prints are of a reasonable quality and, when compared to the other mini-printers, they can be described as having good resolution. 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, it is somewhat limited and the cost per print is a bit pricey as well. This model only prints 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. However, if you just want to play around with a printer and don't want the fuss of maintaining an inkjet machine, the Canon IVY is the ticket.
Read Full Review: Canon IVY
Best Buy Full-Sized Photo Printer
Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000
If you want a full-size printer but don't want a full-size hole in your budget, the Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000 is the machine to thread that needle. This relatively compact model punches above its weight. It will print in large format and, with the help of its expansive color palette, it produces vibrant colors that come out nicely across all the print formats.
While there is plenty to praise this machine for, it does have some shortcomings in overall resolution and in grayscale where dark tonal transitions tended to be difficult to discern. Additionally, the dark areas presented microbanding that was subtle, but noticeable. Post set-up, we had some problems staying connected to the printer, though the issue seemed to resolve itself after a time. 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 Buy 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 like about the Canon PIXMA TR4520 is that it's simple (and cheap). The higher-end printers can be overwhelming for newbies. This product covers the common paper types, so you can experiment and see why certain 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 go break the bank learning the craft. This machine is also relatively compact, which means that you won't have to devote half your desk to it.
While this machine will appeal to many a neophyte, it certainly has its shortcomings. The prints coming out of this model often lack fidelity to the original image, the disparity shows itself in orangish skin tones and over-saturated blues. Additionally, the machine has above average printing costs, with the best color results showing on the highest quality paper. That said, this machine renders better results than the average photo lab, so your efforts won't be in vain.
Read Full Review: Canon PIXMA TR4520
Best for Easy 4" x 6" Prints
Canon SELPHY CP1300
The Canon SELPHY CP1300 is a big step-up in quality from the mini-printers, but it maintains the same appeal. The machine is compact, transportable and can run off a battery (sold separately). This is the kind of printer you buy when you want to get all those great photos off your phone and onto your friends' fridges. The quality is better than the average chain photo lab, the cost isn't too much higher, and it's fun to watch the machine 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 knocks against the SELPHY is that it's limited to just a few print sizes and Canon's glossy proprietary paper. Additionally, we weren't surprised that a printer of this size had some streaking issues as well as some problems with color fidelity. But honestly, it wasn't too bad. Conversely, we were pleasantly surprised that the skin tones and the 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 with us for the classic Polaroid-type paper it uses. It doesn't matter if the images have low resolution or bad colors. A well-composed photo with those vintage fat borders and heavy paper stirs up feelings of nostalgia that the other instant printers just can't manage.
On the other hand, there's a lot to criticize the Mini Link for, though it seems a little ridiculous to point them all out. Sure it has terrible resolution and a limited range of color. Each print is pretty spendy, as well. So if you're looking for high-quality, this is not the machine for you. Yet, 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 over five years of consumer electronics testing and photography experience to the mix. His attention to such details as long term printer costs is invaluable. Finally, Senior Review Editor Nick Miley is a photography hobbyist and sometimes freelancer who doesn't think a photo is complete until the print is in a frame and hanging on the wall.Together, this trio selected a series of color and grayscale images that covered all the aspects of a high-quality photo rendering and printed them in several dimensions and on a variety of papers. In the end, over 320 pictures were printed for the initial analysis. The team developed a viewing room devoid of shadow and glare in which they could comparatively analyze the printers' output. They also had the office staff print off their own pictures so that they could share their experience connecting to and operating the machines. Finally, all the 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 5 weighted metrics — Color, Black and White, Print Capabilities, Set-up, and Operating Costs. These metrics are 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 more or less 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 the same endpoint. What we are looking for is a product that either performs at a higher level than similarly priced competitors or a product that performs similarly to products with the same specifications but costs less. Examples of these two types of value are the Canon PIXMA TR4520 and the Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000. The TR4520 has a sticker price similar to the mini-printers, yet it renders quality 8" x 10" prints. On the other hand, the XP-15000 is a full-sized photo printer that comes in at significantly below the cost of other machines that render larger format prints. Both of these machines offer significant value 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. To make our analysis of color prints we purchased seven stock images that spanned subjects from landscapes to portraits, 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 professional photographers and of 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 with the original image as seen on a high-resolution monitor. The second part of the color evaluation honed in on the resolution or sharpness of the image.
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, the Canon SELPHY and the Canon PIXMA TR4520 showed-up big time, proving that mid-size printers don't always kick out middling quality prints. The main complaint was streaking in the prior, and microbanding in the latter. That said, you have to look to notice these shortfalls and the quality is substantially better than the prints produced by many of the big chain photo labs. Finally, when we compare the Canon IVY to its mini printer peers, it produced the best color images of the lot, though they were a far cry from what the desktop printers can deliver.
Black and White
What black and white prints reveal that color prints tend to hide with their busy brightness is a clear look at the boundary definition and tonal transitions of the image. Despite the less frequent use of grayscale, the demands that this format places on a printer led us to weight this metric to account for 35% of the total score — the same as color.
The black and white metric followed the evaluation protocols set by the color metric, though the images selected 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 as they boast three ink cartridges in shades of black and gray. The Epson has fantastic tonal range, tonal contrasts, and brilliant definition. However, outputs across all dimensions displayed hints of magenta, yielding a cooler tone. The Canon delivered similarly high-quality results, however, the prints showed some green tones that lent 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") coming out of the Expression were nearly on par with the full-sized machines. Interestingly, quality fell-off incrementally as the print dimensions were reduced 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 is a mix of testing and cataloging features. Specifically, we test the paper tray capacity and the print speed. We catalog 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. 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 9 separate ink cartridges give it a real leg up over the competition as was discussed above. On the SureColor's heels was the Epson Expression, which covers all the common print sizes from 2" x 6" up to 13" x 44". While this machine doesn't cover the more exotic print mediums, it does cover an extensive variety of photo papers and has 7 individual color cartridges.
The rest of the printers in the class fall off in comparison to the Epson models discussed above. However, the Canon PIXMA Pro-100 and the HP Tango deserve honorable mentions as these machines cover a broad range of papers and print dimensions. The prior has 8 ink cartridges and later, 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 will 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 fast 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 evaluates 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 use the industry's conservative estimate of ink consumption per square inch of color printing and multiply that by 24 (square inches). The product of this equation is then added to the cost of a 4" x 6" sheet of middling quality glossy photo paper. The higher-end printers produce much less expensive prints, though their upfront cost (i.e. the price 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 set-up is a one-time operation — or at least an infrequent one — it can make you cross if it's difficult. 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. The evaluation is 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 involved with this review go through the process and factored in their experiences.
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, then 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-in directly to the printer with a USB — a detail we discovered through trial and error.
In the above review we have 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 saving) 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 what machines performed the best, and, as a result, which machines match your needs and budget.
— Nick Miley, Jason Peters and Austin Palmer