Inkonomics: Why It Pays to Pay a Little More When Buying a Photo Printer

In the market for a new photo printer and not sure what to buy? Here’s a tip: shelling out a little more dough on the printer itself could potentially lead to massive savings over time.

The reason is ink, sometimes called “black gold” (or… “colored gold”?). The general rule of thumb in the printer industry is: the cheaper the printer, the more expensive it is to keep it filled with ink.

Printer ink is among the most expensive of commonly-used liquids. It’s far pricier than gasoline, and is even harder on wallets than champagne in terms of cost per volume. In 2007, CBC News found that it was the second most expensive well-known liquid:

It’s pretty much conventional wisdom that computer printer companies make their money from selling expensive ink and toner cartridges, not the printers. Never mind that the chemical composition of black ink isn’t all that different from what the Chinese invented thousands of years ago, putting a few dribbles of it into an elaborate plastic cartridge can cost the buyer upward of $60.

Here’s the chart of most expensive liquids that they came up with:

Consider this: if cars ran on name-brand ink instead of gasoline, each trip to the gas station would set you back $100,000. Fill up an Olympic-sized swimming pool with the stuff, and the bill would come out to billions of dollars.

Given how costly printer ink is and how quickly some printers burn through their cartridges, the initial price of a printer is often a relatively small piece of what your at-home printing is going to cost over time.

This is especially true when the printer you buy isn’t very frugal with the precious ink you feed it:

After studying tens of printers over the past two years, PCWorld published a report back in May stating that buying cheap printers could lead to “lethal” ink bills for photographers:

Your best buy [for a printer] depends on what you print, how much you print, and how long you plan to keep your printer. A person who prints sparingly overall and seldom prints photos may find that a dirt-cheap printer yields big savings, even after factoring in the printer’s sky-high replacement ink costs, simply because the person won’t be replacing ink cartridges very often. Someone else, who has more-ambitious printing needs or a strong interest in photography, may find that a cheap printer’s ink bills are lethal.

The magazine found that for people who print frequently, the total costs of cheap and expensive printers begin to even out after a year of use. By the second and third year, the cheapo printers’ costs begin to dwarf those of their pricier counterparts. (This is assuming that the cheapo printers haven’t broken down yet).

If you’re looking to buy an inkjet printer that you’ll be regularly using for photo prints, you’ll probably get the best value in the long run by spending a bit more cash on a high-quality photo printer geared towards professionals — it’ll deliver top-notch quality without guzzling your precious “colored gold.”

Image credit: new printer! by prettyinprint

  • Le Hoang

    Okay, lemme set the game here :)
    – What kind of printer and paper you are using to print picture ?
    – Are you satisfied with the IQ/Price that you got ?

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Add to this the joys of not being color managed. What looks usable on the screen may become a total wreck when printed on paper.

  • Tommy Sar

    If you only print every now and then, or you do not plan on printing in color, then you are better off buying a laser printer. Not only are inkjet printers not a good idea because of the high cost of inks but even if you don’t print very often the ink cartridges tend to clog over time forcing you to waste ink in order to clean the nozzle.

  • Richard

    Very odd that the words “dye” and “pigment” don’t appear in this article. Dye based printers don’t use nearly as much ink because the ink is less viscous than pigment inks. Pigment printers are the culprits. Problem is, pigment based inks are more archival and are used by most printer manufacturers in their higher end printers.

    If you want to make nice prints that will last 70 years a Canon Pixma Pro 9000 will do the job nicely. Dye based inks are a bit less archival but have excellent color and surface, plenty of profiles and when the details are worked out, can produce nice looking images. Yes, dye based ink printers have small cartridges but not a lot of waste in cleaning cycles.

    If you’re selling fine art prints then you need to go pigment ink. I use an Epson 3880 which makes nice prints. It doesn’t waste as much ink as the video seems to imply all printers do but it does have to move the more viscous pigment inks through its plumbing system to prevent clogging.

    Most pigment ink printers that have the ink cartridges stored off the head (all higher end primers) have plumbing to move the ink from cartridge to head. This plumbing is the problem; ink dries out in it over time.

    So, the trade off with larger cartridges which yes, are cheaper, is that they need to be stored off the head and there needs to be a way to get the ink from cartridge to head. That plumbing dries out and so, can clog. The way manufacturers are currently dealing with this is to run a cleaning cycle that moves a small amount of ink through the system and into the “ink maintenance tank” which is shown in the video as filled with wadded material to catch the ink.

    On my 3880 I go through 3 full cycles of cartridges before replacing the maintenance tank which means I’m not losing as much as the video implies. I do print a lot which helps and as is pretty well known, these kinds of printers are not a good investment for people who print only a few times a year.

    That said, doing fine art printing at home is another part of the photographic process that’s got all the interesting technical details to work out as making a decent exposure. These days its not essential but once you have it all worked out (paper, profiles, framing, etc.) it’s a lot of fun and will feed back into your desire to make more images.

  • Dan

    In my experience, this article isn’t true. I do use canon makii 9500 that i bought few years back, and at $130 for a whole set it beyond criminal. And don’t let me speak of how if its not used for a month the ink clogs causing you to waste the entire ink! This is the worst purchase I have made photographically and has cost me economically too. If I were you I would have my prints Made at a professional lab, in the end you will save much more than shelling 130$ every few months. Buying the expensive makii printer at 900$ did not make me save money at all. Laser printer are the way to go for in house documents but not photos.

  • Dave

    If you are serious at all, avoid all inkjet, giclee type printers and use lightjet. The photo process is more luminous and very archival and durable. Sprayed on color is flat.

  • wickerprints

    That’s correct in theory, but in practice, it’s not always the case. I bought an HP color laser printer to the tune of a few hundred dollars–the toner cartridges each run around $70. Over the span of about 3 years I’d used up less than 25% of the toner when suddenly, for no reason, the printer started smearing thick black/blue/yellow stripes down the length of the page. I put it through several cleaning cycles, to no avail. This was after the warranty had expired, and the cost of servicing and repair would’ve exceeded the cost of the printer itself. Now I have an expensive, heavy, useless piece of junk.

    Go as cheap as you can if you print infrequently. When the printer breaks, you’re only out the small amount of money you paid for it, because even if consumables are expensive, as long as you’re low volume, the machine itself is the main cost. My mistake was to spend more money to buy something I thought would last me a long time, having sworn off inkjets years ago, only to find it fail just as easily.

  • Frezer Solomon Tesfaye

    A useless read. I wanted to hear some studies/results about some specific printers “inkconomics”….

  • Joakim Bidebo

    For me the most economic solution is to have a really cheap printer at home and when I need a good print I just send the files to a photo-lab, take one or two days but think it worth it in both price and quality.

  • Monica Milne

    I plan on trying to scan and print photos I have of my kids from 20 some odd years ago that are collecting dust in boxes. After that’s finished I’d probably be printing 100 photos a year. Which route should I take?

  • Tommy Sar

    That’s very interesting. I suppose you are right. Still, your laser printer lasted three years before malfunctioning. In my experience as a former computer retailer, customers bring in clogged printers 8-12 months after infrequent use.

    Bottomline is: Go paperless. And you’ll spend less paper!

  • wickerprints

    Agreed on the paperless! I hate having lots of physical paper for work; instead, I prefer to have PDFs on the computer or tablet. I don’t even like making photographic prints…I only started to have prints made (by an outside lab) when I needed to something to decorate my walls.

    And I’ll be honest–I’ve never been terribly impressed with inkjet output, even the highest-end prints made by those printers with 12 inks and whatnot.

    As for my laser printer, it may have lasted 3 years, but all that time, I barely used it. I got through only a fraction of the toner that came with it. The thing that upsets me the most isn’t the wasted money–it’s the fact that it is such a colossal waste of resources. Wasted plastic, toner, metal, electronics. Things are just not made to last, because the consumer demand for the newest model pushes the manufacturers to make disposable electronics, designed to survive only a few years.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Using a laser printer to print photography is a fool’s errand. Not only is the quality not as good as inkjet but you’re basically limited to printing on copy paper rather than photo paper.

  • Matt

    If you are not joking, try taking a photo of the prints with a decent point and shoot in good light. It is a LOT easier than trying to scan.