How to Print Digital Photos: Home Printing Vs. Photo Lab Prints

Should you print your own digital photographs at home, or take them to a photo lab to be printed? Which will look better and last longer? Is it cheaper to print your digital photographs at home or take them to a store?

After working in a photo lab for five years, and owning a great Canon 6-ink tank color printer, I have tried both methods many times. This article will give you a side by side cost, quality and convenience comparison of making digital prints both at home, and at a photo lab.

The Cost of Digital Prints
If you choose to print your digital photographs at home, you will need to make a few initial investments, including a good quality photo printer. Depending on the brand, size and style of printer, you could spend from $100 on up on your printer. My Canon printer requires 6 colored ink tanks, and to replace each tank costs $10-13.

You can print on typing paper, but photo quality paper will produce much nicer looking images. Expect to spend approximately .20-.50 per 4×6 piece of good quality photo paper.

Then, add in a little cost for your time to sit and work with the printer to make the prints. How much is your time worth?

If you choose to have your digital images turned into prints at your local photo lab, you can expect to pay .15-.29 per 4×6 picture. Remember to add in a little cost for your time to travel to the photo lab to pick up your prints. Most photo labs now offer online services that allow you to upload your digital files from your home computer to the store’s website, eliminating a trip to the store to drop off your prints.

My favorite online printer is Harold’s Photo Centers. Although they are located in the Midwest, they will mail your order to you no matter where you live!

The Quality of Digital Images Printed at a Lab
The quality of digital prints made at a photo lab can vary. There are two types of prints that you could receive. The first are ink jet prints. If you sit down at a work station at a store, and the pictures are printing out as you work, they are printed on ink jet paper with ink. These prints may look nice, but they are not archival and will fade over the years. If you spill liquids on them, it will cause the ink to bleed.

Also, these are raw prints, usually without any color corrections applied. Sometimes the vibrancy and colors aren’t very saturated, and the prints look dull.

The other type of prints made at photo labs are silver halide based prints. These prints are processed through the same chemicals as your good old film pictures, and are archival. Since it is completely a chemical process, there’s no ink to run or bleed.

These type of prints will last hundreds of years if stored properly in acid free photo albums and in photo frames away from direct sunlight.

Since the printing of this type of photo is controlled by the lab staff, color corrections can be made to the prints. The lab is able to make your pictures lighter, darker and improve the color saturation.

The Quality of Digital Prints Printed at Home
Although prints made at home can visually have very good color, they will never be archival since they are ink applied to paper. When I first received my Canon ink jet printer, I did a test by printing the same picture twice; once at the photo lab, and once on the home printer. I then asked a few people which one was printed at home, and which one at the lab. Both had sharp, clear color and good clarity.

Most people couldn’t tell the prints apart, which was a good sign that I had selected a very good home printer. However, I still only use the home printer for “disposable” photos, such as homemade greeting cards, temporary pictures to post on the refrigerator and full color letters to my family.

The Convenience of Digital Printing
Both printing at home, and at a photo lab, are convenient. At home, you can print in the comfort of your pajamas at any hour of the day. At a photo lab, you can drop off your order in person, or via a web upload service, and have the staff do the actual printing process for you.