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Our Photo Printing Quality Score and Tests
Printers

What it is: A subjective score based on a 27-point list. The 4 photos are printed on glossy paper from the printer manufacturer using the "Photo" app from Windows 10, unless otherwise specified. The print preset is the basic one and the quality of the print is set to standard for every printer. The photo format is 4" x 6".
When it matters: When you plan on printing photos.
Score components: Subjectively assigned
Score distribution

Photo sharing has changed dramatically in the past decade. If you wanted to show an image to a friend 15 years ago, you'd likely plug in your digital camera, upload your pictures to an image hosting site, copy the link, and send it over an instant messaging client. Today, you can just snap a picture with your phone and share it in a text message without even touching your home screen. There's still something special about sending someone a printed photo, though, and even though the photo printing industry isn't quite what it used to be, it's still kicking.

To get a photo printed, you have a couple of options. You could go see a professional at a photo lab, use the self-serve photo printing stations at the pharmacy, or even order directly from a printing service online. Having your own photo printer, however, lets you immortalize your memories at home on-the-spot.

We test the photo printing quality of each printer we review to help you find the best photo printer for your needs. We take a look at different printed test photos and evaluate how good the photo looks compared to a reference from a traditional printing service. We also check whether the printer can do borderless printing.

Test results

Our tests

Photo Printing Quality

If you're looking for a printer that can produce print shop quality photos, you'll want to consider how well it performs in this test. We score a printer's photo printing quality subjectively by printing different test images and performing a guided evaluation of their appearance alongside a 27-point list.

Our main test image is Uwe Steinmueller and Jack Flesher's "Printer Evaluation Image" (Outback Print), which is a modified version of a popular printer test image created by Bill Atkinson.1 Digital Outback Photo also provides a guide on how to use the Printer Evaluation Image to evaluate the quality of a photo print.2 Using this guide, we created a scoring list with "Yes/No" questions for each feature that's important to photo printing quality.

Whenever possible, we print in a 4" x 6" format, using photo glossy paper from the same brand as the printer that's being tested. When the printer doesn't support 4" x 6" printing, we will print on 8.5" x 11" paper. If the printer can't print on glossy paper, we'll use plain paper instead. We print with the standard printing quality parameters set by the printer being tested.

For each printer we review, we print the entire Printer Evaluation Image once for a general evaluation. We also print three smaller subsections that have been cropped from the original image to look at the finer details.

General Evaluation

Photo Print Quality Test Image
Photo Quality Test Image
Original components designed by Bill Atkinson; modifications by Jack Flesher and Uwe Steinmueller

Our scoring criteria for the combined photo is based on the following questions:

  1. Does the gray gamut ramp look smooth and even?
  2. Do dark areas in the hair of the first model show good detail without clogging?
  3. Is the yellow of the sunflower bright?
  4. Does the vase have a nice, saturated blue?
  5. Are there issues with tone around the dark area of the lemon, peach, orange, and apple?
  6. Is there a rich range of green in the cactus and the sunflower leaves?
  7. Is the skin color of the second face accurate and not too pink?
  8. Can the yellow and the brown kernels of the corncob be distinguished?
  9. Does the purple and cyan of the sand and fish of the fishbowl look right?
  10. Has the diamond shape on the shelves printed correctly?

Finer details

The Teardrop Arch & the Aspen Trees; The CD Player; and The Strawberries, the Sunset & the Lava Rock

Our scoring criteria of three subsections is based on the following questions for each photo:

The Tear Drop Arch & the Aspen Trees

  1. Is there presence of vertical banding in the sky?
  2. Are the clouds too magenta?
  3. Are the leaves blurry?
  4. Do the bright yellow leaves have a pleasant tonality?
  5. Are the leaves in the foreground more saturated than the ones in the back?
  6. Are the trunk details highly contrasted?

The CD Player

  1. Do we see the reflection of the circuit board on the front flap?
  2. Is the end of the CD player blended in the shadow?
  3. Is the metallic tone on the CD well-handled?
  4. Is there presence of banding on the CD?
  5. Is the tone accent black?

The Strawberries, the Sunset & the Lava Rock

  1. Do the strawberries look real, like you'd want to pick them and eat them?
  2. Do the highlights on the lava rock look bronze-metallic?
  3. Does the lava rock have an overall blue tint?
  4. Is the yellow-orange gradient around the sunset smooth with no visible halo or banding?

After we've calculated the printer's photo printing quality score, we scan each printed image for reference with the Epson Perfection V600 photo scanner. This scan of the combined image, used for the general evaluation, is included in the review. Note, however, that the results are based on the actual physical photos, not the scanned images.

This test matters most for inkjet printers, since laser printers, even color laser printers, generally aren't designed for photo printing.

Borderless Printing

What it is: Whether you can print a photo without borders.
When it matters: When you want to print photos that are as good as a printing service.

If you want your photos to print right up to edge without any white margins, like what your local photo lab can do, then you'll want to know if a printer can do borderless printing - also known as full-bleed printing. To achieve a borderless print, most printers will slightly increase the size of your image so it can continue printing beyond the edges of the paper in place.

In this test, we check whether the printer supports borderless printing during our photo printing quality test. If the printer can do borderless prints, then it gets a "yes" in this test. However, this test isn't scored.

This test matters only for inkjet printers since laser printers can't do borderless printing.

Additional Information

Potential Downfalls of Borderless Printing

In theory, an image sized exactly to fit the paper you wish to print on should print without any borders. In practice, however, even the best printers can't load and feed paper with perfect alignment, so some visible margins are almost always inevitable. To achieve a true borderless print, a printer must use two techniques: "expansion" (also known as "extension") and "overspray". Expansion slightly enlarges the image so that it extends beyond the borders of the paper you wish to print on, and overspray allows the printer to continue spraying ink past the paper's edge.

These techniques aren't without their disadvantages, however. The image might not center properly, and features near the edges could get cut off. Also, leftover overspray ink can transfer onto the back of subsequent prints. That said, certain printers have fewer issues with residual overspray than others, and many models allow you to adjust the amount of image extension or expansion to help keep you from losing important details. However, we don't currently test for this.

What's Missing

Currently, our photo printing quality test doesn't include:

  • Objective measurements (color accuracy, contrast ratio, etc.)
  • Comparisons on different sizes or types of paper
  • Borderless technique performance (detail loss near edges, margin visibility, etc.)
  • Borderless printing options (expansion/extension adjustment, centering, etc.)
  • Overspray management

Conclusion

Photo printing quality might not matter to everyone, but it's very important to those who do care. Whether you're an avid scrapbooker or just like being able to print a couple of photos now and then from the comfort of your own home, photo printing quality is important to keep in mind if you want your prints to compare to what you get at the print shop. You'll likely want to know whether it can do borderless prints, too. Keep in mind, however, that photo printing quality can not only differ between printers, but also depends on the paper, settings, or images you use to print. Unless you're very passionate about photo printing or are a professional, most mid-range photo printers should produce a decent enough photo print quality for most people.

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