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Our Printing Tests
Photo Printing Quality

Updated
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

Whether you're putting together a photo wall, making a scrapbook, or creating an arts-and-crafts masterpiece, you'll be looking for a decent inkjet printer that can print good-looking photos. 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. However, having your own photo printer is more convenient and lets you immortalize your memories on the spot from your home.

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.

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

Test results

When It Matters

Photo printing quality matters any time you want to print an image. Whether the picture is for a school assignment, an arts-and-crafts project, a photo wall, or DIY holiday cards, you'll want those small but significant details to look exactly like the original. While most home printers you buy at a retailer won't give you professional-like quality, some models are better than others at reproducing details like tree branches, faces, and small text.

Our tests

Photo Printing Quality

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," which is a modified version of a popular printer test image created by Bill Atkinson. Digital Outback Photo also provides a guide on how to use the "Printer Evaluation Image" to evaluate the quality of a photo print. Using this guide, we created a scoring list with "Yes/No" questions for each feature important to photo printing quality.

We print the entire "Printer Evaluation Image" in 4" x 6" for a general evaluation when possible, as well as three smaller subsections cropped from the original image to look at the finer details. In addition, we print an 8.5" x 11" version of the evaluation image and a portrait picture by Pavel Danilyuk, called "3 Women Holding Flowers". While we don't strictly evaluate the 8.5" x 11" sample or the portrait sample, we adjust the overall photo quality score if we notice major flaws in either image.

We always use photo glossy paper from the same brand as the printer that's being tested. If the printer doesn't accept glossy paper, we'll use plain paper instead. We print with the standard printing quality parameters set by the printer being tested.

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. Are the yellow and the brown kernels of the corncob distinguishable?
  9. Does the purple and cyan of the sand and fish of the fishbowl look right?
  10. Has the diamond shape on the shelves been printed correctly?

Finer details

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

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

The Tear Drop Arch & the Aspen Trees

  1. Is there any 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 any 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. The scans of the combined images, both the 4" x 6" and the 8.5" x 11", are used for a general evaluation and are included in the review. However, note that the results are based on the actual physical photos, not the scanned images.

Portrait Picture

If you're printing out several photos of friends and family, it's important to have a printer that can capture a good amount of detail in a person's hair, eyes, face, and surroundings. We use Pavel Danilyuk's "3 Women Holding Flowers" to show how well these details are reproduced. This picture isn't a part of our photo printing quality evaluation, but we use it to confirm the subjective score we set based on the "Printer Evaluation Image".

Like the photo printing quality photo we use for scoring, this portrait photo is also scanned with the Epson Perfection V600 photo scanner and included in the review.

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 the 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, it gets a "yes" in this test. However, this test isn't scored.

Additional Information

Potential Downfalls of Borderless Printing

In theory, an image sized exactly to fit the paper you want to print on should print without any borders. However, in practice, 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.

Unfortunately, there are disadvantages to these techniques. 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.

What's Missing

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

  • Objective measurements (contrast ratio, exposure, etc.)
  • Borderless technique performance (detail loss near edges, margin visibility, etc.)
  • Borderless printing options (expansion/extension adjustment, centering, etc.)
  • Overspray management

Conclusion

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 a print shop. You'll likely want to know whether it can do borderless prints, too. However, photo printing quality can not only differ between printers but can depend on the paper, settings, or images you use to print. Unless you're very passionate about photo printing or are a professional, the majority of mid-range photo printers should produce a decent enough photo print quality for most people.

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