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.
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.
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.
Our scoring criteria for the combined photo is based on the following questions:
Our scoring criteria of three subsections are based on the following questions for each photo:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Currently, our photo printing quality test doesn't include:
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.