Which is Cheaper: Printing Your Own Photos or Using a Printing Service?

photo of a cat coming out of an ink jet printer
PS_2 / Shutterstock

With the rise of inexpensive online photo printing services, inkjet printers have fallen out of favor. But, as in any DIY project, some people claim that it is cheaper to print photos at home. Is this really true?

A quick comparison of costs

Let's break down the price difference between home photo printing and online printing services. To do this, we will compare the price of online printing services and home printing. For convenience, we will only look at the cost of 4 × 6 prints.

There are many photo printing services online, but we will stick to the big four. Some of these services offer occasional discounts, but we will pretend that these do not exist. Shutterfly, one of the most popular photo printing services, charges $ 0.12 for every 4 × 6 print. Not bad, but Amazon, Snapfish, and Walmart will print your 4 × 6 photos for $ 0.09 each.

All right, online print services charge between $ 0.09 and $ 0.12 per 4 × 6 photo. Now we have to compare these prices to a home photo print setup. So, let's build a modest home printing setup. We need a solid inkjet printer, 4 × 6 photo paper and ink.

Nostalgic photos of a child at the beach
Iryna Tiumentseva_Shutterstock

Let's start with the printer. the Canon Pixma IP8720 is one of the most popular inkjet photo printers at home, and for good reason. It produces images with a resolution of 9600 colors and costs only 180 dollars. This is an economical price for a pretty decent printer.

The Canon Pixma IP8720 printer comes with ink but we will buy a complete set of ink trolleys for price comparison reasons. This ink package will cost us $ 55. Canon claims that these ink cartridges will produce up to 780 photos (which is true), which means that at best we pay $ 0.07 in ink for every 4 × 6 print.

Well, $ 0.07 per print, it sounds pretty good. But we still have to buy photo paper. Buy a lot to get more for our money. We will take a package of 400 CanonInk glossy 4 × 6 photo paper for $ 20, or $ 0.05 per sheet.

So, if we ignore the fact that our printer cost us $ 180, we pay $ 0.12 for each 4 × 6 photo printed at home. It's the same price as Shutterfly and a bit more expensive than some other online printing services.

If you do not use your printer, things get more expensive

Of course, this calculation is quite idealistic. It depends on the idea that we use all the ink and photo paper that we bought. If we only use $ 75 worth of paper and ink to produce 20 photos, we lose $ 3.75 per photo and not $ 0.12.

Speaking of our printer, how much does the Canon Pixma IP8720 add to the cost of every 4 × 6 photo we print? Well, it depends on how much we use the printer. Our Canon Pixma IP8720 was $ 180. If we print only 1,000 photos on this printer, it adds $ 0.18 to each of our prints. If we use it 5,000 times, it still adds $ 0.03 to each impression. If we wanted the printer to pay less than $ 0.01 per printed photo, we would have to use it more than 18,000 times.

Decidedly, printing at home can be expensive. But if printing photos at home is more expensive than printing online, why would you want to buy an inkjet printer?

Print at home gives you control and speed

a man at his laptop holding a DSLR camera
Dustin Petkovic / Shutterstock

There is one aspect of home photo printing that print services can not match. When you print at home, you control everything. You can use matte or glossy paper, a special ink, and a printer that produces incredible images. You can also delete or edit photos on the fly if you are not happy with an impression, and you do not have to wait for pictures to arrive in the mail.

Plus, with some printers, it's incredibly easy to print photos right from your phone or laptop. The Canon Pixma IP8720, for example, can connect wirelessly to your phone or computer, and even has a mobile application. The ability to print photos directly from your phone is not unique to services like Shutterfly; you can do it at home.

Of course, most people do not need as much control over the photos they print, and a few days of waiting near the mailbox are not a big deal. Plus, if you do not use all of your home printing supplies, you will end up spending more than $ 0.12 per print.

Print services are economical and easy

In addition to being ridiculously cheap, online photo printing services are also super easy to use. You do not have to deal with a frustrating printer, and you do not need to look for the perfect ink cartridges or photo paper to do the job. With most online printing services, simply upload photos to a website or mobile app and choose the size of your prints.

Not to mention that you can print your photos via an online service at any time. You do not have to be at home and you certainly do not need to be near a printer.

The only drawback of online photo printing is the waiting time. The shipment may take a few days, although some services such as Walmart allow you to take pictures in store a few hours after your order.

RELATED: The best photo printing service for every situation


Some quick calculations reveal that unless you buy print supplies at a reduced price and use them frequently, printing photos at home will always be more expensive than printing them through an online service. But home printing offers a level of speed and control that online services will never achieve.

Photographers and scrapbookers have every reason to print their photos at home. If you print a lot of photos, the extra expense is justifiable. That being said, if you only need to print a few dozen photos a year, you should probably sign up for an online print service.

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