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The real price of inkjet printing

Printing in-house means more control over your images, but what does it do to the cost of production? Find out before you make a big investment.

By David Saffir

Dozens of variables come into play when you decide whether to use a print service provider or make your own prints in-house—workflow, time, cost, quality control, labor and convenience among them. We compared the cost of in-house inkjet printing and outsourced printing based on U.S. statistics. Variables like regional differences in costs, pricing and accounting will affect bottom-line results, but our figures are in the ballpark. It’s a good starting place for research of your own.

The comparison reveals several notable findings. In-house inkjet printing in many cases is less costly than high-quality lab printing, excluding direct labor costs. Despite the competitive pricing in media and ink, the cost per square foot of output can vary significantly among wide-format inkjet printers, due in large part to wasted consumables. With the technology in inkjet printing, photographers could save significant time printing in-house. The additional labor costs may or may not be significant, depending on the photographer’s knowledge and experience in digital editing and printing.

Direct Costs

Generally speaking, photographic-quality inkjet output made on wide-format printers in-house costs less per square foot than outsourcing, excluding labor and shipping costs. We have factored in an estimated amortized cost of inkjet-related software, hardware and consumables.

Prices for outsourced prints made from customer-supplied digital files on devices on par with the Fujifilm Frontier start at about $7 to $10 per square foot for the end-user, excluding discounts, promotions, customization, handling charges and shipping. With volume discounts, the price can drop to $3 to $7 per square foot on standard photographic papers. Fine art or specialty media can be more expensive.

Inkjet prints made on a wide-format device cost $1.30 (photo-quality media) to $4 (fine art paper) per square foot, excluding labor and indirect overhead costs such as rent and insurance. This data is based on information from inkjet printer manufacturers, end-users, published price lists, and other such sources. Some wideformat printers come with the ability to generate reports on ink usage, total square feet of media used, and other data.

Cost Per Year in the Studio

The spreadsheet model below (click for larger view) illustrates in-house printing cost per year based on some basic assumptions and information gathered. (See “Hidden Costs of Inkjet Printing” at, or This spreadsheet is adapted from my recently published book, “Mastering Digital Color” (Course Technology PTR).


Hidden Costs

Photographers need to know about the hidden costs and potential savings in inkjet printing. First, it pays to shop around. Promotional offers are frequently available, some better publicized than others. Sometimes you can save money by ordering online, or ordering multi-packs of ink cartridges. The cost per square foot usually varies significantly between roll paper and cut sheets; you can save money if you spend a little time cutting out prints yourself.

There’s some real money hidden in the engineering of the printer. Some inkjet printers expend quite a bit of ink on print head cleaning and maintenance, others do not. Epson wide-format printers use quite a bit more ink than HP printers in these processes, for example.

Different inkjet media require different inks. Photo-finish papers like glossy and satin require photo black ink to achieve good dynamic range and contrast. Matte and watercolor inkjet media require photo matte ink. Some printers, such as the Epson Stylus Pro 7800/9800 series, require ink line purging to switch between these inks. The Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5000 and the HP Z3100 series do not. In the case of some Epson large-format printers, maintenance and ink switching can cost nearly $1,000 more a year than with other printers—a not insignificant amount.

For outsourced printing, one important cost is packaging and shipping. I photograph a number of large events each year, and when the number of prints per event rises to over 200 8x10 and smaller prints, I typically send out the images in a batch for processing. But for any re-makes that are not the fault of the lab or for small shipments, the per-print cost is usually higher due to shipping and handling, which reduces profitability.

These charges vary so much from place to place that it’s not practical to factor it in here, but it does pay to ask, and it does make sense to negotiate every aspect of the pricing ahead of time.


You must consider not only the cost of labor required to prepare and print an image, but also the usability of the print system. With digital files, the labor and/or time spent in inkjet printing includes viewing, selecting and image editing, and printer setup and printing. For lab prints, labor includes viewing and selecting images, image editing, burning images to CD/DVD and shipping or uploading images to a Web site.

The actual time involved in these activities depends in part on the skills of the laborer. If the image editor processes each image individually, it will probably take more time to perform the work in-house than using a lab that includes color correction services in its basic pricing. On the other hand, if you can use batch processing tools like those built into Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Camera RAW and Phase One Capture One, labor time will likely be equivalent.


What makes a difference?

Batch processing tools allow the image editor to apply changes in color balance, brightness, contrast, sharpening, and other areas for multiple images. In many cases, they can also be used to create multiple saved versions of each image file in different file formats.

For best results in batch processing, the photographer has to use in-camera custom white balance, or shoot a gray card for each lighting situation to help with color correction.

Will Crockett markets a well made flexible gray/white balance tool called the Balance- Smarter. Other companies, such as Lastolite (distributed by Bogen), also offer color balancing products.,,

There are more differences between the usability of top-of-the-line printers than in the print quality each delivers. Usability factors include maintenance, software, documentation, and controls. Poor usability can drive costs up in terms of waste and do-overs.

Among the newer printers I’ve used, I rate the new HP Z-series printers the best in usability, followed by Epson, then Canon. The HP Z3100 is among the best in this regard, followed at some distance by Epson’s lineup.

How much time does this really save? The better the software and usability of the hardware, the less time spent in front of the computer, and the more time spent behind the camera, making money.

I generally prefer making my own prints. I believe most photographers can make better quality prints on their own time than any outside lab can. At year’s end, the overall costs of inkjet and lab printing—including labor— appear to be equal, with the exception of printing large-volume event or school photography. Making prints has become much easier in the last year or so. The equipment is better than ever, and the software has improved significantly. The number of steps I have to go through with the software has dropped to the point where I can color calibrate my printer with a few mouse clicks, and make a print just as easily.