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Printing Digital Photos - What Is Your Best Option?

written by: Sean Fears•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/19/2008

It can be very confusing to try to figure out how to print your photos when there are so many features to keep track of and options for handling printing. What should you consider when it’s time to get that image onto paper?

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    You've taken some really great photos- now you want to print them. Though many of your choices will be determined by individual taste, there are some determining factors in how you should print your photos out. Here are a few of those factors:

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    Print frequency

    Sure, it’s convenient to have your own printer, but it can also be expensive, especially if you print in volume. With a good printer costing $100-200 and the majority of ink cartridges being in the $20-$30 range, it doesn’t take long to start to notice the drain- and that's without the paper added in! On the other hand, going to a store can be even more tedious, and printing online requires you to upload photos first. If you’re going to print infrequently, resist the urge to buy a dedicated photo printer- inks eventually dry out and technology obsolesces fast enough without doing so by gathering dust in a corner.

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    A printed picture can only have a resolution less than or equal to that of your photo, though this is less of a handicap with modern cameras. Printers list their resolution in dots-per-inch (dpi); how does that convert to megapixels? Dots-per-inch refers to linear dots, so dividing your camera’s vertical and horizontal pixels by this number gives you the print size. For instance, my Sony DSC-828’s maximum is 3264 x 2448 pixels. If I were to print at 600 dpi, the size would be 5.44 x 4.08 inches, while 300 dpi pushes it into the 8 x 10 range, about the largest print I’m inclined to do under normal circumstances. This website gives a chart that shows the equivalent size of a photograph if printed at 300 dpi. (This figure is considered to be a good figure for printed photos and is based on the resolution of print media such as magazines; much lower, and the image will lose its detail, while the image doesn’t gain significant detail at higher dpi.) Use this chart to determine what size prints you can reasonably make from your camera, then determine whether a printer of the class you’re considering can handle that size of paper. Keep in mind that acceptable resolution also depends on how closely the print is being viewed- at long distance, even a low-resolution image may look relatively good!

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    If you’re planning on storing photographs online anyway, you may want to consider a site that offers both photo organization and printing. In the long run, that could save you a fair amount of time and trouble; it’s certainly a lot more convenient than uploading photos just to print! Some options in this category include Snapfish and Shutterfly- there are countless others, but I mention these because of their consistently high ratings and photo organizing software. Many pharmacies such as Walgreens will print your photos for you, and wholesale clubs such as Costco often offer you a discount; both of these options require you to submit photos online and allow you to pick them up in person or receive them via mail. Of course, there are always traditional printing services like FedEx Kinko's, as well, though you'll want to check to make sure that they can read your camera's memory media. As long as they meet your technical criteria (paper, ink, etc.), they may be worth a try, especially if you like the option of picking up your photos in person.

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    The bottom line is that the printing option you choose for your photos really depends on your preferred usage. If you’ve got the money and the time, printing your own photos gives you far better control, allows you to adjust if something doesn’t turn out the way you want it, and saves you the trouble of waiting for your pictures or having to pick them up. If you don’t print as frequently or can’t afford to spend the time to get the results you want, online print services give you a convenient way to organize and print your photos while making them accessible to others, as well.

Printing Digital Photos - Frequently Asked Questions Answered

How should you print your digital photos? Do you print at home with a photo printer or take it to a photo lab? What photo paper should you use? What printer ink should you buy? Should you go with an online printing service? All your questions about digital photo printing are answered in this series.
  1. Printing Digital Photos - What Is Your Best Option?
  2. Printing Your Digital Photos- Which Photo Papers and Printer Inks Should You Use?