Photo Printing: Own or Outsource?

Prints are where landscape photography truly comes to life. Should you own a printer or outsource the work? Check out this great video to learn more.

To own or not to own? With apologies to Bill Shakespeare, the question in this case is whether or not you should own a printer as a photographer. Landscape photographer and YouTuber Thomas Heaton discusses this issue in his latest video. Heaton starts off by calculating the costs involved in owning and operating your own printing equipment. Of course the calculations will vary on a case by case basis, but he estimates around $65 per A2 print. The per print cost takes into account buying a professional printer, high-quality paper, ink, and is based on printing 30 images. When you factor in the additional cost and time initially involved for testing various types of paper, figuring out and setting up paper profiles, preparing images for print, and test prints, printing your work on your own can seem daunting. 

So why would anyone own a printer? Why not just outsource the work to a printing lab and potentially save yourself money and stress? For starters, depending on the volume you print, you can gain economies of scale and save yourself money by printing on your own. Finances may not be the main driver though; there is also the satisfaction of seeing your work come to life and having your hand in the entire process of scouting, capturing, editing, and printing an image.

Do you print your work or send it out to a lab? Let me know in the comments below.

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31 Comments

user-223296's picture

I always make my own prints. Have for over 50 years. I won't sign a print I did not make. While there were certainly several very famous photographers who did not print their own work (Cartier Bresson was one), and several that should have had someone else make prints for them (Diane Arbus made terrible prints), I suppose it comes down to how invested you are in the craft.

From my perspective, making digital prints is far harder than making silver gelatin -- however it took me a good 10 years to really perfect the silver print.

Imagine someone else trying to print Ansel Adams' "Moonrise over Hernandez Mexico". When Brett Weston turned 80, he burned all of his negatives to prevent anyone else from 'interpreting' them for him.

Maybe you should write a book on printing perfect digital prints? Personally, I enjoy the process and art of crafting prints.

Jeff Schewe already wrote an excellent book on that one: "The digital print"

William Howell's picture

I don’t have the time to invest in learning to print, although I would most definitely love to. But I’m interested in reading about the technique. Would you have some suggestions as to what to read, you know, where would you start?

user-223296's picture

If you mean printing from negatives, this is a good place to begin:

https://www.amazon.com/fine-print-Fred-Picker/dp/0960628606

William Howell's picture

Actually I did not meant negative printing, but then I thought, no wait Kodak is coming back out with that 4x5 film, I believe it’s 4x5, I knothat it is medium format. And I have read one can get a Mamiya film body pretty reasonably price. So yes, thank you Gary.

20 minute rant....I was done at 30 sec

If you watched the whole video you would know it wasn't a 20 minute rant.

Kirk Darling's picture

When I had a darkroom (including a color darkroom), I heartily believed in making my own prints destined for walls.

These days, not quite so much. I do have a printer I use for 13x19 prints for a certain special edition of work. And I always print a smaller version or a portion of anything I intend to outsource because, somehow, I'm not really sure how it will look to me printed until I see it printed.

But I'm not going to print my bread-and-butter 20x30s and 30x40s. In my gray head, there seems today to be a disconnect between Photoshop and a print in hand that didn't exist when I printed in the darkroom. In the darkroom, it felt like the flow of creativity continued all the way through to mounting the print. Of course, it mostly did, from the mystical hand movements of dodging and burning to spotting a print using a #0000 brush with and a dried dish of Spotone and a touch of saliva.

I do feel today the creativity is complete with the final JPEG and the decision of size and surface...and that the actual printing can be done by someone else.

Alex Armitage's picture

Pro Tip. Purchase a Canon Pixma pro-100 during their insane deal and start printing your own work to see if you enjoy it. I nearly bought the same printer Heaton uses in the video but decided to see if I enjoyed it with something a bit more affordable. The prints coming out of the pixma 100 are actually quite good and considering how cheap the printer is during the rebate, it's a no brainer.

After doing this for over a year I've looked into larger printers but have yet to pull the trigger.

https://fstoppers.com/deals/get-canon-pixma-pro-100-photo-printer-and-50...

David Pavlich's picture

This is what I did and just about immediately decided that I wanted a bigger printer. :-) But I worked with the Pro 100 for about a year, then bought an Epson P800 and still using it 2 years later. Yes, I'd like a 24" printer, but it's not in the budget at the moment.

Alex Armitage's picture

The size increase isn't huge between the two, was it worth the upgrade?

David Pavlich's picture

Four inches in width is fairly substantial, but I also bought the roll paper adapter for the 800 and that makes a very big difference. I've made a couple a 17X35 prints that looked really nice. The print quality of the 800 is better over a wide range of papers. I was never really happy with the way the Pro 100 printed on matte paper.

Also, B&W prints from the P800 are a lot better than the Pro 100. Don't get me wrong. The Pro 100 is far and away the best printer in the category, especially since Canon has those terrific sales on the printers and crazy sales on their paper. I'm still using some of Canon's Luster paper that I bought over two years ago when they had a 'buy 1 and get 9 free' sale on 8.5X11 20 sheet packs. It just so happens that Epson's ICC profiles work well with some of Canon's paper.

Alex Armitage's picture

Yeah I'm not trying to compare the two, they are in different categories. Just curious if the upgrade was sincerely worth it. I use my current printer for test prints and order larger prints from a lab.

Kirk Darling's picture

Yes, I did buy a pro-100 and dumped my troublesome Epson. That's an insane deal.

user-223296's picture

I started on the Pro-100 and now print with a Pro-1000. Fantastic printer, very expensive. Once you find the right paper (I use Red River exclusively), it's 90% Photoshop and 10% printer.

Ed Sanford's picture

I do my own printing. Before going digital I printed in the darkroom and saw it as a continuation of shooting in the camera. Most of the great masters were masters in the darkroom. Once you get past the initial set up of color management, monitor calibration and I.c.c. profiles, digital printing is far easier than working in the chemical darkroom. Plus, you have a litany of choices in fine quality papers from which to choose. I have outsourced exactly one large print and even then I sent my file along with a proof on the exact same paper with strict instructions not to change anything. To me, shooting the file is just the beginning. The real finishing work comes in the electronic darkroom and I would not want to give that privilege to someone who was not present when I conceived the image.

Rob Davis's picture

Nobody just does a couple of test prints and saves all of the hassle of owning a printer? Seriously, if you’re getting your print vendors ICC profile and calibrating your monitor, you’re not sacrificing much in the way of creative control. Especially after you e done it a few times and you know what to expect.

I don't understand what happened to education. I've seen a few of these articles about printing and invariably someone suggests a cheap printer with cheap inks. They are cheap because the prints are not archival. If you love snapchat and are ok with losing your phone images then the cheap printers are great. If these are personal happy snap prints and you don't care about the print fading, then buy the cheapest there is.

When I sold images to my clients that I printed, I made sure they were archival. If Wilhelm Imaging didn't test the ink/paper combo to give me 100-200 year permanence, I didn't own it. I wanted it archival because I could not read the clients mind to know how the image was going to be displayed or how many generations it may be handed down through.

Jordan McChesney's picture

This video made me so jealous of people in the UK. Printing sounds so much more affordable. In Tokyo a 16x20 fine art print with colour correction is 9000 yen (63 pounds).
At least that’s the only one I’ve found. Sounds like I need to move to the uk, haha.
If anyone knows any cheaper printers in Tokyo with high quality prints, please let me know.

I do a lot of client prints via an Epson 7890, I think they ran about $8K when new. I pay $9.99 for a 20x30 and use a color profile for this specific printer (the exact on location one used to make my prints) updated every so often. No paper choices, semi gloss only. If their not busy, you can upload your images and pick them up in 30 minutes. Fantastic for excellent non-fine art work. There may be one of these places near you; Costco.

Mr Drizz's picture

If you can sell your prints for a nice premium then printing your own and having total control make sense. The price of the print is immaterial as the client is paying that. But if you are printing for your own wall or friend and family then labs make so much more sense. You won't be printing that often

Rick Nash's picture

As much as I enjoy Thomas Heaton, his printer video strayed a bit as even he remarked that he was going on and on. Maybe his efforts are better rewarded with having a longer video?
I noted in Youtube comments of his video, I've been in a state of angst trying to decide if I should purchase a printer. I already had done my due dilligence and understood the painfully obvious calculations and concluded of a poor monetary return on investment. Printer ownership wasn't to be about a prudent financial frugality but instead one of the final steps towards making a piece of 'art'.
I also have a personal rapport with my print lab. To not use them is tantamount to cheating on them. What am I to do?
Heaton's video also ignored that there still remains the framing and mounting, a crucial series of decisions that ultimately defines the final control the photographer may have presenting their work. To me, the matting and framing are also definitive of translating the digital representation into a physical entity. Heaton also ignores the possibility that new printer models may just be around the corner, something that could up the game and instantly obsolete present printer models. To own or not to own...so many questions.

Michael Kormos's picture

Outsource. Focus on what you do - new clients & photography, and let someone else do what they do best - printing and shipping. Your time as the photographer is valuable. Why waste it on doing a task that someone can do for fraction of what your time is worth?

Alex Armitage's picture

I think there is genuine joy in tinkering/experimenting with printing your own work.

Michael Kormos's picture

Naturally. And I was speaking strictly from the point of view of running a photography business.

Paul G's picture

I mostly print myself. Why, well because it seems like some of the creative processes is given away and it would not be my work if I sent it to a lab. I am sure I would sometimes or mostly, at the beginning of doing my own printing, have got better results if I had sent all my printing to a lab. But I have enjoyed the learning and experimenting as I get better at printing my work. I might have saved some money and time but would have lost out on a lot the joy of taking a photo, editing a photo, printing and finally framing a photo I am happy with. The other side is that I might have fewer grey hair because of the struggles to get the result I wanted would have been avoided. But as the old saying goes, if at first, you don't succeed etc.

Rob Mitchell's picture

I've had 2 large format Epson printers. (24in) Both have died due to being used too little. NewpPrint head costs more than the value of the printer .
With the first printer, I did a mini-print service for colleagues but now there are print shops that do it cheaper than I can buy the materials.
A grand for a set of ink carts, expensive paper than needs stocking well. I've given up with it. Way too much money invested in kit that's standing still too long.
Granted, it's handy for test prints, on the other hand, a good relationship with a dedicated printer solves that issue.

If anyone wants a scrap Epson 4900, I have one of those too, stuck under a bench.

I have been printing images since 1970. I thoroughly enjoyed the craft of making B&W prints and later color, both type C and R with a bit of Ciba for variety.
I opened a commercial lab in 1980 and began printing for pros and enthusiasts. While some pros insisted on printing their own work, as a business proposition, it flat does not work. They really need to be honest and admit they love to make prints. Nothing wrong with that. Instead there is all sorts of rationalization for buying gear and spending time to ensure "their vision" is realized on the paper. Considering that so many prints I have to look at seem to have the craft skills analogous to a poor phone image printed on a color copier the charade is obvious. Stop it. It is just fun.

I no longer print as I am a fully booked commercial photographer and deliver files electronically. Clients who request prints get charged the right amount and I make a correct profit from a print made by a commercial lab.
I would note that I do have my lab make prints for my home and studio. I take care to send good files. Any slight discrepancy in a print is unnoticed as I no longer make 5 samples varying slightly with no one version being meaningfully different.

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