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Glazer's Camera

The Total Cost of Printing Digital


Printing digital photos may seem cheap, but are you taking all the costs into account? Seattle photographer Serge Timacheff lists some line-items you may have missed.

It is tempting to assume that printing photos from a digital camera will be a snap, and cheaper than a film-based process. Anyone who has tried it, however, knows that it inevitably becomes a bigger challenge, and expense, than anticipated.

Creating prints from digital images technologically may be worlds apart from printing negatives or creating slides from film. The methods for determining printing costs for both media, however, are not really that different. When it comes to digital, the photographer has the same choices as with film: either send it to a photofinishing service, or print it in a “digital darkroom,” i.e., with a computer, image editing software, a monitor and a printer. As with film-based printing, the service bureau costs are easier to track than the digital darkroom’s, given the variable costs of inkjet cartridges and paper.

It is easiest to evaluate the cost per print when developing and printing film-based images using a lab’s services. The other option, producing images in a darkroom, involves a variety of expenses, such as chemicals and paper, which makes it harder to calculate costs but offers the photographer more direct control of output.

The cumulative cost of printing digital or film photographs (not counting the capital expenditure involved in buying the camera) is referred to in the industry as the total cost of printing, or TCOP. This term takes into account, in dollars, everything associated with producing prints, and attempts to give photographers a rough baseline with which to compare various printing options realistically.

Dana Rasmussen, a leading salesperson at Glazer’s Camera in Seattle, guides photographers on this issue on a daily basis: “One of the biggest complaints we get is that what is on the monitor isn’t what comes out on the printer,” he says. “For consumers, especially, there isn’t really a clear answer as to what they should do for printing things.”

Film vs. digital

The effort involved in developing and printing film-based photos in a darkroom is well established from a process standpoint. However, it is difficult to determine specific per-print costs without measuring chemical and paper expenses over the long term.

The total cost calculation must take into account the developer, stop bath, fixer, film developer, photo flow, paper and film costs, also assuming that not every print will succeed and that only two to four images per roll of film will be used. Of course, the printing sessions for these various chemicals will vary, and some will need to be changed more often than others (for example, developer is used up more quickly than stop bath).

If you keep track of these costs over a three-month period with a relatively active darkroom (in other words, developing 10 rolls of film and printing approximately 25 images a week on 8x10-inch paper), you can divide the cumulative costs by the total number of prints to arrive at a per-print sum. While the costs can vary from photographer to photographer, a fair price for each 8x10-inch print will range between $2 and $4, depending on the volume of prints and how meticulously chemicals are maintained.

A very limited set of industry standards guides how the computers, printers and software in the average digital darkroom work together for consistent results. What ultimately appears on the average inkjet printer rarely meets the standard a disposable camera and a drugstore one-hour developer would have accomplished a few years ago. With ink, paper and a few honest mistakes, photos very quickly can cost $2 per 8x10-inch page or more.

Thinking in reverse can clarify the matter: What is the ultimate intended use of the photographs? Are they family snapshots, an active enthusiast’s keepsake artwork or a pro’s latest wedding job? Can photographs be ganged onto one large sheet of paper? Will they be sold? Will they be framed and hung in a family’s living room for years to come? Will they be entered into contests or put on display? Do they need to be enlarged significantly, or will they be wallet-sized? The ultimate destination and use of the prints, the quantity of prints being produced and the expected longevity of the prints all factor into a TCOP decision.

Printers and ink

The vast majority of photo printers in homes, offices and studios are based on inkjet technology. Canon and Epson, the two market leaders, manufacture everything from inexpensive, small-format inkjet printers to large-format devices capable of producing spectacular 24-inch-wide photos.

Ink is an unavoidable cost of printing, whether it’s buried in the overall cost of a service bureau or in the expensive cartridges you have to replace with frustrating regularity and great care. While most printer manufacturers offer a general guideline of cost-per-page or cost-per-square-foot for printing, many experts recommend increasing those estimates by 50 percent. “You can tell from the test images printers base their printing costs on, it’s pretty obvious they’re not using a huge ink load,” says Glazer’s Rasmussen.

A call to several printer retailers on the West Coast yielded a range of per-print costs from $1.60 to $1.80 for 8x10-inch images produced by two of the best-selling photo printers available: the Epson Stylus Photo 2200 and the Canon i9100. These figures include inkjet and glossy paper costs using manufacturer-specified products. When you apply the 50-percent rule, you see that per-page printing can get rather pricey.

Calculating TCOP, however, can be tough, given that good photo printers use multiple cartridges — six or even more — that all run out of ink at different times and rates.

A good rule of thumb is to calculate a total ink usage of 1.5 milliliters (ml) per square foot of print, or about 0.8 ml per 8x10-inch image, for a heavy coverage print, equating to an ink cost of around 50 cents per 8x10-inch print on an Epson Stylus Photo 2200. In addition, you must add paper costs, which can be considerable when using good-quality paper. These costs can best be evaluated by tracking paper and ink consumption (including rejects) over a three- to six-month period. The most important factors include the number of photos printed, the print sizes, the amount of ink used and the relative costs of all of these items.

Labs and printing services

At the low end, Kinko’s, Costco and many other local photo-printing services usually produce prints that are at least of one-hour-print quality, and using these services often is much less frustrating than printing images on a home printer. The TCOP is easily tracked, as photographers know specifically how many prints they are receiving for a given number of images, and for what cost.

The limitations of this type of printing primarily are in the quality of color management, paper quality and print longevity. Essentially, these are snapshot houses. The prints they produce generally are not suitable for art-quality presentation or even up to common wedding-photography standards. Furthermore, the images must be optimized carefully on a PC before they are delivered to the service.

These services, however, are excellent options for proofing purposes, which means that for semi-pro and pro shooters, they may be the best way to go. For anyone shooting film, too, these bureaus offer the fastest and most effective way to get negatives processed, scanned and onto CDs. Even when presenting a client with a quick-and-dirty set of prints from a job or an event, it’s hard to beat their speed and relatively good quality.

Likewise, for higher-quality printing, dedicated photographic labs are an essential and indispensable source for all types of digital- and film-based images. The West Coast is blessed with many choices for professional lab services, such as Oscar’s in San Francisco and Ivey Imaging in Seattle. For large prints, museum- or commercial-quality photographs and detailed image management, professional labs are worth the price, especially those that allow the photographer to be directly involved. The TCOP, however, will increase significantly in accordance with the amount of manual labor, special services and equipment required to process images.

Online photofinishing

Many services are readily available on the web to print digital images on paper as well as on gift items. Sharing and presenting photos online has become a popular way for family, friends, clients and business associates to reach virtually anyone around the world. Users upload images, which are hosted in galleries, and viewers can purchase the images they like.

Services such as Snapfish, Kodak Ofoto, Yahoo Photos and Shutterfly have the amateur photographer in mind. These services are simple and oriented to quantity rather than quality, and offer free memberships and very reasonable prices. Their quality is better than a local service because they deal in large volume and can afford to buy higher-end machines that produce more consistent prints. The trade-off is that images must be shipped, taking more time to reach the purchaser; returns and reprints also are more trouble.

The professional/semi-pro services, such as Printroom, Photo Access and Pictage, require photographers to pay membership fees that can range from $99 to several hundred dollars. While consumers, clients and other nonmembers can gain access to galleries posted on these sites to view and purchase images, it is the photographers who upload and manage the images and galleries. The services offer photographers high-quality photo printing in many sizes and often add capabilities such as image editing, color management, marketing tools and dedicated technical and service support staff.

The disadvantage of this type of printing can be in getting the images to the service. The methods vary, including uploading both thumbnail and full-sized photos, e-mailing them or sending CDs of images. Furthermore, online image management varies widely from service to service.

In terms of TCOP, online printing can be one of the most efficient options. Professional photographers often use online services to print their own images — not just those of their clients — because prices can be nearly unbeatable. The image quality is superior, and the paper and inks used are of at least very good, if not archival, quality. While the online labs rarely can beat a local high-end professional lab for museum-quality or oversized prints, they are a worthy consideration for many amateur and professional needs. The TCOP for these services must take into account not only the cost of the printing, but the cost of shipping the images, which, of course, is higher if the prints must be delivered quickly.

No magic formula

The total cost of printing images is an important consideration in today’s digital photography world, especially because of the increasing number of images being produced. The market for inkjet cartridges, paper and printing services is booming, and will continue to grow as consumers and professionals migrate to digital photography.

Many photographers today are using a mix of digital and film, which further complicates the calculation of TCOP. However, if you build a simple spreadsheet listing the different services used for both digital and film, and track the costs over a multi-month period, the relative costs will begin to develop a delta, or change in value, showing obvious areas of advantage and deficit.

Here are some other tips to consider when calculating your TCOP:

• Accurate film-based TCOP must include costs for film, processing, developing and paper. For darkrooms, calculate only consumables, such as chemicals (not tools, for example, or even non-critical substances such as water).

• If images are to be sold, the consumable costs are for resale and, consequently, can be purchased at a lower cost from retailers serving professional shooters. Photographers must take extra time to fill out the paperwork necessary to establish this type of account, but it notably optimizes TCOP.

• The old adage “measure twice, cut once” applies to TCOP. Double-check the focus on the enlarger, clean the head before hitting “print” on a big image and take a little extra time to ensure that settings are correct, whatever the medium.

What’s the secret to TCOP calculation? Like any method of budgeting, there is no magic formula; there are simply too many variables. Like a gas-mileage rating for city and highway driving on a new car, TCOP is only a general guideline. The process of deciding what kind of print will be produced and how it will be used will be different for each photographer. However, costs can be tracked, which ultimately will make printing more manageable and yield the best results.

Serge Timacheff
Story Author: Serge Timacheff

Serge Timacheff is a professional photographer based in the Seattle area, and a former InfoWorld editor and technology author. He is a partner with Tiger Mountain Photo and Boudoir Northwest, and is an official photographer for the International Fencing Federation and the 2004 Summer Olympics.

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