What Is The Difference Between Photo Black & Black Printer Ink?

01-08-2014 by

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When it comes to ink cartridges, we all wish it could be just a little simpler. Possibly the most confusing part of the ink buying process is knowing whether or not the black ink cartridge you’re buying is actually the black you need.

We often get asked what the difference between photo black and normal black printer ink is and if the two can be used in the same way. We’ve put together a handy guide to answer these questions.

So, what is the difference?

It all boils down to the type of ink used in the cartridge. Basically, photo black (or any photo ink colour) is a dye based ink, while the black cartridge is a pigment based ink. For more information on the differences between the two, check out our blog post What Is The Difference Between Pigment And Dye-Based Ink Cartridges?.

Both are used differently by your printer as well. Black ink is used for text, while photo black plays an important part in photo printing.

Can I use one in place of the other?

Short answer, no. Because photo black is usually used with the other coloured inks to produce better tones and shades when you’re printing a photo and black ink is mainly used for printing text. Both black cartridges will sometimes be used when you’re printing pictures or documents in black and white to get better shades and to make images clearer.

The ink inside a photo black ink cartridge is actually grey, while the ink inside a normal black ink cartridge is black. Photo black ink is lighter so that it shows up better on finished paper, like photo paper.

How do I know which one to buy?

It’s actually very simple. If your printer has slots for 5 or more ink cartridges, you need a photo black cartridge. If it only has 4 slots, you only need a normal black ink cartridge. You can also easily tell the difference between the two types of ink cartridge by either looking at the name or the packaging.

HP ink cartridges have symbols on their cartridge boxes telling you what they’re used for. A small camera icon on the box will tell you whether or not the cartridge you’re buying is photo black or not. HP have also renamed their photo black ink cartridges, so they're now just simply photo ink cartridges, like the HP 178XL photo ink cartridge

Canon ink cartridges are even easier to tell apart as the difference is all in the name. Any black cartridge code that starts with PGI is a normal black ink cartridge, like the Canon PGI-5 black ink cartridge. Any black cartridge code that starts with CLI is your photo black, like the Canon CLI-8 black ink cartridge.

Epson ink cartridges can be a little confusing as they have matt black, black and light black. Generally, light black and matt black are used for photo printing and black is used for normal printing. Look in your user manual to see which ink cartridges your printer uses.

Lexmark ink cartridges and Brother ink generally do not have photo black varieties, so shopping for those is easier.

If you’re still not sure which ink cartridge you should buy, you can always contact us and our friendly customer support team will help you.

Nic Venter

About the author

Nic Venter+

 is the founder and director of He started the business in 2009 with the idea to sell ink and toner cartridges online and to provide you with a quality product, value for money and convenience. He regularly blogs on about printing and technology. Part of his philosophy is having fun and making sure that he and his team think everything ink, so you don't have to.

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