What Colors Use the Least Toner?

By John Lister

Color toner use isn't a black-and-white issue.
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The way that color deskjet and laser printers use toner means the colors in a page you print will make a small difference to the amount of toner you use. In terms of cost, the main factor is the balance between black and other colors. Although avoiding certain colors in your printed documents may be impractical and make only a limited difference, you can take other more effective color-related steps to keep printing costs down.


Most color printers, whether they use ink or toner, work through the CMYK system. This aims to create all colors by mixing together differing proportions of cyan (a greenish-blue), magenta (a shade of purple), yellow and black toner. Most toner printers will have separate toner cartridges for each of these four colors. Usually the color toner cartridges cost considerably more than the black ones.


The CMYK system means that the main variation in how much toner is used to print a color comes from how many of the four toner colors are needed. (Note that because the colors are combined, it is a small but not proportional increase: using all four colors uses more toner than only using two colors, but not usually four times as much.) Printing pure cyan, yellow, magenta or black will thus use the least toner. Using common colors such as red or blue, which must be made with multiple colors under CMYK, will use slightly more. The most use will come when three or four of the colors are combined. You can experiment with the color palettes in image editing and graphics software to see the effects, but generally very dark shades of red, blue or green will use high quantities of multiple color toners.


Printing in black may use more color toner than you would imagine for two reasons. Firstly, a color that appears to be black on screen may not be a pure black, and thus the printer will combine black with one or more colored inks to re-create it on paper. (A solution to this is to print the page in monochrome mode.) Secondly, your printer may be set to use "composite black," which means blending colors to print a black-and-white image to get better contrast and detail. You can usually fix this by changing settings when you print an image, such as changing the print mode to grayscale, which prints with only black toner.


Several factors can affect your usage and expenditure on color toner to a much greater degree than your choice of colors. For example, buying combined tricolor toner cartridges, which house reservoirs of cyan, magenta and yellow toners in a single unit, can be a false economy. As soon as one color runs out, the unit must be replaced and the remaining toner for the other colors is wasted. You should also consider whether your printer is designed so you can only use replacement toner from the printer manufacturer, which may mean high prices. If your model allows third-party toner refills, you may be able to shop around, though quality can vary.