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Where to Print Photos in 2014, Part One

Last month on the blog I talked about why you should print more photos instead of leaving them all on your computer. Now let’s talk about where to get them printed, to get the best quality print. This post originally appeared in my newsletter in its entirety (sign up on the right of this page to receive monthly newsletters). This is part one of two:

It’s such a hassle to get photos printed, you say. I don’t know where to go, you say. Well, don’t worry, I say. I’m here for you, I say. We’ve already talked in length about why printing your photos is important. Now let’s go over your options for where to have those prints made.

There are a bunch of different options for printing. The most obvious are the places you go on a regular basis, like Target, Walmart, and Walgreens. Then there are places online like Shutterfly and mpix, which also specialize in photo books, cards, and photo gifts. Then there are dedicated Photography Stores, like Ritz (RIP) and Richmond Camera. Which one will give you the best prints for your money? It can be really overwhelming to try to figure it out yourself.

Lucky for you, I’m on a mission to find out for you. I ordered prints from each of these companies, along with a professional printing company that I like. I judged companies on the following features:

1. Quality of print in comparison with the original digital file. This includes color, sharpness, and grain, in a purely visual inspection. The print that matches the digital file most accurately got 10 points.

This seemed to be a toss up between my professional lab and Richmond Camera. I was a little surprised, actually, and disappointed in the results here. The pro lab I tested and Richmond Camera were a pretty dead-on match with my digital image. The other five labs were a hodge-podge of colors, none of them really matching, and in one example, the lab couldn’t even match colors between its own prints. Consistency is KEY with a good lab. If you can’t count on it to be excellent every time, then you’re wasting your own time and money. Ten points to Richmond Camera.

Print comparison between Pro and amateur labsOriginal digital image

This is the pro lab I chose to test for this project. The prints match my original image the best in color, sharpness and quality. 

I based the color comparison off of the circled bit in the bottom image (the Nations Lab print). When you compare to the other prints, you can see that no one really got the color dead on like Nations did. In real life, the differences between the prints is really remarkable, but it’s harder to document that in another image. I admit it, I’m terrible at taking pictures of pictures. 

This is what’s really unacceptable to me. The 5×7 print in the middle here is clearly a different color than the other two, and the smallest one is clearer and less red than the 8×10. I’m amazed that I’ve ever ordered anything good from this company – I guess it really has been my luck to get decent prints from them when I’ve ordered from them. (For the record, I’ve never ordered client images from Shutterfly. Just a book for a friend. And it’s possible that their book department is more consistent and has better quality all around.)

2. Options for printing. I’m rather picky when it comes to my prints. I like matte or luster finishes to hide fingerprints and keep the photo from sticking to glass in a frame. I’m also a fan of white borders, when I can get them, because the frame takes fractions of an inch off each side of the image and I don’t like the edges of the picture to be cropped out. I need the options to also include the ability to move a crop around on a 4×6, 5×7 or 8×10 image, so you can decide which part of the image gets cropped when printing a size that doesn’t match what your camera shoots. (I’ll show you what I mean.) Best result got 10 points. Mpix and Richmond Camera were the only companies that offered white borders. Of those two, RC gave the best quality by far, by actually making the image a tiny bit smaller all the way around to fit the entire image in the frame, instead of just sticking a white border on top of the image like Mpix did. Check it out:

Intact feet in all three shots. 

Look ma! No feet! 

Second to Richmond Camera, I’m pretty pleased with Walgreen’s ability to leave the majority of the image alone without cropping it all to hell. But I’ve gotta give it to RC in this category. They know the importance of the edges of an image. Richmond Camera = 10 points

3. Paper quality. Not all photo papers are created equal. Some companies use really great papers, like Kodak, Ilford, or Fuji papers. Some companies use lesser papers, especially for kiosk or one-hour printing. The thickness of the paper and quality of the inks, as well as the quality of the finish (see above regarding matte and luster) will all come into play. The best quality overall got 10 points. All of the companies used Kodak or Fujifilm papers for their prints, which was encouraging. For this image, I prefer Kodak over Fuji, because just like in the old days with film, Kodak seems to be a bit “warmer” and Fuji is a tad “colder” or “greener.” This means that Fuji tends to be great for landscapes while Kodak’s film and paper are really great for skin tones.

Kodak has two levels of paper as well: a generic Kodak paper, and a Kodak Endura paper, which is the tiniest bit thicker and stiffer. Nations, and Target’s small prints are printed on Endura. Walmart, Walgreen’s, and Target’s big prints are printed on the generic Kodak paper. Richmond Camera, Mpix, and Shutterfly all printed on Fujifilm Crystal paper.

Ten points to Target for paper choice.

Come back next week for part two: price, and shipping, and what the final results of all five categories tell us.  Pick out a photo that you’ve been wanting to print, and start considering where you’ll send it to be printed.