Not all photo labs are created equal. From ink quality, to colors, to the paper they are printed on, results vary drastically from every print lab.
When you become a professional photographer you need decide if you will offer prints, provide digital files, or both. Either way, you need to be educated on what print lab offers the most consistent, realistic results for your photos. If your customers order from you, you’ll want to balance quality prints with variety of offerings. If you only offer a CD/DVD or digital files, it is best to refer your customers to the best consumer lab so they get good-quality prints. There are a lot of choices – so I am breaking down some information that will be useful to both you and your clients in regards to prints.
The testing process
When I was in the process of starting my business, I decided that I wanted to use Shootproof for my customer proofing and ordering. Shootproof partners with three labs (Bay Photo, Black River Imaging, and ProDPI). I decided to get test prints from each of those labs, as well as from WHCC, which was another lab that I had heard many good things about. Pro labs offer you five free test prints (8x10s).
- I ordered the same five prints from each pro lab.
- I ordered two of the five prints (one color and one black and white) from two of my local pharmacies (Rite Aid and CVS)
- I had prints that I had recently gotten from the consumer version of Mpix that I compared with the same photo I used as one of my test prints.
So, let’s begin!
You will see a number of photos below that are photos of my test photos. Even with proper white balance and exposure, it is nearly impossible to take a photo of a photo and have it turn out digitally the way it looks in real life (and see how it matches my monitor). The only black and white example I have posted here is a sharpness example, because black and white photos by design cannot be photographed to show their true color. That said, I have presented a number of comparison photos to try to showcase color and quality differences as well as possible.
Also important: make sure your monitor is calibrated . This is probably the most important thing to do when you are getting test prints, because you will be comparing your prints to how your monitor looks, and they should match. I don’t ever choose color correction for my prints, as my monitor is calibrated and I want to see which printer is matching my calibrated monitor correctly. For the purposes of this article, I have used the following three of my test prints for comparison. Last, all the pro labs I tested provided quality product. The differences between the prints are subtle but recognizable to a photographer who knows what they are looking for. It all comes down to what prints match your monitor.
And as you will see, there is NOT one best lab. Each photographer will likely have a preference. If nothing else, I strongly advise you to do some tests of your own before you order your prints.
Now for a breakdown of the pro labs:
- Uses Fuji paper (Fuji paper is a “cooler” paper than Kodak but also tends to have more detail, especially with luster). They are the only lab that I tested that uses Fuji paper with the exception of the consumer version of Mpix. Fuji paper seems to be thicker.
- Were the prints that matched my calibrated monitor the best, sometimes by far, and especially for black and white, where the Fuji paper comes into play the most.
- Had the slowest shipping, by a day.
- ROES system is easiest to use.
- Had the sharpest prints by a LOT
- Included candy in their order!
- Have amazing and helpful customer service (one story: they actually now send me three of what I told them my favorite candy was for every order I place, because I told them how much I like that variety. They’re also extremely helpful and friendly.)
- Have a very easy to use ROES system.
Black River Imaging
- Fast shipping!
- Uses Kodak Endura paper, which is a “warmer” paper. The Kodak paper seems slightly thinner/more flimsy.
- Color prints match my monitor, and ProDPI prints, almost exactly except for a little more red in one photo.
- Black and white prints are noticeably warmer. They look like black and whites when viewed alone but when compared to monitor or ProDPI, they have a definite warm tinge.
- Luster not quite as nice as ProDPI.
- They are one of the two labs tested that do not mark on their prints that they are test prints.
- All prints are less sharp than with ProDPI. It is most noticeable on portraits on the eyes and lips.
- Another vote for very fast shipping!
- ROES system is so-so
- Also uses Kodak paper. Their black and whites are not as warm as Black River but not as cool as ProDPI’s (which are on Fuji paper).
- Photos are sharper than Black River’s, which appear strangely soft, but not as sharp as ProDPI’s.
- In my still life photo, the lemon is almost light orange (see comparison photo below).
- More blacks in their photos than Black River and smoother transition from dark to light.
- You do not need to use ROES for their test prints; you can upload them online. ONE CAVEAT: As you are uploading them online, you do not have the ability to crop your photos to 8×10, as you do in ROES, so they need to be cropped to this size beforehand for your photos to properly print as 8×10’s. I? Forgot to do this!
- However, WHCC’s customer service is really awesome because they immediately contacted me to tell me this, so I could fix if necessary.
- Luster on photos very nice.
- WHCC also does not mark their test prints as test prints.
- Kodak paper used.
- Black and whites match my monitor (and ProDPI’s) almost exactly.
- Marked green color shift in photos. Not noticeable in all, but you can see it in some (example below). Also most likely the reason that b&w’s are cooled down enough to match ProDPI’s. Photos are also darker than any other pro lab.
- Candy also included in order!
Now onto the consumer labs.
These are the labs that clients may use if you provide them with digital files but no prints. Or, if you are not a pro yet (or even if you are, and do not meet the order minimums for some pro labs) you may be considering ordering from these places for personal use. Shortly before I got my test prints from pro labs, I had ordered some prints from the consumer version of MPix. One of those prints was the same as one of my test prints. I also ordered two 8×10 prints each from CVS and Rite Aid, my local pharmacies. I was very interested to see how these would compare to the pro labs.
- Website fairly easy to use for anyone.
- This is the lab I would recommend to non-pros or any client who is not ordering prints through you but still wants a good-quality print.
- Shipping not the fastest.
- Fuji paper used (as does ProDPI)
- Luster coating can be added, like pro lab luster prints.
- Photos are cheaper than pharmacy, even with luster coating, but you do pay for shipping.
- My choice for consumer prints.
- Colors match my monitor colorwise but Mpix prints tend to be darker and somewhat more contrasty than some other pro labs (see example photo below). I have also ordered black and white portraits from MPix for friends and their portraits are very similar to ProDPI’s but are a little darker and somewhat more contrasty.
- I have used Mpix for metallic prints which have come out awesome, and for photo books which are very good quality.
- Yes, I have a yellow and white kitchen floor.
- Prints available in an hour if you wish.
- No luster prints available; only glossy
- Unknown paper type. Not indicated on paper.
- Photos cost more than MPix; however you will not need to ship.
- Black and white photo has extreme purplish-blue cast.
- Color photo colors are not as bad as expected, though still not close to perfect. Blacks are way off (see example).
- Photos are too warm.
- Their photos can also be obtained in an hour if you like
- Photos also are available as glossy only. No luster option.
- Photos cost more than Mpix; however you will not need to ship.
- Their photos are printed on Kodak paper
- Black and white does not have the purple cast of Rite Aid but also does not match my monitor at all. Also, their black and white in particular is EXTREMELY soft (see example below) and also has random color flecks throughout it.
- Color photo is also off, not as much as I would’ve expected but also has the same issue as Rite Aid where blacks are not even close.
Notice how soft the second photo is above? That is NOT a focus issue with my photo-of-a-photo. That is actually how soft the print from CVS is. Compare it to how sharp the photo from the pro lab is!
If you becoming a professional photographer, I highly suggest doing a similar comparison to the one I have done so you can see which lab matches your monitor the best. They will all be close, but each photographer has one they love (and for me, it’s ProDPI). Also, if your clients are printing their own photos, feel free to use the examples above to demonstrate how the color and sharpness of drugstore prints is not even close to what a pro lab can provide you.
If you have done similar print lab tests, we’d love to hear and see your findings. Add any results or impressions in the comments below.