Professional Labs vs Consumer Labs for Printing

Unless you’re in the photography world, you may not know that there are strong differences in the finished product when choosing where to have your professional images printed.  Not all printing services are created the same, and despite which photographer you choose, each will have their own opinions on where is the best place to have the final images printed.  You will find some similarity between professional opinions, but the one opinion guaranteed across the board with professionals is that consumer photo labs (Walgreens, CVS, Shutterfly, etc) typically produce images that pale in quality comparisons to professional photo labs like WHCC or Miller‘s.

As with everything, the proof is often in the contrasts, and we didn’t slack in doing our own homework to see how the more commonly used services measured up against our preferred printer.  Keep in mind that when it comes to art, its creators have a vested interest in the quality you select to display your final images.  We here at Ahnvee Photography care a great deal about the quality of your printed images and therefore, we DO NOT add any additional charges to the existing cost to print from our preferred professional lab, WHCC (White House Custom Color).  We want to guarantee you the best possible final images and feel that passing our cost to do so on to you is the best way to keep your costs down while still delivering professional lab-quality prints.  Of course, you are free to print your digital images wherever you like, but we performed this test to show you the fine points of why professional print labs are truly the way to go.

Its also worth noting that professional labs use different color modes than what appears on your computer monitor.  Digital files are typically in RGB (red, green, blue) color mode, while professional printers print in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key or black) color mode.  RGB  color mode uses its base colors to create every other color by combining different amounts of the base colors.  CMYK, on the other hand, is a subtractive color mode, meaning that colors must be subtracted in order to create the full spectrum of color.  Most home printers are now configured to print in RGB mode, but professional printers still use CMYK color mode, which means that color variations will occur if not adjusted by professionals.

With that said, we were quite surprised with how the competitors ranked!

The following are the original digital files.  I chose to use one portrait without a focused background and one with, just to further compare the details.


These are the prints from Colorfast, a local consumer photo lab.   Notice the extreme color differences and contrast, as well as the cropping of the images as compared to the originals.  The cost per print is $2.99 for 5 x 7 and $4.99 for 8 x 10.  Colorfast offers only 1 choice of matte photo paper, Kodak Professional Paper, that is of fairly decent quality.  Since this is a local vendor, there were no shipping costs associated with receipt of the prints.

The next batch of prints are from CVS.  Again, some pretty drastic color differences.  The first portrait is also noticeably greener in hue, with some of the warmth lost from skin tones in both prints.  The second final print is slightly cropped as compared to the original.  The cost per print $2.29 for 5 x 7 and $3.99 for 8 x 10.  CVS offers 2 paper options, of which we chose Kodak XtraLife II, which was glossy and a bit flimsy as compared to the others.  The CVS prints also included a white border of about 1 inch around each of the photos, which was a bit confusing considering that I’d have to trim the photos in order to achieve the size I ordered.  There were no shipping costs associated with CVS prints as I could pick them up locally.



These were printed at Walgreens, and are noticeably lighter with much of the color appearing washed-out and both images appearing significantly dulled as compared to the originals.  As with the CVS prints, the color is much greener and lacking in warmth.  There was also significant cropping to the left and right edges, particularly of the second image but not so much the first.  The cost per print is $2.99 for 5 x 7 and $3.99 for 8 x 10.  Walgreens also offered 2 paper choices but the specific type of paper wasn’t watermarked so I have no idea who makes it or what its quality is beyond my physical examination.  It is the most glossy of all of the prints but still a bit sturdier than CVS‘ prints.  Also, as with CVS prints, there were no shipping costs due to my ability to pick up locally.



These prints are from the online consumer lab, Snapfish.  The warmth has returned but unfortunately, it is still much more orange than the original files.  The final second image was also cropped again.  The cost per print is $0.69 for 5 x 7 and $2.99 for 8 x 10 with $1.99 shipping charge.  Snapfish offers 2 paper options, of which we chose Fujicolor Crystal Archive Paper, which was semi-glossy and slightly lacking in sturdiness as compared to the other prints.



These are the prints from another online consumer lab, Shutterfly.  Thus far, they are the closest in color to the originals, but are still lacking in brightness and clarity and show cropping in the second image.  The cost per print ranges from $0.99 – 3.99 for 5 x 7 and $3.99 – 7.99 for 8 x 10, dependent upon your choice of 4 paper options.  As with Snapfish, we went with the semi-glossy Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper, and paid $1.88 in shipping fees.



Lastly, these are the prints from the online consumer lab Mpix.  They surpass Shutterfly in color comparisons to the original digital images, but are still much darker.  And the same issue exists with the cropping of the second final print.  The price per print ranges from $1.14 – 2.46 for 5 x 7 and $2.40 – 4.03 for 8 x 10, also dependent upon your choice of 4 paper options.  We chose Kodak Professional Endura paper, which had a nice matte-finish and just the right amount of sturdiness.  Mpix was also the most expensive out of all of the consumer photo labs to ship, with a $3.95 shipping fee.



This last set of prints are from my chosen professional lab, WHCC (White House Custom Color).  Proving the purpose of our independent study, they are the closest to retaining the original digital quality, although the slight cropping of the final second print still exists but much less than the previous prints.  You will notice the cost per print is significantly more than consumer photo labs, at $5.00 for 5 x 7 and $7.00 for 8 x 10, but this is a small price to pay for the guarantee that your printed images will be as close to the original digital files as possible.  Professional Labs like WHCC understand the variations between color modes and take this into consideration when handling your prints.



Just to give you a better visual of how the prints from consumer print labs compare to the original digital image (click on image to enlarge):

NOTE:  I also included WalMart prints in these photo-comparisons, and was told that they would be ready for pick up in 5 days.  I returned today, 12 days later,  and was informed that my photos were not yet in and that I was “wasting my time” attempting to pick them up before being called to do so.  So when those finally make it in, I’ll add them to the results above and subsequently fill in that large white block in the image comparison above.  While WalMart was definitely the cheapest option of those listed, I have a sneaking suspicion that the indefinite pick up day and lackluster customer service are contributing factors for why they are priced so low.  As the saying goes, and as is evidenced in my results, “You get what you pay for!”