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Finding the Best Online Printing Lab

Do you know which is the best online printing lab for your photos?  I don’t.  Or at least, I didn’t until recently.

My guess is that you don’t know either.  And while we all have a lot less prints made than we used to, when it comes time to have a print made, you want to be confident you are sending it to the right place.

Over the last several years I have had many prints made by online labs.  I’ve been happy with almost all of them, but I have still never really been sure I was using the right one.  I mean, even if I liked the print I received, could another lab have done better?  Or could a different lab have done the same thing but cheaper?

I think almost nobody really knows the answer to this question.  People have opinions, but they generally don’t put it to the test.  Even where I have seen “tests” of photo labs, all they do is announce a winner.  Who cares about that?  I don’t want to take their word for it, I want to see the results.

So I decided to do a test of the major online photo labs.  I have already done it, so in this article I will tell you about the test and give you the results.  Perhaps more importantly,  I will also point you to the actual quality and pricing information so you can verify all this if you want.

The Results

I won’t hide the ball here and will just share the results right up front.  Here they are:

The Top Tier of Photo Lab:

  • Bay Photo – great print quality for all photos, and the lowest price for my test.
  • Pro DPI – tremendous print quality along with great prices.
  • White House Custom Color (WHCC) – great print quality and prices, but be aware of the test-print process.

By the way, I know, I know . . .  you want a clear-cut winner, not a “top tier.”  So did I.  Having a top-tier is sort of like a tie, and it just seems a little like a cop-out.  But it is just not possible to pick one clear winner, as you will hopefully see in the test results.

Middle Tier

  • Mpix – great print quality, but no better than top labs, and more expensive.
  • Nations Photo Lab – moderate print quality, but good prices.

Lower Tier

  • AdoramaPix – my former go-to lab had surprisingly poor print results.
  • Shutterfly – poor print quality combined with high prices make this a bad choice.
  • Snapfish – same as Shutterfly, except even worse print quality.

The Test

Here is what I did.  First, I started with these three pictures, chosen because they are so different from each other:

Original files used for print test

I ordered an 8×10 print of each from the major online photo labs.  I received prints from all the labs in a couple of days without incident.

I labeled the back of each picture with the name of the lab, but then scrambled the pictures up and ranked them based on the quality of the print.  I looked first at the colors, as that was the easiest way to tell if something was wrong with the prints (and some of the colors were obviously wrong).  From there it got more difficult, and I looked at things like the level of detail.

Pricing

In addition to looking at print quality, I also looked at the pricing.  Part of that was just looking at the overall cost of my order.  But I also noticed that different labs were cheaper depending on the size of print you ordered.  And then there was shipping.  So there is no “this lab is the cheapest” proclamation that can be made.  In the end, I made this table to help sort it out:

Chart with Print Prices

Rating the Labs

Now I am going to through the various options you have for having prints made.  I will start with the worst and work my way to the best.

Never Make Drugstore Prints

I know most people wouldn’t even think of having a print made at a drugstore or Walmart.  Some might just go there because they are cheap and no-hassle, however, so I want to address these options first.  I took a look at them as part of this test, and turns out that they aren’t even cheap!

I priced the national drugstores (CVS, Walgreens, etc.) and Walmart and they have the absolute most expensive prints of anyone.  They are more expensive than every one of the online photo labs (actually, Shutterfly and Snapfish are in their league, but we’ll get to them in a second).  For example, here are the 8×10 prices

chart of 8x10 print prices

You already knew the quality is crap.  Now you know that they are the most expensive as well.  So there is absolutely no reason ever to have a print made there.

Avoid Shutterfly and Snapfish

Your next move might be to have prints made at Shutterfly or Snapfish.  They are friendly, comsumer-grade options.  I’ve used them myself on occasion.

If you are using them, my guess is that you suspect there are better photolabs out there, but the prints from Shutterfly and Snapfish seem good enough.  Plus you don’t want to do a bunch of research, and then get involved with a professional photo lab, and then pay higher prices.

After putting it to the test, I can pretty confidently say that Shutterfly and Snapfish are the worst options available online.  Their prices are higher across the board.  If you look at the pricing chart above, you will see that for almost every size photo, Shutterfly and Snapfish are more expensive than any professional grade photo lab.

Plus their quality is terrible.  It was uniformly the worst in my test for all three pictures.  Their were color casts and issues with brightness.  It wasn’t even close.

My recommendation is that you avoid Shutterfly and Snapfish.

My Former Go-To Printer

Another popular choice for having prints made is Adoramapix.  In fact, they were my “go-to” lab prior to conducting my tests.  I have spent a few thousand dollars with them over the last few years.

Probably the biggest surprise for me in this print test was how bad AdoramaPix’s prints were.  They were in the same league as the prints from Shutterfly and Snapfish.  When I lined all the prints up, my first move was to remove the obviously bad prints.  Pretty much every time, that turned out to be the prints from Shutterfly, Snapfish, and AdoramaPix.

AdoramaPix demonstrated by far the worst print quality of any of the professional-grade online photo labs.  The pricing was just ok, but then they charged for shipping when others did not.  As a result, I’m personally done with AdoramaPix, and do not recommend you use them either.

The Best Photo Labs

After conducting my test, I now believe the best photolabs in the country are:

Bay Photo

Pro DPI

WHCC

Their quality was consistently among the best, if not the very best, of all the labs.

Here is the crazy part:  all three of them were the absolute cheapest for producing my order.  None of them charge for shipping.  That makes their pricing the best, or among the best, for nearly every size print.  How often does it happen in life that getting the best quality is actually the cheapest?  Almost never, but it is the case here.

I recommend you go with one of these three labs.

Additional Information

As I said previously, I consider the ability to see the results to be an important part of the test.  Obviously, I cannot show everyone the actual prints I received.  But I can show you scans of each of the prints at various levels of detail.

Therefore, I have scanned in each of the prints and created separate pages for you to view them.  It should go without saying that I did no processing on any of the scans.  The scans show the color shifts of the various prints and accurately show the amount of detail.  I think they allow you to see the result and decide for yourself which prints show the best quality.

Just click on any of the pictures below and it will take you to separate pages with that additional detail:

Guadalupe-Original-300Picture #1: Guadalupe River, Texas

 

Roundstone-Original

Picture #2: Roundstone Boat, Ireland

 

Original file for Telluride Creek print test

Picture #3: Telluride Creek, Colorado

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