To compare and contrast is not only a part of our daily lives, but a part of our photography as well. When we compare two images, it’s easier to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each one individually. An example of this is when I cull a client’s images. I am always comparing at least two or three images side by side when making the final selections. An image on its own may be great, but when placed side-by-side with another image I can easily see the best one.
Comparing a professional print lab to a consumer print lab is the perfect example of why comparing differences is so important. I was discussing this topic with my husband, and as a consumer, he does not have a trained photographer’s eye. He’s heard me talk about the importance of printing from a professional print lab many times over, but I have never compared images side by side for him to see the actual difference. This exercise was a huge eye opener for him and he was amazed at the differences his untrained eye could see. Many of my clients are the same way and most don’t realize the difference a pro print lab makes until we show them.
I chose to print a favorite image of my daughter from my lab of choice, Miller’s Professional Imaging, to contrast it with prints from other consumer print labs: Costco, Walgreens, Target and Walmart. Every print is printed directly from my file with the automatic adjustments and corrections turned off. As much as I love shopping at these stores, you’ll see through my little experiment that you definitely want to do your photo printing with vendors that specialize in professional prints. It is truly amazing to see the difference a pro print lab makes!
First, this is the original digital file I used to make each print:
Here’s how a pro print lab compared with four consumer labs:
I printed all five images as 5 x 7-inch prints, size with the exception of Target (they did not offer that exact size and the closest was 6 x 8 inches). I ordered a matte or lustre print when I could, but Walgreens and Target only printed with glossy paper.
The Miller’s print was hands down the most accurate print of them all. It was perfect! Miller’s printed my image exactly how I saw it on my screen. I wasn’t surprised with the quality of what I received from this pro print lab, as I’ve used them exclusively for years. I love knowing I can order from them and receive a consistently beautiful print each and every time.
Note: I wanted the photo paper from each print lab to be as close as possible so I printed on Miller’s e-surface photo paper instead of my usual metallic paper.
The photo print from Walmart was one of the prints that was dramatically different than my original. There is a very obvious pink/magenta tone and the contrast was increased so much that my daughter’s legs look extremely dark and her dress has lost the details. I can also see the added contrast in the color of water as well. The focus is blurred just a bit and the reflection is muddy and not very clear.
Walgreens print lab also added more contrast to my image but it is not quite as dramatic as the Walmart print. The shadows are darker and the highlights are brighter. Her skin and hair are warmer with the added contrast and color. Glossy paper was the only available option, which magnifies the difference between this print and the Miller’s professional print even more.
Costco did the best job of not changing the colors of the print too much from my original file. But, instead of adding contrast, the contrast from this print seemed to be removed. The colors are very muted and the image has lost some of its sharpness. She looks out of focus compared to the other prints. Walmart had some sharpness issues as well, but not as extreme as Costco.
I was very surprised at just how much the color was off in my print from Target. The blue in the water is neon blue and the overall image is lighter than the Miller’s print. There also seems to be more yellow in the photo — in her hair and parts of the white clouds. It doesn’t look like a ton of contrast was added but the brighter neon colors are just too bright to ignore. I adore Target for lots of photography-related purchases, but not for printing photos.
As each new image was printed, the importance of using a professional print lab became more clear to me. Using a pro print lab that specializes in working with professional photographers and making our prints look their best truly makes a difference, whether the images are for your clients or for your own home.
Which photo paper is right for your print?
There are so many photo paper options out there — glossy, matte, metallic — that it can be hard to know which paper will work best for you. Your style is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all option out there. But lucky for us pro photographers, there are a bunch of great photo papers available from pro print labs. Read my photo paper comparison here.