Print lab showdown: Pro vs. consumer… what’s the difference?

Print lab showdown: Pro vs. consumer… what’s the difference?

  • print lab comparison

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:

original-file1

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.

Miller’s Professional Imaging

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.

Millers copy1

Walmart

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.

Wal-Mart copy1

Walgreens

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.

Walgreens copy1

Costco

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.

Costco copy

Target

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.

Target copy1

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.

colors-of-white-prints

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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.

About the Author:

Rachel Nielsen is a full time wedding photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is inspired by gorgeous light and can be easily bribed with a large Diet Coke. She loves shooting outdoors and can never resist a dramatic sky. She is a Clickin Mom's mentor and instructor of Click Photo School’s "Mastering Manual Exposure". She's been in business since 2010. Visit Rachel Nielsen online.
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13 Comments

  1. Maureen Petru August 4, 2015 at 9:08 am - Reply

    I know this is an article about pro vs. consumer print labs …. but I cannot leave this page without commenting on what an absolutely serene image that is! Stunning!

  2. Amy Avery August 4, 2015 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Wonderful article! I’ve shared it with my clients. Thanks so much for the great write up!

  3. Kristy Dooley August 25, 2015 at 10:23 am - Reply

    This is awesome Rachel- thanks so much for putting this together!

  4. kisa koenig August 25, 2015 at 10:48 am - Reply

    Excellent article. Also shared and appreciate such a thorough side-by-side comparison.

  5. Blayne White August 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    Yes, I’m sharing with clients, as well. I was JUST encouraging a consumer to do a print test for the local consumer labs for her own prints (not our studio’s) to see the difference. It’s worth the time and effort.

  6. Hilary Zalon August 31, 2015 at 2:44 am - Reply

    Rachel, how did you decide on Miller’s over other professional print labs?

  7. Rachel Nielsen September 6, 2015 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you all so much! <3

    Hilary, from printing at many labs to see which one I liked the best, I just fell in love with Miller's. I especially love mounting my prints on their masonite and their Signature Albums. Everything they do is just beautiful!! They have also been so amazing with their thoughtfulness and customer service. I couldn't recommend them more! 🙂

  8. Lynda Vandeventer November 14, 2015 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    So, if you do not have access to a professional print lab (…a serious hobbyist), which lab do you recommend? I’ve used Mpix. Thanks for your article and this image is beautiful!

  9. Peggy Beaman December 29, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

    I have the same question as Lynda^ Would you recommend Mpix?

    • Rachel Nielsen January 5, 2016 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Mpix is a great option! Miller’s is their parent company. I believe you can also use WHCC without being in business. 🙂

  10. Karen Drylie January 29, 2017 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    Fabulous article! I would also suggest Nation’s Photo Lab, impeccable customer service, and always consistent.

  11. Teri Dashfield January 29, 2017 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    When you sent your print to Miller’s did you have them retouch it any and did you edit to their ICC profile?

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