the good, the bad & the downright ugly | tina vega photography

Ever since my favorite non-pro photo lab closed, I have been at a loss for another recommendation.  I’d been using for years and not only loved the competitive pricing, but their color had always been spot on.  I trusted them enough to send clients their way – in fact, it was the only non-pro lab I would recommend.

I had always heard stories from photographers about “other labs” and would once in a while see an image, card, or announcement a client had printed somewhere else and think, “that is not what that picture is supposed to look like!”  That’s when I started making the big push for “no auto color correct” thinking that would solve the problem.  But alas, I continued to see my images in a whole slew of unnatural colors.  It got me thinking that perhaps those photographers had been right all along.

Which lead to The Great Photo Experiment.

great photo experiment

I decided to take several of the same images and send them out for printing at five popular DIY places: Shutterfly, Snapfish, Costco, Target & Walgreens. I specifically wanted to see how the color compared to images printed by my professional photo lab while gaining practical experience and advice for clients interested in purchasing one of my digital collections (with the intention of making prints on their own).

Let me preface what I am about to share with this:

The result of the experiment is based on my images. It is not a universal result (I will explain why at the end of this post).

While the information contained here will be most beneficial to clients receiving discs of my images, I will be sharing a great deal of information that will hopefully help EVERYONE create better prints.

For the experiment, I chose a variety of images, different colors and styles (including black and white) to get a good feel for each place. The results varied GREATLY as you can see from the image below.

horrible close

I placed every order online and requested matte photos with NO AUTO COLOR CORRECT. No speedy uploaders and no quick processing – I wanted to give each place a real chance. Here’s what I discovered, with my least favorite listed first:

1. Snapfish. I had trouble locating a “NO AUTO COLOR CORRECT” option on this site which probably explains the fact the images were WAAAAY overly saturated (second one down in the image above). Very unnatural colors, especially skin tones. Clear orange cast on every image across the board.
2. Walgreens. These images were also visibly tinted orange, expecially noticeable in skin tones and in subjects wearing white.
3. Costco. These images were very dull in color and almost even appeared unfocused. They stood out like a sore thumb next to the overly saturated images above (third one down in the image above).
4. Shutterfly.  There was a yellow tint to the images, making skin tones appear slightly jaundiced.
5. Target Kodak Gallery. Overall, these images were closest in color to the professionally printed images. A few appeared to be slightly overexposed, a very minor concern for me.  Here’s an example of how the smaller Target Kodak Gallery print compared to the larger professional print.  [UPDATE AS OF 8/20/2012:  Target Kodak Gallery has closed!!!  I do not recommend the in-store glossy prints as an option.  I’ll look into a second recommendation and post ASAP!]


Keep in mind, this was a one-time experiment. I am clueless as to whether or not quality is consistently offered (or not offered) at any of these DIY places. Which is precisely why I am partial to using a professional photo lab over a DIY place.   And the fact that the prints from my pro lab look EXACTLY like the images I spent hours fussing over in my editing program. Granted they cost a bit more, but I have never been disappointed with an order.

Here are some basic tips to help make the most out of your own images:

1. NEVER, EVER use the “quick upload” tool offered on a DIY print ordering website. Your images will be compressed (to make the upload time go faster) and image quality will be diminished.
2. Be sure to always choose “NO AUTO COLOR CORRECT” if images have been edited.  Sometimes you need to really hunt to find this option.  Be warned, this is not foolproof.  My son ended up with a neon orange shirt in a batch of Christmas cards from a high-end DIY place and when I made a complaint, I was told that was simply how their printers were adjusted (apparently to make neon colors).
3. Calibrate your monitor. This is a MUST if you edit your own pictures otherwise you might be tweeking pictures based on a monitor that is out of whack and who knows what your prints will end up looking like! (Click HERE to learn more.)
4. Do not use 1-hour photo services. Plan ahead for the best-looking prints.
5. Run your own photo experiment to find the best match for your images. While I can tell you what is best for my images, factors that will affect the quality of your images include: monitor calibration, your camera, and whether or not you edit the images.

I know it is a pain. And a lot of work. That’s why I spend a great deal of time weeding through crud to find the best products and services to offer my clients.  Because I want you to LOOOOOVE your pictures as much as I do!

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