Thursday, March 8, 2018

My Photo Print Experiment

Despite the digital age we are now in, with social media photo sharing and photo “slideshows” on our phones, the business of photo printing seems alive and well. I am not talking about printed photo books (although those have replaced traditional photo albums and scrapbooks for many people, and are major industry all by themselves). I mean photo prints, the kind you can hold in your hand, hang on your fridge, put in a frame or a scrapbook.

There are an abundance of companies who offer photo prints in all kinds of sizes and finishes.  No longer are we stuck with just “glossy” - you have options like luster, matte, pearl and metallic.  Prices for a traditional 4x6 print range from free (really!) to 36 cents a piece, depending on the type of paper and quality.  Besides traditional sizes like 4x6, 5x7 and 8x10, many sites offer square prints for Instagram-lovers, poster sizes and more.  

But where to order from?  The corner drugstore, the professional photo company, or something in between?  The range in photo quality is amazingly different from one place to the next.  I set out to test 7 different printing services - I have been wanting to do this for myself, but thought it would be interesting to share with you, my fellow photo-lovers and scrapbookers. 

I ordered the same 8 photos from each of the companies, so I could compare photo quality and color, as well as shipping fees, delivery times, and other pros and cons.  I’ll start by giving you little blurb about my experience with each printer, and then I will show you my side-by-side comparison of the winners and losers for each photo.  I wish you could see them in person, but my scanned-and-uploaded images will have to do! 

Prices shown are for standard 4x6, matte-finish prints. Prices current as of March 2018.

Amazon: 9 cents each.  Uploading and ordering was easy.  If you have a Prime membership, your order ships free.  If not, shipping is $4.  Order arrived quickly, as expected with Amazon!  Packaging was not great.  Overall print quality/color was only OK.  I ordered one of each, but two of the prints had 10 copies each! ( I was not charged for those extras).  

Apple: 12 cents each.  I have a MacBook (which I believe is the only place you can order Apple Prints), and ordering was a piece of cake.  I could even add white borders to my photos and they shipped for $4.  This is Apple’s flat shipping fee, but you can only order up to 300 at a time.  (Who orders more than 300 photos at a time?! Um…scrapbookers!)  Prints were beautifully packaged and arrived in less than a week. 

Print quality was so disappointing!  Color was washed out and many were just grainy.  I love all things Apple, so this made me sad.  I had a suspicion they would not be that great, because I ordered an Apple photobook last year and it was also a little lackluster in photo color and clarity.  

FreePrints:  Up to 85 prints per month: free. Yes, free.  If you order more than that in a month, or order other sizes, you have to pay for those, but they are inexpensive. Shipping is very reasonable and based on the size of your order.  This is an app you use on your phone or tablet; it is fun and easy to use!  Do you take more photos with your camera than a phone? No problem, just upload to a storage provider like Google, Amazon, DropBox, OneDrive - then order from the FreePrints app on your phone/tablet.  

Shipping is not super fast, but reasonably priced. Overall quality was surprisingly good!  They actually beat out the most expensive prints in two of my eight examples.  I love that FreePrints adds the date the photo was taken on the back, which helps when sorting prints for a project. I have read many accounts of their excellent customer service, too. You can order doubles with one click, and even add-on a sturdy little box to hold your photos. 

Mixbook: 15 cents each. This company is better known for their photo books, but they do also offer prints.  Like Shutterfly, they often have discount codes to save on prints or shipping.  Uploading and ordering was easy, prints came pretty fast and the quality was decent - not the best but not the worst, either.  For the price, I’d like better quality. 

Shutterfly: 15 cents each. Coupons can help you save on prints, but beware of this company’s high shipping fees!  Wow.  I paid $15 to ship 140 photos, 8 for my research project here, and the rest for a scrapbook project.  I think that’s nuts. 

Shutterfly prints the photo date on the back, and I would say they get a B+ for print quality.  A reliable standby.  They did crop one of my photos wrong (it was a square and I did not go through and crop them one-by-one or choose the right size, so that was my fault.)  It’s important to go through and make sure you’re ordering the right size. Some sites will warn you that your photo is cropped incorrectly. 

Smugmug: 19 cents each. As a fine example of “you get what you pay for,” Smugmug won almost every photo-quality throw-down I did. If not the winner, they were a very close second.  Shipping was a little high, but the order was processed and shipped quickly.  Smugmug has an elegant, easy-to-use site, but you have to pay to use their service, so that might turn you off right away.  About $50 a year gets you unlimited storage, unfortunately, you have to keep paying in aeternum. Ugh.

Walgreens: 23-33 cents each (where did they come up with those wackadoodle numbers?!), depending on quantity ordered, but there are always coupons, sometimes for 50% off.  

OH, Walgreens, how we love thee… are conveniently located, your shelves stocked with so many things we need, you have a drive-up pharmacy, and your one-hour-photo is a nice idea.  But photo quality? Meh. I had plenty of experience with the one-hour photo and its poor-quality, so I thought I’d order through the mail.  These were not much better.  Walgreens photos came in last or second to last with each comparison.  Shipping was reasonable and fast.  

Note: I did not order from Snapfish because I have read….correct me if I’m wrong…that Amazon uses Snapfish for their printing, so I figured it was the same quality.  I did not try Costco because there is not one close to me and I don’t have a membership.  I realize there are many other options out there….I wanted to test more, but it was getting pricey!  I’d love to hear from you in the comments - but let’s keep it nice and respectful, ok?

Now for the side-by-side comparisons!  These I chose as the best and worst of each photo. You can click on them for a larger image.

This is one of the most extreme examples. On the left, loser Amazon Prints.  Winner, Smugmug on the right. The color and clarity differences are crazy!

This was a tough one to begin with; it was taken with a phone in low light.  Top, winner - Smugmug. Bottom, loser -  Walgreens.

Vibrant warm color and better detail on the right, from FreePrints, but washed-out grainy quality from Apple on the left.

Apple loses again on the left - too dark, and not enough detail.  Smugmug wins this one, on the right.

Mixbook losing print (top) is very yellowish, and the kids facial features are hard to distinguish.  Bottom winner is Smugmug, with more natural color and better detail.  FreePrints also did well with this one (not shown)

Apple loser on the left has less detail and a pinky tone. Apple photo also came out almost foggy, but it's hard to tell on the screen.  Smugmug winner on the right.

Somehow, Apple won this one (top).  Of all 8, it had the most natural color and was least pixelated.  Not sure why!  Loser on the bottom is actually from Shutterfly. It was very grainy.

Apple fails again on the left, with washed-out color and blurred/dark details.  On the right, FreePrints did it best!

What have we learned here? 

Premium prints, like those from Smugmug, come at a high cost. Amazon was cheapest, but quality was disappointing. Walgreens is great if you need one-hour photos, but don't expect too much for clarity and color.  And Apple? Well, photo printing is not their bread and butter, so I guess they don't care if people order their prints or not!  Shutterfly and Mixbook offer decent quality - just wait for a sale and watch the shipping charges.

For now, I think I will go with FreePrints - I like their app, photos, prices and customer service!