print lab comparison | i purchased my digital files, now what?
So you’ve invested in your portrait session…your clothing, your time — you’ve probably had to pay up on that toy you promised for good behavior during the photo session ;). You’ve done a lot of planning and coordinating. You’ve seen your gallery of lovely images and decided you couldn’t part with any of them. You’ve purchased your digital files – now what?
I’ve seen several others write about their own print lab comparisons and I’ve always been curious to try my own. Since wanting to own the digital files from your session is becoming increasingly more popular, my objective here was to illustrate the inconsistencies among consumer print labs; the labs you might choose to print your digital files. What labs can you trust? Any?
Your photographer more than likely (hopefully!) uses a professional print lab. Most photographers work on a color calibrated monitor which assigns a color profile to your images. Professional print labs are able to print your images from a specific color profile which is imbedded into each digital file. Consumer print labs generally print from a single color profile (not one specific to your file), which often results in poor color representation. For my test, I sent the same exact file to 6 different print labs – my professional lab and 5 other labs – Walgreens, Walmart, Target, Mpix, and UnitPrints. I actually sent 5 different images to each of these labs and I was sure to choose images that had varying colors. I’m not going to share all 5 here, but you can get a good idea of the results with the 2 shared below. ETA: All files were digitally uploaded directly from my computer. I did print from one specific store. When given the option I chose “Do not color correct” as I had already edited them on a calibrated monitor.
A little proof that I did indeed have all the images printed…:)
Now for the disclaimer: I will admit that these are scanned prints and do have a slight loss of quality due to the scanning process. Most all of them scanned in a bit worse than they actually printed and because that’s the nature of scanning, I went in and matched each one up to the printed file to give the best representation of the printed image. I held each print up to the scanned image on my monitor and made adjustments to give the true color representation. I am a total geek about color so just trust me on this. ;)
This first image I chose because it had a gray background. Gray is a neutral, right? WRONG. Much like choosing the perfect neutral gray paint is nearly impossible, so is printing a neutral gray backdrop apparently. ;)
The top left image shows my digital file I uploaded – straight off my computer. The top right is the printed image from my professional lab. Again, because of the scanning it looks slightly different, but I can positively say the print from my professional lab is almost an exact match to my original file. Now for the others…Walgreens was consistently deep yellow and printed much darker than the original file in all the files that I sent in. Walmart wasn’t much better. Consistently red. Almost having a sunburned effect in the shadow areas. Target was consistently blue across the board and an overall lack of contrast. Blacks were not black. Deep shadows did not have any dimension. As far as highlights and shadows, Mpix printed okay but the overall green cast on the image – not good. I have to say for this image, UnitPrints was the clear winner. It was very slightly more blue than the original file, but it was pretty darn close.
This next image was a vibrant outdoor image with an array of colors…
You can see again that Walgreens and Walmart were equally ICK! Walgreens was very yellow and Walmart an overall red cast. Walgreens was especially bad on this particular print. Target was again lackluster with very little overall contrast. The color from Target wasn’t as drastic as the first image, but that just shows you never know what you’re going to get from one file to the next. Unpredictable. Like the first image comparison, the Mpix image has an overall green cast. It may not be obviously noticeable to some, but pay close attention to the blue color of the truck in the background and the long curls of the subject on the right. Green cast is especially noticeable in subjects with blonde hair. UnitPrints was again rather impressive – just very slight color inconsistencies. In fact, UnitPrints was the best print for every image.
In the interest of full disclosure, until now I have referred my clients who have purchased digital files to Mpix. Mpix is a very reputable and well known company – I’ve had several decent batches of prints from them, and never a client complaint, but was recently made aware of other photographers who were having color inconsistencies with Mpix as well. This was also part of the reason for this print lab research. While I do think with the paper/print quality and attention to detail each file gets – printing through your professional photographer is ultimately the best way to go, I feel confident in referring clients who opt to buy digital files to UnitPrints. While the paper seemed a bit thinner than the professional print, the color quality was most consistent with each of the digital files tested.
ETA: These results were from my files from my computer and are my opinions only. I found the comparisons very interesting in general and I encourage all you professional photographers reading to do your own. If you have good results with Mpix, that is great, keep using them if it works for you! I think the most important thing is to be able to give your clients a solid referral to a lab you know that has great results. It will ease any frustrations on both your parts. For clients, ask your photographer if they have recommendations for you.
And now that we have the above established…..I want to talk directly to those clients that purchase digital files. :) On behalf of every professional photographer out there I want to beg you….if you purchase your digital files, PLEASE print them!!! Pleeeaase. With a cherry on top. ;) You have invested so much time (and money!) into your portrait session — to have these beautiful images created for you — but the reality is, most times we are too busy and that disc of digital files gets thrown in a drawer never to be printed. This is maddening to us photographers! We simply cannot comprehend it. ;) So please, print your images so you can enjoy them, so you can smile every time you walk past that wall in your home, so you can pass on those family memories when the time comes…and if not for any other reason, so you save your photographer some sanity. :)
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Sarah Ulrich is a professional photographer in Lincoln Nebraska. Uniquely You Photography specializes in photographing newborns, babies, kids and families. If you’re a fan of our blog, come follow along on our Facebook page!
Wow. Thanks for the comparison. The green cast in the Mpix prints is pretty obvious to my eye. I’m really surprised my that as I’ve had good success with them. The other thing I think I see is in regards to contrast/micro-contrast and sharpness. It seems to me (though they are small samples) that the pro lab has a much better ‘crispness’ to it (I think this is a contrast and sharpness improvement).
Could you comment on this too?
Hi Quinn. Thanks for the comment. In general all of the prints had pretty decent clarity, some of what you are seeing was probably compromised from the scanning. As far as contrast, Walgreens printed overall darker (muddy & yellow) and Target was by far the worst – very lackluster. The Target print almost seemed like there was a haze over the entire image in all the test prints. The blacks looked very chalky. The print from the professional lab most definitely had that extra pop that made it noticeably better. Again, these were just my observations. I have friends who use Mpix and think they are great, for me personally, my prints have never looked good from any of the Mpix affiliates.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comparison! Your clients will truly appreciate it.
Wow! I love this comparison, thank you for sharing your results, Sarah.
Wow great post! I also recommend mpix.com to my clients based on test prints I had done in the past. I will have to do my own comparison to make sure I am sending them to the best place! Thanks Sarah!
WOW this is an eye opener for sure!!! So crazy the difference in all of them!
Thanks for sharing! Definitely eye opening and a great read!
Thanks so much for taking the time to do and share this!
Thanks for doing this. I was super impressed with the prints from Unitprints! I use mpix a lot and will have to pay better attention. That makes me sad that their quality looks to have gone down. Very detailed comparison!
What a great article! Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for sharing! So helpful.
thanks for the comparisons…this will be helpful in educating my own clients.
BTW, I know the owner of unitprints…great guy, former pro photographer…he knows what we want and offers it at a great price for our clients
This is perfect! I’m sharing on my page!
On the mpix photos are you selecting for them not to color correct? I have never had this problem using them.
Yes Nicole. All were selected as “Do Not Color Correct”.
While this is good information to know, a few items:
#1, It’s going to vary at each and every place, at any given time. Even at professional labs.
#2, It’s funny that you bag on Mpix, because Mpix has TWO professional levels in their company… and they use the same printers (the EXACT same printer, in fact). So you just bagged on two “professional labs.”
#3, I actually like the way the Mpix truck print looks (maybe I’m biased because I use them, but that just looks like it’s been edited, like so many do these days)
#4, I personally did a test just like this one and included many other local and online places, and Mpix actually turned out the best (again, in my view).
Still, all in all it’s good information to know, however, I recommend everyone spending a few $ and just doing it themselves to see what THEY like.
If you notice in my post Adam I did say that I encouraged people to do their own tests. Never once did I “bag” on Mpix, in fact, I called them a reputable company. I also said if you were happy with them, then great, keep using them. And actually MPix AND prints from their “2 other professional labs” have always came back green for me, so obviously we are not a good fit – at least they are consistent though.
Great comparison- thanks for sharing.
Question: who is the pro lab you used? Looks fabulous! I print through Zenfolio which is mpix…I’ve never had a prob but I do see that green on your image..maybe time for a switch! :) thanks
Very informative to clients! Thank you for putting in the research and sharing it with us.
Love seeing this. Have been happy with your work. I have also been happy with some things I’ve had printed at Shutterfly. Would love to see that comparison added.
Great comparison and very helpful. I use you for what I need to be a great print. I have used Shutterfly with much satisfaction for photobooks, and some prints. Would love to see that added to the mix.
Any advice on calibrating a monitor? And if you choose the color correction, how much does it differ from your edit/original?
As a frequent consumer of photography services, I cannot IMAGINE paying all that money for the digital images and then NOT printing them! We definitely print ours and never use any of those big box or Shutterfly type places to do so. Thanks so much for this comparison as I think a lot of people still have no idea why they should be so careful about where they are getting their prints.