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How to Get The Best Results from Online Photo Printers

This post is part of a series called Printing.
Quick Tip: Understanding Printing Paper Types
10 Top Terrific Tips on Creating Your First Photobook

Resurgence of the Printed Photograph

A large retail photography printer in Canada recently closed all of their outlets. Blacks Photography had been a Canadian fixture for 85 years, but, according to press releases, the chain was a victim of a fast-changing digital industry that favours smartphone photography and online photo sharing. Blacks was not a unique case: photography retailers around the world have been closing or scaling back. Manufacturers of photographic paper have also struggled to be successful in business, some not succeeding and others reinventing themselves to keep pace with photography’s evolution.

Are printed photographs about to become extinct? Fine art photography will continue as a primarily print product. We expect to hang art on our walls, not display it on our television screen. But what about ordinary photography—snapshots, travel photos, portraits, wedding pictures, and more? Are we printing our digital captures?

InfoTrends, an international market researcher, specializes in understanding digital imaging. Their research indicates that after an initial decline coinciding with the growth of digital photography and social media, photo printing is on the upswing. Growth in the market since 2007 has increased between 10 and 20% annually. What’s changed is what people are choosing to have printed and in what format, and how people access the service. We no longer drop off complete rolls of film at a photo store and request 4x6-inch prints of all images—duplicates even because they were so cheap. Instead, we select a few images from hundreds and use an online print service provider (PSP) to order prints suitable for framing, photo books, greeting cards, and other photo products.

Les Pros de la Photo, a photo printer based in Montreal, saw this trend and bought Blacks Photography’s web-based services. Blacks now has a new life as a consumer-oriented online digital printing service.

I applaud the printing trend. When we want to take our time and appreciate what we’re seeing, we choose a physical reality; we choose a print. Our eyes and brains are accustomed to seeing things that way. We may look at computer screens a great deal and for many hours, but what we view there is contained, separate from everything else we look at. Printed photographs or photo books don’t require hardware, apps, Internet connections, or software compatibility. Printed photographs mounted in a frame tell their story every time we walk by. Photos collected in an album or printed in a book speak to us as soon as we open the cover. We just need to pick them up, sit in our favourite chair, and browse. We can even linger, flipping back and forth.

What’s the Best Option for Getting Photographs Printed?

Given the renewing trend of printing at least some photographs, I decided to try out a few printing options and evaluate them for quality, cost, and convenience. I also experimented to determine how best to prepare a digital image file for printing.

My four printing contenders were a drugstore, an online print service provider (PSP), a trade printer, and my own printer at home. The drugstore was a large chain that, like grocery stores and large retail outlets, offers photo services as one of many services provided. I chose a PSP that promotes itself to the public as a dedicated photo printer. There are many of these consumer-oriented services popping up, most offering a wide range of products made with your photographs. I used a trade printer and my own home printer as controls. Both of these options are specialized and oriented toward active photographers who would seek custom options.

To compare the printing alternatives, I prepared four images—a portrait, a textured and richly coloured still life, an outdoor scene with foliage and architecture, and a black and white print with a range of grey tones. Based on the recommendations provided by the printers, all image files were white-balanced and formatted as sRGB JPEGs at 100% quality. They were sized for 4x6-inch prints at a resolution of 300 pixels per inch (1200 by 1800 pixels). I also prepared different versions of two of the photographs, varying the clarity, vibrance, contrast, and sharpening. In order to be able to sort out the results, I included a text layer with each image file, describing the adjustments I made to the file.

Grid showing the four images prepared for printing
I prepared four images, varying the clarity, vibrance, contrast, and sharpening in three versions of the top left image. I prepared two versions of the image on the bottom right: one processed normally and the other prepared with an enhanced colour filter.

Commercial Printing Processes: Know What You’re Getting

It pays to do your research even before sending test prints to your printer. Some commercial printers use a retail version of inkjet printing (often called “dry printing”) but many still use conventional photographic printing to produce prints from digital files. The digital photographic printer uses a laser to project the image onto conventional resin-coated photographic paper. After exposure, the paper is processed with chemicals in the same manner as would be used in a wet darkroom. The system allows high volume output at low cost. Unlike inkjet prints—where ink sits on the surface of the paper—the image in conventional prints is more resistant to damages from handling because the image is embedded in the paper itself.

The quality of paper can vary from printer to printer. The general look and feel of the papers may be similar, but some papers are archival while others will fade and discolour over time. Also, some papers will have brighteners or polyester coatings, which will change the final look of the photograph, its durability and archival quality. Paper weight can also vary between printers with some using a more substantial and durable weight than others.

Printers’ websites will provide you with information about their printing process and the paper they use.

Not All Online Services are the Same

I wanted to evaluate printers serving the trend toward online ordering so chose only commercial printers that offered that service. The online services for the drugstore and online PSP were straight forward. The PSP also provided an ordering service through a smartphone app. This is a great option for people who manage all of their photography on a smartphone or other mobile device. The services provided options for rotating the prints, choosing print size, adjusting the crop, and choosing between a matte or gloss finish and whether to have borders on the print. The systems also displayed clear visible warnings alerting the user to potential problems with resolution or cropping.

Online ordering page for print service provider
Printers oriented toward a retail market have user-friendly interfaces.

The trade printer also offered the basics plus an option for making special requests or providing comments with an order. This option is ideal for photographers who become familiar with the printer’s standards and want to vary those standards to suit the photographer’s goals. For example, a photographer might direct the printer to make no adjustments (most printers automatically make some) or direct the printer to make specific adjustments such as adding +1 of yellow to slightly warm the prints.

That said, there were no suggestions of what options I could request in the special requests section. Also, some of the extra services offered online by the trade printer were confusing. For example, I could elect to use “full file upload” or “high speed upload.” The directions indicted that high speed upload was good for prints up to 5x7 inches but did not specify how the upload options were different. Are files compressed for high speed upload? Does the printer have two portals with one being a faster service but limited to a certain file size? Overall, I found the trade printer’s ordering system confusing and time consuming. I suspect, however, that working with the same printer regularly would make online ordering easier.

Online ordering page for trade printer
Trade printers typically have more complex ordering interfaces. Some trade printers require that you download a small Java-based application for ordering.

The printers all offered home or business delivery of the completed prints for an additional cost. The online PSP only offered home or business delivery, but to their credit, they keep shipping costs low by using domestic mail delivery instead of courier. The other two printers offered a free pickup option, which could be a cost-saver if you can include pick-up with other errands.

Drugstore Prints: The Experimental Surprise

I was surprised that in my little experiment, the best colour prints came from the drugstore. They used the newest version of archival paper and photographic printing methods. Their paper also has a coating to protect the photograph from fingerprints and humidity and extend the life of the print. The drugstore’s printing showed the best range of tones and the most faithful colour reproduction. Skin tones in the portrait were perfect. I deliberately chose a model with porcelain skin for one image and that’s exactly how her skin appears in the drugstore print.

Adding clarity, vibrance, and contrast to the image file did not make a dramatic difference, but the difference was noticeable on close examination. I was also pleased with the difference between the same image with and without colour enhancements. The image without enhancements printed well and the image with enhancements showed the special effect just as I intended.

Photo of a brightly coloured store sign processed with and without colour enhancements
The drugstore print reproduced the added colour enhancements perfectly. On the left is the image without colour enhancements; on the right is the image with enhancements added.

Adding sharpening made a considerable—but not attractive—difference. It’s clear that the drugstore printer adds sharpening in the printing process, although not a lot. I might have preferred just a tiny bit more sharpening in the base image but adding more to the image file was overkill.

Photo of a house exterior processed with and without sharpening
I didn’t add sharpening to the top image; the drugstore printer added enough automatically. I added sharpening to the bottom image and the resulting print is unnaturally defined.

Where the drugstore printer let me down is with the black and white photo. I prefer, and set up my black and white prints, with a very slight warm tone; however, the drugstore photo printed in cool tones. I suspect the printer’s automatic colour balance responded to my slightly warm tones in the whites and over-corrected. The black and white print also had a speck of dust embedded in the paper coating. Because the dust embedded over a dark area of the photograph, the imperfection was noticeable. I expect the drugstore would have reprinted the photo if I had asked.

The cost? The drugstore printer was the cheapest. In exchange for waiting seven days for my order, I paid $0.19 CDN for each 4x6 print. The drugstore printer also offered a wide range of other products—t-shirts, ornaments, cards, mousepads, and more—at prices comparable to other printers.

Online Print Service Provider: The Experimental Disappointment

The PSP I chose uses a retail inkjet printing process. Their paper is not archival and is lightweight, but it does have a smooth polyester coating that does a reasonable job of resisting fingerprints and humidity.

Their colour prints were acceptable but they didn’t meet my quality expectations. Colour tones suffered from added contrast and vibrance. What should have been a milky white was blown out to a true white; a muted yellow printed as a bright yellow; and brown shadow areas showed a colour breakdown with an obvious red in the darkest areas. The white balance had also been shifted toward cooler tones. The result was greens were too blue and skin tones showed too much red. Added vibrancy also ruined the porcelain quality of the model’s skin, causing blown highlights down her nose and across her forehead.

Photo of a fair-skinned model printed by a drugstore and by an online print service provider
The model’s porcelain skin in the upper print, prepared by the drugstore, is exactly as I hoped it would appear. The lower print, prepared by the online PSP, suffers from a colour shift and added vibrancy and contrast.

Adding clarity, vibrance, and contrast to the image files resulted in over-produced results. I don’t consider those prints even acceptable. Adding enhanced colour to the one image file resulted in a noticeable and unattractive effect that mimicked poor use of a preset filter. In fact, the version without colour enhancements printed as I expected would the one with enhancements. Image files without sharpening still printed with a tiny bit more sharpening than I like. Adding sharpening to an image file was definitely not a good idea!

Photo of a brightly coloured store sign printed by a drugstore and by an online print service provider
The image on the left, printed by the online PSP, has no colour enhancement. The image on the right, printed by the drugstore, has colour enhancement added. The two prints are, however, visually similar.

The PSP maintained the warmth I had chosen for my black and white image. There was also a nice range of tones in the black and white image although the highlights were too bright and just marginally short of being blown out.

The PSP was more expensive than the drugstore, charging $0.39 CDN per print. The price difference is negligible if ordering a few prints, but becomes significant if ordering many. The advantage was prints were ready within a few hours if I was willing to pick them up. The PSP also offered a wide range of other products at competitive prices. What I did like about the PSP was that they offered plenty of online direction and tips for setting up and ordering these other products. They seem to be on to what I think is a growing service with photo books, story books, and albums.

Trade Printer: What You Deliver is What You Get

Typically, trade printers do not have a high profile in the retail sector, instead targeting the business-to-business community. However, it doesn’t take much research to find a trade printer in your community or online. Some trade printers require that you register an account with them before you can place orders but there’s usually no fee or minimum order required. Ordering is more complex because of the range of options available to the photographer.

I was disappointed in the results from the trade printer. They used an archival paper, but it was lightweight with only the lightest protective coating. Colours were flat, even a bit muddy, with a poor range of tones. Skin tones were acceptable but muted and flat. That said, the white balance was spot on and there was no added contrast or clarity. The images had been sharpened, but conservatively—what I would expect to add myself when preparing an image for print. What I uploaded for print was more or less what I got.

Photo of a house exterior printed by a trade printer and by a drugstore
Comparing the print from the trade printer (top) with the same image printed by the drugstore (bottom).

Adding clarity, vibrance, and contrast to the image files resulted in a better print. Adding colour enhancements produced the difference I expected, but because the original print was flat, the enhanced image fell short of the final effect I was seeking. The black and white photo showed a nice range of tones but the print was a bit cooler than the image file.

I have worked with a few trade printers and have found with all of them that I initially needed to work with test prints in order to establish a profile that would deliver the prints I wanted. Once I sorted out how to prepare my image files for the printer, the results were consistent.

The trade printer was, as expected, the most expensive, but not because their cost per print was higher; rather, the trade printer has a minimum order amount. This is very common with trade printers. The trade printer charges $0.29 CDN per print for regular 3-day service and $0.39 CDN per print for 1-day service. The minimum order, however, is $5.00 CDN, so I paid a “minimum order amount adjustment.” Next time, I will ensure my order is big enough to avoid that cost.

Printing My Own: Reliable but Resource Heavy

Inkjet printers have come down in price and there are many quality papers to be had at a reasonable cost. In fact, the range of available papers can be overwhelming—or exciting, if you like experimenting. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, shopping for photographic paper can be as fun as filling a shopping bag with penny candy! Ink, however, continues to be expensive enough to deter many photographers from pursuing home printing—that, and the nuisance of sorting out how to get what you see on your screen onto the paper. Still, home printing is a viable option worth comparing to the other three outsourced alternatives.

I thought my own prints were better than the trade printer but not as exciting as the drugstore prints. The colours in my prints lacked clarity and were a little cooler than I intended. That problem would be resolved by using a custom colour profile. (Because I didn’t have custom profiles for the three commercial printers, I didn’t use a custom profile for my own photos.) In all other aspects though, I got what I provided in the image file.

Photo of a fair-skinned model printed by a trade printer and on my home printer
The same image printed by the trade printer (top) and on my home printer (bottom) are very similar.

The black and white photo printed exactly as I intended. It was, however, more work to print from my home printer than it was to upload files to a commercial printer, and it required more time.

Photo of an unfinished violin printed in black and white by four different printers
Black and white prints can vary a great deal from printer to printer.

I don’t know how much it costs me to make prints at home. I’ve seen charts for calculating the costs but the results vary so much that I question the value of the charts. I chose an inexpensive house-brand paper distributed by an office supply store. The paper I chose, especially the satin finish in this line, is an insider’s secret to cost-effective small size photo printing. However, to print on inexpensive paper, I still need a printer, ink, and some kind of colour management system or a willingness to print three or four times the quantity I need as I adjust for print outcome.

Pick Your Printer Based on Your Purpose

I was happily surprised by the results of my experiment. With the exception of the black and white print, the best quality and lowest price were delivered by the drugstore. I was disappointed that I had to wait 7 days to get my prints, but other drugstores and retail outlets offer faster turnaround. My options for printing were limited to the basics of cropping, so I would not use this printer if I knew I wanted custom adjustments. I will, however, use this printer again for printing proofs, small enlargements, and photo cards.

To get the best from this printer, I used the following file preparation:

  • White balanced and exposure balanced
  • No added clarity, contrast, or vibrance
  • No additional sharpening
  • Sized to desired dimensions at a resolution of 300 pixels/inch
  • Saved as an sRGB JPEG at 100% quality

To get the best black and white prints, I would try preparing my image in Grayscale, then convert it to sRGB for uploading to the printer. It won’t give me the slightly warm whites I prefer, but I think it would give me a neutral black and white.

The quality and service of online print service providers varies widely, but their product line tends to be the largest. If I wanted more variety in product options, I might give the PSP I tried a second chance. I expect the results, even if better, won’t be different than what I obtained from the drugstore at a lower cost. Files for an online PSP should be prepared in the same way as files prepared for a drugstore printing service.

If you intend to print large photographs or use fine art photographic paper, trade printers and home printing will be your best options. In both cases, you’ll need to do more work to get the best results. You’ll need to colour calibrate your system, work with custom printer or paper profiles, and be prepared to do a few rounds of test printing. Carefully track what adjustments you’ve used in your image files to get the print results you want. If using a trade printer, you will likely also have to register an account and learn the intricacies of the trade printer’s online ordering system. The extra work in either case will be worth the effort if you’re looking for master print quality and are willing to pay the price for it. Establishing a working relationship with a trade printer and doing the groundwork will also be worth the effort if you regularly need a large volume of prints—a set of proofs from a wedding, for example—or a range of sizes printed at the best quality.

Whether you use a drugstore or retail store printing service, an online PSP, a trade printer, or your own printer, I suggest you prepare sample files as I did and give your candidates a try. Include a text layer in your image describing your adjustments, and be sure to identify your delivered prints with the printer’s name. Stick the prints up on a wall in good light so you can look at them over a few days. Once you find a printer you like, stick with that printer, always using the file preparations you know will deliver the best results.

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