The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle

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Not all photo labs are created equal.  From ink quality, to colors, to the paper they are printed on, results vary drastically from every print lab.

When you become a professional photographer you need decide if you will offer prints, provide digital files, or both. Either way, you need to be educated on what print lab offers the most consistent, realistic results for your photos.  If your customers order from you, you’ll want to balance quality prints with variety of offerings.  If you only offer a CD/DVD or digital files, it is best to refer your customers to the best consumer lab so they get good-quality prints.  There are a lot of choices – so I am breaking down some information that will be useful to both you and your clients in regards to prints.

The testing process

When I was in the process of starting my business, I decided that I wanted to use Shootproof for my customer proofing and ordering.  Shootproof partners with three labs (Bay Photo, Black River Imaging, and ProDPI). I decided to get test prints from each of those labs, as well as from WHCC, which was another lab that I had heard many good things about.  Pro labs offer you five free test prints (8x10s).

  • I ordered the same five prints from each pro lab.
  • I ordered two of the five prints (one color and one black and white) from two of my local pharmacies (Rite Aid and CVS)
  • I had prints that I had recently gotten from the consumer version of Mpix that I compared with the same photo I used as one of my test prints.

So, let’s begin!

Some information

You will see a number of photos below that are photos of my test photos.  Even with proper white balance and exposure, it is nearly impossible to take a photo of a photo and have it turn out digitally the way it looks in real life (and see how it matches my monitor).  The only black and white example I have posted here is a sharpness example, because black and white photos by design cannot be photographed to show their true color.  That said, I have presented a number of comparison photos to try to showcase color and quality differences as well as possible.

Also important: make sure your monitor is calibrated.  This is probably the most important thing to do when you are getting test prints, because you will be comparing your prints to how your monitor looks, and they should match.  I don’t ever choose color correction for my prints, as my monitor is calibrated and I want to see which printer is matching my calibrated monitor correctly.  For the purposes of this article, I have used the following three of my test prints for comparison.  Last, all the pro labs I tested provided quality product.  The differences between the prints are subtle but recognizable to a photographer who knows what they are looking for.  It all comes down to what prints match your monitor.

And as you will see, there is NOT one best lab.  Each photographer will likely have a preference.  If nothing else, I strongly advise you to do some tests of your own before you order your prints. 

testprints 600x520 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle

Images used for testing

 

Now for a breakdown of the pro labs:

ProDPI

  • Uses Fuji paper (Fuji paper is a “cooler” paper than Kodak but also tends to have more detail, especially with luster).  They are the only lab that I tested that uses Fuji paper with the exception of the consumer version of Mpix.  Fuji paper seems to be thicker.
  • Were the prints that matched my calibrated monitor the best, sometimes by far, and especially for black and white, where the Fuji paper comes into play the most.
  • Had the slowest shipping, by a day.
  • ROES system is easiest to use.
  • Had the sharpest prints by a LOT
  • Included candy in their order!
  • Have amazing and helpful customer service (one story:  they actually now send me three of what I told them my favorite candy was for every order I place, because I told them how much I like that variety.  They’re also extremely helpful and friendly.)
  • Have a very easy to use ROES system.

Black River Imaging

  • Fast shipping!
  • Uses Kodak Endura paper, which is a “warmer” paper.  The Kodak paper seems slightly thinner/more flimsy.
  • Color prints match my monitor, and ProDPI prints, almost exactly except for a little more red in one photo.
  • Black and white prints are noticeably warmer.  They look like black and whites when viewed alone but when compared to monitor or ProDPI, they have a definite warm tinge.
  • Luster not quite as nice as ProDPI.
  • They are one of the two labs tested that do not mark on their prints that they are test prints.
  • All prints are less sharp than with ProDPI.  It is most noticeable on portraits on the eyes and lips.

Bay Photo

  • Another vote for very fast shipping!
  • ROES system is so-so
  • Also uses Kodak paper.  Their black and whites are not as warm as Black River but not as cool as ProDPI’s (which are on Fuji paper).
  • Photos are sharper than Black River’s, which appear strangely soft, but not as sharp as ProDPI’s.
  • In my still life photo, the lemon is almost light orange (see comparison photo below).
  • More blacks in their photos than Black River and smoother transition from dark to light.

Bay photo orange lemon 600x1006 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
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WHCC

  • You do not need to use ROES for their test prints; you can upload them online.  ONE CAVEAT:  As you are uploading them online, you do not have the ability to crop your photos to 8×10, as you do in ROES, so they need to be cropped to this size beforehand for your photos to properly print as 8×10′s.  I?  Forgot to do this!
  • However, WHCC’s customer service is really awesome because they immediately contacted me to tell me this, so I could fix if necessary.
  • Luster on photos very nice.
  • WHCC also does not mark their test prints as test prints.
  • Kodak paper used.
  • Black and whites match my monitor (and ProDPI’s) almost exactly.
  • Marked green color shift in photos.  Not noticeable in all, but you can see it in some (example below).  Also most likely the reason that b&w’s are cooled down enough to match ProDPI’s.  Photos are also darker than any other pro lab.
  • Candy also included in order!

MCP WHCC green tint 600x1006 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
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Now onto the consumer labs.

These are the labs that clients may use if you provide them with digital files but no prints.  Or, if you are not a pro yet (or even if you are, and do not meet the order minimums for some pro labs) you may be considering ordering from these places for personal use.  Shortly before I got my test prints from pro labs, I had ordered some prints from the consumer version of MPix.   One of those prints was the same as one of my test prints.  I also ordered two 8×10 prints each from CVS and Rite Aid, my local pharmacies.  I was very interested to see how these would compare to the pro labs.

MPix

  • Website fairly easy to use for anyone.
  • This is the lab I would recommend to non-pros or any client who is not ordering prints through you but still wants a good-quality print.
  • Shipping not the fastest.
  • Fuji paper used (as does ProDPI)
  • Luster coating can be added, like pro lab luster prints.
  • Photos are cheaper than pharmacy, even with luster coating, but you do pay for shipping.
  • My choice for consumer prints.
  • Colors match my monitor colorwise but Mpix prints tend to be darker and somewhat more contrasty than some other pro labs (see example photo below).  I have also ordered black and white portraits from MPix for friends and their portraits are very similar to ProDPI’s but are a little darker and somewhat more contrasty.
  • I have used Mpix for metallic prints which have come out awesome, and for photo books which are very good quality.
  • Yes, I have a yellow and white kitchen floor.

prodpimpix 600x988 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
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Rite Aid

  • Prints available in an hour if you wish.
  • No luster prints available; only glossy
  • Unknown paper type.  Not indicated on paper.
  • Photos cost more than MPix; however you will not need to ship.
  • Black and white photo has extreme purplish-blue cast.
  • Color photo colors are not as bad as expected, though still not close to perfect.  Blacks are way off (see example).
  • Photos are too warm.

prodpiriteaidcolor 600x439 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
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CVS

  • Their photos can also be obtained in an hour if you like
  • Photos also are available as glossy only.   No luster option.
  • Photos cost more than Mpix; however you will not need to ship.
  • Their photos are printed on Kodak paper
  • Black and white does not have the purple cast of Rite Aid but also does not match my monitor at all.  Also, their black and white in particular is EXTREMELY soft (see example below) and also has random color flecks throughout it.
  • Color photo is also off, not as much as I would’ve expected but also has the same issue as Rite Aid where blacks are not even close.
    prodpicvssharpness 600x327 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
    pin it4 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle

Notice how soft the second photo is above?  That is NOT  a focus issue with my photo-of-a-photo.  That is actually how soft the print from CVS is.  Compare it to how sharp the photo from the pro lab is!

prodpicvscolor 600x439 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle
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If you becoming a professional photographer, I highly suggest doing a similar comparison to the one I have done so you can see which lab matches your monitor the best.  They will all be close, but each photographer has one they love (and for me, it’s ProDPI).  Also, if your clients are printing their own photos, feel free to use the examples above to demonstrate how the color and sharpness of drugstore prints is not even close to what a pro lab can provide you.

If you have done similar print lab tests, we’d love to hear and see your findings.  Add any results or impressions in the comments below.

Amy Short, the author of this post, is a portrait and maternity photographer based out of Wakefield, RI.  She always has her camera with her, even if she is not shooting a session.  You can find her here or follow her on Facebook.

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 The Pro Photo Lab VS Consumer Photo Lab Battle

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This post was written by a MCP Guest Blogger. If you would like to contribute to the MCP Actions Blog, check out our Guest Writers Wanted page.

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26 Comments and 8 Replies



  1. 1
    DJ says:

    I would like to see your review of Bob Korn Imaging [bobkornimaging.com] as I believe his prints are superior to any other lab I have used.

    • Amy says:

      I have used Bob Korn imaging for several personal prints; as a fellow New Englander I wanted to try their prints. The quality is definitely good, but to me it is not markedly different from what I see from my normal pro lab. Also I would not be able to offer prints from Bob Korn to my clients as they are so expensive to begin with that my clients’ cost would be pretty prohibitive based on my pricing structure and business model. But for personal prints or something you may be printing for a gallery show or the like, they are definitely a lab to keep in consideration.

  2. 2
    Cattie says:

    Great comparison! It’s so hard to decide which lab to choose. Have you ever tried (or have an opinion on) Color, Inc., Simply Color Lab and Millers? I am using Millers for some things and really like what I have ordered so far, and their customer service has been great (although they are on the pricey side for certain products). Have never tried Color Inc. or Simply Color, but they were recommended to me by other photographers. Just curious what you think of them.

    • Amy says:

      I have not tried Color Inc or Simply Color. I have tried Millers. They use Fuji paper, which I like. Their prints come out slightly dark for me but are overall good. Millers, MPix, and Mpix pro prints are, in my experience, almost indistinguishable.

  3. 3
    David says:

    Great report. Thank you for exposing us to your findings.
    I second DJ’s comment as I have also ordered prints from Bob Korn. I have used Bay Photo and Black River, and IMHO, Bob Korn’s quality is exceptional.

  4. 4
    Heather says:

    Thank you for this! I am not a pro, but have wondered what the difference is between photo labs. I have ordered from MPix and was very happy with quality, but did not do a comparison with another lab. I have also ordered from Snapfish and Shutterfly because they have great deals, but I know I sacrifice quality.

  5. 5
    Ronda says:

    Thanks for the great review. Any thoughts on MPix Pro?

    Thanks!

  6. 6
    Jane says:

    Wondering about the color on the examples of DPI vs. Black River: the lemon in the Black River processing looks bright and lemony vs. the grayish DPI lemon. You indicated you did find DPI cooler. Is BR color not just warmer but also brighter and more saturated?

    • Amy says:

      Hi Jane, one thing to remember about all the images in this blog (except the very first one where I show what photos I used) is that they are photos OF photos; however for the most part the color representation is quite good. Black River is warmer than ProDPI but I am not seeing at all on two different calibrated monitors where the lemon looks gray in the ProDPI image samples. It looks quite lemony yellow. The grapefruit definitely does look slightly cooler in the ProDPI sample than in the Black River or Bay photo samples (partially due to the Fuji paper being cooler) but the print matches my screen/edit exactly.

  7. 7

    Great post! I am surprised at how good the Rite Aid ones came out, but CVS is just awful.

    I typically use Nations or WHCC for my prints, and have been happy with both. Nations prints are cheaper, but you do have to get a $50 minimum to qualify for free shipping. This is usually not a problem, as I will bundle orders and anything else I need to make up to the $50 I will order samples for the studio. Better to pay for samples than for shipping in my opinion.

    I use Zenfolio and the images I sell online from the galleries are through Mpix/Mpixpro. I agree, there is no distinguishable difference between the two (most likely because they are the same company). Shipping is expensive there however.

    Thanks again for your post! Very good comparisons!!

  8. 8
    Heather says:

    What a neat review! I switched to using ProDPI last year because I noticed my other lab’s prints were consistently darker. I’ve been SO happy with ProDPI and was excited to see that you also found them to be a great lab. But, like you said, it depends on what you’re looking for. I have also found customer support at all of the labs I’ve worked with to be great.

  9. 9

    Thank you so much for your review. Very helpful.

  10. 10
    David Scott says:

    Very thorough, well laid out comparisons. Thanks for the work that went in to it. We’ve loved Black River Imaging for years. Great products and excellent customer service. Glad you discovered that, to. :)

  11. 11
    Iris says:

    Thank you so much for the review, Amy. Very helpful to find the perfect printer for your business. I really like WHCC, because they have the products in one place that I offer my clients.

  12. 12
    Laura Dienzo says:

    Just ordered my first prints from ProDpi because I’ve heard so many photographers rave about their quality. Thanks so much for your extensive review!

  13. 13
    Michelle H says:

    What do you use to calibrate your monitor?

  14. 14

    Miller’s is missing from the list lol! I love them! Excellent service, fast shipping, fantastic quality! Huge variety of products to choose from AND Education on their site and programs!!! Love them :)

  15. 15
    Lorine says:

    Hi Amy, Great post! just an FYI, I tell my clients to make sure they DO NOT use the color correct option on Mpix. I actually put it in my digital file release.

  16. 16
    Pat says:

    You inspired me to get my prints ordered! I have the shoot proof and I order a couple of prints before , but now I have officially ordered my test prints! Thank you for the article!! Looking forward to comparing! My only comment thus far would be BRI has great customer service. Had to chat with one and she was GREAT!

  17. 17
    kendell says:

    This is a great comparison, thank you for sharing.

    I’m surprised that WHCC contacted you about your test prints. I have been using them for 3 years and finally just gave up on them. Once, when I ordered a canvas I accidentally uploaded a web sized image. My bad, I know, but you can imagine how awful it looked. As a professional lab, I couldn’t believe they didn’t contact me prior to printing it. I complained and they redid it at no charge so I was happy with that. Then they upgraded their Roes system and it no longer works with my 5 year old Mac. I contacted them about it and they basically said until I get a new computer I’m no longer their customer. I still used them after that for a few orders using my husband’s computer but my last order came with a big gray stripe on one of the images. I don’t know if the file was corrupted or what but no contact from them, just a print that I threw in the trash. I’m done! Plus, I don’t think they are very selective about taking only pro photogs as clients and they list their prices on their website for every one to see. Not happy, sorry to vent!

    • Amy says:

      Sorry to hear of your bad experiences with WHCC. A number of pro labs have their pricing information somewhere on their website where it is accessible without needing to be signed in. ProDPI does (it’s a downloadable .pdf).

  18. 18
    Tonia says:

    Great info. I also found Nations photo lab. Great paper, many choices and adorable.

  19. 19
    Tonia says:

    Sorry, I meant Nations photo lab is affordable (darn auto txt) .plus, shipping is fast.

  20. 20
    Leigh says:

    Interesting, and well timed. I have used WHCC for the past 5 years, but recently have noticed a change, and have been receiving darker than normal prints. Just gave ProDpi a try, and am waiting on that order. It’s a frustrating experience, to say the least, because it needs to be perfect!

  21. 21
    ProDPI says:

    Thank you for this post!

    -Krystal

  22. 22
    Julie Mankin says:

    I’m a newbie, what is ROES system?

  23. 23
    Amy says:

    ROES is the software used to place orders at a pro lab. Each lab has their own version of it. You upload photos to it and then order products from the lab’s catalog, which is housed in the ROES system. ROES stands for remote order entry system.

  24. 24
    Breanne says:

    Love this comparison. I did a comparison with MPixPro, WHCC, and McKenna a couple years back. I might need to do another comparison with ProDPI. I use MPixPro and love the prints I get, their customer service, and their ROES system.

  25. 25
    kristen says:

    So I edited some photos the other day and took them to Walmart ugh they looked awful! I’m sure it was my editing:/ but my daughter looked like she had goosebumps all over so I’m not sure if I over sharpened or it was just bad quality paper or what. I’m still new to editing

  26. 26
    John says:

    I was looking for a new lab and found this post…great comparison. Thanks. I have used Black River for many years…going back to before they changed their name. I was very disappointed in the quality of my last three orders and the response from customer service was that nothing has changed. I guess that means it is my fault that their color corrected photos were off and I was missing parts of my order. In any event I have seen a drop in quality and will not use them anymore. I received test prints back from Miller’s and found the quality to be very good…but they are pricy…I think it is because they ship everything Fed-Ex next day for no charge.



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