Photo Lab Tests with WHCC, Target, CVS, and Wal-Mart
I've been pretty open about my switch from product sales to being a shoot and share photographer, focused on service above products. This means I give my clients the digital images and printing rights without having to worry about meeting my financial goals post session. Most of my clients still wind up purchasing their prints from me, which means their photos are printed by a professional lab that keeps the color and exposure exactly the way they are when I deliver the final images to my clients. Some clients take their photos to other places to have them printed, which is FINE. I really do believe it's your own choice to do what you like with YOUR photos. But I wanted to do a little experiment to see what the real difference is between a professional lab's print and the places that most people print photos at.
So! For my experiment, I had the same photo printed at my professional lab, White House Custom Color, and then at Target, CVS, and Wal-Mart.
Here is the original digital image:
Warning: The following images were taken on my dining room table which was maybe not perfectly clean and black tables are great at showcasing your lack of dusting diligence. Do not let the dust distract you from the good intentions I had when I took these pictures.
Okay, so White House Custom Color is my go to professional lab of choice. When my clients order prints and canvases through my website, this is what they are receiving. The color is accurate to the original image. It's sharp and detailed, just like the original.
I took this picture above to demonstrate something that a lot of people don't know about cameras. I didn't until about a year ago. Cameras shoot in different... sizes so to speak. My camera (and most professional cameras) shoots in a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is not conducive to several popular print sizes, including the 8x10. Think about movies and how we used to watch everything in full screen, but were missing the edges you get to see when you watch in widescreen. That's why I offer sizes like 8x12, so that you can display the entire image. That's just something to consider when you're choosing photos to print. I chose this photo in particular because there was a lot of space around my subjects that made it okay to crop away some of the edges.
Of the three commercial labs I tried, Target's was definitely superior. The print might be slightly darker, but only slightly. The real difference is color. Their print has more cyan in the ink. It's especially noticeable in the grass. If you compare it to the original, you'll see the color is a darker green. However, because grass IS green and they're wearing clothing with blue tones, it still looks pretty good. It's just different. The only major complaint I had with Target is that, I had the photos shipped to me, and it took about a week and a half longer to receive my print from Target than any of the other companies I used.
CVS beat Wal-Mart, but only barely. This photo is obviously overexposed. A lot of detail has been lost. Ashley doesn't even have freckles anymore, which is not okay! Freckles rule. This image has been lightened a lot! Look at Ashley's sweater and how the dark black has changed from the original. It also has a strange yellow tint, so the grass isn't even green anymore.
Here's a side by side.
And Wal-Mart. The reason I ranked it just below CVS is because in addition to its overexposed, yellowy tint, it also had less contrast, making the image just a little softer and less crisp. Their skin is almost completely white. It really does not look good at all.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the paper the non-lab photos were printed on was all pretty similar. Thin and glossy. My lab print was still glossy, but not quite as thin. A professional print can be texturized, mounted, matte, whatever you're looking for really. The most I saw offered was, I believe, from Wal-Mart, who had a "matte" option.
Hopefully, right now you're thinking "jeez where the heck do I print my photos then?" Of course, I love it when my clients have the photos I took printed through me and my lab, that's my #1 recommendation. But you take a lot of digital images yourself and everyone should print photos more often! I've asked a lot of other photographers what they recommend and it seems like Mpix is the clear winner. It's known for its professional quality, but is open for use by anyone. I might have to make an addition to this experiment and add an Mpix sample. So, to be continued?