We’ve been pretty excited to write this blog post for a while now. It’s something I’m sure a lot of our professional photographer friends will want to know and something your clients really must see. So here we have it … the undeniable, right in front you, indisputable evidence that proves why you really, really MUST print your images with a professional print lab. Step awayyyy from the Big W kiosk and shut down that online Snapfish ordering system right now! Share this article with your clients and help them make the best decision when it comes to printing their artwork.
A few years ago, our great friend Christe-Lee Johnston Photography from Toowoomba did a blog post featuring a range of prints from companies across Australia that showed the quality of images across a whole variety of price points. We thought it was time for a 2018 check-in with labs from around the country and have conducted our own research this time around – but make sure you take a peek at Christie’s article from 2015 while you’re at it! There are some fairly significant differences between both of our findings so it’s great to have another reference to consider!
So here’s what we did …
We ordered the SAME 3 prints from 5 different labs. 6×4 inch 300dpi images on lustre or glossy paper. The photos were taken in early 2017 on a Canon 5DMK3 with a Sigmat Art 1.4mm lens at an aperture of around f2.8 – 3.5 depending on the image. All were edited in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop and for the colour geeks out there, saved in the sRGB IEC61966-2.1 colour space.
We ordered online prints from HARVEY NORMAN – BIG W – OFFICEWORKS – KMART (SNAPFISH) and A PROFESSIONAL LAB. In the interests of a fair competition and complete transparency in our research, absolutely none of these labs had any idea we were printing these images for an blog article. While I have been a customer of the professional lab for many years, they most certainly did not know why I had ordered these images and for the sake of the article, we won’t be mentioning who they are.
All prints were ordered on the same day, using the exact same digital file. Shout out to my fabulous friend Alana and her gorgeous baby Ella for being our test model.
When ordering through Big W, Officeworks and Harvey Norman we were redirected to a very similar ordering system (pointing to fujifilmimaging) but of course, all with their own store branding. All three of these orders arrived here at our office on the same day in almost identical packaging 9 days after they were ordered. The Kmart / Snapfish order was a different online system and it arrived in its own packaging after 10 days. The professional prints were also ordered on the same day and arrived within 24 hours.
We knew we’d see a difference. But we didn’t expect it to be quite this extreme! Without sounding too dramatic, we actually could not believe just how much better the professional lab was compared to ALL of the cheaper alternatives. Colour, contrast, grain and paper quality.
It took us a little while to work out the best way to show you the results. We tried photographing the images but with changing light situations and white balance discrepancies, we found that scanning the images for you to view was more accurate. At the bottom of the article we have posted 1 example of our photograph attempts just for your viewing pleasure. It really is amazing to see the differences with all images lined up for comparison.
TEST #1 – ELLA ON A BRIGHT FABRIC BACKDROP
You can see here just how much of a difference you will find between labs when you are dealing with colour! Not surprisingly, the Professional Lab is by far the closest to our original digital file, albeit a little under exposed. The skin tones of this gorgeous little baby are what shocked us the most in all three tests. Harvey Norman, Big W and Kmart / Snapfish all left Ella looking grey and unwell. The print from Officeworks arrived underxposed that step further, leaving the highlights on her forehead, nose and cheek looking dull and flat. The detail in the background is also significantly different with the tones and pattern in the fabric almost completely lost without the light and shade. The professional lab printed Ella’s skin tones with enough pink and yellow as intended to keep her looking healthy!
TEST #2 – ELLA ON A NEUTRAL BACKDROP
We were interested to see how a neutral / off white backdrop would print at all 5 labs. It’s clear that the original digital file was edited with a warmer effect which unfortunately has not translated well across most of the prints. The Professional Lab has a touch of warmth to it and thankfully Ella is looking healthy and oh-so-newborny with her pink toes and cheeks. Wow, as for the others … well what can we say? By the time you hit the Kmart / Snapfish image it is a dreary shade of green and grey and poor Ella is not looking so well. Take note of the highlights on the lace blanket in the Harvey Norman and Big W prints – overexposed and blowing out leaving patches of the patterned fabric hard to see at all.The highlights in her hair are also lost in the two centre images.
TEST #3 – ELLA ON A WARM BACKDROP
Test number 3 was by far the image that shocked us the most. Poor baby Ella … her skin tones are just dreadful in most of these prints and the colour of the warm, wooden background is almost completely lost in the prints. Again, we found the Harvey Norman, Big W, Officeworks and Kmart / Snapfish prints all pulling far more green than the original digital file and the exposure wasn’t great. The professional print lab was by far the stand out with those lovely pink and peach tones, albeit again a few stops underexposed. If you take a look at the close up, macro shot we took of the Kmart / Snapfish print, you can even see a print line and the grain in this print was out of control! I’ve never ordered through any of these multi-nationals before but I presume that they would re-print upon request if we showed them that fault line? Perhaps we need to give that a try in our next experiment …
What can we say? If you have taken the time to invest in professional photography, getting your photos taken on the day is really just the beginning of the process. We know professional photography is a luxury item. It’s often something you have to save up to indulge in and that spending more on professional printing through your photographer is sometimes out of the budget. When we interviewed a variety of Australian photographers on this very topic, the price of a 6×4 print (often matted) ranged from $35 – $100. So, we get it. It’s a whole lot more expensive than a 30c print from your local multi-national. But our view is this …
If you are going to spend all of your hard earned money on having these beautiful photographs taken of you and your loved ones, invest that little bit more and have them printed in the way that the photographer intended. Bright, colourful, crisp and clear. Are you planning on hanging these images on your walls for the next 50 years and will potentially look at them every day? If that’s the case, invest in a good print or canvas and spend the next few decades of your life enjoying that photograph in all of its intended glory.
Sending out hundreds of them as birth announcements to your family and friends? Well that’s perhaps a different story and some cheaper alternatives might just do the trick (although … those green skin tones aren’t overly appealing are they!). You can also find some great professional labs with their own dedicated consumer arm who print at a similar quality for the general public so you might want to spend some time researching that option instead. As the old saying goes folks, you get what you pay for.
For photographers, it’s always a good idea to run some test prints with your favourite lab before you go ahead and print a larger order with them. While we were happy with the colours and quality of the pro lab print, those images certainly came up a little darker than we’d anticipated so that might just mean a case of increasing our curves or brightness at the end of our edit to compensate. Most labs can provide you with the best colour settings for your images so make sure you get in touch with them first if you are providing professional prints to your clients.
Here’s that ‘photo of the photos’ we were talking about earlier (with the digital file added in Photoshop to the top left). We had a bit of trouble with glare and light consistency showing you our findings this way but it’s still interesting to see the difference. Interestingly, Officeworks also likes to print their 6×4 inch pics about 3mm larger than the rest of the country. Go figure.