NOTE: This is a really old set of tests. I seriously doubt that any of this is still accurate.
You could go out and buy yourself a photo printer to get prints from your digital images, or you could use one of the many printing services that have appeared in the past couple of years. I've found this to be the most convenient approach, though it has its drawbacks.
Ok, let's just cut to the chase. I've tried a number of printing services and have had varied success. Here are the results. I've tried to keep them in "best at the top" order, but if you read the detailed reviews that follow you'll find that this all depends on your definition of best.
|Good||Good||Good||Closed for business. Now Ofoto.|
|Good||Good||Good||Very similar to Print@Kodak. Slightly darker.|
|PhotoAccess||Good||Yes||Cyan||Bright||Good||Good||Fuji Crystal Archive paper.|
|EZPrints||Good||Yes||Cyan||Good||Good||Good||Not as sharp as Kodak.|
|dotPhoto||Good||Yes||Cyan||Bright||Good||Ok?||Too bright, highlights lost.|
|FromEx||???||Yes||Cyan||Bright||Good||Good||Contrast too high. Fuji paper.|
|PrintRoom||???||No||Magenta||Bright!||Good||Ok?||Way too bright. Fit didn't work right.|
|Shutterfly||Ok||No.||Very Cyan||Good||Good||Not Good||Looks like a human might have intervened on the blown highlight test.|
|Service||The name of the service and a link.|
|UI||How friendly is the User Interface.|
|Fit||Is a "fit image" option available to prevent odd sized images from being zoomed/cropped?|
|Color||Color casts or problems noted.|
|Bright||Relative brightness of the prints.|
|Detail||Sharpness, resolution, etc...|
|Auto||Auto exposure system. Some services have serious flaws in their auto exposure systems that cause unpredictable results. I have a set of test images that spot these problems quickly.|
Before running any sort of print quality test, I require that each tested print service offer a "fit" option. Odd size images will print as big as possible on the standard print sizes (4x6, 5x7, 8x10...). This frees you from worrying about print sizes when cropping your images.
My main print quality test involves a Black and White image. Nothing gives away the color balance of a printing system better than printing something that is black and white then viewing it in various lighting along with a Kodak Grayscale chart. If there is any color cast in the system, a black and white print will show it very clearly. The black and white prints have shown a cyan cast amongst most printing services. This is probably because the prints are optimized for viewing under incandescent light which tends to be red. You can always target your image before printing to get more neutral results (see my Targeting article).
I also print several color images to check saturation and automatic exposure adjustments. Some services perform automatic adjustments on your image that can destroy it depending on its color content. It appears that their algorithm looks at luminance which is most concerned with the green content of the image. If you have lots of red or blue in your image, and very little green, you'll end up with a disaster.
If the service passes the print quality test, the next step is to evaluate the rest of the service's features. Without a fit option and good quality prints, I don't consider the service to be worth my time and effort.
Bear in mind that things do change. So if a print service rates well one day, something might change to make that print service's quality fall off dramatically. The opposite can happen as well.
Print@Kodak passed all my tests with flying colors. The black and white print was very slightly cyan tinted, and the auto exposure test images came out absolutely perfect. It's too bad they decided to acquire ofoto and close up shop. On the other hand their user interface was surprisingly poor. Fortunately I have a set of test prints from them that will serve as the standard by which other services are measured.
When they were with us, Kodak used their Kodak Duralife paper on CRT printers.
Definitely the nicest User Interface in the business. Kodak really fixed this place up after they bought them. The colors and highlights are just about perfect. The images appeared only slightly darker than my reference Print@Kodak prints. Color balance was very slightly toward the cyan. The images appeared a bit sharper than Print@Kodak. They may be applying some sharpening prior to printing.
Prints arrived very quickly from California on Kodak DuraLife paper, complete with Ofoto and the processing date stamped on the back. Most likely, these are the same CRT printers that Kodak used, but I didn't verify this.EZPrints, FotoTime
Compared to the Print@Kodak standard prints, EZPrints fared well. EZPrints was more saturated, but handled the mostly red images well. No sign of auto exposure problems. The black and white image was slightly more cyan than the Print@Kodak version. Sharpness was noticeably different, with Print@Kodak winning for sharpness. Overall, better than average. Recommended.
EZPrints uses Kodak Pro Digital III paper and I'm not sure whether they use CRT or LED printing technology. FotoTime is the same as EZPrints. EZPrints offers up to 20x30 poster size prints and panorama format prints which are fixed width, but variable length depending on your image size. Wallets and other odd sizes are also available.
Both EZPrints and FotoTime have good user interfaces. EZPrints deletes your images after 30 days. FotoTime does not seem to do the same.PhotoAccess
The Black and White image had a cyan cast that was stronger than the reference Kodak print, but not serious (as strong as EZPrints, but more green). The Auto Exposure test images came back perfect. Overall, PhotoAccess' prints are slightly brighter gamma-wise than Kodak's. As for sharpness, PhotoAccess' prints look fine. Recommended.
PhotoAccess prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. This may indicate that they use the Fuji Frontier printing machine. PhotoAccess can do anything from slides to posters (look under "Order Merchandise" for the posters). Interestingly, they also offer "digital size" (4:3 ratio) prints as well as the standard wallet, 3.5x5, 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, and 11x14. Posters are only available in digital 36" and 48" sizes (27x36 and 36x48). The matte-finish posters are "paper-weight" so I assume they are not Fuji Crystal Archive. The low price seems to support this theory ($13 for 36", $15 for 48"). The glossy 36" poster is probably Fuji Crystal Archive with a price of $30.
PhotoAccess offers their PhotoStreamer software for big uploads. It works well, although it doesn't give an estimate for how long your entire batch will take to upload.PhotoChannel
The only one so far that got the Black and White image perfect. Absolutely no color casts at all. Auto exposure test images were also perfect. Overall, PhotoChannel's prints are a touch on the dark side and a little oversaturated. However, with their perfect color balance, they are a good place to keep in mind for special prints. Gamma and saturation tweaks might be needed before sending images to them, but that's not a problem for the special images that you spend hours getting perfect. Recommended.
PhotoChannel prints on Kodak Royal paper.
The Fit option is a bit different from most others. You have to zoom the image out one click and it will be sized to fit the paper when printed. It's quite time consuming if you have a lot of images to print.dotPhoto
At first I thought dotPhoto was blowing out the highlights on just my red channel test images, then after examining all the images, I realized that dotPhoto prints too light overall, losing highlights no matter what kind of image is being printed. You might be able to compensate, but if you are going to go through that sort of trouble, PhotoChannel is a better choice. Not recommended.
dotPhoto prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Their online user interface is fast and intuitive. It's probably not good for large numbers of images. My test only involves 5. I didn't try their uploading app which should make uploading large numbers of images easier.FromEx
The most noticeable thing about FromEx was the high contrast and saturation. Only a slight Cyan cast comparable to EZPrints and the Kodak reference print. The Auto Exposure test images looked fine. I thought the contrast was a tad too high, so I wouldn't recommend FromEx. However, if the contrast at PhotoAccess isn't enough for you, FromEx might be exactly what you are looking for.
The prints were done on Fuji Crystal Archive paper and have similar characteristics to those from PhotoAccess. That leads me to believe that similar hardware is being used.
FromEx does allow storing/sharing of images and the online User Interface is good, but buggy in places.Shutterfly
Shutterfly performed very poorly on the black and white test. The image was extremely cyan tinted. Much more so than any other service I've seen so far. In addition the blown highlights test results are somewhat suspicious. For my killer red image, the highlights look very good. But for my more moderately red test images, the highlights are blown. My only guess is that an operator may have intervened when they saw the horribly blown highlights in the worst-case test image. A big minus for Shutterfly is the lack of a "Fit" option to print odd sized images in their entirety instead of always zooming and cropping to a 4x6. Overall, I cannot recommend Shutterfly.
Shutterfly's prints had no information as to what brand of paper they use.
Shutterfly did not respond to my email detailing these problems.PrintRoom
PrintRoom fares well against the reference prints with a noticeably brighter gamma. You'll probably find you need to darken your images a bit before printing to match your monitor. The bright gamma made it hard to determine whether or not there were auto exposure problems. My best guess is that there were not. The Black and White print came out slightly magenta when compared to the grayscale. The prints seemed slightly softer than the Kodak prints but this may have been due to the brighter gamma. In addition to the bright gamma, PrintRoom also doesn't do "fit" properly. The prints had borders all around instead of the expected white borders on only two sides. Not recommended if you rely on "fit" like I do.
PrintRoom's prints were on unnamed paper.
At this point I'm pleasantly surprised. Of the 9 services I've tested, 4 of them had decent print quality. I think I'll stop testing for now and get back to making/printing photographs. If I start having trouble, I'll be back to test some more.
There are tons of print services out there. Here are a few. If there is a "-" to the left, that means I've tested them. If there is a ">" to the left, testing is in process. "X" means there was no point in trying.Adobe Active Share
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Disclaimers: These are simply random observations I have made while making prints from digital images. I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this page in any way other than as a customer. All trademarks are owned by their respective owners. There are no ads on this page, and there never will be. Use this information at your own risk. I won't be held responsible for anything that happens to you as a result of reading this. Shake well before serving. The contents of this page are Copyright 2000, with all rights reserved by me, Ted Felix, and the quoted authors.Copyright ©2001, Ted Felix