October 15th, 2008
When I first got a digital SLR camera a few years ago, I spent some time evaluating photo printing options. I sent a set of test prints to several different companies, and wound up deciding to use Shutterfly for my photo printing.
It’s been some time since then, so I figured it was about time to re-evaluate options.
There are three main things to consider when obtaining prints of photos: cost of prints, quality of prints at delivery, and longevity of prints. Many people look only at cost, and those that look past cost rarely look past quality at longevity. Longevity (or permanence) is, in my opinion, the most important factor to consider. But let’s look at all of them.
All color photo print technologies fade or otherwise degrade over time. There are several main things that can cause this: exposure to light, exposure to gases (especially ozone), and exposure to humidity. The impact of these different items varies by print technology, paper, and process.
Longevity: Traditional Photo Paper
Most services such as Shutterfly, Snapfish, Ofoto, as well as retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Walgreens print on traditional photo paper.
Historically, traditional photo paper has had terrible fading characteristics. Typically, old photos exposed to light — for instance, hanging on a wall underneath a light bulb or in the sun — will exhibit severe fade towards yellow or magenta. Modern papers are much better, but you will still not want to leave them directly in the sun or under lights.
To attempt to summarize, what you see is that of the two common consumer-grade photo papers, Kodak Royal and Fuji Crystal Archive, the Fuji paper has better permanence. However, the pro-quality Kodak Professional Supra Endura is better than either of them by a significant margin. The photo papers didn’t really have a problem with humidity, and not much of a problem with ozone.
So what about inkjets and laser processes? The main thing I learned from my research is that there is a tremendous amount of variance here. When looking solely at top-quality inkjet papers and inks, they ranged everywhere from having little bits of them flake off after a few months to doing better than any of the photo papers. This variance occurred even with similar papers from the same manufacturer.
As far as light exposure is concerned, every inkjet paper tested by TPR did better than Kodak Royal. Some fared about the same as Fuji Crystal Archive. And some even beat out Kodak Supra Endura.
But look at the ozone exposure test and you see a far different picture. All of the photo papers did really well, though suprisingly Supra Endura was the worst of them (though the scale is so small here that the difference is pretty minimal).
Not one of the inkjet papers came even close to that, and some faded so fast that they couldn’t even make it halfway through the test.
As far as humidity is concerned, it barely impacted the photo paper prints at all. Inkjet impacts were still mostly small, but also were mostly more impacted than the photo paper.
And finally, how about laser prints. There was huge variety here. An HP printer they tested faded so fast it couldn’t complete the light exposure test, while a Konica-Minolta fared better than Kodak Supra Endura in one test. In another light exposure test, they performed about the same as the photo papers. Ozone had little effect on the laser papers, except for the Dell test, which faded so fast they had to abort the test early. Humidity also had little effect on the laser prints.
Longevity: Other Examples
Brett Wilson did some interesting experiments with photos hung in front of a window as well. Wilhelm Imaging also has done some research in this area, though they are done using fluorescent lights only, which is prejudicial in favor of inkjet papers and against photo papers.
For the ultimate in longevity, true black and white photo paper is well-regarded.
TPR also has a report covering different lacquer and other finishes often applied to prints to improve their longevity.
With the exact right combination of inkjet paper and ink, you can get a print that will last exceptionally long. Some inkjet paper and ink combinations have really poor longevity characteristics, however, as do the laser papers.
Photo papers, especially Kodak Supra Endura, but even Fuji Crystal Archive, will last quite awhile as well, and are probably the best storage if kept in dark conditions such as an album.
When looking at print quality, I’m concerned with correct color balance, saturation, cropping, consistency, sharpness, contract, and detail in both dark and light areas — the typical things you’d look for.
Printing inkjet prints at home leaves all this up to your printer, inks, papers, and you, so we can’t really compare meaningfully.
Back when I looked at it, Shutterfly and Ofoto did the best. Walmart, Walgreens, dotPhoto, and many of the other online sites were really too poor to even bother with. Ofoto had a bit of a yellow tint to it, while Shutterfly did pretty well.
Most of the reviews of the major sites I’ve seen lately rank Shutterfly or Snapfish at the top in terms of quality. Many also rank Ofoto/Kodak near the top.
Walmart and Walgreens produce consistently bad results, and I only use them if all that matters is speed. If you ever read a review where somebody says that they get good results from one of those places, find a review where somebody has a better idea what they’re talking about.
Besides your mass-market sites like Shutterfly and Ofoto, there are also some slightly more expensive sites. The two best-known are mpix.com and adorama.com. Mpix is a division of Miller’s Professional Imaging, a pro lab. Mpix is basically a website where you can submit photos in the way you would to one of these other sites, and they can do their thing. Their standard rate includes human color correction on every print, but they offer a cheaper rate if you don’t need that. Their standard paper is Kodak Pro Supra Endura (the one that ranked highest in longevity tests), and the options go up from there. They also offer printing on true black and white paper, as well as wrap-around canvas and other such options.
I’ve sent some work their way and have been exceptionally happy with the result. Everything from the color of the prints down to the packaging shows extreme care and attention to detail. Among the reviews that cover mpix — many don’t — it almost always comes out at the top of the pack, easily beating out Shutterfly and Snapfish. It can be more pricy (though sometimes actually cheaper, since shipping is flat-rate with them), though not significantly.
Adorama is also sometimes mentioned. Most people seem to prefer mpix over adorama, but some prefer adorama. It’s a bit cheaper when you don’t need color correction for some prints, but sometimes — right now, for instance — closes for weeks at a time to observe Jewish holidays. It didn’t seem to be enough for me to bother.
Perhaps the easiest to figure out is cost, since websites typically list it right there for you.
High-quality inkjet prints are by far the most expensive option. I looked at 4×6 prints. Using the high-quality paper/ink combinations that did well in the TPR tests, and when buying supplies in bulk to get the best possible discount, it’s still 25 cents or more for a single 4×6 print. That’s with doing all the color work yourself, and not even figuring in the cost of the inevitable experimenting with getting the software set up right and the wasted prints when ink gets low. It also doesn’t figure in the cost of the printer.
At mpix, if you do your own color correction, it’s 19 cents per print, plus shipping. Prints are on Kodak Professional Supra Endura Shipping is a flat rate of $3 for 50 or fewer 4×6 or smaller prints, or a flat rate of $5.95 for USPS Priority Mail for anything else. They offer FedEx at an additional cost, which maxes out at a flat rate of $12.75 for overnight shipping. Some items such as framed canvas prints are more expensive.
Other options at an additional cost include color correction by a human, metallic paper, Ilford B&W paper, etc. There are also some more typical pro-lab options: red-eye removal by a human, custom retouching, etc.
At Shutterfly, a 4×6 print goes for 15 cents. You can get them as low as 10 cents if you buy a pre-paid plan of 600 prints for $60. Shipping varies based on the number of prints, starting at $1.79 for up to 10 prints, ranging up to $21 for 500 prints, with 3 cents per print after that. Priority and express mail is available at an additional charge. Shutterfly’s standard paper is Fuji Crystal Archive.
At Snapfish, a 4×6 print goes for 9 cents. You can get them as low as 8 cents if you buy a pre-paid plan of 250 prints. Shipping at Snapfish follows a complicated formula, but is generally approximately the same as Shutterfly. Though if you print more than 595 prints, watch out for the 10 cents per print overage fee. They don’t state what paper they use. Recent reports seem to suggest that it’s Fuji Crystal Archive, but some reports claim it’s Kodak Royal.
I’m planning to switch most of my prints to mpix — their higher quality and cheaper shipping offset their higher per-print cost for me. Also, I plan to try out Snapfish and see what sort of quality I get from them for things where quality isn’t really that critical.