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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The 5 Best Photo Printing Services

Suburban America used to contain roughly a single 1-hour photo lab for every five hundred people. Little kiosks were sprinkled across strip mall parking lots like pepper on a bad steak. Then came the digital camera and suddenly there was no film to develop. Those kiosks abruptly disappeared, taking our photo printing options with it.

While developing film isn't commonplace today, the desire to have a photograph as an object has never faded. Now, in place of the 1-hour-photo booths, there are endless online printing services, most of which produce far better results than the kiosks ever did. Unfortunately, some of them are truly awful at printing your images.

To make sure you don't end up with prints of your kids with orange skin against green skies (yes, that happened in one test), we assembled a collection of photos designed to test color, tonal range, blacks, whites, and more, and fired them off to nearly a dozen services. Here are the best places to print your photos.

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Best for Most PeopleMpix

When my kids were born I wanted to make sure they, like me, inherited a shoebox full of faded family photographs. I bought a film camera but decided the film was too expensive, so I sold that and bought a DSLR instead. I started using Mpix to print everything. The results have never disappointed. Mpix is an offshoot of Miller's Professional Imaging (a pro-only printing service) and the pedigree shows in the print quality.

Mpix prints on Kodak Endura paper, and offers a variety of paper options. I tested the E-surface, which renders rich deep blacks, and very true-to-life colors. It holds up well over time; images I printed in 2013 look exactly like they did when I got them.

The website is simple to use. You can import images from the most popular social networks and photo backup services like Facebook, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. Unfortunately, Instagram isn't on the list. Once your images are in your Mpix account you can order prints in virtually any size, including options tailored to images for your phone (4 x 5.3 inches, for example). There are also options to print on canvas, wood prints, and more.

It's not the cheapest service, but Mpix frequently has sales. Unless you're printing something as a gift and need it now, I suggest waiting until prices dip.

25 4 x 6 Prints From Mpix Cost $6.75 ($.27 Per Print)

Best for Photo NerdsPrintique

The best quality prints in my testing came from Adorama's Printique service, formerly called Adoramapix. Choosing between Printique and Mpix was one of the toughest calls I've had to make in this job. In the end, I went with Mpix because you get free shipping and frequent sales make it cheaper, but if printing quality is your only concern, Printique wins by a hair. A part of the reason is also options: You can choose a range of papers and they're listed by their actual names like Kodak Endura or Fujifilm Matte. I also like the option to print the date and file name on the back of each image.

Printique is also on the pricier end, but the extra money gets you much better prints. I went for the Kodak Endura Luster paper (which is also what Mpix uses). Colors are very true to life, with rich blacks and good details in both shadows and highlights.

Another place Printique shines is the photo upload process. You can import images from just about anywhere, including Lightroom, Flickr, Instagram, Google Photos, Facebook, and Dropbox, or directly from your computer.

25 4 x 6 Prints From Printique Cost $7.75 ($.31 Per Print)

Best on a BudgetSnapfish

If you don't have a lot of money to spend, but you still want good-looking prints, Snapfish delivers. Snapfish doesn't offer the same quality of prints you'll find in our top picks, but it's also less than a third the price and the results are not bad.

You can upload images from your computer, phone, or import them directly from social media (Facebook, Instagram, Google Photos, or Flickr). The web interface is easy to use, though as with most of the cheaper services, you'll be constantly bombarded with upsells for books, mugs, and more.

I was surprised by the quality of prints from Snapfish considering the price. They're better than what I got from several other services (not reviewed here) that charged more than double.

25 4 x 6 Prints From Snapfish Cost $2.75 ($.09 Per Print)

Best for BooksShutterfly

I've used Shutterfly to create everything from calendars to books and have been happy with the results, but the company's prints are not the best.

The tonal range is good, shadows don't disappear into pure black, and at the white end of the spectrum, clouds retain plenty of detail. But the prints have a flat look to them and the paper is flimsy compared to our top picks. I also found the constant upselling on the website tiring. Every time you upload photos, even if you've already said you want to make prints, Shutterfly interrupts the purchase process to say "We've turned your images into a book" and forces you to dismiss this unwanted dialog just to get to the thing you actually wanted to buy.

Given the subpar purchasing experience and lack of outstanding results, I only recommend Shutterfly for prints if you're on a tight budget, since it is cheaper than Mpix or Printique. Where Shutterfly excels are those books they're always trying to sell you on. I've been happy with the results of both books and calendars.

25 4 x 6 Prints From Shutterfly Cost $4.50 ($.18 Per Print)

Best for PortraitsNations Photo Lab

Nations Photo Lab prints on quality paper, and the packaging is the best of the bunch. It's hard to imagine anything ever happening to your images in transit the way the company secures them, although shipping times are among the slowest.

While the prints are high quality, I found that many times, especially with landscapes, colors are washed out. Highlights, especially bright white clouds against a blue sky, lack detail compared to the same images from Printique. The results for portraits are much better. Nations' color correction does an excellent job with skin tones and produces the best portrait-style prints of the services I tested.

What I really dislike about Nations is the website. It's slow and sometimes difficult to navigate (and I never could get it to give me a receipt). If you want to upload a lot of photos to Nations, the far better option is to use the third-party app Remote Order Entry System (ROES). It's a Java-based desktop app that, once set up, greatly improves the experience.

25 4 x 6 Prints From Nations Photo Lab Cost $8.00 ($.32 Per Print)

Printing Services to Avoid

Amazon's Photo Printing: This service produced the worst images, not just out of this particular test, but the worst prints I've ever seen. Full stop. The best I can say for it is that it's fast. I had my prints in under 24 hours. The problem is, of the 25 prints I ordered, eight of them had printing errors. Convinced that a 30 percent failure rate must be some kind of fluke, I fired off another round of 25 (different) images and this time seven of them were misprinted. That's a kind of progress I suppose but not one I would recommend. I didn't bother trying again and I suggest you avoid Amazon's photo printing service like the plague.

Walmart/CVS/Walgreens: Technically, 1-hour photo kiosks didn't die. They wormed their way inside pharmacy chains. There's nothing wrong with these services. They're convenient, or they were in the pre-Covid world. This is still the fastest way to get your images printed as uploaded jobs generally process within a few hours. But the results vary tremendously from one store to the next. Just like the 1-hour services of old, the quality of prints you get depends on what shape the machine is in, and how skilled the technician working that day happens to be. You might be able to get good prints at your local store, and it might be worth checking out if you're not happy with other options, but for most people, this isn't going to get the best results.

How to Get Better Prints

We used a mix of images that represented a good cross-section of the kinds of photos most of us have. That includes green forests, blue seascapes, browns and grays in city shots, portraits, macro images, close-ups, images with strong bokeh, stacked images with long depth of field, and more.

We didn't limit testing to good images either. We tested plenty of blurry images, photos that were overexposed and washed out, and ones where details might be lost to shadow. In other words, images like most of us have on our phones and in our cameras. Some images came from RAW files we edited in desktop software, others were sent straight from our phones, and we also pulled from social media posts.

The latter, while convenient, will get you the worst images. Social media photos are compressed, and with the exception of Flickr, most do not allow you to access your original uploads, so you're printing from seriously degraded versions. The far better choice is to upload images straight from your phone. It's less convenient, but the extra work is worth it.

Yes, a RAW file taken by a full-frame camera with a good lens is going to print better than anything you get from your phone. But as long as your phone has a decent camera, you're not really going to notice a huge difference in a 4 x 6 print. Even at 5 x 7, you're going to be fine. If you want to go bigger, one trick to "hide" the flaws of a lower quality image is to print on canvas. It's not cheap, but the texture of the canvas will hide many low-quality image artifacts and allow otherwise low-res photos to look good on your wall.

It's a good idea to use some kind of image editing app to add contrast and sharpen your images before you upload them. One of our favorites is Adobe Lightroom. The free version lets you do basic contrast editing, and there's a pretty good auto-adjust setting that improves most images with a single tap. Lightroom also comes with some nice guides and tutorials to help you get started editing images on your phone. Other good options include Google Photos (under adjustments, look for the "Pop" slider which is especially helpful), Snapseed, and Photoshop Express.

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