A Print Comparison: Professional Labs vs. Consumer

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I'm a mom, just like you. I've blinked and my 3 boys have jumped from babies to kids and I wholeheartedly agree believe that creating & capturing special memories together matters more than anything.

hi, i'm paige!

3 years ago when Glean Photography became Glean + Co we made a decision. We decided that we no longer wanted to be “shoot and burn” photographers. We didn’t want to do high volume mini shoots where we felt we couldn’t serve our clients. We didn’t want to hand off a USB and say “best of luck!” and hope that maybe one day our clients would actually make prints with those files. We didn’t want to leave our clients questioning what to do next. There’s nothing wrong with the type of photographer- there are a lot of great ones out there- we just wanted to be able to offer our clients a higher level of service. 
And yet we still get questions because when you’re just looking at price it doesn’t make sense. Why would you spend $99 or $199 on an 8×10 print if you can get one at Walgreens for $8? (But then, why would you hire a professional photographer to take your pictures when you can set your iPhone on a rock and take your own family photo for free?)
The answer is quality as well as customer service. Yes, you can buy a digital file and print them yourself, but you’re still spending a lot of money on those digital files. It’s still not “cheap”. And after spending all that money you still have nothing tangible. So let’s say you take the time to sit down at your computer, upload your files and you go to Walgreens because it’s right by your house. It will cost you $2.99 for a 5×7 and you can have that photo printed in an hour. And you get it back and you think…..why does this look so bad? Maybe you even question the person working there and say “the files don’t look like this on my computer!” and they might even reprint it for you with auto correct on and explain some non sensical jargon about printer profiles and calibrated monitors and talk you into believing that the file really does look that bad. You may even leave Walgreens, go home to make some changes and re-upload them, then come back to pick them up again with the same results. At this point you’re probably thinking “why did I spend all that money on a professional photographer? Their work is crap!!!”
A couple things have happened here- the biggest thing being that you have been thrust into a world that maybe you understand but most likely do not. Do you understand what a printer profile is or how to soft proof? Are you using a color calibrated monitor? We are. In fact, I went to school to learn how to do all this and then worked in a lab for a little while right out of college. (Back in the days when we printed rolls of film) But that doesn’t mean that you, my client, need to understand all that. This is MY job, not yours. It’s my job to make sure that what we’re seeing on the screen translates to a print and it’s my job to understand how to prepare that file for printing. When I hand you a digital file and say best of luck it’s with a hope and a prayer that you get lucky and the day you order you have an underpaid student that actually knows what they are doing working there.
The biggest reasons to pay the higher prices for professional prints?
1. Customer Service – we’re going to get it right for you and if it’s not right we’re going to fix it, often times without you even knowing there was a problem in the first place.
2. Quality- the print itself is going to look light years better because it’s been prepared by professionals, printed by professionals and on professional paper (see results below for further proof)
3. Ease- no more running back and forth to Walgreens or Costco or waiting for your re-order from Shutterfly to arrive. No wondering if you’re uploading them correctly or what settings and paper type to choose. All of this is done for you.
4. Timely- During your ordering appointment we help you pick your favorites, you pay for them and we order them. That. Same. Night. No more trying to find time to sit down and go through them all. No more wondering if it’s the right size for your wall or if a canvas would look better or a framed print. We can look at it to scale on your wall and compare sizes, styles, etc.
Basically what it comes down to is “What is your time worth?” Do you want a DIY experience or do you want to pay a professional to get it done right?
So to get down to the nitty gritty, here is my print test. This is the digital file I submitted with the exact same settings to each company:

And I know that when I have this file printed by our professional labs on our deep matte paper it’s going to have a beautiful soft warmth comparitively to the digital file. The matte paper is going to dull the highlights and shadows slightly and it will be a little less contrasty. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the file if I hand it to you and you print it somewhere else on some other paper. But here’s what happens when you print it at the following places:
Top: My own professional lab on our favorite deep matte paper
top left: Shutterfly on lustre paper
top right: Walgreens on glossy (the only paper available in the store, though you can order matte online)
bottom left: Costco, with auto-correct ON on lustre paper
bottom right: Costco with auto- correct OFF on lustre paper

By far the best choice comparatively to our professional labs is Shutterfly though on the newborn image in particular it’s a lot cooler and a little more contrasty. This is largely due to the fact that they don’t offer the deep matte paper that we love so much.
Both Costco prints look equally bad. The autocorrect-on version is very contrasty and slightly cyan with very few details in the shadows. The auto-off is definitely cyan with very little warmth in any of the skin tones. Instead of looking contrasty it looks flat and blah, again with almost no details in the shadows.
And finally……the grand daddy of them all, Walgreens. Just don’t go to Walgreens. PLEASE. It’s super dark, very green and the skin tone has a horrible mottling.
Here’s another closer look:

So, I’ll leave you with this. Professional photography and art on your walls (because that’s what these photographs are- ART) is a luxury. Not everyone has to have them and not everyone values them. If you do then I highly encourage you to spend the money to order from the professionals.
Not once in my entire life have I ordered a canvas or framed print of my loved ones and thought “well that was a waste of money!” except for when I have tried to cut corners and order from a cheaper place just to save a buck. Even if it means waiting 6 months so you can save or doing a payment plan, get the good one. You already spent the money on the professional photographer, now is the time to get professional images up on your walls.

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