Nearly every time I book a session I hear it, “You give us the digitals, right? We don’t want prints.” Pressing a little further, I often find that it isn’t that this potential client doesn’t want prints or products at all. It’s that they assume that printing from a professional lab will be ridiculously expensive and that consumer labs are just as good of quality.

I’m a professional photographer, so I’m expected to advocate for the professional lab. But before I give you the verdict on whether a professional lab provides better prints than a consumer lab, take a look at this print comparison and decide for yourself.

Print Comparison: Professional or Consumer Lab?

Prints from both the professional and consumer labs are evaluated on the following:

Packaging – Does the packaging provide that the print will arrive in your home undamaged?

Paper Quality – How thick is the paper? Is it flimsy? Will it be easily damaged?

Print Quality – Does the image itself have any defects, damage or other errors?

Color Quality – Is the color of the image true to the original digital file? If it’s not, then the print is not good.

Each lab will be shown individually before showing the comparison at the end.

Consumer Labs

Walgreens

Walgreen's Photo - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

One of the first things I notice about the overall quality of the print from Walgreen’s is the flimsy packaging. The paper protective sleeve isn’t much sturdier than the paper the image itself is printed on. What I really don’t like, however, is that the corners of the print stick out the bottom of the sleeve. To make matters worse, when removing the print from the packaging, it is easy to get the “Thank You” sticker stuck on the print causing damage.

While the packaging and paper quality is subpar from Walgreen’s, I really can’t complain about the quality of the print itself. There are no scratches or errors where the machine might have jumped. Unfortunately, the color of the Walgreen’s print when compared to that of a professional lab is cooler than the original print. It’s not horrible, but it isn’t good either.

Target

Target Photo - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

I have to admit the whole delivery from Target really surprised and even disappointed me. Being Target, I was expecting awesome, on-brand packaging. Instead, this plain white, completely non-descript envelope appeared in our mailbox. It doesn’t affect the print itself, but I expected more from Target. I mean, it’s Target. C’mon.

Anyway, I actually thought this package was from another consumer lab when I first held it in my hand – that’s how poor and flimsy the packaging was. The package and print did arrive without damage, however, it could have easily been folded in half or torn just in the mail sorting process.

Whether you’re ordering prints for Christmas cards or to display on your wall, the paper is so thin they will likely arrive damaged, and will definitely warp in a picture frame over time. The color of the print was so much warmer than the original image, that the subjects seemed to glow.

Like I said, I expected more from Target. I mean, if the print is not going to be good quality, I really thought the experience as a whole would be.

Walmart

Walmart Photo - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

At first glance, Walmart seemed to be a diamond in the rough in terms of consumer print labs. The packaging in which the print arrived is thick and sturdy – hard enough that minor damage to the package didn’t affect the print. When I removed the print from the package, however, I immediately noticed a scratch along the lower left of the image – there goes the print quality. Yes, it is small, but this isn’t the first time I’ve received a scratched or damaged print from Walmart. And as far as color quality is concerned, this print was more exposed than the original digital file. Walmart started out so good with the packaging but didn’t fare very well overall on this assessment.

Shutterfly

Shutterfly - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

Shutterfly was my personal lab of choice for years before I began printing with a professional lab. The packaging and print quality are excellent, but where the professional labs beat Shutterfly is in paper and color quality, respectively. Shutterfly’s printing paper is thinner than either professional lab, and the image itself is overexposed.

Professional Labs

In terms of packaging, print quality, and paper quality, Miller’s Lab and ProDPI are really on par with each other. If you look through these images, you’ll see very similar packaging. ProDPI’s packaging is a little more robust, and the box did show a little damage; however, the intended result was achieved with both Miller’s and ProDPI. The prints arrived undamaged.

Where ProDPI rises above Miller’s is in color quality. The print from Miller’s is cooler than the original print, so the color is lost in the child’s cheeks, and his forehead is washed out. Whereas on the ProDPI print, you can still make out the soft hair on his forehead.

Miller’s Lab

Miller's Lab - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

Strong cardboard box with prints shrink wrapped onto another piece of thick cardboard. The prints are just underneath the invoice.

ProDPI

ProDPI - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

Yes, there is some damage on the actual box, but when you look at how the prints are actually packaged – inside a plastic sleeve, then shrink-wrapped onto another piece of thick cardboard on top of air pillows – the prints are not going to be damaged.

The Comparison

Laura Glen Photography - Print Comparison - Professional or Consumer Print Lab - Pro vs. Consumer Lab - Prints - Colorado Family Photographer

Using the ProDPI print as the standard as it is most true to the original image. Walmart: Cooler than ProDPI. Target: Warmer than ProDPI. Walgreen’s: Cooler than ProDPI and washed out. Shutterfly: Overexposed. Miller’s: Cooler than ProDPI.

Laura-Glen-Photography-Print-Comparison-Professional-or-Consumer-Print-Lab---Pro-vs.-Consumer-Lab-Prints-Colorado-Family-Photographer

Laura-Glen-Photography-Print-Comparison-Professional-or-Consumer-Print-Lab---Pro-vs.-Consumer-Lab-Prints--Colorado-Family-Photographer

Notice the loss of definition, overexposure, and coolness in the Miller’s print versus ProDPI.

The Verdict

I can somewhat understand how one might think they are getting a good print when printing through a consumer lab, but when compared to a professional lab, you can really see the difference. In packaging, print quality, paper quality, and color quality, ProDPI is the premier choice for photo prints and products.

Okay, so where do I print?

Unfortunately, the public isn’t able to print from professional labs without going through a photographer. But that doesn’t leave you without any options. While I believe ProDPI to be of higher quality than Miller’s Lab, Miller’s still provides an excellent product, and they their own consumer lab called Mpix. That means you can still access professional quality printing at a fraction of the price.

Print Comparison: Professional or Consumer Print Lab?