OK folks, lesson of the day is "Where should I print my photos?", which is one of the most popular questions I get from clients. I allow for purchasing print rights of my images and I always give some feedback on quality vs value when I do. I usually get a lot of blank stares and skeptical head shaking, so here's your proof. The examples below are exactly why as professional photographers we are so wary to sell digital files. I'd be sad and horrified to see my work shown to your friends and family this way. It's not a true representation of the quality of work that you have selected me for (and paid for!).
This advice, while I am specifically talking about professional images, certainly applies to your beloved snapshots too.
I ordered 5 images from various consumer labs and my own pro lab. It can be very hard to explain the differences in your prints without laying them side by side. Wow. I knew there would be a noticeable difference, but I was floored. Keep in mind we are comparing a scanned print vs a digital, but you'll get the idea.
OK let's take a closer look at the scanned prints vs digital original...
First up is a "go to" for almost everyone. It's easy, quickly, and you are going there to spend $200 anyway, right? I beg of you not to make even $.13 of that for photos. From the SUPER thin paper to the over exposed and over saturated images you see here, there is just no reason!
Next up is Shutterfly. Like most of these, they are on very cheap paper, and for some reason their "color correction" included a lot of highlight protection. This means that her skin is washed out and the reddish undertones are awful too. This was the best of the worst. If you need a large volume of images for a scrapbook or something similar I would suggest this site, but you are better off with the recommendations below.
I will lump the next two together and just give you 3 words. Don't print here. Walgreens and Snapfish. I mean... it's just so bad. If you can believe it, these are even worse in person.
OK, now that that scary part is over, let's move on to what your options are...
The print above is from my pro lab, Mpix Pro. The only real changes from the original are it's very slightly cooler. The crisp and in focus image still remains and the paper is twice as heavy as the others. While you cannot order directly through them as a client, the consumer site will give you consistent results on professional paper very close to this. If you insist on not printing through your photographer (and own the copyright purchased through them) I would suggest Mpix.
If you are local to the Portland area I would also highly recommend Pro Photo Supply or Camera World which you order via RitzPix.com for pick up in a hour at their downtown location for most print sizes. Be sure to request matte paper!
Hope this was helpful and I'd love to answer any questions you may have in the comments below or on Facebook!