Pro Prints vs Drugstore Prints…it DOES matter!

So…you just dropped a hefty chunk of change getting your photos done with a professional photographer…what now? Well, in this day and age, the most popular option would be to buy the digital package so you can print your photos yourself and share with friends and family online. Makes sense, right? You want to save money…and it’s easy as pie to go to a one hour studio and have the print to hang on your wall that night! We’ve all done it (myself included.)

Well, that way is not always the best choice. I have seen this “post” done by several photographers on their blogs… but I was always skeptical. I always thought “oh yeah, that’s edited.” Well… I decided to try it for myself…and let’s just say, I am REALLY shocked. I have heard how bad consumer labs can be…but now I have seen it for myself. I can promise you that these are the prints in their true form. I have not done ANY editing whatsoever, other than just scanning the photo onto my computer and adding the lab name.


Each lab took their different spin on the photo…but ultimately, even the untrained eye can see what is wrong with each “version.”

Here’s another example. This time, I chose a photo with an “off white” background, just to see how the labs would work on that.


As one of my friends told me “It looks like a rainbow!” and it’s true! It personally makes me sad that THIS is how my work may possibly be displayed…especially since you (the client) spend hard earned cash on the experience of a professional photo session and are left with these as keepsakes (and the fact that they may be passed on to future generations!) and that I spend HOURS upon HOURS working on your session for it to turn out like this! yuck!  It’s hard for me to swallow because as you can see…these examples are NOT what my work looks like…so if you order these prints, and you see how it comes out…it’s NOT ME! I promise!!!

Obviously these labs are great for printing snapshots where you don’t really care about quality…but if you are going to spend money on a great photo session that you can pass on to future generations, why waste it? Just some food for thought.

ADDED NOTE: Lab results will vary based on location. If you do decide to still print through these labs, be sure to click on “do not color correct” so your print gets as close to the photographer’s work as possible. Also…this post is not intended to “bash” these big box photo labs. It’s meant to educate…and show my clients the method to my madness! Also…if you do decide you do want to print the photos yourself, check out Although they aren’t going to get their colors EXACTLY with the photographer (it’s best if THEY do the ordering, that way they can take it up with the lab if the prints are off) they’ve been the best I have noticed from experience.

Edited to add (January 24, 2014)
This post was intended for my client’s eyes. If you are a photographer wanting to learn more, please feel free to contact me:)

Want to see another example? Check out my friend Lindsey over at Feather Blue Photography’s post!

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  • Renate - Great post! I was wondering where you order your prints from? I would like to offer my clients that option.ReplyCancel

  • Erin Lato - Thanks for doing this Amanda, this is the best comparison I have seen. What a difference!ReplyCancel

  • Kat - I had to post this for all my clients to see! Great job!ReplyCancel

  • Jill Bennett - I have had good luck with MPix. I have found the quality good and the prices very reasonable. The only bad thing is I don;t have the hour processing option if I need some quick pictures for a last minute school project!ReplyCancel

  • Kristopher Malloy, Think Photography - EXCELLENT article! Thank you for sharing this – constantly trying to show the difference between retail and professional printing with my Clients, and this puts it wonderfully in perspective for this! THANK YOU!ReplyCancel

  • Amanda O - Great blog post! I have had a similar experience with one of the printers you have displayed. But as a photographer do you have a prefer vendor? Do you offer them packages or do you just give them a USB. – Amanda O – ARO Arizona Photography in Phx AZ.ReplyCancel

  • Cam - Well I disagree with at least one of the places you mentioned. I’ve been a photographer for 15 years and Costco is the best place to get prints printed. You have to download a printer profile for your monitor, once that is done you place an order with “auto correct” off. My photographs have always turned out the way they are suppose to and the workers their are very helpful!ReplyCancel

    • admin - As you can see from my “Added Note”, labs vary from location to location. I also said to turn off the Auto Correct so it gets closest to the photographer’s work as possible. Lucky for you that you have a Costco lab that works for you :) Unfortunately it’s not the case from me, as you can see. These are true to life scanned in prints. ReplyCancel

    • Lorrie Prothero - Costco does not guarantee their color and it depends on the person in charge of the machine at each place. My two local Costcos told me pretty much point blank that they do not calibrate and consistency is not important to them. I had two prints on the very same order. One a 5×7 and the other an 11×14 – the color was EXTREMELY off. I brought it to the attention of the tech and he said that it’s simply not going to match because they don’t calibrate their machines. He said that the only thing they do to “fix” the printer is change out the cartridge.ReplyCancel

      • Sheila - This is in reply to Lorrie’s post regarding her local Costco tech’s comments, which fortunately do not apply to all Costco labs. As Amanda had said, results do vary from one location to another. I work at the photo lab at Costco in Strongsville, Ohio, and we calibrate our Frontier lab EVERY morning and EVERY time we put in a brand new roll of paper. We have three lab operators, and we all care a great deal about consistency, and are capable and willing to get a very close color match to an existing print when requested. Yes, turning off auto correct is a very important first step. We have a large number of pro photographers who have downloaded the lab’s profile into their software, and are exceedingly happy with the consistent quality of the results. It saddens me, Lorrie, that your local Costco’s lab techs have lost sight of the whole point of Costco, which is going the extra mile to provide consistent QUALITY and please the customer.

        As a wedding and portrait photographer myself (for more than 35 years) I became aware of Costco through a colleague, and started using them for my printing needs. I had also worked in camera stores and photo labs over the years as my ‘through the week’ job, both for steady income and health insurance. I decided I wanted to work for Costco, and have been able to continue my photography business along with my lab position. In both endeavors, I strive for doing my best each and every day. I’m truly sorry that you’ve had a bad experience at Costco.ReplyCancel

  • Bradley Allen - I have seen a few of these posts around at the moment and it truly is shocking. If only clients realised what they are going to get from the cheaper places. Thank youReplyCancel

  • Liesel - Yes. I want to see the same thing with a b/w photo. I know Walgreens sends them back green, would be interesting to see the “rainbow” of b/w’s from all the different labs. Maybe I’ll do that myself…ReplyCancel

  • Margaret - I have to add that, like Cam, I have used Costco on occasion with good results because you can download their printer profile from & edit the image beforehand so it will print correctly.ReplyCancel

  • Shauna Benoit - Thanks for sharing this, already passed this along on FB. People really do need to see the difference to understand it.ReplyCancel

  • tim kasberger - Hey Amanda
    Thanks for posting this im sharing it on Colorinc fb page now :)ReplyCancel

  • Genuine Observer - Before I get to my point, I want to say that I agree with what you’re saying about the photo quality. Your reproductions are clearly better than the consumer labs.

    However, I think the light-grey font color and font size makes the words too hard to read on this blog post when in contrast with the white background. I would suggest to darken the font color a touch.ReplyCancel

    • admin - Thanks so much for your input! I actually agree…I am working on a blog redesign because I don’t like this one! Thanks :)ReplyCancel

  • Carrie Eddy - Love this, I always tell my clients to use professional prints. Could you please share some professional print companies you recommend? I’m always looking for some to recommend and try out! Thanks:)ReplyCancel

  • Candy - What a great example of how pro prints really do make a huge difference.ReplyCancel

  • Hope - I had a professional, at least she thinks she is, take my daughters pictures and I was to get an 8×10 free with the session. When I finally got my 8×10, she had printed it off at Walmart. I was very disappointed so therefore I never ordered any prints from her and wasted a lot of money on the sitting fees. I will definitely watch and ask questions before another professional photographer takes my family’s pictures.ReplyCancel

  • Keicha - Thanks so much for sharing! I am sharing on fbook.ReplyCancel

  • Joyanne - So true! Pro photos are worth the extra funds in the printing! Colors in the inks make a huge difference. Way to prove it. THANK YOU! I will use this to prove to my skeptical friends and family members. Some things can’t be off brand.ReplyCancel

  • Melissa - I used to work at a photo processing lab (back before everyone had digital cameras). We were more expensive than walmart and the other places. It makes a difference when you have a professional working on these things.ReplyCancel

  • Richard Esposito - I printed the same 4 prints with different primary colors and a black and white at 15 different labs. Shutterfly, snapfish, walgreens, cvs, etc. Online and in person. The results were quite different, and only 2 got it right. Our local Walgreens and Costco online. Our local CVS was the worst. After talking with the labs I discovered it’s all about the person running the machine. The woman at our local walgreens used to work in a pro lab so she kept that machine tuned. I complained to our local CVS and the guy did not know how to operate the machine other than to hit print for the orders. There was something wrong with the machine but he had no clue. So unless you use a major supplier like snapfish who probably keeps things right for the average consumer, not pro tuned images, you never know what you are going to get and it could be different every time. It also comes down to the paper used, usually Kodak vs Fuji. In the end it’s a human factor.ReplyCancel

    • admin - I agree that it’s probably user error…which is why the lab will very in most of the places. I would rather order from somewhere that understands their machines :)ReplyCancel

  • Danielle - This is very well written…I have wanted to put something like this together for a while now and this is a great example. I think you did a wonderful job of making your point.
    I would like to say that I think making your print prices attainable for your clients is a must….I find that some photographers mark up their prices so much that by the time the client pays for the session they struggle to have the funds to buy a print. I certainly don’t want to “waste” my time taking pictures only to have them sit on my computer because the client couldn’t afford the images. Some places locally charge $400 for one digital image…$100 for an 8×10….I’m sorry, call me crazy but I think that is a joke. Value yourself as a photographer but don’t get too caught up in yourself that you forget the point…if someone can’t even enjoy the image, why take it?ReplyCancel

    • Tammy - I wholeheartedly agree! I’m all for the professional photography and prints but have been truly appalled at the mark up for the prints by some photographers ive emcountered. I’m willing to pay the photographer fairly for the time so please don’t try to raise that cost through the print cost–that’s just deceptive. To all the others that play fair–thank you for that and for your
      professional work/prints!ReplyCancel

      • prophotogirl - The mark up on prints is how you pay for a professional photographers work.

        You are not paying for professional quality paper. You are paying for the art work, retouching time, verifying the tone of the prints and beautiful packaging.

        A sitting fee doesn’t cover the time to process your order it only covers the time it takes to pose you and capture your good side so you will pay for the images.ReplyCancel

  • Michael Russell - I actually still prefer to do my own printing. I agree it’s hard to find anywhere except for WHCC and other pro labs that do a good job. I catch a lot of grief for not giving out dvd’s for client’s to make prints from. Not really anywhere local that I would be willing to do printing for me. I’ve been doing my own printing since the darkroom days. I bought an Epson 4880 and while kind of expensive to begin with it allows me to produce great work. It also allows me to custom print for other photographers in the area. I can’t understand why photographers would want there work printed by Wal-Mart ect… It could really ruin a reputation fast.
    Thanks MikeReplyCancel

  • Debbie M - Great comparisons. I love for my clients.ReplyCancel

  • MmeShutterfly|MelissaCrannie - Thank you for posting this, I have shared your link as it sums up exactly what I try to explain to my clients who have purchased a CD of all their images :)

    MmeShutterfly | Melissa CrannieReplyCancel

  • ABC - You’ve got bad drug stores near you. The ones near me are excellent and actually have someone go through and check color and everything. Not all drug stores hire hacks with home-printers. All the ones I’ve seen around here are definitely professional to the point that professional photographers I know recommend a certain WalGreens.ReplyCancel

    • admin - The thing is with drugstores is that they are ALL going to be hit or miss. You may have a great drugstore near you…but what about the one in the city over? The point of this is that if you order from your photographer, you should have less of an issue with your photos looking like crap and in turn, wasting money.ReplyCancel

  • Meghan - Very interesting! Thank you for this post. I was just complaining to my husband about some wedding pictures I just had printed at a drugstore. How would I find a professional printer?ReplyCancel

  • Christina Marotto - What an eye opener. I have seen a few f these types of posts but never anything this drastic!ReplyCancel

  • Liz Freeman - Your photos are lovely, but your website is nearly impossible to see. The type is too light and small and appears to break up. Please look at it on several computers to see what I’m talking about. Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • admin - Thanks for pointing that out, I found the site to be like that too…so I just went through a makeover! Hopefully it looks better and is easier to navigate!ReplyCancel

  • Sophie - This is SUCH a wonderful post. I had no idea it was such a huge difference. Thanks so much for sharing!!ReplyCancel

  • Vahri - I love the post, but I would love to see the comparison from online printers like snapfish, shutterfly etc. Do you have an opinion on these companies?ReplyCancel

    • admin - I plan on doing another blog post that addresses these in the future! :)ReplyCancel

  • Professional Printing Camilla Photography. Utah Wedding and Portrait Photographer. Camilla Photography. Utah Wedding Photographer. Utah Portrait Photographer. Utah Fashion Photographer. - […] I came across a blog post today from another photographer that conducted a little experiment.  In fact, she did exactly what I’ve been meaning to do.  Yay!  She just saved me a bunch of time.  Take a moment and check it out HERE. […]ReplyCancel

  • Marty - Shouldn’t the photographer know where their customer is going to print the pictures and apply the appropriate color profile. This falls ont he shoulders of the photographer, not the client, or the printer.ReplyCancel

    • admin - How would the photographer know that?ReplyCancel

    • susan - Point missed marty. You cannot do anything to digital images that will allow them to be properly printed by some printers. find a professional printer and use it. I’m not a pro, but anything I plan to frame or even give to relatives, I order prints from mpix, they are great…just remember not to color correct.

      But on the flip side…some people flat out don’t care.ReplyCancel

    • Braska - Marty, the impracticality of this is enormous. If we were to do that for every client we’d have so many different coloring profiles we’d have to go back and edit the images in PLUS having the original so that they’ll look normal online and on computers as well that we’d be working until we died without sleep because we can’t account for who all else is going to borrow that disc and go to different retail printers, or if they run to different ones for a sale on this size, or a sale on that size so they bounce to multiple stores and online printers.

      As this comment thread also mentions each chain print shop can vary their color profiles as well from store to store, even employee to employee in the same store! The time we’d have to spend TRYING to figure out just how off a retail or online printer’s calibration was, just for ONE retail printer, that we’d have to charge so much more for that time they’d be better off just buying already calibrated Pro prints from us!ReplyCancel

  • Allie M - Great blog entry!ReplyCancel

  • jonathan wright - The real sad part is that most people really don’t care ….. to them …. a photo is a photo …. and no one really looks at the details.ReplyCancel

  • Katherine Stinnett - This is such a neat post! Thanks for sharing. I have always wanted to do this test myself but never thought it would be such a drastic difference. I’ll have to show this to my friends when they ask me about where to print!ReplyCancel

  • Why your print lab matters! » Laura Acton Photography - […] have seen *so* many of these blog posts floating around (seehere, here, here.. you get the idea!) and thought it was time I finally do one of my own. Keep in mind this is […]ReplyCancel

  • joy phillips - good info…thank you for sharingReplyCancel

  • Michael Kormos - For those concerned with color profiles… This goes beyond that. You see, retail labs like the ones mentioned above “assume” that customers will simply print unedited photos from their digital cameras. So to make these images pop more, these printers engage software methods like auto-levels, auto-contrast, and saturation boost in order to create more perceived aesthetic appeal. They count on customers recognizing their images look more “higher-end” when auto-adjusted, and therefore, will patron that lab more often (“Wow, my pictures look A-mazing from Walgreens, you ought to try it!”).

    These services simply do not expect (nor, should they), for a professional photo that has already been adjusted for contrast, saturation, levels, and overall appeal, to be printed on their passport-level printers. And so they apply the same auto-adjustments to professional images as they do to everyday snapshots of little Stewie playing catch.

    What you ultimately end-up with is these grotesque imitations as shown above. So think, with all the time you’ve put forth looking for the perfect photographer, and coordinating your outfits, to picking the date that works, and agreeing on the location, to getting everyone ready in time, to driving there in traffic while keeping the kids (and yourself) completely sane, and finally, to having your family portraits taken, which are then going to be carefully edited by the photographer with over a decade of experience…. Is the final product really worth printing on 22-cent disposable paper? You might be better off having a street artist draw your family portrait with crayons on a piece of napkin.

    I think the choice is clear :-)

    • Jess - Bravo, Michael. Very well said. I honestly don’t understand why so few people understand this. Why would you pay for professional photography and then print it at a “one-size fits all” drugstore? Frustrating.ReplyCancel

  • clyde - You are so right. When I began to pay attention to photography 20 years ago I was so unhappy with drug store prints I switched to Kodachrome 64. Thank goodness. Now I have a collection of transparencies as good as I hoped they would be. I finally bought an Epson R1900 which with post processing the image gives me great pleasure.ReplyCancel

  • Torre Froehlich - I really appreciate this post. After recently joining the team at Lab Apollo, I can’t tell you how much skill goes into making the colors just right. The experience that a professional lab brings to the table is worth a few extra cents per print. We can see the difference every day… It’s like comparing amateur images to professional images.ReplyCancel

  • Tasha Herrell - Hi Amanda,
    I happened upon your blog while perusing the website and found this post EXTREMELY interesting and useful. I am a photographer and we are struggling with this very issue. We cannot find a company where we can have quality pictures printed and returned to us in a timely manner. Do you have companies that you would care to suggest to a frustrated amateur?

    Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Allison - Thank you for showing the comparison! I get so frustrated when I try and print Target, Walmart and Walgreens (even when I order from Snapfish and Shutterfly and have them shipped) but I am so bad at thinking ahead so I have time to order from MPix. Is that the professional service you used in the samples, here? What an eye opener to how it’s so worth it to pay a little more and wait a little longer.ReplyCancel

  • - I was wondering if I could post a link to your article to my facebook page… of course giving you credit…would love for my clients to read it!ReplyCancel

  • Carrie Hill Photography - […] Forth: when you pay for prints from a photographer, you should be getting guaranteed high quality prints. The prints should be either printed by the photographer on professional printing equipment or printed through a high quality lab. If your prints do not meet this standard, then you are not getting what you paid for. (Excellent article on print quality.) […]ReplyCancel

  • Lisa - Thank you for writing about this topic! I hope you don’t mind that I posted it on my pages. Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Katie - I printed some photos at cvs once, I threw them away because they were so bad!ReplyCancel

  • Jacquelyne - Terrific experiment and demonstration! Redirected to this from my recent blog post here. Thank you for taking the time to do this. So helpful!

  • Prints & Why They Matter | Richmond, VA Photographer | Jessica Emmaleen Photography - […] I am doing this so clients can print from reliable, professional labs where I know the color matching will match my edits. (Want to know what I mean by color matching? Check out this post here.) […]ReplyCancel

  • Professional Prints vs. “Their” Prints: The Quality Difference | Camera Center of York - […] tested different printing services using her own prints. Her results, which she blogged about here, showed a clear difference in prints. While the original file was preserved via professional […]ReplyCancel

  • Rosanne P - Great article!! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this and for sharing.ReplyCancel

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