Online photo labs aren't created equal. We test the best, from Shutterfly to
Snapfish, Adorama to Wal-Mart, and find some surprising results.
When it comes to prints, there's no single way of doing things. Printing at home isn't always an option, particularly for big pictures you'd like to frame for the wall. Add in factors such as convenience, competitive pricing, and image storage, and it's no wonder more and more shooters are turning to online photo labs. But which one is right for you?
To help answer that question, we found 10 of the web's biggest photofinishers and let them rumble. We created accounts simultaneously at each of them. Within a few hours, we uploaded the same 33 image files to each, and ordered 4x6-, 8x10-, and 16x20-inch prints. The files represented a broad assortment of subjects, lighting conditions, skin tones, and image types, including RGB black-and-white, incorrectly white-balanced, mixed lighting, low-resolution, underexposed, and color-test targets. We evaluated the cyberprinters for image quality, price, ease of use, turnaround time, image storage policy, and customer service.
Ordering prints from all 10 sites was simple and surprisingly similar. First, you become a member (minimal personal information is required). Then, you upload your images to a virtual album. (Upload times averaged just 2 minutes, 14 seconds for our 33 images, using a standard cable modem connection.) Finally, you order prints, which are mailed or overnighted back to you.
We learned a lot along the way. Edit before you upload, for example. Most online printers do a good job with simple files, but they can break down when things get tricky, such as when the aspect ratio doesn't match the print size or when the white balance is off. Also, before committing to a site, you should find out about its storage policy. Most sites will keep an unlimited number of images online for free; others require print orders at least once a year; still others charge for storage space. Nearly every vendor we tested printed acceptable 4x6s and 8x10s, but only three did outstanding jobs with the 16x20-inch posters. A few sites stumbled. At up to $18 a whack, we expected better.
Specialty gift items, which have evolved far beyond coffee cups and mouse pads, were uniformly fun and appealing. We liked the dog dishes, jigsaw puzzles, and edible photo-clad chocolates. None were cheap, however, and the only true bargain was a high-quality sweatshirt from dotPhoto for $20.
While you must wait longer for your prints and you have less control over quality than with conventional home or minilab printing, cyberprinting lets you order whenever you like from the comfort of your home -- and it's cheaper. There are a lot of other benefits, as well. You can find interesting specialty gifts that your corner minilab probably doesn't offer, and your family and friends can share your online albums.
Also, most online labs offer special deals. Opt to receive their e-mail announcements, and you can save even more.