Where to Order Photo Prints Online
For several years, I only focused on the digital requirements of the photos, GIFs and cinemagraphs that I delivered to clients. When I started working more intensely with food photography, I also started to think a lot more about printing requirements for newspapers and magazines. Over the last couple of months, I’ve also realized that while a dropbox of high resolution images is nice to have after an engagement shoot, bridal shower or wedding, family members often want physical copies of these photos.
I always feel uncomfortable making recommendations without personal experience so I created a set of test images, created several online gallery accounts and started ordering a whole lot of prints. When I first set out on this testing mission, I assumed that the difference between online galleries, which allow photographers to deliver photos and connect clients directly with print labs, wouldn’t be so different. It became almost immediately clear that my assumption would prove to be incorrect.
To start, I created a test set of 5 images from recent trips to Scotland and New Zealand and uploaded them to 4 different online gallery services: Pixieset, Zenfolio, Shootproof and Smugmug. Additionally, I sent out prints to Artifact Uprising and Snapfish.
There are tons of online services geared toward professional photographers that are also accessible to amateur photographers. For me as a photographer, online galleries allow me to set up digital albums for clients that they can then share with friends and families and makes it easy to order prints from respected print labs. All the online gallery services are slightly different in terms of price point, print offerings and user experience. I tested these out first since they're the simplest way for me to connect clients with print labs.
Pixieset is easy to use both as a photographer but as a customer. It’s simple and intuitive. If I was just delivering digitals copies of photographs, this would definitely be my go to. It's beautifully designed and easy to use. My issue with Pixieset was the pricing of their prints. Even when I removed the photographer's cut on the price of the prints, they were still the most expensive option.
I chose to use the WHCC print lab in Minnesota for my test run through Pixieset. According to a few opinionated photographers I talked to before starting this whole thing, WHCC is supposed to be the best print lab for wedding prints. WHCC was the fastest print lab of all the online galleries by far and there is something extremely satisfying about a quick turnaround. The prints themselves were color accurate but oddly very soft. They looked as if I had run a skin softening filter over them but over everything. It seemed sort of subtle until I got prints from the other labs and then the comparison really highlighted the softness.
Ultimately, the price point, somewhat limited print offerings and print softness pushed me to decide against using Pixieset.
Even as a former front-end web developer, I had a very difficult time setting up my gallery. After hours of tinkering, I was still unhappy with the presentation of my images. When I walked through the gallery with my very patient friends and family, they also found it difficult to use. I was tempted to throw my mouse out the window in frustration so I would say that the user experience could use a bit of work.
I ordered my test prints and figured that if they weren’t exceptional I would move on. When I got my test prints back, I went to login to my Zenfolio account to double check which print lab I had chosen. As I was trying to login, some sort of glitch occurred and I got an error message. After half an hour of trying to login and being locked out, I decided to move on. The prints were fine but I think considering the frustration of using Zenfolio, I'm not sure I'd use it even if the prints were exceptional. In a client situation, I would be horrified if I was suddenly unable to use my account for a day so I crossed it off the list. I believe that the print lab I used via Zenfolio was mpix and the photo quality was good but not exceptional enough to overcome my user experience frustrations.
The most recent entrant into the online gallery space of the services I looked at, ShootProof is geared towards professional photographers only. They act as an online gallery but also have a lot of services to help with the operational side of things such as contracts and invoices. As a photographer, the pricing structure of ShootProof is currently keeping me away but I intend to revisit the service in a few months. ShootProof's lab partners overlap considerably with Pixieset's partners (WHCC), Zenfolio's partners (mpix and Miller's) and SmugMug's partners (bayphoto and Loxley color) so I decided against getting a test print from them. If I do eventually jump over to ShootProof, I would go with mpix. After my Zenfolio, debacle I later checked my notes and realized that I had ordered prints via mpix. While they weren't quite enough for me to overcome my online experience, they were notably really nice.
Everything about SmugMug is very functional and usable. The online experience isn’t as nice as Pixieset but it works. Via SmugMug I chose to try out EZ Prints, which is their most affordable print lab option. Not all of the prints were the absolute best of each image but none of them were the worst, with one odd exception. A photo of a wall of ferns came back with all the highlights weirdly blown out. In the image below, the EZ Prints image is the one furthest on the right. If it weren't for that image, I would probably stick with SmugMug and EZ Prints for the foreseeable future.
For the time being, I predominately use SmugMug because it's dependable, reasonably affordable (both for me as the photographer and for anyone that wants to buy prints) and has a decent range of capabilities.
Online Photo Ordering
Years ago when Eli and I got married, we took the digital copies from our wedding and made photo books with Artifact Uprising. Each book cost us around $90, which seemed steep at the time. Now I've seen wedding photographers selling $1.200 - $1,800 photo albums and I'm relieved we went with Artifact Uprising. As for prints, I think that Artifact Uprising has done a great job of positioning themselves as a high quality printer but I'm not sure that the quality of their prints lives up to their branding. Some of the colors were muted, though perhaps that was due to my paper choice. One nice bonus is that Artifact Uprising is capable of handling a range of really large, archival prints, which is definitely nice to have for special images.
After I picked out which online photo printing services to test, I ran across this article on Wirecutter about where to print photos online. According to the Wirecutter, Snapfish was sort of terrible but personally I didn't find the prints to be that inaccurate though I only stuck to 4 x 6 prints so it's possible that the printing issues simply aren't as apparent until you go with a larger size print. If I wanted a few prints just for fun, I would probably go with Snapfish. They're super inexpensive and decent.
Okay, technically Framebridge is a framing service not a printing service but if you send them a photo and size specifications they will print and frame your image for you. To say that I adore Framebridge would be an understatement. Every now and again I send framed prints as gifts and I always use Framebridge. The quality is great but more importantly, their customer service is incredible.
A few months back, Eli was looking to have a medium format photo that he took in New Zealand framed. He sent the scan of his film image to Framebridge. Sadly, when we got the framed image we realized that the print size was too big so the image looked really blurry. Eli emailed Framebridge and they offered to replace everything free of charge. A few weeks later we had our new, framed photo. They were so kind and easy to work with through the entire process.
As a photographer, I currently use SmugMug for clients that want to download images directly or want to quickly order prints online. Clients looking to print images are only a tiny portion of my work at the moment but if that changes, I'll likely switch to ShootProof and get images printed via mpix.
Aside from SmugMug, I use Snapfish if I want to make a bunch of prints quickly and am not too worried about quality (mostly if I'm looking for smaller prints or quick samples). Aside from that, I occasionally use Artifact Uprising for larger projects.
For personal photos for myself, I order from Nations Photo Lab, which consistently does a great job.