I sent 6 photos to 4 different companies:
1. My professional lab
I ordered an 8x10 of each of the 6 prints from each company (and if I did this again, I wouldn't order so many, and I'd order from a couple different companies than the ones I chose... this ended up being pretty darn expensive, and overkill on the number of comparisons. I guess that's how I do most things, though... go big, or go home. ;)
The first thing I noticed was that #2, #3, and #4 were all pains in the you-know-where to order through. All of their ordering systems were the same, and all of them made me want to say words that I shouldn't say. I decided to have all of the photos shipped to me, because I felt too lazy to actually go into the stores to order (which is another thing I would have changed about this experiment... details later.)
The second thing I noticed is that the photos from my lab came 3 days before the rest (Tuesday). They're fast. Really fast. All of the other three companies came on the same day (today, Friday). They're not as fast. ;)
So, here's the first surprise: Snapfish, Walgreens, and Walmart use the same printing company when you order online. (Yeah, I wasted a lot of money... ;) Snapfish and Walgreen photos shipped from the EXACT same address in Maryland. Walmart shipped from Arkansas, but the return label was in the exact same format. (So, I'm 100% sure Snapgreens (or Walfish) is the same lab, and 90% sure Walmart is affiliated). Interesting, no? I feel really bummed (and kind of dumb) that I chose the three companies that are the same to do my testing...
The second surprise: None of the photos were as bad as I thought they would be. Is that bad that I was a bit disappointed? ;) This is what I think, though...if I hadn't had them shipped to me, and had had them processed at the local lab, the results might have been different. (But the results would vary widely from place to place, so that wouldn't have really been that helpful to all of you anyway.)
Although... all three labs, other than my pro lab, failed on the one b&w photo I sent.
So, onto the detailed descriptions of each one:
1. My pro lab: The first thing you're going to notice is the paper quality. There's no question that these prints are thicker, sturdier, and better quality. The colors are true, the sharpening and contrast is true... exactly matched to what I do on my computer. The black and white photo is just as it should be... all consistent and black and white. ;)
2. Snapfish: These were the only ones that came back glossy. I didn't even notice a place to order matte vs. glossy? There very well could be, but like I said before, difficult to navigate. I didn't even know I was ordering glossy. The paper feels really thin and cheap. The colors are slightly saturated and orangey (all three non-pro labs had the same color problems). The black and white... strange color cast on their chins, which I can't figure out, since it's not on my edit, and it's not on the one from my pro lab... but it's on ALL THREE of the others.
3. Walgreens: These came back matte... but were ordered the same way as Snapfish's. The paper seemed the same as Snapfish, but was stamped Walgreens on the back. Everything else, colors, the b&w photo fail... were the same as Snapfish.
4. Walmart: I've gone back and forth on this, but I think their paper might be slightly better, but it's slight enough that I'm still not sure if I'm imagining it. (Their paper says Kodak on the back, the others don't.) Everything else the same.
So... my conclusion? They weren't as bad as I thought. Not by a long shot. If you just looked at them, and didn't go over them with a fine-toothed comb like I did, you'd think they looked nice. (I'm still unsure about ordering black and white though... I have no idea why that orange color-cast happened, and don't know if it was that one particular photo, or if they just can't handle b&w photos.) I wanted to take photos to post here to show you the difference, but they're not different enough that you'd really be able to see in a photo of a photo. I would be happy to show anyone in person that would like to come handle them all.
I saw one of my photos in a big print (24x30) on a client's wall today that they ordered through mpix, and it looked great. So, if you'd like to order yourself, I've heard (and seen) good things from them.
If you're still confused about what to do, here's a quick guide of what (in Mindy's opinion) is best to do:
Best: Order prints through me. They'll be cropped correctly by me, they'll be printed by a professional lab that does nothing but photos, you don't have to worry about something funky happening (like a color spot in the middle of your b&w photo), they'll look exactly how they're supposed to look, and they'll last well. You can get texture on your photos, larger photos will be mounted on quality foamboard, they all come with a protective uv coating, so they'll last, and they're guaranteed.
Good: Order through mpix. Order their BEST quality. I would STRONGLY suggest getting any print larger than 11x14 mounted on matboard, or foamcore. This will prevent future rippling of the photo, and will help protect the print. I wish I had ordered a sample through them, but I saw samples for myself (and have heard good things from others), so I can recommend them without worry.
Okay: Order smaller prints (up to 8x10) ONLINE through those regular companies, if you don't really care much about paper quality and perfection. If you're okay with a bit of inconsistency... because I've heard lots of stories of mess-ups, you could go order from the local Walmart or Walgreens. If you are ordering a big print for your wall, I don't even think those companies offer that service, so you wouldn't have that choice anyway.
I'd love to hear any experience that any of you have with different printing companies! (Especially if you have ordered from Walmart or Walgreens locally... how is the quality when you're getting the one-hour printing, for example? Is that even available for 8x10s?)
I may try the same prints (or a few of them) through some more labs for direct comparison. I'm thinking mpix, I've had a request for shutterfly... any other specific requests?