Digital photo print services review

Review part 1, November 2003 -- Review part 2, June 2004

Having amassed a large and growing number of digital photographs I thought it was time to print some for the photo album. I suspected that it would be expensive and time consuming to print them all on my inkjet printer and decided to try out the online digital photo printing services.

The same four prints were sent in November 2003 to Bonusprint, Boots, Colab, Digi-prints, Peak Imaging, Photobox, Photodeal, and Pixum. I roped in a few friends to judge the quality of the prints in an attempt to get a more balanced, if not objective, opinion. We found that Peak Imaging produced the best quality prints but Photobox and Photodeal gave better value for money for good quality prints.

In May 2004, we retested those labs that did well in the earlier review together with several other companies we had not tried previously. Five test photos were sent to Colorama, Digital-lab, Fotoinside, Klick, Ofoto, Peak Imaging, Photobox, and Photodeal. They were also taken in person on CD to: Asda, Boots, Jessops, and an independent photography shop. As in the previous review each photo was marked by several people and we found that, apart from Ofoto [*] and Peak Imaging, all companies - including two of the previous winners - produced at least one print of unacceptable quality out of the batch of five images selected for this test.

Ofoto [*] and Peak Imaging made good quality prints without reducing resolution, modifying contrast or increasing sharpening artefacts. They are therefore the overall winners.

[*] note that, as of September 2007, the quality of prints from Ofoto has deteriorated, see update at the bottom of the page.

However, please note that we only compared 6x4" prints - it should not be assumed that prints of all sizes from the same lab are of similar quality. In the two instances where the same photo was printed at 12x8" and 6x4" by the same lab, the 6x4" print scored well below average marks while the 12x8" print was excellent in both cases.

[[speculation and personal opinion: I believe that the main factor behind most of the poor quality prints seen in this review is that some companies use the automatic image enhancement features of their minilab software to "correct" exposure for popular sized prints. From the limited experience I have of larger digital prints it appears that even those labs who produce poor quality 6x4" prints are capable of good results at larger sizes, when I suspect they do not use automatic enhancement. I reckon that those companies could also produce good quality 6x4"s if only they would turn off image enhancement!]]

Update January 2005: I recently tested Tesco's in-store digital print service (note that this is not the same as their on-line service which is operated by Photobox). My initial impression was that while not as good as those from Ofoto or Peak Imaging, Tesco's prints were better than almost all of the others we tested, and at £5.00 for 50 6x4" prints they were very cheap. On the negative side: the prints were heavily cropped, some detail was lost in bright areas, some colours were a little pale, and the paper was quite thin. I found it time-consuming to use the customer-driven interface to their in-store labs to print more than 50 photos. I also found that the minilab in my local store is pretty unreliable - it took three visits, several phone calls and a lot of frustration to get my last batch printed.

Update May 2006: I saw adverts for and thought I would give them a go as they seemed pretty cheap (8.5p per print for 100 6x4"s, incl. p+p) and several forum posts have claimed the quality is decent. However, I was disappointed. In common with most other digital print services they "corrected" the images, resulting in over sharpened, over contrasty prints with washed out highlights and overly bright greens. Delivery was 4 working days and the prints were slightly bent by the cellophane wrapper they had used to bind them together for shipping.

Update June 2006: were the top online company in the June 2006 Which? magazine article on digital processing. Delivery was quick but I found the prints were over sharpened, greens had a blueish tint and contrast tweaks sometimes gave unnatural skin tones. Out of the services I have tried I still think that Ofoto (now Kodak Easyshare Gallery) and Peak Imaging are the only ones who produce good quality 6x4" prints and are reasonably convenient to use.

Update September 2007: Recent prints from Kodak Easyshare Gallery (was Ofoto) were over sharpened and contrasty, giving unnatural edges to objects. Kodak appears to have introduced automatic image enhancement into their printing process - an "option" that always reduces image quality, in my opinion, and one that can't be turned off by the customer. This is disappointing as Kodak prints were of consistantly high quality in previous tests (and in the hundreds of prints I have made between test reports). I can no longer recommend Kodak Easyshare Gallery as one of the very few digital printing companies to produce high quality prints.

Review part 1, November 2003 -- Review part 2, June 2004

© David Griffin, 2003-2007