Testing Photo Labs, Part 3

Test Prints. iPhone photo. Click for a larger version.

One of my two favorite photo labs was bought out and no longer exists, so I am searching for another favorite photo lab. I sent the same 10 digital files to three of the highest high rated photo labs in the country and had them make 8×12 and 8×10 prints. My third batch of prints arrived and I am like a kid in a candy store!

The Last Time I Compared Labs

Over a decade ago I sent digital photo files to a number of labs. After an initial round of 8×12 test prints, I narrowed down my list of labs and had my top choices make 16×24 and 20×30 inch prints. I picked Aspen Creek Photo (a small mom and pop lab in California) and MPIX (a big lab in Kansas) as my two favorite labs. I have been using both of them for years.

The Lab Choices

When Aspen Creek Photo in California was bought out, I decided it was time to test MPIX again and find another favorite lab. I read several online reviews of the best labs in the country. In addition to MPIX, two high rated labs stood, Printique and Nations Photo Lab.

When I ordered the prints, at each lab I chose the “No Color Correction” option. I create my digital files on a color calibrated monitor and I don’t want some person or machine to change the final color rendition of the prints. I wanted to see which prints came closest to matching the digital files on my monitor.

The Prints

I picked 10 digital files with a variety of colors and tones. I included two portraits. I had each lab make 8×12 and 8×10 inch prints.

When all the prints arrived, from the 10 processed prints I picked 7 from each lab and spread them out in rows. The top row is Lab A, the middle row is Lab B and the bottom row is Lab C.

You can’t totally judge print quality from an iPhone photo posted online. You need to see them in person. Since you can’t all come here and look at the prints, I will tell you what I am seeing. You can, of course, do the same kind of test yourself. Pick a set of varied digital files, be sure to include some photos with human skin, and send the files to two or more labs. When you get the prints back, compare them and see which ones you like best.

The Ten Test Files

10 original digital files, viewed in Adobe Bridge. Click for a larger version.

Here in Adobe Bridge are the 10 files that I sent to the labs. I compared the prints to these files on my monitor to see who came closest. Right below are the prints so you can see them close together.  A bigger version of the 7 photos chosen for the comparison test is at the end of this article.

The Comparison Test

8×12 and 8×10 inch test prints. Click for a larger version.

Here’s the set of prints again so they are closer to my comments below. I will pick the best prints, going from left to right. It was hard to pick the winning prints. As you can see, they are very close to each other in color and quality. There is a bit of window light glare on the bottom right owl print. That is not the fault of the print. (Mia culpa.)

Print 1:  None of the labs accurately matched the color tones of the Shooting Star flowers (prints on the far left). They were all a tad dark and the color wasn’t quite right on any of the prints. Lab A came closest.

Print 2:  Lab A did the best job on the lighthouse. Labs B and C were a tie. Both were a smidge dark and just a tiny bit off on the colors.

Print 3:  Lab B had the best color match for the aspen leaves against a blue sky. Lab A was very close and the blue sky from Lab C was a bit too dark.

Print 4:  Lab B had the best skin tones for the portrait of Kristina, but the other two labs were very, very close. Kristina’s coat was darker in the print from Lab C. Labs A and B did a better job on the coat. All the prints look great.

Print 5:  Lab A did the best job on the skin of the boy checking out some flowers, but Labs B and C were very close. The differences were very minor. All the prints look great.

Print 6:  Lab B did the best job of Tahquamenon Falls. Lab A was just a bit too light and Lab C was a bit too dark.

Print 7:  Lab B had the best Great Gray Owl print. Lab A was very close. Lab C was a little on the dark side.

So which lab is which?
Lab A is MPIX in Pittsburgh Kansas.
Lab B is Printique in Brooklyn New York.
Lab C is Nations Photo Lab in Hunts Valley Maryland.

The prints were very close in quality so it really was hard to pick winners. We are talking tiny differences here. This was the visual equivalent of looking at a “photo finish” between three excellent sprinters in a 100 meter dash. The bottom line is all three labs did a great job on these prints and you can trust all three labs to do a great job on your prints.

Forced to choose, I would pick Printique (Lab B) by a whisker as 1st place, followed by MPIX (Lab A) , in 2nd, and Nations Photo Lab (Lab C), in 3rd place. I asked my wife to pick her favorite set of prints. She did not look at the original files on my monitor. She just picked the the prints she liked the best. She picked Nations Photo Lab for first place, followed by Printique in second, and MPIX in third place.


All three labs did an excellent job of packaging the prints so that is not a factor in choosing between these three labs.

The Bottom Line

All three labs created very high quality prints, as you would expect from three of the highest rated labs in the county. The color and tone variations were very minor. You could send your digital photo files to any of these labs and expect excellent results.

These labs are very close in quality. If you hung the prints in three different rooms, one room for each lab, and wandered from room to room, you would be hard put to see a difference. Only when the prints are side by side can you see the small variations. I had to be very nitpicky when I picked the winning version of each photo. You would be very happy with any of these three labs. I now have three favorite labs. Links to all three labs are at the end of this article.

Other Labs

Trust me, there are a lot of labs out there that do disappointing prints. When I travel, sometimes I take a thumb drive with me that has my test files. I occasionally drop in on a lab here or there and have an 8×12 or 8×10 print made just to see how they do. A few labs are great, many are average, and some are really bad. From the same digital portrait file I’ve seen all kinds of different skins tones from greenish to pinkish to orange.

Before you send a bunch of photos to a photo lab you haven’t tried before, it is a good idea to send at least two test files (one landscape and one portrait) and have them make 8×10 or larger prints to check them out.

The Seven Comparison Photos

Shooting Star in the Rain, Colorado

Shooting Star in the Rain, Colorado

Point Iroquois Lighthouse, Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Point Iroquois Lighthouse, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Aspen, Marshall Pass, Colorado

Aspen, Marshall Pass, Colorado

Kristina in the Snow

Kristina in the Snow, Columbus Ohio.

Terran in flowers, Columbus Ohio.

Autumn, Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Autumn, Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl, Whitefish Point, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.


Article Links

Testing Photo Labs, Part 1

Testing Photo Labs, Part 2

Photo Lab Links



Nations Photo Lab