We all have great photos hanging out on our hard drives or phones that we always say we should print, but then never get around to. Even though I love seeing my work in print, I’m not immune to this! In order to lower some of the barriers to printing your photos, I decided to put together a comprehensive guide for printing your photos. I hope this will be something you can refer to whenever you need a refresher. I wanted to give you technical details on how to get a good print, but I also wanted to compare some popular print labs to aid you in deciding where to get your photos printed. So without further ado, let’s talk photo printing!
Recommended Print Settings
One of the most confusing parts of printing photos is that tricky number that seems to mean so many different things. I’m talking about resolution. We hear about pixels, megapixels, PPI, DPI, and all sorts of other words that can swim before your eyes. But when it comes to printing your photos, there’s really only one resolution number that matters. The dots per inch (DPI) of a file refers to the number of individual dots that can be placed in a line one inch long in a printed medium. Anything having to do with pixels (megapixels, pixels per inch, etc.) refers to a digital medium, so they actually don’t matter when it comes to printing a photo! I won’t get too technical on this subject, but a good resolution for printing your photos is 300 dpi. You can usually set this number in your photo editing software.
When it comes to the aspect ratio you choose to print your photo, it’s usually a personal preference. It’s important to realize that by printing a photo at 5″ x 7″ when its original aspect ratio was 3:2 (that of a 4″ x 6″ photo), the photo will need to be cropped to fit the new aspect ratio. For this reason, I like to keep the aspect ratio of my print as close to that of the original photo as possible. This means that if I’m printing an image taken with my 35mm film camera or my digital camera, I’ll use sizes such as 4″ x 6″, 8″ x 12″, or 12″ x 18″ to keep the 3:2 aspect ratio. However, if I want to print an image I took using my medium format film camera (which has an aspect ratio of 6:4.5), I’d use sizes such as 9″ x 12″ or 18″ x 24″. It’s definitely ok to make your own judgment on this one, but I prefer to use the original aspect ratio of the photo as a jumping-off point for the size of my print.
Sometimes it seems like the options for the type of paper you print your photo on are endless! Glossy, lustre, matte, and everything else in between – it can get a bit confusing. Once again, paper type comes down to personal preference, but there are pros and cons to both ends of the spectrum. Glossy photos can make your photo appear sharper and more vibrant than other options. However, it can also have quite a glare and tends to collect fingerprints and smudges. Matte photo paper can make your photo look softer and less vibrant as the paper absorbs more ink that its counterparts. But it also hides imperfections and there is no glare on the photo. Lustre photo paper is somewhere in between these two options. Generally, folks tend to prefer lustre paper for printing their photos. I’ve found some photo printing labs only offer glossy or matte papers, in which case I usually choose matte because I don’t like the glare of glossy paper. But of course, it’s completely up to you!
Choosing the file type for your photo is actually far easier than you’d think. Don’t worry about RAW files and all that when it comes to printing. That file type is only useful for actual photo editing. When it comes to printing, just go with a good old JPEG. Every lab accepts them and they contain all the information the lab needs to print your photo. Go with the highest quality file you can, but keeping the resolution in mind is the most important part.
Bonus Lab Comparison
For the comparison section of this post, I decided to send one photo file out to four different labs. I used the same file (see below) for each lab using the above guidelines. I ordered a 5″ x 7″ print from each because it fit the aspect ratio of the camera best (6:4.5) while still being relatively small and manageable. It’s difficult to fully capture each print by taking a photo of the print, but hopefully this helps a little! Below are my impressions and assessment of each print I received.
I chose to order a print from Walgreens because it’s an inexpensive and convenient spot for many of us. Unfortunately, this is one of those “you get what you pay for” situations. I ordered a matte 5″ x 7″ print, which took nine days to arrive. It was packaged in a paper envelope with a thin sheet of cardboard on one side of the print to prevent bending and creasing. I would classify the paper as more lustre than matte, but I suppose that’s subjective. What isn’t subjective is the thin pink line along the entire top of the print. It also had some water(?) spots that are difficult to capture. Additionally, when you look closely (especially at the trees in the background) you can see pixelation or noise that is most likely individual ink dots from printing. The colors also appear a bit oversaturated to my eye. While this print was inexpensive, I really can’t recommend Walgreens for photo prints because of these issues.
Shutterfly is another common place that folks use to print their photos. Once again I ordered a matte 5″ x 7″ print. It took a couple of weeks to arrive and came packaged in a cardboard sleeve within a cardboard envelope. The paper looked almost identical to the paper from Walgreens – more lustre than matte. Luckily the Shutterfly print didn’t include the pink line at the top of the photo, but it did have some water spots scattered on the print and once again it appeared a bit oversaturated to me. It also seems softer than the other prints I received. Overall, this print was on par with the one from Walgreens. While Shutterfly is fairly inexpensive, it consistently scores pretty low when it comes to quality.
Mpix.c0m is usually the online lab I recommend when clients want to print their own photos. Mpix is owned by Miller’s Photo Lab (a professional photo lab) and is known for its quality. Once again, I ordered a 5″ x 7″ matte from this lab. When it arrived about a week later, it was packaged in a cardboard envelope. The print has a bit of a sheen to it, but no obvious glare and is thicker and more substantial than the previous two prints. This print had none of the issues that the ones from Walgreens or Shutterfly had. No weird spots, odd lines, or pixelations. It’s a nice, clean print that I would gladly hang on my wall.
All my family session clients receive a print credit with whichever collection they choose. With that credit, they can order any number of things from my online gallery store. Naturally, one of those things is prints! I went ahead and ordered a matte 5″ x 7″ print from my lab to complete the comparison. The print arrived in just a couple of days packaged in a cardboard envelope with three sheets of cardboard inside (with the print sandwiched inside the cardboard). This print is what I would call a true matte print. There is no glare or sheen whatsoever and the paper is substantial. The colors were true (they appear cooler in the below image because of the matte paper) and there was no pixelation – just a smooth image. I chose my lab with care, looking for a place that would print my images the way I wanted them to be seen by the world. I wasn’t disappointed.
Fine Art Print (Just For Fun!)
Just for fun, I ordered a 5″ x 7″ fine art print from my lab as well. I love a good fine art print and I wanted to see how it compared to a standard matte print from the above labs. This print arrived in about a week and was packaged very securely in multiple boxes. The paper is a bit thicker than standard photo paper and is very matte with a little texture. While the colors are less vibrant than on a glossier print, the image is very sharp and the colors have the most depth of any of the prints. I’m planning to frame this one to display in my house!
To give you a better idea of the comparison, I made a quick video with my phone to show the differences. Enjoy the birds and other sounds of summer in the background!