Here's how my AdoramaPix order was packaged. Needless to say, the prints arrived in perfect condition.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled "Are Printers Worth Their Cost?" that reflected on whether it's worth the cost of maintaining an ink jet printer along with the necessary cartridges and paper. In the interest of exploring my options, I decided to see what sort of results I'd get if I had some images printed at an online photo lab. Care to find out the results?
One of the main benefits of having a lab produce your prints is that they use hundred-thousand-dollar-plus machines that print a digital image onto real photo paper. The image analyzing and processing software that operates these machines is a lot more sophisticated than the drivers for your average ink jet printer, so the results are usually first-rate. This assumes your original image is first-rate, of course, but more on that later.
There are dozens of labs to choose from. I chose AdoramaPix.com for two reasons: first, because it was offering a $1.99 per 11"x14" print promotion; and second, because it offers a wide variety of print sizes and paper surfaces. Some labs offer a choice of only two or three surfaces. AdoramaPix offers five, ranging from matte to glossy to metallic.
Step one was to create a user account. This took less than five minutes. Step two was to create an album that would serve as the destination for my uploaded photographs. This took only a minute or two. Uploading the photos, however, took significantly longer. Adorama requires that uploads be in either TIFF or 8-bit JPEG format, saved in the RGB color space, and less than 40MB in size. The grayscale images I had selected had to be converted to sRGB. The same was true for my color images that were in Adobe RGB color space: I had to convert them to sRGB, otherwise the the result would be prints with flat, dull-looking color. Those of you who use your digital camera's default JPEG mode would have no such issues.
My order consisted of four 8x10s and one 11x14. All of them were in uncompressed TIFF format. File sizes ranged from 34MB to 17MB, depending on print dimensions and whether they were color or black and white. As a result of the bloated file sizes, the upload took about 20 minutes, and this was with a high-speed cable connection. Zzzzzzz. Next time I try this I'll be sure to use JPEGs and much smaller file sizes.
The print prices were quite reasonable: $1.95 for 8x10 and $1.99 for 11x14. The 11x14's are now back up to $4.95. Shipping charges were $5.99, however, so be sure to factor this into the total cost. On the upside, Adorama didn't cut corners on the packaging. The prints were backed with cardboard, shrink-wrapped in plastic, and taped in place in the outer cardboard box. The prints arrived in perfect shape, without so much as a dent or a scratch.
As for print quality, it exceeded my expectations. I was most impressed by the black and white prints, which were perfectly neutral. That's something I can't say for my Epson R800. My color prints from Adorama were at least as good those I get from my R800, even though I sent them without imbedded color profiles. I use a calibrator monitor, however, so I was careful to specify that the lab should print the files as-is, with no operator adjustments. If you don't have a calibrated monitor and you give the okay to operator adjustments, the results may be more unpredictable, but probably for the better.
Overall, I'd say the biggest advantage of using an online lab is that it's an economical way to get high-quality prints. The main downside is speed, or rather, the lack of it. It takes time to upload image files, and the more files you send and the larger they are, the more time it takes. You also have to wait for the prints to arrive. In my case it took three business days. Faster shipment options are available, but they could easily cost more than the prints themselves.
Labs such as AdoramaPix aren't the perfect solution, at least not for me, but they're a step in the right direction. I plan to investigate further, with higher-end labs, to see just how close I can get to a traditional silver-based black & white paper print. As always, I'll keep you posted.