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Cheap Digital Photo Printing Buying Guide

Best Digital Photo Printing
Digital Photo Printing Reviews

The best cheap digital printing services are user-friendly. They offer an expansive array of products and services, including numerous print options, gift items sporting favorite images, online sharing, image storage, and more -- some of which you may not even know you need or want.

Most cheap online digital photo printing services also provide decent technical support and rapid turnaround. Indeed, with the online world as essential to many people's lives as the physical world, being able to capture an image on any one of your digital devices, receive a hard copy on your doorstep overnight, show off your shot to a worldwide audience, and store it forever in a virtual scrapbook neatly explains the appeal of cheap web-based digital photo printing services.

Cheap online digital photo printing services are similar to the high-end providers in many ways, but differ in certain critical respects. Cheap digital photo printing services, like Shutterfly, Snapfish.com, and SmugMug, are geared towards consumers. Costly online digital printing services, like Reed Photo and Nation Photo Lab, are meant for professionals. The quality of the prints produced by low-cost and high-cost providers is the biggest difference between the two. By most accounts, cheap digital photo printing services deliver good quality prints, but their standards are a sight lower than the expensive services. For obvious price-related reasons, the cheap online digital photo printing providers use lower quality paper and the equipment is not as technically exacting. Note, too, that the pricier websites offer more guarantees for the prints and are more likely to give frequent users membership deals that save money on bulk jobs.

Even so, as a thrifty consumer you want value for your money. So before making a decision about which cheap digital photo printing service to use, it's best to know which features each online provider offers and what kind of performance you can expect. Most cheap digital photo printing services give you a choice of finish for your prints, usually glossy or matte, and sometimes luster. You also have a pick of delivery options, ranging from overnight to six to 10 business days to one-hour pick-up at a nearby retailer; options and pricing vary by processor. There are also a host of keepsake items and gift possibilities, including mugs, t-shirts, mousepads, calendars, photo books, tote bags, and more. Cheap digital photo printing services also store your images online -- sometimes for free, sometimes forever -- and provide ways to share images online with friends and family. And finally, you want access to helpful technical support.

But don't be swayed by bells and whistles in the form of appealing services and product choices. These enticements don't compensate for poor quality prints or inconsistent results. The hallmarks of good cheap digital photo printing services are performance attributes that show attention to detail and also reveal a site's dedication to its customers. In our research we specifically looked for indications of consistency; that is, quality prints that satisfied customers time after time. We also noted the quality of each cheap digital photo printing site's technical support.

For the reasons touched on above, we identified Snapfish.com (starting at $.09/print) as the best cheap digital photo printing service, SmugMug (starting at $.19/print) and Shutterfly (starting at $.15 /print) as runners-up, and Walmart Photo Shop (starting at $.09/print) and RitzPix.com (starting at $.19/print) as services that don't quite cut it.

Best Digital Photo Printing

The finish on your prints, storage capability, and technical support are all key factors that distinguish one site from another. For some users, though, the deciding factor turns on price alone, especially if you're ordering lots of prints. Either way, it's worth knowing just what each site offers.

Finish Options.

One important consideration for many photographers -- even amateurs -- when ordering prints from a cheap online digital photo printing service is the type of finish on the prints. The usual choices are glossy, matte, and luster.

Glossy prints are much shinier and more color-saturated than other print finishes. They look vibrant and alive, and generally more "polished." But glossy has definite drawbacks. For one, it has reflective characteristics that affect the way the picture is perceived in certain light, which can interfere with your ability to actually see the photo. In addition, fingerprints and dust are readily visible on a glossy finish. And just in case you happen to be shooting in black and white, or want the color edited out during printing, note that glossy doesn't do justice to black and white images; they deserve a matte finish.

Prints with a matte finish are not reflective or shiny, and may seem a bit dull and soft in comparison to glossy prints. But matte doesn't attract dust or show fingerprints as readily and may be easier on the eye. Matte is often the preferred choice for professional-looking and black and white prints. And they're ready for framing because of the border created during the printing process.

Luster (or lustre) finish is a cross between glossy and matte. Some cheap digital printing services call it semi-glossy, and that's not far off the mark. While the color saturation in a luster print is similar to what you see in a glossy finish, it doesn't retain the reflective shine or easily capture fingerprints.

Snapfish.com (starting at $.09/print), Shutterfly (starting at $.15 /print), and RitzPix.com (starting at $.19/print) offer users the choice of glossy or matte. Prints made by Walmart Photo Shop (starting at $.09/print) come with a glossy or luster finish. And SmugMug (starting at $.19/print) is the only cheap digital photo printing service that offers all three finishes -- glossy, matte, and luster -- as well as metallic, which SmugMug describes as being very bright, sharp, saturated with color and imbued with depth (the finish requires special paper).

Photo Delivery.

Shipping charges and delivery times are important when choosing a cheap digital printing service. If there's time to spare -- that is, you can wait for the U.S. Postal Service to do its thing -- any cheap online digital printing provider will do, but that's rarely the case. Most of the best cheap digital printing services offer overnight delivery, but for that you'll pay a hefty fee. Snapfish.com, for example, charges $18 to overnight a photo book of 20-150 pages and $8.99 for an individual print. RitzPix.com's overnight price depends on the volume of work requested: up to $49 worth of prints cost $19.95 for overnight delivery. And Shutterfly charges $5.99 for priority delivery of up to 19 prints that are no larger than 8x10 inches. Delivery prices vary by service level and provider, so check the site carefully; you don't want any surprises. Also note that sometimes cheap digital photo printing services run special sales: Walmart Photo Shop, for example, offered free delivery on all prints to your home in a deal that expired at the end of July.

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If you're really in a hurry, you might prefer one of the cheap digital printing providers that offer in-store delivery. With Walmart Photo Shop, you can upload your images and specify where you want to pick them, or choose one-hour processing starting at $0.15 a print. Snapfish.com lets you upload images to a local Walgreens, Meijer, Staples, or a designated photo kiosk where you can pick them up; Shutterfly has a similar arrangement with Target. But no surprise here, store pick-up is a convenience and with the exception of Walmart, it's something you have to pay for; fees are set by each retailer.

Extras.

Online digital photo printing sites offer consumers an array of extra features and services. Shutterfly, for example, offers a large number of gift packages that make practical use of your photos, such as mugs ($13.99), t-shirts (starting at $14.99), and puzzles (starting at $34.99) superimposed with a favorite picture; one user reviewer notes how easy it is to create a fully customized calendar with your favorite photos and special dates marked out. This cheap digital photo printing site also features a software suite called Shutterfly Studio that lets users edit and share their photos online.

Snapfish.com offers a slew of gift options, including stationery, photo books, and calendars. It lets you create a slideshow, called Snapshow, that you can email to friends, and it features a program called PictureMover that detects when a memory card is inserted into a computer and uploads all the pictures directly to the site.

SmugMug's gift options range from handbags ($29.99) and greeting cards (starting at $12.95) printed with your photo of choice to large mounted prints ($44.95) and posters ($39.95), to name but a few. There's also a host of sharing options, including support for embedded slideshows for blogs or other websites. But the stand-out feature at SmugMug is its compatibility with the iPhone: just upload your images directly to the site.

Image Storage.

Online image storage is a service that provides both convenience and security. For one thing, it frees up memory in your personal computer. For another, it serves as a safe location for your digital images that's less volatile than a home computer. Some cheap digital photo printing sites, like Shutterfly and RitzPix.com, will hold an unlimited number of images forever, free of charge. SmugMug offers members -- memberships start at $39.95 -- unlimited storage at no extra cost. Snapfish.com and Walmart offer users free, unlimited storage with one catch: you must purchase something from either service, even just a print, once a year or all your pictures will be deleted.

Technical Support.

As with any online service, there's always a need for useful and accessible technical support. Each online digital photo printing site we researched approaches this matter differently, and we found that it's a feature consumers use and care about. Snapfish.com, for example, provides support through email, snail mail, and phone (open daily); it also offers live chat and posts plenty of FAQs on its site. Shutterfly's help center includes a searchable FAQ database and a phone line that's open every day; for off-hour questions there's an email address. SmugMug also boasts a comprehensive FAQ but goes one step farther with a video tutorial on how to get started and a demonstration of what the site has to offer. SmugMug also provides an email address and supports a user forum for sharing advice on how to make the most of the site's features. The only weak link in SmugMug's technical support is the lack of a phone number for immediate needs. RitzPix.com provides FAQs, a telephone support line, email contact, and live chat, the latter meant only for technical problems. Walmart Photo Shop lacks a phone line but does offer FAQs and an email address.

Digital Photo Printing Reviews

Whether amateur or professional, every image is unique and should be treated as such during the printing process. According to digital photo printing services reviews, this performance attribute helps distinguish one online provider from another. That said, such comparisons are often hard to make because individual perception and personal preference influence what you think about the quality of a print. But a washed-out photo or poorly printed image is a bit more obvious and may be indicative of a site's inconsistencies. As we read through digital photo printing services reviews, we took these factors into account in reaching our conclusions. Another performance-related issue that shows up in digital photo printing services reviews concerns technical support; we found only scattered comments about shipping, thus not enough to draw any conclusions.

Photo Print Quality.

There are several things to note when judging the quality of digital prints. Of course, snapping a quality photo at the get-go helps a lot, but when looking at the final prints check for color saturation, proper contrast, and sharpness. Make sure that one color or another isn't washed out or faded; all the colors should be accurate replicas of the digital image. Essentially, you want the print to mirror the original image, although you may have to modify the size of the print slightly to avoid over-cropping.

Digital photo printing reviews indicate that the prints prepared by Snapfish.com please amateurs and experts alike. Digital Photo Printing Review sent the same test photos to 16 online digital printing services and concludes in a digital photo printing review that the Snapfish.com prints outshine the rest even though quality varied slightly depending on the image, as was the case with all the services these experts reviewed. For example, some aspects of the color pictures were a bit dark, the digital photo printing services review notes, but an aerial shot of a cloudy London skyline was nicely cleaned up from the original. Although several consumers gripe about colors that are dull or off, other consumers posting digital photo printing services reviews of Snapfish.com say colors are sharp, with good contrast and detail. A user commenting in a digital photo printing service review on CNET says that after three years of ordering prints from Snapfish.com, he has yet to see a poor finish or defect.

Shutterfly prints also garner commendations in digital photo printing reviews. Users posting digital photo printing reviews at Viewpoints talk up the print quality, which several say is worth prices that are slightly higher than the competition; one consumer states that Shutterfly quality bests that of Snapfish.com. Prints from a wedding shoot were of such high quality, writes an amateur photographer in a digital photo printing review that most viewers were convinced they were the work of a professional.

Many users likewise find reason to smile with SmugMug prints. Experts at Digital Photo Printing Review are impressed with the color, contrast, and tone of the test photos. A user posting a digital photo printing services review on the DGrin.com forum likes both the matte and glossy finishes and raves about the vibrant colors. High quality work also makes the site a useful vehicle for selling photos, notes a professional photographer in a digital photo printing services review on PhotographyReview.com.

By comparison, two of the cheap digital photo printing services we researched had problems with consistency. Of 50 prints ordered from Walmart Photo Shop, notes a digital photo printing services review on PhotographyReview.com, about half looked professionally-done and the others looked as though they were printed on a low-cost home printer. Comparative testing by Digital Photo Printing Review also leaves Walmart Photo Shop's finished product in the shadows; the expert review notes the color sunset photo was far darker than the same photo printed by other services although the black and white photo was "truer" than the others even with its "noisy" luster finish.

RitzPix.com suffers from overall quality problems, according to Digital Photo Printing Review. The experts conclude that the sunlight print was too dark and the colors didn't pop to the degree they should have, while the black and white print was yellow and the aerial shot too blurred and soft.

Customer Support.

All kinds of issues arise when trying to get your digital photos printed, be it removing red eye to uploading the images to checking on the status of your order or figuring out how to lay out images for a gift item. Some cheap digital photo printing services win praise for customer-friendly and timely support and others earn loud boos from users who complain about overseas call centers whose staff can only read from scripted answers.

SmugMug is a favorite with users for its personal, accessible, and helpful technical and customer support, according to digital photo printing services reviews on PhotographyReview.com and Amazon. Ditto for Shutterfly, which users posting reviews say is responsive to questions; only a couple of digital photo printing reviews on Viewpoints contain any negative comments about customer service. Although RitzPix.com's live chat is reserved for technical issues, wait time on the phone line is relatively short and emails are answered within a day. Users can also call a local photo-finishing store connected with RitzPix.com for other support queries. An expert digital photo printing services review on Star Reviews notes that customer service is one of RitzPix.com's strong points, a sentiment echoed by a customer.

Snapfish.com scores well with a few users for customer service, but others posting digital photo printing services reviews on Viewpoints and CNET blast the site for botched shipping, difficulty correcting or changing orders, an inability to help troubleshoot technical problems, and the like. Walmart Photo Shop also gets panned for its technical support, in part because there's no phone line to call. Although there is an email address for queries, at least one user waited days for a response before giving up and going to the store to find an answer, notes a digital photo printing review on Astahost.com.



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