Great digital photos deserve to see the light of day, not just to be hidden away in the dark recesses of your hard drive. So why is it that digital photo printing services are still very much overlooked?
Coupled with a decent broadband speed, the products and services offered by some of the best online printing companies are quick, inexpensive and pretty dazzling.
Pretty much any of the latest Canon, Epson or HP inkjet printers are capable of producing borderless photo prints at sizes of up to A4, with excellent quality. Once you’ve bought the printer itself, usually for less than £100, typical photo printing costs are about 30p for a standard 6 x 4in print, and around £1 for a full A4 photo.
But while print prices from online companies tend to be comparable for A4 enlargements, you can get standard 6 x 4 inch prints for about 10p each, and for as little as 4p each if you buy in large quantities, making them much cheaper.
Easy digital photo uploads
Complexity is financial suicide for online printing companies, so it’s no surprise that those who have gone from strength to strength have made a point of keeping their ordering systems simple.
Snapfish is a good case in point – its point-and-click upload tools have always fitted so seamlessly into Internet Explorer that it couldn’t be any easier to create online photo albums.
The whole approach impressed Hewlett-Packard so much that it bought Snapfish a couple of years ago and the company has now gone on to become the driving force behind another stalwart of mail order photo prints, Truprint.
Another way that good online photo companies aim to please is by offering a variety of upload options. For example, Photobox defaults to its standard drag and drop image uploader, which is quick and easy to use, but also offers a new, improved and faster Aurigma Image Uploader, as well as options for upload via FTP, email or standard web browser or ActiveX interfaces.
Images on CD-ROM or DVD
As a complete departure from uploading, almost all online printing companies also accept images on CD-ROM or DVD. This is generally only necessary if you have many hundreds of photos you want to print though.
Bear in mind that most online photo labs work on a resolution of about 250dpi so, even for a full A4 photo print, you’d only need a 6Mp image.
While there’s not much to choose between the quality of top inkjet prints and online printing on paper, online outfits come into their own for more unconventional ‘photo gifts’. Once your image files are uploaded, many companies offer a huge variety of options, ranging from mouse mats, mugs and t-shirts, to jigsaw puzzles and customisable calendars.
Prices are good and the quality is usually polished and professional. Hardback photo books are increasingly popular, although some companies are now offering softback options as well.
Quality is typically excellent
In all cases, online design tools allow you to choose from a variety of page layouts for each consecutive page, with single or multi-photo designs and optional captions. The pages of the books are printed on real photo paper, so the quality of the finished books is typically excellent.
Prices start at around £20 for a 20-page A4 book, and you can usually add extra pages as required, up to 50 or, in some cases 70 pages per book, with an additional cost of about £1.20 per pair of pages.
The ability to go large is another killer feature of online printing, and most companies can produce large-format panoramic prints or 30 x 20-inch poster prints for less than £20 each.
Other popular enlargement sizes on offer tend to include A3, A2, 16 x 12in and 20 x 16in prints, with prices ranging from around £5 to £10 each.
Not so blank canvas
A traditional problem with large format prints is that, even if the print itself only costs £10, you can end up spending £50 or more to have it framed. A new solution, very much in vogue at the moment, is that of boxed canvas prints.
Here, the printed canvas is stretched over a box frame and is delivered not only ready to hang, but also looking bang up-to-date in the style stakes. Expect to pay between £50 and £100 depending on the size, which usually ranges from 16 x 12in to 44 x 19in.
Extra benefits often include the facility to store your photos online and grant access to family and friends, who can then also order prints at standard prices. Photobox goes one better than the competition though, allowing you to create ‘Pro Galleries’, where members of the public can buy prints of your photos.
Most companies offer a fairly generous amount of storage space (although this does vary, as you’ll see below), as well as facilities for viewing automated online slideshows, neatly rounding out the whole online photo experience.
Editor's Choice – Photobox.co.uk
From the earliest days of online digital photo printing, PhotoBox has been at the forefront of the technology. It now backs this up with an unrivalled range of services, some of which are normally only found in the professional photography printing market.
For example, there’s a complete online framing service where you can choose between various frame materials and styles, as well as card mount colours. Meanwhile, the selection of hardback and softback albums, posters, collages, boxed canvas prints and other photo gifts is simply unbeatable.
Print quality is excellent, doing full justice to all of our test images with immaculate colour rendition and tonal range in every case. Delivery times from Photobox were equally impressive, with prints consistently arriving the next morning, even for orders placed late the previous afternoon.
Online slideshows and photo sharing opportunities abound, and to back this up, you get a generous 1GB of storage space when signing up, plus an extra 200MB every time you place an order, even if it’s only for a single print. Superb.
Photobox narrowly beats Snapfish as the best online photo printing service we've used. Overall, Snapfish's print quality is as good as Photobox, but it lacks some of the extras. Pricing is merely average, there’s no high-volume discount available and high-resolution images are only stored for 90 days after being uploaded.
Do you agree with our verdict? Let us know who you think offers the best online photo printing service – leave us a comment below.