Digital Images Printed: Walmart Versus a Professional Lab

There are a lot of photographers out there, and some of them might rather just shoot your images, barely edit them (if at all), and burn them to a CD or DVD, and then hand them over to you.  It’s fast, it’s easy, and clients are thrilled to have the freedom to do whatever they want with those images, all for the bargain price of $100.  But once those images are in the client’s hands, the photographer no longer has quality control over prints of those images.  Maybe they don’t care.

I care.  I take a lot of time to shoot, edit, and process images to show a certain style.  I take pride in my images, and I stand behind my work.  It’s an art, not a “shoot and burn” rampage.  If a client comes to me for their photos, it’s because they want special images and high quality prints and wall art.  And I intend to deliver just that.

8/30/2014 UPDATE:  That said, I do still offer digital collections.  But I’m determined to educate my clients on the importance of print quality.  Check out my new post that compares several consumer print labs to a professional lab.

Say you get your digital images, and you get them printed at your local drugstore or maybe a cheap online printer.  You might not notice the color shift or lack of sharpness.  You might have your “mommy goggles” on and think that picture of your child is the best picture ever.  And when your friends see that picture, they’re going to tell you, “Oh, that’s such a great picture!  Little Sally is so cute!”  You know what they’re saying inside?  “Ew, why is it green? Who took that picture?  I hope she didn’t pay for that.”  And do you know who ends up looking bad?  The photographer.  Not to mention, your prints just lost that photographer potential business.

I’m not about to let that happen, for my sake and yours.

Not all printers are the same.  Not all 8×10’s are created equal.  Some of you gasp at the cost of prints by a custom photographer.  You know Walmart charges $2 for an 8×10, so how in the world can XYZ photographer charge $60?!  This blog isn’t about the extreme expense that goes into running a legitimate tax-paying business and offering personalized service to you, or the amount of time that goes into creating your images, far beyond the one hour you see the photographer shooting.  There’s a lot more that goes into it than you see during your shoot.  But let me give you this answer:  Quality.  Professional photographers use professional print labs.  I don’t mean the camera store at the mall with pricier prints than the drugstore.  Wolfe Camera is a good consumer printer to use for your vacation photos, but it is not a professional print lab.  Professional labs offer higher quality photo paper, higher quality inks, and special coatings that ensure your images are resistant to finger prints, dust, and fading.

I was at a friend’s house recently, and she had a very large canvas print hanging over her mantle.  Even at the cheapest printers, canvas prints aren’t cheap.  She has high ceilings and very large open windows.  By “open”, I mean, light is shining through them.  That wall art should look absolutely stunning in her beautiful home.  But it didn’t look quite right.  She complained that her print had faded, and it has only been hanging there for a few months!  Now her investment in that print has gone to waste.  If she had invested  a little more for a professional quality print, she would have it in perfect condition for a lifetime.

You get the gist of what I’m saying, right?  So, let’s move on to an example.  This post only shows a comparison to Walmart prints, so be sure to see my newer post that compares professional lab prints to consumer labs MPix, Shutterfly, and Walgreens.  Walmart’s print quality was so bad, I had to write this post about this comparison only.  See for yourself…




Um. I’m not kidding.

Seriously, when I saw the prints from Walmart, I was floored.  I expected them to be a little dark and a little off, but I didn’t expect to see this sweet little baby turn into a zombie!!

Let me clarify a few things, now that you know where I’m coming from.  First, I’m not discouraging you from using Walmart or any other consumer printer to print your everyday snapshots.  A lot of pictures turn out perfectly fine for their purpose.  You know, to flip through them, stuff them back into the envelope, and then toss them in a box in the back of the closet.  Consider slightly better options, like Shutterfly or Snapfish or MyPublisher for photobooks or other fun products.  I’ve used Shutterfly for years for my personal snapshot photobooks, and I think they’re great.  Just not for professional custom photography.

Also, for the record, I do sell my images on CD or DVD, but they are only printable up to 8×10.  They come at a price, though, and that’s for a couple reasons.  First of all, like I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of cost and time that goes into offering photography services as a business and creating your images.  The images are art, and that’s what you’re paying for, not the cost of a $3 blank CD.  Also, if you want your digital images enough to pay for them, I trust that you aren’t going to turn around and print them at Walmart.  I trust that you are going to use a quality printer and care about how your prints turn out before you display them. For this, I recommend MPix.

8/30/2014 UPDATE: In my most recent consumer print lab comparison, I no longer recommend MPix as the best option.  It wasn’t the worst offender, but even their prints are slightly off in color versus the original photos and the professional prints.

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Jamie - Very well said. It’s sooo important to invest in high quality wall art and albums to preserve and present the beautiful photography you sought out in the first place. I think most people have become so used to seeing the terrible quality of snapshots and phone pics that they just accept it as a standard now and forget that there are actual real professionals out there who know what they are doing and can create beautiful work. Key word “work”. It’s not the same thing as a snapshot; uncle Bob can’t cut it. I see so many brides spend up their entire wedding budget on filler stuff that no one will remember after the show is over, and they leave absolutely no budget for a photographer which is the ONE way they can document and remember the story of their ONE special day they’ve planned for since childhood! It’s sad!

Heather Beck - Thanks Jamie! I think you’re right that people have become accustomed to fast/easy/cheap photos. I think the only way to change that is to show them the difference.

Checklist of items needed to run a photography business - Kat Forder | Kat Forder - […] print them at Walmart (see horrifying examples of why you shouldn’t make your clients use a consumer lab for their […]

Debbie Shreve - There are three pro photographers that allow customers to print at our lab.. The customer has to UNCHECK the photo fix icon on the screen in order to keep the picture from looking like the above.. And yes they are just a hint darker..Walmart lab prints are much better then the instant printer that is offered just beside the lab kiosk.. Ive never saw a pro print that looks good on the HP instant printer.. However I have saw a few pro prints that look very sharp.. The photographer took the time to test print at Walmart, because she knew a lot of her clients would be printing there.. Walmart doesn’t claim to be a pro printing lab.. Its the consumer who chooses where to print.. One of the pro photographers work that comes through our lab looks awesome and one looks like the above.. So the one that looks awesome must have taken the time check her work against the printing at the walmart lab.. So just because you print at walmart doesn’t mean that your prints will be bad. Ive sent my print proofs to three different pro labs, to find out that there is an issue with each one.. And that is with a calibrated screen.. And yes the pro labs use better paper but just because you use a pro lab doesn’t mean that it will be correct at each lab… Just like walmart.. And yes I do agree with the quality of the pro labs.. If you print at walmart, never use the photo fix key and never use the Hp instant print machine to print pro shots.. And a good work about Mpix.. Love the quality..

Heather Beck - Hi Debbie, thanks so much for your comment!

Beautifully Grace Photography - Great visual! All too often I get clients that want only the digital images. I started creating packages that included pro prints with the CD so they can see in their home what the drug store prints distort the images. Thanks for posting!

Jen McLeod - So you’re saying you’re against shoot-and-burners? No attempt to educate clients about print quality?

Anonymous - I think you’re missing the point by about 5 years. Most people I know in their 20s and 30s don’t want ANY physical paper prints of their photos. Not even of their children. Not even of their wedding. The corny 1960s idea of a home with annual framed school photo prints going up the staircase is a thing of the past. There goes your argument about print quality. We want digital and only digital, that’s how we share them, that’s how we look at them, the grandparents all have smartphones.

Heather Beck - Thanks for you comment, Anonymous, but I have to disagree. Of course there are people who don’t care about prints and only want digital. But there are far more people who still care about having beautiful portraits to hang on their walls.

Maria Alvarado - I love offering prints and in fact I price for print packages, so my clients will purchase prints. The reality is that technology is changing all the time and unless you are backing up in several places you do not guarentee yourself the preservation of your images. Why not offer a web sized image digi with purchased prints? That’s what I do as part of certain packages. In a fire the disc and computer will be ruined too and the idea of clouds needing internet to be accessible is like you do not own your own things. Backing up is time intensive and costly and thing WILL get lost especially if your not tech savvy. I just offer my clients the best solution for them and usually it’s just prints and web sized disc. Events are the only time I offer digi discs at a cost that includes a print book which leads to additional prints purchases.

Marie White - I have never had prints that bad from walmart.

Lisa Ramsberger - Your corrected images were corrected with an auto correct feature used at most retail labs, to compensate sRGB. If you send ln line or your customers are doing at that retail shop. They must uncheck a box that says apply auto correct. I know. I work for Sam’s Club.

Brandon Ragland - WOW your “Wal-Mart” prints are total bogus. I just got wal-mart instant prints myself and compared them to a quality IPS screen at full bright-ness. And guess what, they look EXACTLY the same as the image being rasterized, color for color, as my IPS 1080 screen. Albeit, the prints are sharper than the screen.

I’m not to say that the coatings aren’t better, but you need to do a little reseach into Wal-Mart’s equipment. It turns out, Wal-mart actually has some of the BEST printing equipment. Fujifilms instant prints, are world-class, and about $50k a pop too. That’s the equivalent of a luxury car sitting in the “instant print” section.

The 1-hour photos are often done on Kodak D4000 or the D3000 of yester-year. Guess how much those babies cost: $85-100k that’s a pretty heft price-tag!


Heather Beck - Thanks for your comment, Brandon! However, my findings aren’t bogus. These were real prints. Your wal-mart print findings just goes to show their lack of consistency. I’ve had different results whether I use their one-hour lab or if I order online. None of them good. I’m so glad it’s working for you, though!

Danny Ibarra - Not a very good representation of Walmart photos based on my experience. I do not offer prints for my customers (my business choice and plan) and give them my fully edited photographs. They can then choose to get them printed wherever they would like at whatever price they want to pay. They still pay me for my time and ability. I educate them on how to get prints at Walmart, Costco, CVS, Wolf, etc. and make sure they have a print release just in case someone gives them a hard time over copyright. Before I chose this model, I test printed my fully edited files at Walmart, Costco, and CVS, and all of them were still nearly identical to what they looked like on my monitor (calibrated for such printing). So far, none of my clients have had issues with accurate reproduction at any of these consumer print labs, as long as they remember not to let the lab do any color correcting.