Is there a difference between your prints and a Big Box print?

Richard Charpentier Prints, RLC Design, Wide Format Printing 3 Comments

Several months ago an old friend dropped an e-mail regarding a print they wanted to get produced.  She asked the question that’s today’s title.  The reason for the question…..she was wondering if paying me a premium to produce her print would really get her more than her local Big Box store.

At the time I didn’t have the best answer in the world.  I haven’t really researched the Big Box’s print quality.  Wal-Mart, Costco, Walgreens and the rest.  Are their prints archival?  What processes do they use?  Are they “better”?

Frankly I hadn’t thought much about it.  I’m just not in competition with Big Box stores.  But I do hear a lot about them from clients lately.

Just the other week a client pointed out that they could get prints from Costco cheaper.  I agreed.  I asked them about color correction, if the staff spent 15 – 30 minutes with them making sure everything looked the way he wanted it, etc.  They didn’t of course, so that’s that.

Yesterday I had one of my regular “in to chat” clients pop by.  While she’d never printed with me she often comes in for camera advice, setup information, and often to pick my brain about improving her shots.  I get a lot of that.  Fortunately I like showing people technology and I don’t mind sharing the knowledge I’ve gained.

Interestingly enough, yesterday this particular regular actually wanted to print something.  An upcoming student show, and she’s a student in a photography class.  She popped out a few prints that she’d made at Costco, and she wanted to give my printing a whirl as well.

At the Yavapai photo club there’s a member who works in Costco’s printing department.  So, don’t think I’m trying to throw Costco under the bus, I’m not.  Just happens that a lot of photographers in town go to them for printing since they get to talk with this guy at the club meetings.

Of course, my prints were a little more expensive than the prints she just got, but she wanted to check out my process.  So we zipped off two 8×10 images on the Allure Photo Rag from Breathing Color.  Once they were cut down by the printer I trimmed the border between the two (I usually print on rolls) and we took a look.  Absolutely no comparison between the color matching.  My shop won hands down, and I didn’t point it out, my client did.

Looking between both her black & white print and her color print it was pretty easy to pick the prints that were better.  The Big Box prints looked faded and over exposed.  The contrast wasn’t pronounced, and the prints were very “flat” in my mind.  First thought when I see that is that the photographer probably caused that.  But then I got her images up on my calibrated screen and saw they were much better than what we saw in the prints.  I fired them off to my color calibrated printer (which I seem to calibrate weekly) and waited to see what we got.

The results……  What I showed her on screen is what she got in print.  That simple.  What she’d gotten in print earlier in the day was not matched.  Does this mean all Big Box stores don’t make great prints?  Not at all, I’m sure they do.  But who knows what state the equipment she used was in, how they color match, if they do, etc?  You just don’t know.

So, in answer to my friend’s question so many months ago regarding the difference I can now say with certainty there is.

Bottom line, here are the big answers:

  • If you’re looking for a stack of 4×6 prints from your last vacation you can come see me.  I’ll be more expensive, you’ll get archival prints, and I really don’t make money on them.  In this case, hit a Big Box.  Better yet, submit your photos to  They’ll do an amazing job and you’ll have your prints the next day (except on weekends).  Heck, I use them for my 5×7 Metallic prints!
  • Looking to do prints 8×10 and larger.  Want Archival Inks and Papers?  What I mean by that is that you want the print to last.  Come see me.  I’m a little more expensive, but I’ll spend the time on it and make sure you’re happy with the color match, the papers, and the final production.  Or hit MPix if you’re not close to Prescott.
  • Want large format prints and gallery wraps?  Yeah, that’s where I shine.  Best of all I’m competitive with MPix on price.  And I can produce larger format than even they offer.  Looking for an art piece, not just a small print that goes in a scrap book?  That’s where I come in for sure!
  • I use Breathing Color archival quality canvases and HP archival quality papers as well, and archival inks.  Each paper or canvas I use is certified archival quality, and that’s a big plus in my mind.

There’s the wrap on that.  Got the answer I needed for my friend months ago.  While the answer was a little late I’m glad to say I finally have the answer.  And it matches up with what another friend and business owner said to me weeks ago regarding a person that told me Big Boxes were cheaper than me (which I don’t dispute).

Quality, Service, and Price.  Do two of these well.  In your case, you offer a great service with great quality.  You can’t compete with a Big Box on price, they’ve got so many other business units they can always undercut you.  But they can’t come close to your work when it comes to quality and service.

After what I saw yesterday I can’t argue with my friend at all!

Comments 3

  1. Well said. Several months ago, while on the road, I had 6 – 8 1/2 x 11′ s printed at WalMart for a presentation the next day. The cost was cheaper than me printing with my portable Canon printer; however, I’m not sure if I would want to hang something printed from there on my wall.

  2. So what do you use to calibrate your screen? I keep comparing systems, and can’t decide what to try.

  3. Post

    I have used a Spyder before, but not currently. As part of my print package with the Z3100 I received an EyeOne calibration tool (XRite) with HP’s Advanced Profiling System.

    Check out this link for Spyder. Or take a look at XRite’s site as well. Personally, I think you’d do well with either.

    One last thought. Check out Lacie’s monitor and calibration tool bundles. Thinking my next monitor will be a LaCie.

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