Printing Photographs: Costco vs. Bay Photo
Is this a fair comparison? Maybe not. After all, Costco is a warehouse club that has a consumer oriented 1 hour photo “lab” while Bay Photo is a high-end professional printing service. Nevertheless, I thought it would be an interesting comparison. One would expect higher quality from Bay Photo with an equally higher price while Costco is convenient and very inexpensive.
[Read Round 2: I test a local Austin camera store against Costco and Bay Photo]
There are currently 572 stores around the world with $72 billion in sales. They are the king of warehouse stores in the United States (bigger than Sam’s Club) and are known for great customer service. A yearly membership fee entitles members to buy stuff in bulk at lower prices. They sell a whole range of products–of which one of the departments is a 1 hour photo lab. Photographs can be submitted online through the web or at kiosks at the stores.
I downloaded 6 full resolution landscape, cityscape and interior photographs from my online portfolio. They were uploaded to Costco at full resolution via the web with Auto Correct turned on. 5 of the images were printed on luster finished paper at 4 x 6 inches. My favorite interior image was printed on luster at 8 x 12 inches. The photographs were printed within 15 minutes and I was notified my email. I picked up the prints on the way home from work.
Founded in 1976, Bay Photo specializes in professional printing services. I don’t have their sales numbers but I’m sure its much lower than Costco’s sales. They have one location in Santa Cruz, California. Bay Photo is the default option in SmugMug’s Professional service. SmugMug picked Bay Photo after a shootout with several printing vendors.
The same 6 images from my portfolio where uploaded to Bay Photo directly through SmugMug. The same photos were printed at the same sizes on luster paper with manual color correction. For fun, I also printed one 8 x 12 and one 4 x 6 on the metallic paper. Costco does not have an option for metallic. The prints were ordered on Tuesday, printed several hours later and shipped the same day. They arrived at my house today on Thursday. I only paid for the basic 3 – 5 day shipping and was pleasantly surprised at the quick delivery.
As you can tell, this far from a scientific test. I only ordered a small number of prints and I did not re-order them to check for printing consistency. That said, it does allow me to roughly compare the prints from a single set of orders placed at each service. I opted for manual color correction at Bay Photo (which is my default option) to see how good it is. At Bay Photo, real human beings visibly inspect and correct each photo when manual color correction is requested. I also enabled Auto-Correct when ordering at Costco. I talked to the photo print person at Costco and she said that Auto-Correct doesn’t actually change any colors but mostly brightens the image if required.
My monitor is not color calibrated with special hardware. It is set to Gamma 2.2 and a white point of D65 on a 24″ iMac, which from what I read, should be the ideal setup for a sRGB colorspace. I also shoot in sRGB so I have a simple sRGB workflow. According to Will Crockett from ShootSmarter.com (In this article registration required) he says the 24″ iMac has a screen good enough for a sRGB workflow.
I laid the images out of the table and compared the results. I looked at them in natural outdoor light, mixed natural and warm fluorescent light, only warm fluorescent light and finally halogen lights.
I first opened the package from Bay Photo during the daytime with soft natural light. My large 8 x 12 interior image of the church looked great but didn’t seem too different from the Costco version. The color was subtly different and the Bay Photo print seemed a bit more vivid but nothing too different. I then compared the other images. Photographs that have deep blues from evening landscapes showed a more saturated and deeper blue in the Bay Photo version. Then I noticed that the greens also were more saturated and lively. In the Costco version, the vegetation was muted and more yellowish-green rather than a saturated, deep green. When I compared the color to my iMac monitor, neither prints matched the monitor exactly though the Bay Photo version seemed closer.
As it got a bit darker in the evening, I turned on my warm fluorescent desk lamp. There was still ample natural light coming through the windows so there was a mix of lights. This is when the differences were most dramatic. I noticed that all of the Costco prints, to some degree, had a yellowish-pinkish cast to them. Bay’s vivid blues and greens stood out even more. The Bay Photo prints definitely seems more saturated and colorful. This difference was dramatic in some and less so in other types of images. What really blew me away was when I compared these prints to my iMac monitor. Under this mixed light, the Bay Photo colors matched my screen exactly. This was amazing and I must admit the first time I’ve seen that happen. I’ve been frustrated with printing in general but this was a game changer.
I also looked at these images under my warm desk lamp without any outdoor, natural light. My desk lamp is quite warm (yellowish) and this made the Costco prints even more yellowish-pink. The Bay Photo prints also looked warmer, slightly warmer than the monitor, but again, still the Bay images were closer to the screen. I also compared the images under halogen lights. The color differences were less dramatic, similar to the natural daylight. The Bay Photo images still had the edge.
Apart from the color there were other differences. The summary below highlights them. There is one strange issue worth mentioning. I noticed on several of the Costco prints the smooth areas such as the skies had these strange mottled streaks. You have to look carefully but it’s there. I don’t know if this is an anomaly with these particular prints. All of the Bay Photo prints looked fine. One of the Bay Prints had a slight pattern that was different from Costco.
This is where Costco has the clear advantage. The prices at Costco are at least 3 times less expensive than Bay Photo. For certain larger print sizes the price differential is even greater. In addition, I had to pay an extra fee for shipping and handling from Bay Photo. The packaging was first-rate and it seems like they will properly survive any rough handling. I looked at some prices around the net. I discovered that Bay’s prices, especially for the larger sizes, are in line with the other places. It’s really Costco’s exceptionally low prices that makes them the bargain choice.
So clearly you get more by paying more, at least at Bay Photo. This was not a given since Costco actually has a good reputation for prints and used by some pros. If you were willing to spend a lot of time to calibrate your workflow and hand tweak each photograph, Costco maybe a very good solution. In the past, I have made some attempts at color correction when printing at Costco. While the results were OK, they never did match my monitor exactly. Also, if the photographs you are printing don’t have to be critically accurate in color, then again Costco will be a great bargain solution.
If however, you want easy, accurate color for the more important prints, Bay Photo, I believe, is worth the extra cost. If I’m going to print landscape images large to be framed as art pieces, I think the extra cost will be worth it. The cost of framing the print will be a greater factor than the print cost differential. While I did not print any people in these tests, my assumption is the color will also be more accurate for portraits at Bay Photo. Prints from important occasions such as weddings will also benefit from Bay Photo’s higher quality.
I mentioned in the beginning that I also made two test prints on metallic paper. I might save the details for another blog post, however, I can say that they were very impressive. Especially for the type of images I printed. I’m not sure if they will work for portraits but for vivid HDR landscapes and cityscapes, these metallic prints are wonderful. The good news is that they don’t cost that much more than the regular luster paper. The metallic option is not available at Costco.
Costco: Standard paper, curled, finger print resistance, good.
Bay Photo: Paper slightly thicker, flat, finger print resistance, very good.
Both had a similar luster texture.
Overall Image Quality
Costco: A little dull.
Bay Photo: More vibrant.
Both had similar brightness and contrast.
Costco: Yellowish-pinkish cast, duller greens and blues.
Bay Photo: More neutral color cast, blue more saturated, greens more vibrant.
Costco: Blotchy patterns in smooth sky areas.
Bay Photo: minimal / none
Costco: Very Low prices.
Bay Photo: Roughly 3 to 5 times more with manual color correction. Extra cost for shipping.
Costco: As little as an hour.
Bay Photo: From 1-2 days for express shipping and longer depending on shipping option.