Round 2: Precision Camera’s Print Quality

Precision Camera vs. Costco vs. Bay Photo

After my first blog post where I compared Costco’s print quality to Bay Photo, an Austin photographer friend asked how our local camera store stacks up? I thought that would also be an interesting test so I decided to include Precision Camera in a second round of tests. I also ordered another set of Prints at Costco, this time without auto-correct.

Precision Camera & Video

Precision Camera locally owned since 1976 is the last remaining full service camera store in Austin. They sell a full line of cameras and lenses as well as all the accessories necessary for a complete photography setup. They also have a good size in-store print shop which handles digital as well as film processing and printing.

I used the same files that I used in my first test. I uploaded the 6 images. I got them all printed as 4 x 6s and the one church interior as a 8 x 12 on luster paper.
I submitted two set of these prints from an in-store Kiosk. The first set I requested auto-correct. The second set I specified as no corrections.

The Process

I performed a similar non-scientific test as the first round. It’s been simplified a bit since I already knew how the Costco and Bay Photo colors look in the various lighting conditions. I mainly compared how the Precision Camera prints look vs. Costco and Bay Photo.

I also printed another set of prints at Costco but this time I requested no corrections. As you might remember, in the first test, I requested auto-correct on my Costco prints.

The Results

First a quick word about Costco’s auto-correct vs. no correction. On my particular prints, I saw no difference between the two sets of Costco prints. The Costco print lab person said that they do not change colors but may auto-adjust brightness. It’s possible that, since my photographs already have a nicely distributed brightness histogram, the auto-correct didn’t do anything. I did not print an overly dark or bright photograph to test this theory.

I also printed two sets of photos at Precision Camera–one with auto-correct the other without any corrections. Unlike Costco, some of my prints had a dramatic difference. In general, the auto-corrected prints dramatically brightened shadow areas while keeping the medium to brighter areas untouched. There does not appear to be any color correction, however, dramatically brightened areas do end up with different colors. I must admit, I did not like the look of the auto-corrected images at all. The nice shadows in my images, in my opinion, have been overly brightened. The images also have a harsh and over-processed look overall. I would suggest that the more serious photographers submit their photos at Precision without auto-correct. I think simple snap-shots that may be overly dark could benefit from this auto-correct option.

The 4×6 prints from Precision looked significantly different from Costco or Bay Photo. Curiously, the 8×12 print did not differ too much. I found out from Precision that they have two different printers. The 4x6s were printed on a Fuji Frontier printer while the 8×12 was printed on the Noritsu. The lady at the photo counter said, generally images 11×14 and larger are printed on the Noritsu. Since my 8×12 was printed on the Noritsu this time, looks like there may be some variability on which printer gets used on a particular day. I don’t know if you can specify a particular printer to be used for a particular job.

The non-corrected 4×6 prints were bright and colorful–much more so than Costco or Bay Photo. They also looked very sharp, almost over-sharpened. Even without the auto-correct, the shadow areas were brighter but in a good way. There was enough shadow but slightly brighter to reveal more detail. Color was closer to Bay Photo’s than Costco’s. I still think Bay Photo has the edge in color accuracy, as judged by comparing to my monitor. Precision’s prints had s slightly warmer feel over Bay but did not have the yellow-pinkish cast of Costco. The most striking feature overall is the brightness of the Precision prints rather than the color difference. The difference on the 8×12 Precision prints were less pronounced. Color was very similar to Bay but Bay Photo again had the color accuracy edge. Unlike the 4x6s, brightness, however, was about the same between Precision, Bay Photo and Costco. Also the 8×12 Precision print did not have the strongly sharpened look and looked about the same in sharpness as the other 2 prints.

Much of the comparison on this and the first blog post looked at the prints in good light. The situation changes when I look at the prints in a darker setting. By dark, I’m not talking about an unlit room. I’m referring to a room with regular ambient lighting at night or natural light coming through a window on a gray and rainy day. Unless you have a nice gallery space with spot lights on the photographs, these darker conditions may be more common for the average house. In these conditions, the Precision prints really shine. Their brighter prints are just more visible under less ideal conditions. And while, arguably, their colors may be less accurate than Bay Photo, the brightness and the “pop” of the Precision prints make them more attractive under standard room lighting. The strongly sharpened appearance also makes these prints work to their advantage under these conditions.

There are some differences between the Fuji and the Noritsu at Precision Photo. The photograph of the church interior was printed as Precision as a 4×6 and 8×12. Maybe because these two prints were made on two different printers, the color of these two prints look very different. The 4×6 was much brighter, which is consistent with the other 4×6 prints. It was also a bit too warm for my taste. The 8×12, as mentioned above, was very similar in feel and color to the Bay Photo 8×12. Under darker conditions, the brighter and warmer 4×6 stood out better but in general I preferred the color and brightness of the 8×12.

One last observation. I have one landscape photograph that has a sky that transitions from white to blue as it moves from the horizon upward. Both the Bay Photo and Costco prints did not have a smooth gradation from white to blue. They both abruptly went from white to a grey-blue at about the same spot in the sky. The Precision Camera print had a very smooth color transition in the sky that most closely match the original on-screen image.

Cost

The Precision prints fell in between Costco and Bay Photo on pricing. While Bay’s pricing was 3 – 5 times higher than Costco. Precision was about 2 – 4 times higher than Costco. For the 4x6s they were about 2 times the cost. For the 8×12, they were less than 2x the cost.

It appears that the prints can be submitted online and because Precision Camera is local (to Austin), I can pick up the prints without a delivery charge.

Conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised by Precision Camera’s performance. They have sharp and bright prints, particularly in the 4×6 size, and really look good especially in “standard” light. The color was good and more accurate than Costco. When you compare the look of the Costco prints to Precision, there is a noticeable difference. I think it will be worth the price difference. If I’m doing a kid’s school project, where I just need quick and “cheap” prints, I’ll get them inexpensively at Costco. For any images that I plan to keep and put in an album or picture frame, I believe its worth the extra cost to go with Precision Camera.

So how about the serious “art” prints that will be printed large. Precision uses two different printers which gave different results. The larger prints would most likely be printed on the Noritsu which gave a very accurate print. The prints from both Precision Camera and Bay Photo will look good, especially with the proper lighting. If color accuracy is paramount, then I would go with Bay Photo. Also Bay Photo was a metallic print option which can be neat for certain types of images. The pricing for the smaller sizes are almost 1/2 the price at Precision while the larger sizes are almost the same. I will most likely use Precision for the smaller to medium sizes. For the larger sizes, I’m not sure at this point. If I need the print quickly, I will go with Precision. I also do not know what the shipping costs are for the larger prints from Bay Photo but either way, Precision also has a lower price advantage.

Summary

Paper
Costco: Standard paper, curled, finger print resistance, good. (Fuji Crystal Archive)
Bay Photo: Paper slightly thicker, flat, finger print resistance, very good. (Kodak Pro)
Precision Camera: 4×6 Thickest Paper, curled, finger print resistance, good. (Fujicolor Professional)
8×12 same Kodak Pro pager as Bay Photo.
All 3 had a similar luster texture.

Overall Image Quality
Costco: A little dull.
Bay Photo: More vibrant.
Precision Camera: Brightest and Sharpest.

Color
Costco: Yellowish-pinkish cast, duller greens and blues.
Bay Photo: More neutral color cast, blue more saturated, greens more vibrant.
Precision Camera: Warmer tones than Bay but more accurate than Costco.

Printing
Costco: Blotchy patterns in smooth sky areas.
Bay Photo: minimal / none
Precision Camera: none

Cost
Costco: Very Low prices.
Bay Photo: Roughly 3 to 5 times more with manual color correction. Extra cost for shipping.
Precision Camera: Roughly 2 to 4 times more than Costco.

Availability
Costco: As little as an hour.
Bay Photo: From 1-2 days for express shipping and longer depending on shipping option.
Precision Camera: Same day to one day service.

15 thoughts on “Round 2: Precision Camera’s Print Quality

  1. Jim. Since I did the test only once, I can’t comment on their consistency. I love to find out what you liked and didn’t like with their printing jobs.

  2. Andy, I don’t know if you use a color calibrated monitor for doing your post-processing. If you do, you may want to then download printer calibration profiles for doing your proofing within Aperture. I know I’ve seen them available for Costco and Precision in the past. Thought you’d like to know.

  3. Thanks Alex. I’ve used printer profiles with Costco before but not Precision Camera. I think the profiles can work for your own prints however if prints are made off a photo gallery such as SmugMug, I think the work flow breaks down. You typically can’t put the corrected images online since these usually look horrible on screen (though they may look good in print). Therefore, you need a service, process or workflow where a photo that looks great on screen but can be ordered and printed with results that closely match the screen.

  4. Thanks for this great review, Andy. I think Holland photo still offers full service for prints. Have you tried them yet? I’ve been meaning to try them. I have used Precision and have been happy with the results as well.

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