Online Photo Printing for the Holidays (and Any Time)

Smartphones have made it easy to share photos with family and friends, but the images are often ephemeral — soon buried in text strings or inboxes. Digital printing services offer evergreen options, from cards to individual prints to curated albums.

The best of those services produce images of truly excellent quality. They use fine papers of your choosing, and offer easy-to-use online interfaces that make it simple for you to upload, edit, annotate, and arrange your pictures. They marry the portable, in-the-moment power of smartphone and digital cameras with the permanence and beauty of print.

Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, has a team of photo experts who have tested multiple printing services and enlisted the help of other experts to judge the results. Here’s what they recommend.

Customize your cards

Of the photo-card services Wirecutter tested, Simply to Impress came out on top. The company offers a range of tasteful, easy-to-customize designs and high-quality photo reproduction, as well as a quick turnaround time that saw cards delivered to Wirecutter’s New York office within a week — packaged in a gift box with a personalized note.

Wirecutter editors especially liked the website’s user interface, which presents clearly defined options and a handful of basic but useful image-editing tools. You can upload images straight from your computer or select from images on your social media accounts or cloud photo services. During checkout, the site gives you an itemized list of all the options you selected and links to each so you can check them and, if necessary, edit them again.

Make (and share) a photo album

Back when people paid for prints of every photo they took, it made sense to put all of them into big binders. Now it makes much more sense to create custom photo books of only your best images. A printing service can make as many photo books as you need, for yourself and for gifts.

After testing eight photo book services, Wirecutter found that Shutterfly offered the easiest way to create a cleanly designed book, combined with photo quality that was just as pleasing as what we saw from services costing twice as much. Shutterfly’s app has intuitive keyboard shortcuts, which make it easy to design your book.

To judge image quality, we brought the Shutterfly book and the others we ordered to Shamus Clisset, a master printer at Laumont Studio who has made fine-art prints for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA), and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Although Shutterfly’s printing wasn’t perfect, he said it was the best of the services we tested. Commenting on an image of volcanic smoke, he said, “The whole print is very smooth in color, which is hard to do.”

Send prints to your favorite people

Say your cousin falls in love with a picture you took of Grandma sipping a piña colada at the last family reunion, and wants a nice 8-by-10-inch print — but you don’t have a photo printer. Here’s where online print services come in handy. They let you order individual prints and mail them to anybody who wants one.

Nations Photo Lab offered the best combination of print quality, fast turnaround time, reliable delivery, and reasonable price in Wirecutter’s tests. The service got high marks on color accuracy and sharpness, and delivered the prints well-protected from damage, tucked into plastic sleeves that were themselves sandwiched between cardboard panels.

Nations also made it easier than other services to deal with images of various aspect ratios. Aspect ratio, or the width-to-height ratio of a picture, differs between smartphones (typically 4:3) and the most common digital-camera format (3:2). Nations let us print 4:3 smartphone images in full, without slicing anything off at the top and bottom.

The main downside to Nations is that it doesn’t have an app to let you upload images directly from your phone. If you want that option, consider AdoramaPix instead.

Save a few pennies

One last tip: All of the services mentioned here routinely offer coupons or discounts. If you’re planning to use one of them, and if you’re not on a tight deadline, sign up for the service’s email list and wait for a deal to come along. Usually it won’t take more than a week. And what’s an extra week when you’re making memories that will last (almost) forever?

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