Choosing a Printing Company.


So you have your files all ready to order prints, now what?  This post will be about using a third party to print.  Printing yourself will be another day.

I’ve gone back and forth so many times on how to word this post, and I’m still not certain the best way to say some of this.  I keep debating whether to share all of my mistakes or just tell you what I really wish I had done.  My experience involved a lot of wasted money and even more needless tears.  After hours and hours and hours of research it was so disappointing to not actually have gotten anywhere.

So you have your plan right?  You know what your end goal is, correct?  (If not, stop and go read my last post about making a plan!)

The next step is to order some test prints.  From multiple places.  I know it may seem crazy upon first reading, but trust me on this one.

There are a few things you want to find out about the places that you’re going to be working with to make these prints.

  1. Customer Service
  2. Print Quality
  3. Ease of Ordering
  4. Shipping Time
  5. Packaging
  6. Price (Yep, this is last on purpose!)

I’ll stop here for a moment and talk about local print shops.  If you have one available, use it!  Seriously, being able to walk into a place and have real people help you would be perfect.  Obviously you still need to test customer service and quality, but I think that a small shop would be ideal.  If you know people you can ask recommendations for one in your area, perfect!  I know that some local shops are passed over because of cost, but cost is last on my list for a reason.  Sometimes a few extra bucks to save a bunch of headaches is worth it.

Customer service may seem like a silly thing to have as the most important thing about a company, but I’ll insert a story in here.  I ordered from a company and when I received the order I had questions.  I called the company (around 10am) and got an answering machine.  Slightly odd, I thought to have no one answering phones, but not the end of the world.  No one called me back that day.  The next afternoon I got an email from them asking if I still wanted to talk to someone and that they would call me at the end of the day if I wanted them to.  Why would I have left a message asking someone to call me if I didn’t want someone to call me?  Does that make any sense at all?  If this had been an order for a customer I would have wasted 2 days just waiting on a phone call.  If I had needed something quickly it wouldn’t have mattered to this company.   (Technically, I received the package day one, called them on day two, got an email day three, and then if I had needed something they would have not been able to work on it until day four.)   Bad customer service is not something I want to deal with every time I have an issue.

Print quality is massively important and obvious but don’t make the mistake of sacrificing for cost.  You want to make sure the paper is good and the prints are clear with good colors.  I’ll talk more about papers specifically in a later post, but you can still test on whatever is standard at a company.  If you follow my work, you know I love working in black and white.  One of the major issues I had was not getting a good black and white image.  They tend to have an off tint to them.  Colors can vary quite a bit from company to company.  Some companies use paper that has the brand on the back of the paper.  If this is something that is going to bother you, it should be noted.  Some people don’t care, others feel like it looks unprofessional.  You also want to take note as to whether or not they print their company name on the back of the image.  If you use a company that is known for not having great images and it has their name on the back, it says something about the print quality to others even if your image appears to look ok.  (Trying to not name specific companies here.)  Just a few things to keep in mind when comparing your test prints.

Ease of ordering.  Pretty self explanatory.  Do you want to pull your hair out every time you sit down to order prints?  Some websites are much more user friendly than others.

Ahhh, shipping time.  Waiting a really long time for prints is no fun.  Not for you, or your customers if you’re trying to ship them quickly.  No one likes to pay upgraded shipping charges.  I was pretty sure that one of the companies I ordered from still uses the Pony Express.  Although I think a horse could have actually gotten them here faster.  Or maybe they sit on the prints hoping you’ll pay more?  (Like that monster online place…)  I don’t know, but slow shipping is no fun unless you have a lot of patience and aren’t on any deadlines.

Packaging.  How does the company ship your prints to you?  Are they rolled or flat?  (Both are ok as long as they’re done right.)  Properly padded?  Some companies are better at this than others.

Last and least, price.  I know that it’s easy to look at price lists and pick the cheaper prints, but what you save in money you waste in troubles sometimes.  I’m not saying that you have to pay more, and if you’ve been reading along from the beginning of my blog you should know, I hate wasting money as much as anyone.  But don’t use price as a determining factor until the other things are figured out!  All other things equal or close, then by all means pick the cheaper ones.


So go to Google and type in where to have prints made.  Read the reviews and pick three or four companies that you’re going to test out.  I’d recommend doing this all at once, not one at a time.  You want to compare.  If you do it one at a time, and the first prints come back and look ok and you go with that, that’s not comparing.  That’s potentially settling on ok when they could be great somewhere else.

You’ll want to pick a few different types of images if your work varies at all.  For example in my case I would pick a graphite drawing, a drawing on black paper, and a colored pencil drawing.

When I ordered my first set of test prints, I ordered a couple at full size.  DO NOT do this!!  It was a waste of money.  If they are terrible (and they were) you don’t need a full size to tell.  If they happen to be good at a small size, they’ll probably be ok at a big size.  Start small and waste less money.

I’d recommend ordering 4x6s to start with.  Not really big enough to fully test print quality, but they are big enough to test glaring color mistakes and all of the other items on the list.  Trust me on this.  For real.

If you’re planning to ignore that last paragraph because you don’t want to waste time not testing print quality the first time around, then order a couple of crop images that are 4×6 in size when printed.  I do this all of the time when I’m test printing my work.  I’ll try and explain if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.  Take your image at regular size and select a 4×6 section that has good variation of detail.  Save that as a file and print that.  No, obviously it’s not going to look like anything, but it will show what that section would look like at a normal size.  If this is super confusing, I’ll probably do a tutorial on it to show what I’m talking about.  Let me know.

So my advice is to have a list of 3-4 companies and order 3-6 4×6 images.  (My example order would be:  graphite, black paper, colored pencil, then a close up crop of each of those.  Because let’s be real here, I would ignore my own advice above, because I seem to like torturing myself instead of doing things the easy way.)

Write down when you order, when they arrive, all of the quality information, and then compare.  I’d honestly recommend calling the company and asking a couple questions.  Even if you have to pretend to have questions.  You want to deal with friendly, helpful people.  It’s best to not discover you picked a bad customer service when you genuinely need fast help!

At this point what paper to chose doesn’t matter.  It really doesn’t.  If a company can’t get your colors correct on their standard paper, they won’t be right on a different or more expensive paper.  If it takes 2-3 weeks to get to you, in a beat up package and rude customer service, do you really care what paper the prints are on?  It’ll be important later.  But not now.

So what specific companies should you test?  Yeah, I knew someone was hoping I’d give some names.  I print my own work.  Which means that I have yet to test one that I’d fully recommend.  And I also know that sometimes one person’s experience with a company is the opposite of another’s experience.  So I don’t even want to mention the bad companies.  They obviously work for a lot of people, and they just might be great for you.  This topic has so many forum threads and blog posts on it.  It won’t be hard to find a list of some companies to test.  Since you’re testing a handful at once, you’ll find the best for you.

I’m sure that some of you may be thinking in your head, wow that’s a lot of money to spend just to test print!  It’s not.  Trust me.  Ordering 4x6s is super cheap.  Really you’re going to spend all of the money here on shipping.  And I promise that ordering from many companies is still cheaper than my first order that is sitting in the back of a closet collecting dust.

If you have any questions or if I forgot some part of information please let me know!  You can comment below, send me an email, or track me down on social media.  I love hearing from you.

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Jessica 🙂