Costco offers a very cost effective printing service, that allows you to either take a memory card with images into the store, or upload pictures online to their website (Costco Photo Center), and advertises prints in as little as 1 hour.
My Grandfathers 85th birthday is coming up, he doesn't get to see his great grandkids much. He has never used a computer, so I usually print and send him a bunch of photos whenever I can. I normally print these myself, but since I was going to Costco yesterday anyway, I figured it was time to give their print service a go, to see what I was missing.
At the time of writing this, 4x6 prints are a mere 13 cents each, meaning if I wasn't planning on going already, it would probably cost me more in gas to get them than it would cost to print them. Creating an account was free and simple, as was uploading, and creating an order for the prints. Once in the cart, you can review each image and adjust the crop. The default crop they selected was mostly correct, since they appear to select the middle of the image. However on a couple of them they cut half of my son's head off, which doesn't always make for the best picture. Adjusting the crop is simple, and in less than 5 minutes everything was ready to go, certainly less time than it would have taken to print myself.
However just before I checked out, I noticed that they do 12x18 prints for $2.99. Anyone with a good quality inkjet printer knows just how much 8 sets of archival ink and decent paper costs, and how quickly you go through them. There is no way I could do a print that size for $2.99, especially if I factor in the time I'd spend on it. So for that price, I figured I'd give it a go to see how it compared.
My 3-year-old son loves aircraft, so I uploaded a picture of a F-15 Eagle I'd taken at an airshow last year: it's not the best picture in the world, but it is very sharp and would make a decent poster on my son's wall. Again uploading was simple, checked the crop, selected the Lustre finish (the only other choice was Glossy), left the "autocorrect" option on (wanted to see what it would do), and placed the order.
Within seconds the order confirmation email arrived, and miraculously my “prints in as little as one hour" would be ready for pickup in 2 hours. No explanation was given for the extra hour in the email, but that wasn't an issue anyway. However if you were on a tight schedule and wanted to pick up pictures in your lunch hour for example, it's worth being aware that it may take longer, and they don't tell you online until after you've completed the order.
So how did the prints come out?
The 4x6's were about what you'd expect, about the same quality as you would get a few years ago taking your print film to a one hour processor, average to good quality, no complaints.
However the 18x12 print was in a different league.
The original image was a grab shot taken with a Nikon D300, 200-400mm f4 zoom at 400mm handheld. Settings were 1/1000th sec at f4, ISO 400, with +1 EV dialed in because of the sun position/shadow: I tend to get a lot of shadow noise on hot sunny days with the D300 in the blues and grays (especially if the camera has been in the direct sunlight for many hours heating up), so I usually dial in a little exposure compensation to eliminate that, and then bring the other colors back in post processing as needed. This particular image I hadn't post processed yet, this image was uncropped, just downloaded from the camera and converted to JPEG using Capture NX, and that is it.
For $2.99 my expectations were not that high. The print came back in a large envelope with a protective piece of cardboard to keep it flat. The print itself was a very sharp showing an enormous amount of detail. Details on the pilots face, the buckle on his shoulder strap, even bolts on the wheels under the plane were all clearly visible with excellent detail.
The auto color adjust had darkened the image somewhat, but not too much, and the orange light on the wing didn't stand out nearly as much as in the original image. The same applies to the green light on the wing tip.
The image was cropped a little more tightly than I had selected, chopping off a very small portion of the wing tip, so something to be aware of.
Overall, the results were much better than I expected, and both cheaper and less time intensive than printing yourself. While not museum quality (what do you expect for $2.99?), the print quality is more than sufficient than you need to frame and put on your wall, and is as good or better than a lot of commercial prints I've purchased over the years.
Is this a service I'd recommend? Absolutely. Be aware that they may crop more aggressively than you select, and it may take longer than one hour. If you want to preserve the original colors, make sure you turn off the auto correction feature. But for $2.99, you get a very sharp 12x18 inch print with great color saturation and contrast, that's probably going to be as good or better than any prints you currently have on your wall. Even better, you get it all for a lot less time and money than it would take to print yourself.