It took hours and hours of searching online and quality inspections, but I’ve finally found what I think is the absolute best print lab for high quality photo calendars!
Okay, actually my wife Joy found it. All I really did was spend way too much time comparing all the other options out there, only to confirm that her choice was the best. She also helped me pick the images and promote it on Instagram, selling almost 100 copies! (There are only a few left, if you’re interested)
Other Photo Calendar Print Labs
As a professional photographer, I’ve spent many years working with some of the more common online print labs, such as Bay Photo, MPix, and WHCC. Most of these pro labs offer calendars, and I’ve seen some of them here and there, but none were ever truly impressive.
Also, as a professional, I’ve spent many years hearing about the more budget-friendly photo calendar labs – Shutterfly, Snapfish, Vistaprint, and of course, Walgreens, Walmart, and every other store that has one of those little kiosks. I’ve seen plenty of them, and usually to be honest, they’re drugstore-grade quality, at best.
All in all, I thought it was impossible to buy a quality photo calendar affordably enough to be able to re-sell it, even for a couple dollars profit. Thankfully, I was oh-so-wrong!
Printing Center USA
Printing Center USA (www.printingcenterusa.com)is based in Montana. They offer a whole bunch of different products, from booklets, brochures, and catalogs to flyers, post cards, and letterhead. In fact, since they’re less of an ordinary photo print lab and more geared towards short-run printing and direct mailing, I might have never found them if my wife Joy hadn’t. But I’m glad I did find them, and printing my 2015 photo calendar with them was a fantastic experience.
Calendar Options & Design
Using their straightforward online interface, you can upload photos for 5.5×8.5″, 8.5×11″ or 12×12″ photo calendars. I did a test run of their 8.5×11″ calendars before I placed my final order for 12×12″ calendars, and the print and paper quality seemed to be identical for both.
The 12×12 calendar doesn’t have the option for saddle-stitched binding like the smaller size does, so I had to get wire-O, but both look nice.
If you just want a basic no-frills photo calendar, the interface is refreshingly easy compared to other print labs. In fact, most of the consumer-oriented print labs try to make it practically impossible NOT to have some sort of cheesy border or other design either around your photos, or on the calendar date pages, etc. With Printing Center USA’s interface however, it was a breeze to just select the right options and then dump in a folder of high-res JPGs.
I wanted a little bit of custom design though, so I simply submitted a note with my order that I would like to have the back of the calendar display my website URL, and have each page display a small caption about the image. They called me on the phone right away, talked briefly about my ideas, and designed everything for me. Their professional design service cost was negligible in the grand scheme of a 100-calendar order.
That’s not to say that options are limited, to be sure. You can custom design pretty much anything, and get as elaborate or as simple as you would like. You can also create custom sizes other than the 12×12″ (squares are tough!) or the (small-ish) 8.5×11,” and I will definitely be getting more information about all of those off-the-menu options for a 2016 calendar. (Seriously, it wasn’t easy to fit 12 images into a square crop!)
Paper and Image Quality
For the price, I’m utterly blown away. Heck, forget the price, I’m still blown away!
Simply put, this quality of printing blows all the popular, consumer labs out of the water. This is not your grandma’s snapshot calendar for kittens and grandchildren; this is for serious photographers who have an eye for perfect color, fine detail, and overall quality.
I intentionally submitted a few images that were, in fact, blown out when viewed in sRGB, and the vibrance shone through beautifully in the final prints. It didn’t get funky, it didn’t wash out, it stayed true and colorful.
One thing that set this calendar apart from some of the competition was its paper options. I ordered glossy everything, basically, with the thickest paper possible. This really sets the calendar apart from anything you’ll get from the likes of Snapfish or Shutterfly, etc. Some of the other labs simply don’t offer glossy covers, period, and that is a huge part of what leaves a photo calendar looking either gorgeous, or dull and boring.
Okay I’ll be honest, by comparison, some of the other calendars I’ve seen look decent, but some of them look like they were printed at home on a cheap inkjet printer. (And yet they cost about the same, if you’re ordering more than just a couple calendars!)
One of the nicest things about photography is that almost all the labs are relatively local. I’ve been on the phone with plenty of print labs from around the country, (the US) and they’re all in-house and relatively friendly. (I love the lollipops that WHCC sends in their packages!)
Printing Center USA was not to be outdone in this category; customer support was absolutely awesome. They’re friendly, helpful, prompt, and informed / knowledgeable. Oh, and they also complimented my photography, major brownie points for that!
Pricing & Volume Discounts
Of course, you can’t just buy one calendar, this is not that kind of lab. Order a handful. (This lab has volume options well into the thousands!)
I don’t know any photographer who would only ever want to share their imagery with just ONE person per year, though, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
Still, this was definitely one of the deciding factors for me when it came down to it. All online labs offer a volume discount, but Printing Center USA offered one of the best, by far.
Other photo labs offered similar (to each other, not Printing Center USA) small discounts for orders of 10+ or 20+…and that’s about it. In other words, if I had only decided to purchase 10-20 calendars, it would have still been no contest, but when I decided to order 100 calendars, the price difference compared to almost every other lab was staggering. (And those labs that came even close were the “look what I printed at home!” quality labs…)
I don’t have the exact cost per calendar, but it was pretty much the only option if I wanted to sell 12-month, 12×12″ calendars for $25 each. You should definitely just go on their site and plug in a few numbers, and see what you get. Even if you’re not hoping to sell a hundred or more calendars professionally, I think you’ll be downright impressed once you get to 10+ volume!
Shipping & Delivery Quality
The calendars were shipped in very well-packaged, shrink-wrapped bundles of 10. The bundles are bubble-wrapped, and for good measure, the top and bottom and sides inside the box have packing peanuts. Impressive! Considering how heavy a box of 50-100 calendars would be; no UPS guy is going to be tossing this thing around recklessly like Ace Ventura.
Out of the hundred calendars, only two of them arrived with minor damage; one calendar page had a small scratch in the ink, and another calendar was missing its back cover (according to my customer, at least). Considering some of the print delivery quality nightmares I’ve dealt with in my career, I’m pretty impressed! Also considering the customer support friendliness, I’m sure if I had brought it up, they’d have shipped me replacements pronto.
Since this review is of a print lab I wasn’t exactly able to fit the usual star criteria in, (Value, performance, features, design, quality), but if I had to give Printing Center USA’s photo calendar making service an overall rating, it would be 4.5 stars out of 5.
I wouldn’t hesitate to give this print lab five out of five stars overall, however I’m going with 4.5 stars because I feel their online interface can get a bit troublesome at times, and could be improved quite easily to better describe the default / cookie cutter options as well as any off-the-menu customizations there might be for size or text.
My own custom design was simple enough that it could have been possible with just a couple minor tweaks to the online design interface.
If you’re interested, there are just a few calendars left, and they are only $25.
(With free shipping, since it’s almost February! ;-)
Do You Have A Favorite Lab?
Later this year, we’ll consider doing a true shoot-out style competition between some of the most popular online print labs, for not just photo calendars, but also more common things like prints and books and canvases. If you have a challenger that you’d like to see in the running (which we haven’t already mentioned here), please leave a comment below!
Or, if you would like to hear more about my endeavors in selling my nature / landscape photography, please comment with any questions or suggestions!