With the holidays fast approaching, it's time to start thinking about creating photo calendars as gifts for friends and family. But after you dig out all your favorite photos from the year— squirreled away in your camera's memory card or dumped onto your computer's hard drive—which service should you use to provide you the most flexibility when designing a calendar, and providing the best in terms of print quality?
Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideAfter testing six of the most popular services and recruiting a panel of three photography and printing experts to evaluate the final printed calendars, our Editors' Choice Award goes to Shutterfly, primarily because its printed photos were by far the best among the calendars we created, with very good color, exposure and saturation. Shutterfly's software, while not as flexible as Mixbook's, is intelligent, with great templates, fully editable layouts and the best calendar clip art.
Mixbook came in second. However, given our previous experience with the company's great photo book printing, we were disappointed in Mixbook's inconsistent photo reproduction.
Photo Calendar Services Ranked
How We Tested and Rated
Our testing and analysis methods were divided into two steps: (1) putting the vendor's software through its paces by creating a personalized wall calendar and (2) evaluating the final printed calendar.
When creating each calendar, we used the same photos for each month. These are photos that an amateur took of her children, with little or no editing applied, to emulate the typical consumer experience. While most of the original photos were very nicely exposed, with good to great color, we included others that were less than ideal to see how the various vendors' auto-correction algorithms would handle those shots.
Specifically, the picture we used for November has a very wide dynamic range with a large portion of the image in shadow and a swathe of bright sunlight that falls on the younger boy's face. In the December picture, the older boy's hair is very close in tone to the shadow background behind him, potentially challenging the services' ability to create a differentiation between the hair and the wall. For both September and October, we created two-picture layouts. The two September photos have slightly different skin tones. The October images have very similar skin tones but different levels of contrast.
We attempted to find backgrounds and clip art that would follow similar themes for each month. We tested the interfaces for ease of use, and the quality and versatility of their themes, backgrounds and clip art. We also focused on creative flexibility and how easy it is to realize a creative vision with each service. For instance, are the layouts editable? Can you easily move, resize and rotate your photos, text and clip art? Is the date grid page editable, and can you commemorate special days with photos or text in the date boxes?
We assembled a small jury of photography and printing experts to evaluate the final printed calendars. None of us knew which calendar came from which service. All of us agreed that every calendar was on rather nice, thick, smooth paper stock, and the type was consistently clean and well-formed. So the differentiating factor on print quality was how well the photos were reproduced.
Unfortunately, five of the six calendars had inconsistent picture quality. Only Shutterfly offered consistently good to great photos. It was surprising that some of the problems related to the better-quality original pictures. We decided to see if reprinting the five calendars might improve the final results, though we did so only if the company agreed to reprint for free. (We posed as a consumer rather than a journalist.)
All five vendors said they were sorry to hear we were disappointed in the quality, and they agreed to reprint for free. However, Picaboo wanted us to first adjust the problematic photos. While that might have been appropriate for a consumer seeking a better calendar, it would have invalidated our comparative tests. So we reprinted the calendars only from Apple, Mixbook, Snapfish and Vistaprint.
Afterward, we reconvened our jury and evaluated the differences between each original and its reprint, and rated the photo quality of the cover and each month among Shutterfly, Picaboo and the five reprinted calendars.
In our overall ratings, we gave double statistical value to the printed photos' image quality and appeal, since how pleased you'll be with the final calendar is the most important factor in deciding which vendor to use.
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