Start strong. To get a great print, start with a good photo. No printer in the world can magically rescue a low-quality image. If you see imperfections in the photo on your smartphone screen (say, focus and lighting problems), they will only be magnified on a 5x7-inch print—and even more so on an 8x10. Photos with Instagram filters often get resized, losing integrity before you upload them. If your image requires retouching, you’re better off using the editing options provided by the vendor.

Shave off shipping. Shipping costs can add significantly to the total price of your order—from $1 to more than $10 for orders that are large or specialized—so it makes sense to seek out the best deals. Amazon, for example, offers free shipping for Prime members. Even better is to eliminate shipping altogether. Many services offer in-store pickup depending on the print size. Snapfish orders of standard prints can be retrieved at a CVS, Walgreens, or Walmart store. Shutterfly makes 4x6-inch glossy prints available at CVS, Target, and Walgreens. Costco also offers free in-store pickup and free standard shipping, but once again only for 4x6 prints.

More on Photography & Photo Editing

Count on coupons. Keep in mind that online vendors routinely offer coupons for free shipping as well as discounts on prints and bonuses such as photo books. Without them, you’re probably looking at significant delivery fees added to the bottom line.

Act on the app. Remember to check out the app for each service for special deals. For example, Shutterfly offered unlimited photo storage and all the 4x4 and 4x6 prints you want free of charge. At Snapfish, the enticement was 100 free 4x6 prints per month for a year, although shipping wasn't included. In addition, many of the apps can import photos directly from Facebook and Instagram. And CVS and Walgreens promise same-day pickup at a store near you.

Don’t settle. Not happy? Speak up. Amazon’s print service gives you up to 30 days after an order arrives to contact it; Walmart makes it 90. If you’re dissatisfied with your prints “for any reason,” claims Walgreens, “we will provide you with a full replacement or a full refund.” Shutterfly promises a free replacement for prints with flaws attributed to its service. For mistakes on your part—say, requesting prints of a low-resolution image—the company will share the cost of replacement.

How to Use the Websites Well

For the most part, the websites we examined were simple to navigate, allowing the user to order prints in a variety of sizes with relative ease.

For those who want a little hand-holding, Nations Photo Lab numbers each step in the ordering process, and AdoramaPix uses pop-up windows to guide you through the decision-making. The latter also provides customers with an “express order mode” that recalls details from prior orders to help speed you along.

With Shutterfly, there’s no wading into the process. You must be ready to make decisions about photo size, finish, and the number of prints right off the bat.

At Amazon, the trick is finding the right link. Spare yourself a headache by just doing a Google search for “Amazon prints.”

And here’s one last point worth considering: Most of these services require you to repeat steps for prints with different finishes: matte, glossy, or lustre. Snapfish even sends you in different directions to pick up the prints (a CVS or Walgreens for glossy and a Walmart for matte). Mpix requires repeated steps for prints of different sizes, too.

AdoramaPix and Shutterfly allow you to request multiple finishes with more ease, though you may have to upload a photo to Shutterfly twice and assign it different names to have it printed in both matte and glossy.

We also learned that prints from Amazon, CVS, and Walgreens were all shipped from the same Maryland address—the one belonging to District Photo, the company that owns Snapfish. This may explain why the retail interfaces on the CVS, Snapfish, and Walgreens websites are strikingly similar.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.