Why Your Print Lab Is So Important
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You’ve just finished the perfect session … the lighting was perfect, your clients were amazing to work with, the location and the props you lovingly selected with care were all fabulous. You feel giddy with the excitement of opening those images and seeing the art you captured. You next spend time carefully processing the images to perfection, making sure the color is perfect, the amount of contrast just right right, the details and clarity are spot on. Your clients view their proofs, oohing and ahhing the whole time … did you even see a tear or two in there? Everything is perfect … now who do you trust to print those images that you poured your heart and soul (not to mention time and money) into?
I don’t know about you, but after all that work bringing your photography and vision to fruition, the final product is a step that is of the utmost importance. I have been wanting to do a little demonstration for a while now, sending the same image to different labs and comparing the differences. I initially sent the image to a half dozen different chain/big box type print labs all over our town, but after viewing them I decided to not use most of them for this demonstration because they were all the same. And by the same, I mean both mediocre and wildly different. What?! Bear with me here. Sending your prints to non-pro labs is going to leave you with not only sub-par quality prints, but inconsistent results. The technician running the machine, the calibration of the printer, etc. are all going to influence your final prints. So, what may have come back from Wal-Mart with too strong contrast and a yellow cast one week will look drastically different the next. It’s a coin toss … washed out and blue?? Cyan and blown highlights?? But whatever the results, as inconsistent as they may be, you can count on the quality being inferior to that of a pro lab (or for non pros, MPIX).
I’ve decided to a fairly non-scientific study to compare print quality among several chain labs and my preferred pro lab. This is just to give you a general sense of the drastically different prints non-pro labs will produce, and to compare the quality difference between them and a pro lab. Even in this uncontrolled setting (I laid the images out in natural light, kept the settings the same from image to image and applied no processing after uploading beyond resizing for web in order to keep the playing field as level as possible), the quality difference is apparent.
For those interested in viewing the original, unedited image you can view it here.
Note that the Simply Color sample is printed on the luster paper as most of the other examples are shown (a few of the labs didn’t have any option available beyond the glossy paper). The Simply Color luster paper print is shown inside the album that I speak of below (I use it in my studio to show clients the different types of paper available for prints). It has a thin black border around the image.
And a second sample …
To see this before shot and recipe view here.
Some key points when preparing your images for print.
Always do your editing on a calibrated monitor. There is simply no other way to be certain that what you see on your screen is what you will see when your images are printed. This should be done well before you ever start processing your images. I recommend and use the Xrite EODIS3 i1Display Pro.A less expensive alternative is the Xrite CMUNDIS ColorMunki Display1. Keep in mind that there are other steps beyond the monitor calibration process that you’ll need to have done correctly in order to get accurate screen to print color in your images. These include using color profiles correctly (use the color profile recommended by your lab), soft-proofing (ask your lab if they have a soft-proofing profile available and use it) and having appropriate lighting when editing and viewing your images. I know each of these things are big subjects in themselves, but I’m trying to keep this on the simple side and will touch on these subjects in future posts with more in-depth detail.
Color Space, Soft Proofing, File Type and Size
Always refer to your lab before preparing images and uploading. They will have guidelines for color space (which will usually be sRGB or Adobe 1998 RGB – however check with your specific lab as many have their own profiles to use), file type (such as JPEG max quality, TIFF, etc), sizing, resolution, etc. Ask for a soft proofing profile which you can use to view exactly what your prints will look like when printed on their machines (as long as you are calibrated, that is). I like to leave my resolution unchanged in order to leave as much pixel data as possible – the only thing I do is crop if needed for the print’s aspect ratio (see here for details and how to’s), leaving the resolution blank (which leaves my image resolution as it is). But again, check with your lab to make sure you are preparing the files as they need them. Also, be sure to choose NO color/auto correction, especially if you are calibrated and have meticulously processed your image for perfect color – this will guarantee you get not only accurate but consistent results (when working with a reputable pro quality lab).
Sharpen your images for print, zooming in to 100% view to see the actual results. Keep in mind that viewing web sharpening and viewing print sharpening are two different things. I frequently get asked why web images look so much crisper after sharpening versus higher resolution images. What you see in a web size version image will look more dramatic and crisp because you are viewing the image at 100% … to see the actual results and difference in a sharpening action in a full size, high res image I encourage users to zoom in to 100% to see the actual results. So apply your sharpening action (after your final crop), zoom in to 100% view (hit command or control + 1) and then toggle the sharpen layer(s) on and off to see the difference. Because you usually can’t view the high res image in it’s entirety at 100% size, you won’t be able to see the actual results over the entire image until it’s printed. So, zoom and toggle!
Order sample prints
Almost any pro lab (and MPIX as well) will give you a few test prints for free when you register an account with them. This will allow you to double check your final prints. I strongly recommend doing this before sending any client work to a new lab for print. I choose the option of having a sample Fine Art Album created by Simply Color Lab so I could have an album of examples showing the different types of papers offered by my lab to clients. Most labs will offer a swatch book of samples for free, but I think it holds more value for clients to see your own work in the samples and have them sized large enough to really get a sense of how the different paper options affect the image. My lab, Simply Color, offers their 8”x8” Leather Bound, Professional Album featuring your logo and your favorite image printed on 11 fine art photo papers to have on display for your clients … it’s $50 and then you get a $50 credit – so it’s basically free. My clients love looking through it to select their paper choice.
I get this question a lot, so while attempting to not sound like a commercial (the idea to have this extra little bonus came after the fact) I wanted to take a quick minute to explain why after trying numerous other professional labs, I choose to use Simply Color Lab and their sister company Simply Canvas as my go to lab for my clients print and canvas orders.
When clients hire a professional photographer the expectation is they’ll be getting professional images and this goes beyond what we capture. As a professional we should be expected to not only know how to capture a fantastic image, but we are also responsible to make that image is the best it can be. If we’ve done our job, the images we capture will be hung proudly on walls and will be displayed for the world to see. I know when I put my name and reputation on my work I want it to be the best it can be? Whether a small print or a giant canvas, simply put, they help me deliver the best possible product to my clients.
Over the years I have tried numerous labs and hands down have been the most pleased with Simply Color Lab and Simply Canvas. Not only are their products outstanding, but their customer service (something that I place extreme value in) is amazing. They make ordering prints FUN.
Note: Simply Color Lab is a lab for professional photographers. For non-pros I recommend MPIX.