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Monday, January 1, 2007

The Complete Guide To Working With A Lab

Photo labs aren't just for film shooters, by a long shot


The Complete Guide To Working  With A LabHow things have changed. As a new photographer many multitudes of moons ago, I developed my own film and made my own prints, in large part because I couldn’t afford to have a good lab do it. Today, in the digital age, it actually costs less to use a good lab—and the quality is excellent.

But cost isn’t the only reason you might want to check out today’s photo labs. While fine-art photographers prefer to do their own film developing and printing to maintain total control over the creative process (not only in the darkroom—today’s inkjet printers turn out terrific prints), many shooters prefer to spend their photographic time shooting pictures.

They have found that working with a good lab can produce the results they want in their images, and are thus able to spend more of their time in the field.

Today’s labs offer a host of products and services that go way beyond processing film and making prints from film and digital images. And you don’t even have to leave your home; you can access these assets online. This makes a lab anywhere in the world as accessible as one on the next block. Following is a look at how to get your photos to a lab and the products and services available today, plus advice on working with your lab.

A visit to each lab’s website will show you what services and products it offers. If you’re looking to obtain photo mouse pads, for example, some labs provide this and others don't. Likewise, if you need a 72x108-inch print from a 35mm negative, not all labs offer this service. Lab websites make it quick and easy to see what’s available.

Monitor Calibration
The bane of the digital photographer is to work hard to get the image on the monitor to look just right, then discover that the image doesn’t look like that when printed. Color management is the art/science/voodoo of getting output to look like what you see on screen. It starts with a calibrated monitor. If your monitor isn’t calibrated, it won’t accurately display the colors and tones in your photograph.

Calibrating your monitor is a relatively painless task, best done with a calibration product like DataColor’s ColorVision Spyder2 Suite. This consists of a Spyder2 colorimeter, which attaches to the front of the monitor, and the Spyder2 Advanced Monitor Calibration Software. Just follow the directions that come with it (or another product you choose), and you’ll soon have a properly calibrated monitor. For best results, you should recalibrate your monitor regularly (at least every few months).

If you make your own prints on an inkjet or other home printer, you should also calibrate the printer (Spyder2 Suite includes printer-calibration tools), but that’s beyond the scope of this article about photo labs.

The lab doesn’t have your monitor, but does have properly calibrated monitors and printing equipment, and should be able to give you what you expect in your prints if your monitor is properly calibrated.

Paul Kimball of CPQ Professional Imaging/ProPics Express offers some handy tips:
1 Use a monitor that has a solid industry rating for maintaining an even trim for Kelvin temperature and Gamma
2 Use a monitor hood to gain optimum monitoring conditions for viewing
3 Use output profiles in .icm format (provided by CPQ), which photographers can apply to their images in Photoshop to mimic the final output print; CPQ also offers calibration documents and tips for using the Spyder2 in both Windows and Mac environments
4 Use testing and input between lab and photographer, including submitting test files
(which CPQ prints free of charge) prior to submitting a large job to the large job to the lab.

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