Photo labs aren't just for film shooters, by a long shot
By Mike Stensvold
Prints Printing is the bread and butter of the photo lab—making prints of all sizes from your negatives, slides or digital files. You can have prints from wallet size to huge enlargements made on a variety of materials. Just how big you can print a given digital image depends on its pixel count: more megapixels means you can make bigger prints (see the table at right). Keep in mind that an image has to be very sharp to make a huge enlargement; blowing up a blurry image just makes the lack of sharpness much more obvious, no matter how many megapixels the image contains, or whether the print is made from a digital file or from a negative or slide.
With digital images, you can have the lab print each image just as you send it or let the lab adjust the color, density and contrast. Labs generally have experienced printers who have a good idea of what constitutes a great print and can make the best possible print from your file. But many serious photographers will work with a lab to learn how to prepare their digital files for optimal results. Generally, if you instruct the lab to make a print to its specs, it will redo it if you don’t like the results. If you prepare the image and indicate "print file without corrections," you’re responsible for the results.
Check the website (or call) to see what paper(s) the lab uses to make prints and how long they can be expected to last. Some labs print digital images on silver-halide photographic paper, while others make pigment inkjet or other digital prints. With today's technology, all should be long lasting, but it doesn't hurt to know what you're getting.
Finishing Touches. While it's easy (and best) to retouch digital images on-screen, you can also have the lab retouch the prints when necessary. Some labs can digitally remove unwanted elements from an image or add elements.
Most labs will also mount and frame your prints. One interesting treatment is the gallery wrap, with the image printed on art canvas and wrapped around a thick frame.
Photo Books. Some labs will let you create beautiful photo books of your images using their templates, then order one or more bound hardcover copies—a wonderful way to present your images to family, friends and clients also is surprisingly affordable. You can do photo-only books or books containing your photos and accompanying text. Some labs offer bound event albums, popular with wedding and party photographers and their clients.
Novelty Items. You can have photos printed on mugs, mouse pads, statuettes, trading cards, buttons, magazine covers, holiday/greeting cards, postcards, playing cards, business cards, calendars, notebooks, T-shirts, clocks and more—check to see what each lab offers.
Image Pixel Recommendations For Various Print Sizes
800 x 1200 = 1 MP
1200 x 1800 = 2.1 MP
1000 x 1400 = 1.4 MP
1500 x 2100 = 3.1 MP
1600 x 2000 = 3.2 MP
2400 x 3000 = 7.2 MP
1600 x 2400 = 3.8 MP
2400 x 3600 = 8.6 MP
1800 x 2400 = 4.3 MP
2700 x 3600 = 9.7 MP
2200 x 2800 = 6.1 MP
3300 x 4200 = 13.8 MP
2200 x 3400 = 7.5 MP
3300 x 5100 = 16.8 MP
2600 x 3800 = 9.9 MP
3900 x 5100 = 19.9 MP
3200 x 4000 = 12.8 MP
4800 x 6000 = 28.8 MP
4000 x 4800 = 19.2 MP
6000 x 7200 = 43.2 MP
200 pixels per inch (ppi) should yield a very good print; 300 ppi should yield an excellent print (assuming a sharp, properly exposed image)
Other Services Today's photo labs offer a number of services besides printing your images.
Online Storage. One useful and increasingly popular service is online storage/backup. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) filling your hard drives and grosses of CDs or DVDs with images, you store your images on the lab's secure servers. You can access the images at any time, have images uploaded automatically, and avoid the hassle and expense of burning and storing CDs and DVDs or acquiring and filling external hard drives (although it's a good idea to keep copies of important images at home as well). Some labs provide free online storage of a number of images to regular customers; others provide the service for a monthly fee.
Online Display. Many online labs let you create and store albums of images to be viewed online by friends, clients or anyone you allow access via password. This can be a good way to share images and to sell them. Some labs provide this service free to customers, usually for a limited time; others charge a monthly fee.
Film Processing. Despite the popularity of digital imaging, many photographers continue to shoot film, and there are still lots of labs that process color print, color slide and black-and-white films in various formats.
Besides standard processing, most labs offer push- and pull-processing services. If you need more film speed for dim-light or action work, you can deliberately underexpose the film a stop or two, then have the lab push-process it to compensate. Results won't be as good as with properly exposed film, but will be much better than with underexposed film normally developed. Conversely, if you accidentally overexposed a whole roll because the meter was set for the wrong ISO, you can have the lab pull-process the film to compensate. Again, the results won't be as good as with properly exposed film, but will be much better than overexposed and normally developed film.
Film Scanning. Many labs can convert your negatives and slides into high-resolution digital files by scanning them. This service is handy if you've been shooting film for a long while and have a large archive of negatives and slides, some of which you now would like to deal with digitally. Just how high "high resolution" is varies among labs, so check the figures before placing an order.
Going the other direction, some labs can output your digital files as slides or negatives, which is handy if you shoot with a digital camera and you or a client want negatives of slides.
Getting Your Photos To The Lab You can take your negatives and slides (or digital images on disc) to a convenient lab or mail them in. But there's another way to get your images to the lab: online. Most digital labs have websites through which you can upload your images; just follow the on-screen instructions. For large orders, some labs provide an ROES (Remote Order Entry System) application, which involves downloading software from the website that expedites ordering the various products and services the lab provides. Of course, your images must be in digital form to use online labs. Digital cameras take care of this automatically, but you can scan your negatives or slides using a film scanner or have a local lab scan them for you.
Check with the online lab to see how your images should be prepared. Often this information is posted on the website, but it doesn't hurt to call or e-mail with questions before submitting images. Most labs can accept JPEG and TIFF images, and some will even accept RAW images and process them optimally to their standards. Most prefer RGB color space (sRGB or Adobe RGB) and won't accept CMYK images.
Bear in mind that it takes longer to upload larger image files, especially if you have a slower Internet connection. (If you have a slow Internet connection, you might prefer to burn your images to a CD or DVD and mail the disc to the lab.)