Photo labs aren't just for film shooters, by a long shot
By Mike Stensvold
Digital photography has changed not only the way we create images, but also the relationship between photographers and their photo labs. The days when you surrendered your film over to a technician for processing and printing has been transformed into a relationship that offers photographers greater choices over how their images are reproduced.
Though computer and inkjet technology has made quality home printing easier and more affordable, there are many photographers who still prefer to use a lab to produce custom enlargements or specialty items, such as bound books, from their best photographs. Labs provide a viable choice for those who desire high-quality reproductions, but who prefer to spend their time shooting or increasing business rather than working at the computer.
Whether you're making the occasional enlargement or regularly producing prints for exhibition or sale, finding the best lab for you requires a little investigation.
Labs provide a wider range of choices with respect to print output. Today's facilities utilize both the best in inkjet output and traditional photo printing to create prints from digital files and slides. So whether you're creating large numbers of small prints or poster-sized enlargements, there's a printing process that will meet both your aesthetic needs and those of your wallet.
It's important to ask any lab you're considering what printing processes they use and why. This provides you with information to assess not only whether those technologies will serve your personal photographic needs, but also whether the lab itself is aware of the quality and workflow issues that will directly impact your final result. Such conversations can help you to discern the lab's emphasis.
A lab that caters primarily to wedding and portrait photography may be appropriate for photographers who need thousands of images reproduced in a short period of time, such as for special promotion cards. That kind of lab may not be right for a photographer who's more interested in making custom enlargements and has special needs and demands for his or her prints.
"We're a pro lab that focuses on the needs of those photographers—fine-art photographers that need to sell their work," says Richard Seiling, owner of West Coast Imaging. "Our lab is de-signed to meet the needs of those people who wish to express themselves through their photography."
Seiling, whose career and business specializes in the fine-art photographic market, recognizes the needs of photographers selling their prints to clients and admirers, who will be far more demanding than the average consumer.
"We ask ourselves what's the level of quality of print that's intended for sale? Is it perfect? Is there evidence of scratches or dings?" says Seiling. "It comes down to whether the customer is going to get the very best quality that they're paying for. "Finding a lab used to be as simple as finding the location closest to your home or work. Now, computer and fast Internet connections allow photographers to consider labs from anywhere in the country.
But unlike a brick-and-mortar store, which you can walk into and ask questions, online photo labs don't offer that convenience. Thankfully, there are several different ways to differentiate labs in terms of services and customer support.
A lab's website provides more than just pricing information; it offers important insight into how they interact with clients. Labs that provide information on color management and workflow are essential for those photographers who intend to submit their edited files to a lab. Though many labs will gladly accept RAW and unretouched JPEG files, it's important to understand each lab's process for handling and managing those files.
"Labs have a personal responsibility to set the ground rules to ensure the quality of a photographer's work," says Steve Kalalian, president of Industrial Color, who stressed the importance of a color-managed workflow for both the photographer and the lab. "We feel that it's to the benefit of the photographer to have a calibrated workflow that meets industry standards."
While it's essential to edit and judge color on a calibrated monitor, Kalalian also explained that it's important to know and follow the submission requirements of a lab. The result is not only dependent on sophisticated software or advanced computer technology, but also on the photographers and labs clearly understanding each other's needs.
"Communication is really important," says Kalalian. "The industry is changing very rapidly, and each lab may have a different way to handle files and profiles. The equipment and the technology are there, but both the photographer and the lab have to understand what the other wants and needs."
The photofinishing industry is rapidly changing with new technologies replacing printing processes that were staples for years. The lack of direct transparency-to-print technologies has led many film photographers to consider printing alternatives with results that can be very different from those to which they have become accustomed. Whether the results are better or worse can be a topic of contentious debate, but it stresses the need for photographers to understand that new photographic and printing technologies make different demands of the photographer and the printer.
"Most of the color management that's used today came from the printing industry," says Greg Linhoff, co-owner of Linhoff Photo and Digital Services. "In the printing industry, they're working with inks and papers with fewer variables than in the photo industry. As well as difference in color space, you're dealing with differences in paper and chemistry."
Linhoff compares such differences to walking into a big-box retail store and comparing television sets, each of which may display the same scene, but with wide variations of color, brightness and tone. "You don't want a lab that will just make prints without looking at them," he says. "We look at all of them and make subjective adjustments, which with outdoor photographs often involves common elements like green grass or blue sky."
The quality of the photographic image isn't determined at the moment the shutter release is depressed, but rather with that final printed output. It's technology combined with communication between the photographer and his or her lab that will make the print and the photographer look their best.