Like you, I enjoy making color prints at home using an inkjet printer, but I still find that a photo lab plays a big role in my photography. Although I increasingly shoot digital, I have a large archive of negatives and slides that I occasionally need digitized or printed. Yes, I can do some of that at home, but when I have dozens of images that need scanning and printing, I don't hesitate to use a lab. While Photoshop can be fun, I increasingly want to spend my free hours creating new images rather than laboring over older ones.
As with any service, it can be a challenge to find the "right" lab. If price is your bottom line, you'll easily find a facility that will give you "acceptable" results. But if you're reading this magazine, you're the type of photographer whose investment in gear and time suggests you want more than average results. You want scans and prints that reflect your commitment and love of photography. And if you shoot digitally, you want prints that match the color and contrast of what you saw on your camera's LCD and computer monitor.
A lot is changing in the world of film and digital labs, much of which is beneficial to us as photographers.
The Film Shooter
The recent discontinuation of R-type paper and chemicals has resulted in fans of slide film looking at other alternatives to printmaking. Now, images are scanned and output on traditional photo paper using a variety of digital printers. Although fans of R-type prints may lament the loss of this printing process, many photographers are discovering the benefits of the new technologies for printing.
"Some photographers shooting slide film are still looking for a certain look to their prints—saturated color, strong contrast—that Velvia slide look," says Michael Smith of West Michigan PhotoWorks. "But we're able to show them that digital printing is a much better process. With R-type prints, it was very hard to control saturation and contrast; with digital, they're not only controllable, but repeatable."
Full-service labs like West Michigan PhotoWorks are making the transition from film to digital easier for photographers. Whether a shooter wants to scan and enhance his or her own images or allow the lab to optimize them, the photographer is increasingly benefiting from facilities whose years of experience with the traditional lab provides the skill sets that are indispensable in the digital age.
"With our high-end scanners, we can produce a 75 MB file from a 35mm slide," says Smith.
The files produced by high-resolution scanners are not only bigger than what can be achieved with a flatbed scanner, but provide greater flexibility for producing a quality enlargement.
Adds Smith, "There's no interpolation with that file. We can then take that scan and spot it, color correct it and do whatever changes the photographer wants and output it to a digital print. It's a much better process than the old direct printing one."
Smith has had photographers who for years had R-type prints made from their slides and complained about the look of the new prints. They complained that the new prints lacked a certain "glow" when compared to their older prints.
"When I would have them come in and we'd take a critical look at the print, the glow was the result of the print being slightly out of focus," says Smith. "Ultimately, they're discovering the better results offered by digital."
The Digital Shooter
The recent ascent of digital photography has meant major changes for photo labs. Although it has been a challenging transition, many of today's labs are discovering that their long years of experience are translating well in the digital age. Digital pixels may have replaced film grain, but the underlying principles of what makes a quality image and print haven't changed.
"Ten years ago, we began our move into the digital market," says Dave Brink, general manager of The Slideprinter, a full-service lab based in Denver, Colorado. "We've completely converted and moved into the digital market by replacing our systems with digital technology, including Chimera printers and drum scanners."
By using an FTP (file transfer protocol) site, digital shooters can upload dozens or hundreds of files to a digital lab. This not only eliminates the need to drive to and from a lab, but also provides photographers the option of choosing the best lab for them regardless of whether it's local or not.
"Virtually any lab can buy this equipment," Brink says, explaining that the printers, scanners and software are available to anyone who can afford them. But the results are dependent on the people utilizing the equipment.
"What sets us apart are the people we have who have been working in the industry for years," he says. "They come with an understanding of color, contrast, tonality. When I do quality control, I look at a print and I ask myself, Would I buy this print? Photographers should ask themselves if they want a machine or a computer deciding what a beautiful print is. That's something that doesn't work for us."