How 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.
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:
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
|Print Size||200 ppi||300 ppi|
|4x6 in.||800 x 1200 = 1 MP||1200 x 1800 = 2.1 MP|
|5x7 in.||1000 x 1400 = 1.4 MP||1500 x 2100 = 3.1 MP|
|8x10 in.||1600 x 2000 = 3.2 MP||2400 x 3000 = 7.2 MP|
|8x12 in.||1600 x 2400 = 3.8 MP||2400 x 3600 = 8.6 MP|
|9x12 in.||1800 x 2400 = 4.3 MP||2700 x 3600 = 9.7 MP|
|11x14 in.||2200 x 2800 = 6.1 MP||3300 x 4200 = 13.8 MP|
|11x17 in.||2200 x 3400 = 7.5 MP||3300 x 5100 = 16.8 MP|
|13x19 in.||2600 x 3800 = 9.9 MP||3900 x 5100 = 19.9 MP|
|16x20 in.||3200 x 4000 = 12.8 MP||4800 x 6000 = 28.8 MP|
|20x24 in.||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)|
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.)
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.