How many pictures hang on your walls? Are there portraits of loved ones? Candid photos of cherished events? Family photos? School photos? The photos that came in the frame? Do your photos look like you just framed them? Or do they look like they’ve hung on your wall for decades?
When you first meet with your photographer, you will outline your plans, tell the photographer what shots you must have and usually end with “Will I get a copy of all of these images for my Facebook page? Can I buy 8x10s and how much will they cost?” The trend today is for a lot of digital photos and a few nice prints for the wall. The question that should be asked is “Where do you get your prints finished?” What many consumers – and many amateur photographers – don’t know is that who finishes your photographs is just as important as who takes your photographs.
There are limited options when it comes to photo finishing. Many amateur photographers will only provide images on CD or DVD – prints aren’t offered. This is great for online or email, but not so great for hanging on a wall. So where do photographers make their prints? Some make prints on their inkjet or dye-sub printers. Other photographers use the local big box store or camera store lab – these are called “consumer labs” as anyone can order prints from these labs. Professional photographers – those you make their living from photography – have a list of pro-only photography labs that they trust to create photographic prints. Each of these options has their own unique benefits and drawbacks, which we will examine. Before you make your decision, read on and look at the attached samples.
Practically every home has at least one printer. Many people will have a printer on the family computer for their kids to print homework and an “All in One” printer/fax/copier in the home office. Many photographers will buy photo paper from the office supply store and print your photos on the same equipment you have at home. It is very quick and efficient for a photographer to make this print. The cost is low and the fee should be appropriately low. The risk: if printed on an inkjet, there is a high risk of smudging and finger prints. On lower end printers, the inks will most certainly fade over a short time. A better option is if the photographer has a “dye-sub” or dye sublimation printer, which uses heat and special ribbons to melt the colour into the photo paper. These are more fingerprint and fade-resistant than most inkjet outputs. Home printers will output nicely toned photographic prints, however the colours may not be as accurate as you would like. Many high-end inkjet printers (think $1,000 plus) can output exceptional colours, but one must be careful when handling these prints.
What if your photographer uses the local box store or chain camera store to create prints? The equipment is just as good as what the pro labs use, isn’t it? Yes and no. Many times, consumer labs use the same manufacturer as pro labs. The difference is in the details. Consumer labs will use the machines that will output the required volume of prints – speed is king (or queen). Many use the absolute cheapest chemicals and paper, because the most important thing besides having a customer’s prints ready in an hour is making as much money from each print as possible. Reasonably priced, colour reproduction is usually good, but colour shifts and unusual tones can be found throughout a series of prints. Since their equipment is designed for speed over accuracy, colour shifts are almost a guarantee. More importantly, consumer labs, due to the volume of prints and the type of prints, only calibrate or colour match their equipment a few times per day.
Pro-only photo labs tend to use equipment with a focus on quality and accurate reproduction. Calibration and colour accuracy are part of their workflow – some pro labs will calibrate hourly and some will calibrate before every job. Pro labs will offer many different types of paper (gloss, matte, silk), mounting options (card, gatorboard, foam core, Masonite), sealants and textures and far more options than most consumers know about. It’s up to your photographer to decide what options to offer and provide. Due to the time and care pro labs put into creating a single print, their fees are higher than consumer labs and your photographer will charge more per print. Unfortunately, pro labs are not equal, as you can see from the sample images. A seasoned pro photographer will have done their homework to find a few different pro labs they can work with to meet each client’s needs and timelines.
As is the case with selecting a photographer (and most everything in life), you get what you pay for. For photographic prints meant to last a lifetime, using a photographer backed with a quality pro lab will provide the best results at the lowest long-term cost. You may not want or need the best possible print, but finding a photographer who can deliver exactly what you need is the most important decision to make.
Author’s Note: All photos are unretouched. Dust from scanning and paper colour are preserved from my Canon Scanner.
© Will Prentice, 2012. All rights reserved.
Will is owner and chief photographer at Captura Photography and Imaging, a photography and design company in Whitby, Ontario, Canada. Click his picture in the upper right for more details.