Choosing a Photo Lab
If you are looking for a business that can produce quality reproductions of your images, how do you decide which one to use? There are lots of different labs with various types and levels of service. You can ask friends, colleagues and teachers which photo labs they use, but their choices might be based on different needs than yours. So where do you start
First, decide what and why you want to order from a lab. Here are some reasons I use a photo lab:
• I need a large quantity of prints that would take too long to print myself.
• I want a smaller or larger print size than my own printer can produce.
• I want a print on special media like metal or canvas.
• I want to reproduce my picture as a poster, note card, calendar or book, which I can’t do myself.
With your goal in mind, evaluate potential photo labs using the following points. These are my most to least important characteristics:
• Print Quality
• Print Sizes
• Paper / Media Types
• Turn-Around Time
• Submission & Delivery Options
• Physical Location
You can often discover a lot of basic information by visiting the company’s web site or calling them. Consider these suggestions for each topic.
Print Quality—This is the most important characteristic. Look for a photo lab that can print your pictures to match the way you have adjusted them using photo editing software. (Calibrate your monitor to ensure accurate colors.) If you are not to the point of editing your own digital pictures, then you want a lab that corrects your pictures in a way that you like.
Print Sizes—Find out what sizes the photo lab can print your images, from smallest to largest. You may want a lab that can print a full-frame image from your digital SLR without cropping. This means print sizes such as 8×12 inches (not just 8×10) or 16×24 inches (not only 16×20). If you are sending images from a compact digital camera, a Four-Thirds mirror-less camera, or a camera phone, then look for print sizes that match these proportions. Also check to see if the lab can print squares and panoramas. This gives you more creative freedom when cropping your images.
Paper / Media Types—These days pictures can be reproduced on a wide range of materials. Digital prints are made by exposing photographic paper using lasers and developing the image with chemicals on traditional glossy and matte surfaces. But you can also have images reproduced on canvas, fine art and watercolor papers, metal, and fabrics such as silk, using businesses with large inkjet printers.
Many photo labs offer “press printed products.” These are greeting cards, posters, business cards, and similar paper products that used to require a print shop with a printing press. Now photo labs print them in-house using a digital press, which is a fancy copy machine. This allows you to order smaller quantities, saving time and money compared to a press run. The more paper and other media options a lab offers, the more flexibility you have for sharing your photos.
Turn-Around Time—Check to see how much time it takes the lab to finish the prints before they are ready for shipment. Basic prints can often be produced in 24 hours and ready to send the next business day. Items like canvas gallery wraps, large metal prints or books may take longer to both make and deliver. If you need really fast response time from a lab, be sure to find out their standard processing time. And remember that you need to allow more time at peak business times such as the Christmas holidays.
Submission / Delivery Options—Most photo labs allow you to place your order using a web browser. (You need a high speed internet connection to make this practical.) You create an account, upload your pictures, designate the sizes and number of prints for each, and pay with a credit card or PayPal. Some photo labs require you to download specific ordering software called ROES (Remote Order Entry System). This software is usually customized for that lab and its products. A few labs accept images on CD or thumb drives sent via regular mail or delivered in person. Be sure to check the web site if you need to use this submission method.
Also review the variety of delivery options. Besides the US Mail and courier services like UPS and FedEx delivery to your door, the lab may be able to provide drop shipping services. This means that you order the prints (or other products) and have them shipped directly to a customer. Drop shipping can be similar to any online store delivery, such as sending flowers or a gift to another person. Or the lab may partner with you or another online business to make the shipment look as though it came from your studio directly.
Another delivery choice is creating an album on the photo lab’s web site that you can share with family and friends. You upload the photos you want to make available for printing. Then you email relatives and acquaintances a link to the album. They log in, order and pay for their own prints or other products made from your pictures. When this service is provided for professional photographers, it is called “print fullfillment.”
Physical Location—With the magic of the internet, you are no longer limited to working with whatever printing services might be available where you live. But there are advantages to doing business with a local photo lab, if they can provide the products and services you’re interested in. You can easily visit and see samples of the work they do. (Great for a quality test.) If you have questions about how to prepare or submit your pictures, you can talk to someone in person. If you need custom work done to adjust your image and make the best quality results, it is always easier to do this when both you and the technician can look at the proof and agree on what needs to be changed. Plus, if you order from a local lab, you usually cut down on the turn-around time since no special delivery arrangements are necessary.
Price—Cost is last on the list of criteria because you may be willing to pay more for quality prints available in a variety of sizes on a plethora of media. This is not to say that money is no object! Only that it’s reasonable to pay for good quality results and excellent customer service. You might also be willing to pay more to support a local brick and mortar store in your community.
Making the Choice
The best way to determine print quality, ease of submission and delivery as well as overall customer service is to do a real-world test. Select a variety of images (5-6) that are typical of the kinds of pictures you have printed. Typically, you would include a landscape, a portrait (individual or group), maybe an architectural shot and a black and white image. It’s often helpful to include a picture that’s difficult to print, such as one with a wide contrast range (very bright highlights and very dark shadows) as well as a photo with subtle or strong colors. Order 4×6 prints of this group of photos from several different photo labs you’re considering. When you get all the prints back, lay them out on a table and decide which lab has done the best job with the prints overall and with the photos that are most important to you. This can be the lab you start with.
You may decide to use different labs for different products and services. Maybe there is a local lab that makes acceptable 4×6 snapshot prints to share with your family. But then you use an online lab to turn a great family portrait into a large canvas gallery wrap. In both cases, you want to be sure that the quality of the product and the customer service meet your expectations as well as your budget. By partnering with a quality photo lab, you can get your best photos out of your hard drive and into the world with a minimum of effort.
Here are a few vendors to consider when looking for a good source for having your images printed: