You probably like the convenience and control of making prints at home with your inkjet printer. With a little practice, you can get outstanding results and a good measure of personal satisfaction by doing your own printing. There are times when it might be a better option to turn to a professional photofinisher to do the work, however. In the early days of digital, this usually wasn’t an option, as most labs weren’t yet capable of printing from digital files. A lot has changed in a few years, and now even the photo lab at your local drugstore may be offering prints from your digital images.
Why Give Up Creative Control To A Lab When You Can Do It At Home?
1. You need lots of prints, and quick! Family events and holiday celebrations can generate dozens or even hundreds of images. While there might be a few images of which you’re proud and want to work on personally, chances are that most of the photos aren’t shots you’ll end up framing. Still, your family and friends want to see everything—especially those prints of themselves—and will likely want copies. Add it up and you could spend an entire weekend making 4×5 copies for the lot of them. Save that time to work on your favorite images and let a lab handle the big reprint order.
2. You want a really big print. Most of us don’t have a printer capable of making poster-sized prints—at least not yet. And for most of the photos we take, an 8×10 or smaller print is usually sufficient. We all have images, though, that would be ideal to print poster size and framed over the fireplace. This is another occasion when the help of a professional with the right output equipment can save you time and increase your options. Labs can produce huge prints several feet in size and on a variety of materials.
3. You’re on the road. Vacations are one of the big photo opportunities of the year for most of us. You can probably wait until you get home to make prints, but there might be photos you want to share with family that you’re visiting or friends you meet along the way. Or, if you’re on an extended trip, you can have custom postcards made from your own photos instead of something store-bought.
4. You want specialty prints. Your inkjet printer at home can make beautiful enlargements, but there are other output options that only a professional lab can offer, such as silver halide, output to film, custom-bound photo books and even permanent prints on washable fabrics.
5. You need expert retouching. Maybe you’re new to digital imaging and haven’t yet mastered the art of image processing. Or maybe you don’t have the time right now to spend working on your photos. A professional lab can take your digital images and perfect them before making your prints.
Getting The Results You Expect
Before you head to the lab to get prints made, here are some things to keep in mind for the best experience.
1. Choose an appropriate photofinisher for the job. You can’t expect a high-volume lab like the one at your local drugstore to pay a lot of time or personal attention to detail in printing your images. Most likely, your prints will be good enough for sharing, photo albums and the like, but not finely crafted and perfected by a skilled printer. Conversely, you can’t expect a professional lab to churn out prints in one hour at a discount cost. So, choose the one-hour photo lab when you need quick and inexpensive reprints, and go to the pro lab for custom enlargements and specialty output when quality is more important than price or speed.
2. Find a lab you like and stick with it. I worked in a photo lab briefly during college. In a perfect world, we would have spent time examining every image to be printed and balanced the output accordingly. But the truth is, with limited time and lots of jobs, we tended to work more like an assembly line and less like skilled craftsmen. The exception to this was when we were printing images for regular customers. Those photographers who came in frequently enough to be remembered invariably received better service and had more attention paid to their prints. Unfair as it may be, that’s often the reality. If you can get to know one of the technicians on a first-name basis, you’re set.
3. Know what you want and give clear instructions. If you don’t use a lab often, you can get the extra attention paid to your prints that the frequent customers receive by letting the lab know what you expect from them up front. Be specific. The customer who makes clear requests (e.g., boost contrast, saturate the colors, burn this area, etc.) is more likely to get satisfying results.
4. Get test prints. When ordering oversized prints, it’s worth every penny of the expense to have test prints made. Depending on the size of your prints, you could be wasting tens or even hundreds of dollars if you get back prints that aren’t satisfactory. And as long as the lab followed your instructions, you won’t have much leverage to ask for a redo. That’s why it’s a good idea to have test prints made. Check the test prints for color, exposure and sharpness before the lab makes your final prints. You may spend a few extra dollars, but think of it as a very affordable insurance policy.
5. Ask questions and educate yourself. Don’t be shy. Let the lab know what you’re after and get recommendations. If you don’t know what a particular type of digital output looks or feels like, ask to see a sample. How long will the prints last? What surfaces or substrate materials are available? What’s most popular with their customers? One of the chief reasons that people are dissatisfied with their prints isn’t a result of the lab not doing its job, but of the customer expecting one thing and getting something else. If you know what to expect from a glossy print on Fujicolor Crystal Archive versus an inkjet print on matte canvas, you’ll make better choices and ultimately be happier with the results.
If your local lab doesn’t offer the types of output you want, you can order prints online. There are several options, from traditional photo labs that offer web-based orders to photofinishers that are exclusively on the Internet.
Many of the top professional labs around the country will accept digital files through FTP upload. They’ll print your images and ship them to you. If you choose this route, requesting test prints is a must, at least until you establish a relationship with the lab and are confident that the results will meet your expectations.
You might be able to access photofinishing services from within your imaging software. For example, Mac users can order prints up to poster size (depending on your file’s resolution) simply by clicking the Order Prints button in Apple’s iPhoto software. These services are terrific for reprints that you wish to send to family or friends, as you can have the prints shipped directly to them.