Digital files. We live in a digital world and it seems that the majority of my inquiries are interested in digital image collections. Although I do offer digital collections, I always have an uneasy feeling about how the images will look when printed through a regular consumer lab. Today my feelings were 100% validated.
I have seen this experiment done before, but wanted to try it out for myself. Although I knew that there would likely be some variation amongst the different labs, the results were astounding! As a photographer, my job is to produce quality imagery for my clients. I also want my clients to have high-quality products that are truly representative of the time and work that I put into every single image that I deliver. When I edit my photographs, I do so on a calibrated monitor to ensure that what I see will closely match the printed version that can be obtained through my professional printing lab. I have done a great deal of research and testing through various labs in order to find vendors that provide quality products and prints that I am proud to present to my clients.
Currently my business model is set up in a way that allows my clients to choose to order prints through me, or they may opt to purchase digital collections and print their photographs at the lab of their choice. I do have some clients though, that purchase digital collections but also order prints and products through me. It’s a win-win situation When a client walks away from their session with professionally printed products, I genuinely feel like I have done my job well, and am proud to standby my work that will be shared and displayed in those client’s homes.
When clients do opt to print their images through my studio, I look over every single print that comes from my lab to ensure that it meets my expectations and is a close match to the original file. If for any reason something doesn’t meet my standards, I contact my lab and the issue is corrected and the product is re-ordered. Unfortunately when I hand off a USB to my clients and they choose to print at a consumer lab, I don’t have the opportunity to provide that same quality-control.
What most people aren’t aware of is that when photographs are printed through consumer labs, the printers often run on default settings. These default settings spit out prints that have set levels for adjustments such as exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpening. When your photographer’s images are printed at these labs, basically all of the time and effort that they put into editing that image is undone…or messed with, at the very least. Obviously this results in images that look entirely different than what was created for you by your photographer. At first glance, many clients may not even be aware of the difference, unless of course they do a side-by-side comparison of their photograph with the original image on their screen. Read on and you will be wowed by the various outcomes that are possible for a single image.
For my little experiment, I chose three different images to print. There really is no rhyme or reason as to why I selected these images specifically, though I did want to ensure that one of them at least had some solid, bold colour to it, just to see how that printed across the different labs. I printed each image four times, at four different labs: a pro lab, Walmart, Blacks, and Costco. I then scanned the printed images in groupings so that they could easily be compared . This step slightly altered the appearance of the images, but you can still get the general idea of the drastic differences between the labs. Aside from scanning the photographs, no adjustments were made by me. Below you will find each grouping along with the original edited digital file — the image that depicts how I intended the photograph to appear.
^ Original File ^
As you can see, there is a noticeable colour difference between the four images.
Pro Lab — It’s a very close match to the original file. I’m happy with it, and I’m sure my client would be too!
Black’s — This image is very saturated and has a lot of contrast to it. Baby’s skin is looking very red, the highlights are over-exposed and in person there is a noticeable pink shadow to the left of the bench.
Costco — Saturation, contrast and exposure was definitely messed with here. Baby’s skin also has an orange tinge to it.
Walmart — This version of the image is heavily saturated, and the whites are looking more blue-green. Baby’s skin is also quite orange.
^ Original File ^
Wowzers. All four images are noticeably different and seeing how some of these could possibly be displayed in client’s homes makes my heart sink.
Pro Lab — Although this is the best out of the four in my opinion, I would have been happier with a bump in the exposure to brighten up babe’s skin and the pink rug. If this was for a client, I probably would have made some adjustments and re-ordered.
Black’s — This looks so bad. The fur is a completely different shade of pink than it is in actuality. Overall the image is darker and more saturated than intended.
Costco — Yikes. The image is yellow, and way over-exposed. It looks washed out, and well…yuck. What more is there to say?!
Walmart — Probably the closest to the pro lab in terms of colour, but still heavily saturated and more red than the original file.
^ Original File ^
Black’s — So for starters, the backdrop appears to be a completely different colour all together. It is looking more grey, rather than taupe. Baby’s skin is very red and saturated, and the wrap is dark and contrasty.
Walmart — This image is quite yellow, which can be seen when comparing the colour of the backdrop and baby’s skin. It is dark, contrasty and also appears to be over-sharpened.
Pro-Lab — I’m quite happy with the results here.
Costco — The highlights are noticeably brighter, there is a red tinge to the entire photograph, and no doubt that saturation and contrast were altered.
In addition to the exposure, contrast and colour differences, there is a big difference in how the photographs feel as well. The pro lab images are printed on high-quality photo paper, and also include a lustre coating that protects the photograph. The consumer lab papers feel very thin, flimsy, and cheap. The worst one in my opinion is from the Walmart lab. I’ve had the images for a day and already the edges are curling up.
So, now that you have seen the results for yourself, you are probably asking where should you have your images printed? Well, I suppose it depends on how important the images are to you, and perhaps what the intended use for them will be. Custom photography is an investment. When you hire a photographer, you are investing in their experience and talent…and in the end you should have beautiful prints that are a true representation of the art that your photographer created for you!
When my clients purchase digital collections, it is recommended that any enlargements or wall art printed through the studio. The reason for this is clearly outlined in the results of this experiment. I want my clients to proudly display imagery that is representative of what the original work looks like…and when someone asks my clients who their photographer is, I would like to be proud of, and fully standby the final printed product too
The outcomes in example #2 specifically – yikes. I would feel horrible to see results 2,3 or 4 enlarged and up on someone’s wall.
This little project definitely has me thinking about some possible options and changes that I may make within my business to ensure that all of my clients have at the very least, a tangible reference to compare their own consumer lab prints to.