Home > Color Correction, Rants > Put your lab to the test. Part 1

Put your lab to the test. Part 1

Unless you print everything yourself, you either rely on a professional mail order lab, local professional lab or a local retail chain of some sort to handle your photo printing needs. But are you getting your monies worth when you send your prints off to professional labs at professional prices? With such a wide range of prices for professional and retail labs for the same size print, what are you really paying for when you go with a more expensive mail order lab over a less expensive lab or even submitting files to your local Costco for inexpensive enlargements?

In the coming weeks I plan to test a number of large mail order labs, a few local sources and a few retail chains. At this time I can’t say what labs and chains I plan on comparing but I can say the test will be comparing every aspect of the prints I receive back from each source including paper brand and type, paper weight, color accuracy / color corrections, how they handle files of different color spaces, print sharpness and overall print quality. Of course total cost, speed of delivery and overall ordering experience will be compared as well.

How am I going to come to a fair end result you ask? Well, for the paper brand I am looking for a quality name brand paper such as Fuji or Kodak. It should also be of at least archival quality. Fuji brands this as Crystal Archive paper but they also offer a heavier Professional paper which has a slightly nicer feel and weight to it. Kodak also has several grades of photo paper that different labs may use. I don’t expect to come across anything other than Fuji or Kodak but it could happen. The paper weight will be measured using a highly accurate scale to determine the papers thickness. And since each print will be the same size, we can easily figure out what paper measures up and what prints are on thinner lower quality paper.

As for color accuracy and color corrections, I will be viewing prints on a calibrated light table against a reference print (for skin tones) which my screens are also calibrated to match with a high degree accuracy. And to throw a wrench in the mix, some of the files need corrections while others do not. I will also be having several other trained color experts judge the prints independently to be sure my vote does not skew results. (Including one person who does print judging for PPA events.) One print will be ordered from each lab without color corrections in order to determine how much variation the printers have from each other and from my calibrated display.

And lastly, several files will be uploaded in Adobe RGB which will print very different if the systems or printers do not properly handle the conversions. The other files will be submit in the sRGB color space which is the standard color space supported by most labs. And lastly to compare print sharpness, all files are being submit pre-sharpened at a full 300ppi cropped from the original files with no scaling. I will be viewing these under a 10x loupe to see which printers give the most resolution on paper.

Of course any unwanted borders, edge or corner damage or skewing of the print on the paper will deduct points. As will any other paper or print defects such as laser lines, color banding, loss of saturation or contrast, lack of detail or sharpness and spots or other defects in the emulsion. After all, I can’t sell my clients a defective print, why should I accept anything less than perfect from my lab?

Lastly, the total cost for the order, speed of delivery and difficulty or ease of ordering will be factored in as well. Each test will be given a score and the highest total combine score wins.

If anyone would like to have a specific lab compared in this test, if you cover the cost of six 8×10 color corrected prints shipped to me, let me know by August 15th and I will gladly enter them into the test grid. I currently have 4 national mail order labs, 1 local pro lab and 2 national chain stores on the list to be tested with 4 more national labs that I would like to test if I can get some donations to help offset the cost. (11 labs x six 8×10 prints each = $$$)

As soon as I get all of the orders placed and back from each of the labs (some are already in progress), I will start the comparisons, calculate the results and post them here. So do stay tuned!

Edit: Added an update HERE

  1. August 10, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Excellent, cant wait to see the results.

    This is a heavy duty undertaking, but I have yet to find a really good shootout for this sort of thing.

    I have been doing my own printing, but frankly, the prospect of ditching my aging printer and the time wasted “supporting” it is an exciting one indeed.

    Bring on the results!


    • modifiedphoto
      August 11, 2009 at 12:14 am

      Thanks, I’ve been meaning to do it for quite a while but decided now was the time. I do want to test digital press products and even canvas gallery wraps at some point but money is the factor holding me back from that sort of testing for the time being. (With canvas print prices, that may be some time before I test those unless I can convince each lab to send a small sample print at no charge.)

  2. August 16, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I know you said the dead line in 08-15.. Is it possible to add BWC to the shootout?

    • modifiedphoto
      August 16, 2009 at 8:24 pm

      I’m actually a little surprised I missed them when I compiled my list. I might see if I can toss them in, I’m still waiting for prints from a few places still anyhow. I will need to activate an account with them this week however.

      • August 17, 2009 at 9:18 am

        I have an account and can submit the files if you need me to.. Since this is your blog, I take it that you can see my email address?

  3. Bob
    August 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    the whole 300 DPI thing….Many noritsus print at 320 dpi, and some kodak/agfa equipment prints at around 250dpi, you’re going to have to do your research on what equipment each lab uses first and size the files appropriately for any comparison to be valid.

    • modifiedphoto
      August 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm

      True, in fact one of the large format machines I operate scales images to 254ppi before output. On the flip side, a ZBE Chromira 30″ machine I ran at a lab in Phoenix bragged about a 425ppi “visual resolution”. After comparison under a 10x loupe from the same file, the prints were in fact noticeably sharper and more detailed from the Chromira than from a Fuji and Noritsu minilab machines we used for small prints. (Though both the Fuji and Noritsu were slightly older models.) As for deciding on 300, it is easier to just go with that across the board as it is pretty much a “standard” among most photographers and places each lab on the same starting ground for the test. However, a typical customer will not have that knowledge or understanding of the process.

  1. August 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

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