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