The Big Lab Throwdown – Update 2
So it has been a week or so since the last update and some more orders have been placed and most labs are now accounted for in the test. Just to give an idea what labs are under the microscope, I made the decision to test the following labs who’s prints are all in hand except a few orders I have not placed yet (Ritz and Evolution Photo) and one order that was sent shy a print. (Uh oh!)
In alphabetical order, the tested include: American Color Imaging (ACI), Bay Photo, Black River Imaging, Buckeye Color Lab, Collages Color, Costco, Evolution Photo, H&H Color Lab, Millers Professional Imaging and White House Custom Color (WHCC). I also have one person that requested to test their lab and send me the prints but that has not happened as of yet so I don’t know if they will be included or not. If I get prints back from them in time to compare, I will add that lab to the list as well.
Why did I pick the labs that I picked? A few reasons. I’ve heard of most of the labs, either through magazine ads, internet forums or by recommendations from other photographers I’ve worked with. Just about all of the labs tested are larger labs in their region and most are considered national level labs. A few are retail chain stores, including Costco and Ritz, but were included for comparison sake and because SOME professionals do in fact use these types of labs for budget printing. *Yikes* And our smallest entrant is Evolution Photo which is a smaller local lab that is very close to me but I felt it would help the test to include some form of non-national, professional level labs in the test.
The purpose of the test isn’t so much to see who can print the best color, but rather to see if you are getting your moneys worth from these professional labs. (Color is subjective, each person has their own personal preference on what good color is.) In comparison to “cheap” prints online, the same size prints from these labs cost perhaps 2 or 3 times as much, perhaps even more than that. But to a professional photographer, that cost may be worth it to make their photography look that much nicer to their clients. Plus we need to factor in the convenience of having the lab handle color corrections as well as the ability to mount, trim and in some cases even frame the prints so all you have to do is hand them to your clients.
As for the test, each set of prints will be viewed under calibrated lighting in a neutral environment (no other color to distract the eye) and compared side by side with each other and compared to a reference image prepared by myself. The reference is what I would consider my own preference, but it very closely matches the lab standard color. The prints from each lab will each be scored 1 to 5 with 5 being best. For the color score, a bad print may have blocked up or washed out shadow or highlight details, excessive color banding, poor saturation, color shifts in neutral areas, unrealistic skin tones or incorrect density (too light, too dark). Good prints will have detail in shadows and highlights, no color banding, good rich color, saturated but not too saturated, realistic skin tones, no color shift in neutral areas and good density. Each set of 5 prints will then have the scores added up and the total score for color will be calculated. As for the print finishing, the prints will be inspected for emulsion damage, printer error (laser lines, dust in the print, etc), excessive edge or corner damage and of course the paper weight. Most are printed on Pro papers but the less expensive sources may not be. The sharpest image of the set will also be compared under a 10x loupe for sharpness. (Believe it or not, it can vary considerably from machine to machine.)
And of course the lab itself is somewhat being tested in the process. With total cost being an important factor. As is speed of order processing and delivery. Perhaps more important, how well they handle customer service. A few of the labs actually called me to thank me for my business and ask if I had any questions about the services. I also had a few send personal emails, while a few sources simply sent out the typical canned email Thank You note. And of course I will also briefly compare the ordering process which varied only slightly. (Hey, I can appreciate a courtesy call to be sure I understand the ordering process and thank me for my business.)
I should have the final results ready to post by next weekend. This test has taken a lot more time and money than I had first expected, but I want to be sure I really cover it as good as I can and test as many labs as I can. I think with 10 sets of prints to compare, that should give us a pretty good comparison.