The Big Lab Throwdown – Update 3
Now that all of the labs and all of the prints are accounted for, I have started to compile data and put together some charts and have “graded” the prints for color compared to a set of reference prints I created myself. Of course my personal preference is just that, so it should be taken as such. And I know which print is from which lab which may influence my grading slightly.
With that said, I WILL post my personal preference scores but am having them scored against each other WITHOUT my reference images in a blind test by several other people. Those results will be back shortly and I will finish the tests and post the final results.
For those wondering about the images used, I selected 5 images from my personal collection and one file was downloaded as a skin tone reference from the labs website. I had the 5 images color corrected and the skin tone reference image printed as-is without corrections to compare against my calibrated display for color accuracy.
The first image (Dashae1.jpg) was selected for it’s vibrant color and rich tones that pretty much cover the entire gamut and also for the pure white pants to see if any labs may have difficulty with color “crossover” in the very subtle neutral tones. And to mix it up, this file was submit as AdobeRGB which is generally not a lab standard. I did this in order to test how each lab would handle files submit in other color space than sRGB. The file was already pretty much color corrected and required little or no change to suit my style. Due to the larger AdobeRGB color space, the blue shirt lost some of it’s vibrant color when converted to sRGB. (The thumbnail file has been converted to sRGB for the web.)
The second image (Dashae2.jpg) was submit as an sRGB color space which most labs prefer. I selected this image to see how well each lab could handle a low key image, again with rich skin tones. The background is black with a slight gradient from the background light radiating from the center behind her which may show banding or noise if not handled correctly. Again, the color was more or less close to how I would prefer requiring little or no correction. As with my style, I like the image deep and rich with good blacks but detail should show in deep shadows without being washed out looking or blocked up.
The third image selected (Ellyse1.jpg) was also submit in AdobeRGB like our first image. This time none of the colors were outside of the sRGB color space, but submitting the file in a non-standard color space may cause unexpected results depending on how their software handles it on their end. Although I like rich skin tones, Ellyse1.jpg was sent with a pretty strong red color cast overall. But to fix that color cast may result in green hair or a loss of saturation unless done carefully. Again, deep colors and very subtle shadow detail should show easily if the print is washed out or too dark causing blocked up shadows.
The fourth image (Ellyse2.jpg) was selected for its bright colors, strong contrast and the subtle texture detail in the graffiti covered cinder block wall. The image was submit in sRGB but the skin tones are already pretty close to correct compared to the previous file which was very warm looking. (Some people even like it that warm, but that is a whole other blog entry.) Overall I am looking for those subtle details in the wall, the bright green of the shirt and the blues, teals and purples of the graffiti. Again, the image should have a pretty strong contrast without blowing out any details.
And for the last image (Toni1.jpg), I picked this image for it’s very high key, high contrast look with very subtle detail in highlights and the very slight warm tone on the image. (Get this action, see my blog entry: Duotone Actions: Easy Color Conversions.) The image has very light details in her face and subtle gradients from a very light brown to pure white which should not show any banding or loss of details. Also the color tones and pure whites should not have any unusual color casts and the image overall should have a warm, very slightly brown tone appearance. It was also submit in the sRGB color space. The image is also the most sharp image of the group and was selected for comparison under a 10x loupe for overall sharpness.
The uncorrected reference image for skin tones was a file downloaded from the H&H Color Lab website and used as a test image to compare print to screen matching with no corrections applied by the labs which would compromise the comparison. The image was also submit as an sRGB file to eliminate any possible profile issues. That image can be downloaded from the Resources page when logged into an H&H account. For copyright reasons, I have chosen not to display it here. (If you have a current H&H account or create a new account, you can access the full size file to use and compare for your own tests.)
So why didn’t I submit a very poor file in for correction? Simple. As a professional photographer, I shouldn’t have files that I would consider to be “poor” to send in for correction. Although that isn’t always the case, I do my best to be sure I am sending in a file that is at the very least fairly close to correct exposure, color and contrast with little or no blown out details in highlights or shadows unless that is how I expect the image to come back. Remember, the lab is limited in what it can do with the image before quality degrades.
Also, to send in bad files would only result in very different looking prints depending on the technician doing the corrections. While sending in fairly good files that require very little correction (in the case of most of the images selected), the prints should all come back fairly similar assuming the technician doesn’t under or over correct each image.