Get the best of your Pro Lab
First off, do feel free to read back to my lengthy review of a number of professional labs as well as several chain stores and other popular printers to understand better what labs may give you the best service for your money. The Big Lab Throwdown – Final Results
Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your lab and get back the best prints every time. Including press-printed products that many labs now offer.
Get prints that match:
It’s not difficult get a print that looks fairly close to your screen from most good labs. However this is assuming your screen is properly calibrated. If you order uncorrected prints from your lab and frequently get prints back that are lacking contrast, dark, dull or overall the wrong color, chances are it’s not your labs fault. (I know, it’s easier to blame them… After all, it looks great on YOUR screen right?) This ALSO applies if you are having issues matching the color from your own in-house printers but those have multiple factors that could be set up wrong causing your headaches. I’ll go into that another time.
In any case, if your prints come back dark, dull or lacking contrast there is a good chance that your screen may actually be set too bright or with the contrast level too high causing your images to look very bright and “good” on your screen but as soon as the prints go to the lab (or your own printer) they look terrible. This is because the file itself IS dark and lacking contrast.
So your screen is calibrated you say? How do you know the calibration is correct? The software told you so right? The problem with most display calibration tools these days is the fact that they dumb down the software to make it easy to use but hide all of the advanced controls away so you can’t truly calibrate your display. On top of that, some display simply lack the accuracy to be calibrated properly even with an automated calibration tool. (Forget about editing on most laptops, the screens lack the proper color accuracy.)
Although it sounds like a lot of trouble, here is one way to help you find out if the brightness and contrast level on your display are causing your printing problems. Send a file to your lab or own printer with the corrections that look “good” on your screen. When you get that back, mark the brightness and contrast settings on the front of the print with a permanent marker. Now lower the contrast and brightness level of your display to default or below (usually the half way mark). If your screen is already at half way or below, lower the settings more. Now correct the file to look good on your screen and send the file again. When you get that back, mark down the settings again and repeat until you find the brightness and contrast of the prints match the screen well. (To save time, you can correct the files and save each with a unique name and have them all printed at once and match them up with the back printing on the image when you get the prints back from your lab.)
The culprit here is the fact that most desktop LCD display are capable of brightness levels of 350 cd/m2 or greater (my LaCie goes to 400 cd/m2 which is just short of blinding at full tilt). We only want and need about 1/3 of that brightness or roughly 100-120 cd/m2 depending on your working environment. Yet most display come with the brightness and contrast levels set well over that and many of us just go with the default settings since they make everything look bright and snappy. (Except our prints which look dark and dull in comparison.)
Another very possible problem could in fact be the fact that the file is in AdobeRGB or ProPhotoRGB and the lab is expecting sRGB files. Although it doesn’t sound like a big problem, the labs software often doesn’t take this into account. (As the lab throwdown results showed.) This could also be caused by saving the file without the profile embedded. THIS IS IMPORTANT!! Be sure all images are ALWAYS saved with the correct profile embedded, even for the web since most new web browsers are now color managed. Although it doesn’t seem like a problem on our end, sRGB and AdobeRGB have a vastly different color gamut and even the gamma is different which will cause the color, contrast and density to shift in strange ways.
Here is a little graphic that should help you dial in the brightness of your display. Their should be a noticeable separation between each box, except perhaps the two darkest which may or may not have separation depending on your display. (Even my high-end display has trouble with dark colors between gray 0 and 4. It’s OK though, very little detail is visible in a printed areas that dark anyhow.) But you should be able to see a difference between all of the boxes from 5 to 255 for sure.
First set the brightness control so that the box labeled 5 can be distinguished from 0 and 2. Next use the contrast control to make the 255 box as bright as you can (you may need to lower the contrast later if it is too bright still) while still being able to easily see the adjacent box. You may need to go back and readjust the brightness control again if you’ve lost the separation between the darkest boxes. This should give you a good starting point for the brightness and contrast of your display that will allow for better print matching.
After setting the brightness and contrast controls on your display, you may want to re-profile your display using your hardware calibration device such as a Spyder, Huey, Eye-One or ColorMunki. (I suggest writing down your display settings FIRST just in case the software uses DDC controls to try to one-up your new display settings.)
Once your screen is at the correct brightness and contrast and the color is calibrated well, your uncorrected lab prints should closely match the screen and make it easier for you to do corrections to your own files as well as save some money by using economy print rates. (Or have piece of mind knowing that what you’ve sent the lab has good color and exposure before they work their magic on the files.)
Try a template:
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a good photographer and a terrible graphic designer. In fact, MOST photographers are poor at graphic design and even fewer understand specific “rules” when it comes to proper design for printing. I’m not going to go into details about design here. But I will say that if you want to save yourself a lot of headaches, reprints and possibly a call from your lab asking for a redesigned album page or photo cover, read the guidelines provided by your lab and ask if they have templates available for download. Many labs offer free templates online for photographic hard cover albums and books and most have written guidelines available for pages.
For example, a cover layout sounds pretty straight forward at first but it isn’t quite that simple once you consider it. Custom photographic albums and press printed books are often printed slightly over sized and trimmed down to the final size during binding. This means any text, graphics, images or borders close to the edges may get trimmed into and/or be trimmed slightly uneven in the final book. I suggest avoiding thin borders and be sure pages are full bleed whenever possible. (meaning the images go edge to edge) Some labs may want pages to have a small margin built-in (as much as 1/4″ all the way around) while some may want pages to be designed at the exact final size. Check with your lab for details on page layout guidelines.
As for custom hard cover books or albums with photographic covers, it is easy to think the cover image for a 10×10 album should be 10×20, but that doesn’t account for the spine, spine hinge, edges of the hard cover or overlap around the cover on all sides. Even a soft cover book has a thin spine that adds to the width of the cover slightly. See the template below for an example of this. Only the green areas are the front and back cover but everything but the red areas will be visible on the final book or album.
Here is an example of a photo cover template from H&H Color Lab for an 8×10″ hard cover press printed book. Don’t forget to use templates with the correct orientation. A horizontal book will have the spine on the short side while a vertical book will have the spine on the long edge. In this example, the cover template is for a vertical 8×10 book. The green area of the template is the area that will be on the flat areas of the front or back covers. The light blue is the spine hinge area which may have folds or slight wrinkles due to the book folding at that point. Avoid important text or graphics in these areas. (Including faces and other parts of the cover images that may end up in this area depending on your design.) The dark blue area will end up on the spine of the book. This area is safe to place text and graphics but be sure the font isn’t too large for the spine. The yellow area will be wrapped around the edges of the cover. If you use a photo for the entire front or back of the cover, I suggest the image wrap all the way past the yellow area but be sure heads, hands or other important details do not fall into the yellow area. And lastly, the red area will be cut off or covered by the binding on the inside of the front and back covers.
Some other design tips:
Consider Professional Corrections:
Having your lab do your color corrections has an up side and a down side. On one side, the thought is “How does the lab know how I want my color?” And honestly, they generally don’t know what you want BUT they are going by a lab standard color for skin tones and use best judgment when working on images that don’t fit into that category. But on the flip side, the technicians at the lab are highly skilled and color correct hundreds or even thousands of images for professionals every day. This is what they do and generally as long as you don’t send very poor quality files or have an unusual color preference, the resulting color corrections should be fairly good. The technicians are also working on monitors that are checked for calibration on a regular basis and matched to the printers. The technicians also proof check the prints under calibrated lighting before they are finished and shipped. Also, going back to the calibration discussion earlier, it is truly hard to know if your display is calibrated properly or not even if the software says that your display is calibrated. I’ve found that I can calibrate both of my display and get a VERY different result, yet the software is perfectly happy with the color in its mind. (Though through experience I can see that it isn’t correct.) I’ve since switched to a much more advanced application for very accurate calibration with my Spyder3 device but it still has its quirks.
If you feel you are good at doing your own corrections or have special color treatments you use on images frequently, by all means go with the economy service. But those who don’t sit down and edit every image before sending it to the lab really might find that the labs corrections are worth the slight difference in cost.
Not sure what to expect? Some labs actually offer a reference image that is used by the technicians as the “lab standard color” for skin tones, density and contrast. You can request this file and/or a print from most labs to use to help guide your own color corrections or to get a better idea what to expect from a corrected file. Some labs will even allow you to make a custom preference to suit your own taste if you find that the lab standard color is too warm, too cool or you prefer richer, deeper color perhaps. A good lab will work with you in this process so that your prints are always to YOUR standard.
Using your lab for color corrections also makes for a slightly quicker work flow on your end as you can process your images on your end and do any retouching and editing and then send the files and let the lab handle final color corrections saving you the time to do more work that you would prefer to be doing.
Remember the labs limitations. As I mentioned above, flattened composites can limit the ability for the lab to do corrections as not all of the photos in the composite may need the same corrections and any background images or textures and other graphic elements may also shift in color with the overall corrections done by the lab. (Generally the technician will avoid doing corrections to the files that will result in changes that may greatly alter the look of the design.) Also, most labs DO NOT do corrections in an image editing program like Photoshop so the corrections to the files (composite or not) are on an overall basis. If you want selective color adjustments or need to do anything like a custom dodge or burn, you should do it on your end before submitting the files OR request custom art to be done which is generally an extra charge. The technicians don’t generally have access to tools to do more complicated corrections on their end. (Some labs may offer a custom print service which may include alterations like this but again, this is generally an extra cost over a standard print. For example, when I was a digital tech at Colormark in Phoenix, AZ we offered a custom print service in which we did extra corrections to the files to get the very best prints for the customer, but the price was much higher than a standard digital print.)
Also, consider the fact that the lab is working with a JPEG or TIFF file that only has so much color information available before the image quality degrades. For the best prints, avoid sending files with very bad color casts or very poor exposure. Problems like blown-out whites or blocked-up shadows CAN NOT be corrected, even by your lab. Ideally you should fix these problems on your end first if you have the camera RAW files. (or with careful retouching) Also, problems like sensor dust, dirty floors (in a high key image), uneven lighting, spotty light, very strong contrast and other problems also can not be fixed by your lab. (Unless you pay for custom retouching which can fix some of these problems.) As a professional photographer, it is our job to get the best capture including proper lighting and correct exposure, you shouldn’t use your lab as a crutch to cover for poor technique or lack of skill. (Whoa, did he just say that? Yep!)
However, if you have to error, I suggest you error slightly towards under exposed. Generally a little lost shadow detail and a tiny bit more noise is easier to correct for and much more forgiving than a blown out highlight or funky skin tones due to maxing out a color channel, thus lost color detail, frequently in skin tones which causes ugliness of all sorts and can not easily be corrected.
Print a sample:
Most labs will allow for a significant discount for products used as a studio sample. This is both a good way for you to get to know the limitations of the products as well as any design features you may want to take advantage of. The lab wants you to spend your money on these products so they will gladly give you a discount on a sample if you just ask. This also makes it easier to fill the walls of your studio with beautiful prints at a much lower cost. And as above with products like photo cover coffee table books and such, this makes it easy to test out your design skills and templates for placement of things like your studio logo and such so that you don’t make an error on a book for a paying client.
No matter how you look at it, having a sample on hand even just to show a prospective client what they could get is worth the small cost on your part.
I hope this short guide helps aim some people afraid to use a pro lab in the right direction or those who are having difficulty with your lab towards a process to better prints. As always, thoughts and comments are always welcome.