One of my pet peeves as a photographer is photo labs that don’t care enough to make great prints.  Most people don’t really know what to look for, so they accept the quality from the lab they know of and end up with icky photos on their walls.  What’s the point of hiring a professional photographer if you don’t end up with fabulous prints?!

I’ve gone to a lot of trouble over the years to learn about printing and in the process came to understand why some labs are always great, some are always so-so, and some are completely unpredictable!  I’m going to share my secrets with you today so that you’ll be able to get the best possible prints from your digital pictures.  Now, I know you see the tacos coming up, and are wondering where in the world this article is headed…  Just bear with me for a minute while I explain.

There are quite a few factors that go into how your prints come out.  Of course, the first factor is your photos themselves.  Are they exposed properly?  How is the color?  Were they taken under indoor tungsten or florescent lighting, natural sunlight, or with professional studio lights?  Is the resolution high enough for the print size you’re ordering?

Once you’ve determined that you have a good picture to print, the exposure is right, the color is right, and the resolution is high enough you need to start worrying about the lab.  What kind of equipment do they use?  Do they get it serviced regularly?  And arguably most important, who runs the lab?

When I ask who is running the photo lab, I don’t necessarily mean Costco, or Walgreens.  What I mean is who, specifically, is running the lab?  Let me explain.  Think about food for a second.  If you go to 5 different taco stands and order the same thing at each, you’ll most likely taste 5 very different tacos.  Why is this?  Because the person cooking the tacos probably has a different level of education about the food at each stand.  The person cooking your food also might have different levels of passion for tacos.  This person at one stand may be so excited about their craft that they’ve spent years perfecting the most delicious taco sauce you’ve ever tasted, whereas the next stand is serving their tacos without seasoning.  Each person may have different amounts of stress going on in their life that is causing them to care more or less about your tacos.  One stand might go heavier on the beans while another goes heavier on the cheese.  And it very well may be that the person at one of those stands just sees it as a job, and simply does not care how your tacos come out.

The same is true with photo labs.  That’s why you can’t count on the labs that pay their staff minimum wage and have high turn over.  Maybe you went to Walgreens last year and got great photos but when you go again 6 months later they’ve hired a new manager who doesn’t understand how to set the color balance, or who is just working there temporarily while they finish business school, and the prints are terrible.  There is no way to predict because the quality at these labs depends on staff who come and go on their way somewhere else.

Which is why I stick with businesses who only do photo printing.  They also must pride themselves on quality.  This means that the management is going to be careful who they hire, train them well, and work with them on the quality of their printing from day to day.  At a pro lab, trained image technicians review every print for color correctness, contrast, brights and darks, and overall image accuracy.  They make adjustments to the print if they catch something weird, so you don’t have to bring it back and say “My daughter’s face looks green, can you fix this?  Not only that, but they know the subtleties that make the image really look great instead of just looking okay.  Unlike someone who is simply pushing a button and letting the printer figure out the rest, the pros at the lab will ensure that each image is as stunning as possible.

Before you drop your files off with a lab, do a quick google search for reviews.  See who is talking about them online.  Are professional photographers using them?  This is a very good sign, because pros a have critical eye and will only go back to a lab that does quality printing.

Although I print my clients’ photos by hand when they purchase print sheets, when I sell digital files to my clients I always recommend they print with mpix.  Over the years I’ve tried out Ritz, Costco, and countless other brick and mortar one-hour labs – even local ones!  I’ve seen such a variety of results that I won’t even get into the details.  I’ve seen good and terrible prints come out of the same shop from the same file just weeks apart.  I simply don’t trust them.  I have been using mpix for all my event photography printing for the past 6 years, and I’ve never had a single complaint.  The one time an order got mixed up, it was an order that contained over 800 prints and one was missing.  I e-mailed them to alert them of the problem and they immediately sent the missing photo to me.  It arrived in the next day’s mail.

I just hate to think of my photos being printed somewhere that doesn’t love what they do and produce beautiful results.  So if you are wondering where you should go to print the photos you bought from me, or even ones you took yourself, check them out.  I worked hard for that lighting!  I want to make sure it makes it to the frame!

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