Getting great prints from a commercial lab

It is very disappointing when your prized digital image returns from a photo lab as a dull and dreary print.  Where did all of the vibrancy and personality go?  Why doesn’t it look as great as it did on your monitor?

Because a print reflects light and a monitor emits light, we’ll never be able to get the two to match exactly.  However, there are a number of possible solutions for getting great digital prints back from a commercial photo lab that will match your expectations in both price and quality.

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Screen shot 1 - Click to see a larger version

If you’re serious about the quality of your prints, you will want to calibrate your monitor.  Calibrating your monitor creates a profile that allows software applications that support colour management (such as Adobe’s Photoshop, or the FireFox or Safari web browsers) so that the colours and tones that you see on-screen match a predetermined standard.  In this way, when you look at an image on your calibrated monitor, you see the same thing that I’d see when looking at the same image on my calibrated monitor.  Once you’ve purchased a monitor calibration tool (X-rite’s Eye-One Display 2, Color Munki or ColorVision’s Spyder2Pro are excellent choices), actually calibrating the monitor is a simple monthly task that takes only a few minutes.

Next, find a lab that regularly calibrates their printing equipment and makes profiles for their equipment available to clients.  These ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles instruct software as to how their equipment will interpret colour information.  Each combination of printing machine and paper that a company uses will have its own unique ICC profile.  Using these profiles with your photo editing software helps visualize the printed images.

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Screen shot 2 - Click to see a larger version

DryCreek Photo (http://www.drycreekphoto.com/ ) works with a number of retailers to create print profiles for their machines and makes them available for download from their web site free of charge.  Some of the companies using DryCreek’s services offer very affordable prints and enlargements with the added benefit that the prints can match your expectations.  If your local lab isn’t listed with DryCreek, ask them if they provide ICC profiles for their machines.  Larger population centres seem to have at least a couple of labs that offer profiles for their print machines.

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Screen shot 3 - Click to see a larger version

By soft-proofing with a calibrated monitor and profiles for the equipment and paper your print is destined for, software can simulate on your monitor what the finished print will look like.  Modern versions of Adobe’s Photoshop, DDI Software’s Qimage and Corel’s CorelDRAW Graphic Suite allow you to soft proof your images using ICC profiles.  To view this simulation in Photoshop, open an image and turn on the soft proofing feature for the particular printing device and paper that the image is destined for by opening the View menu, choosing Proof Setup and then selecting the profile for the device the image will be sent to and turn on the option to Simulate Paper Color (Screen shot 1).

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Screen shot 4 - Click to see a larger version

The image that looked great on your monitor can often look drab and lifeless when using the soft proofing feature (Screen shot 2).  This is because the software is trying to accurately reflect the limited gamut of colours available on a particular printer and the effects the paper has on how it looks.  To compensate for this, try boosting the contrast, brightness and saturation of your image in your photo editing software to help restore the vim and vigour to the image (Screen shot 3).  Save a version of this adjusted image as a TIFF or JPEG file (saved without a color profile embedded) and send it off to the lab (Screen shot 4).  Ask the photo lab to not make any adjustments to your image during the printing process so that you receive the results you’re expecting.

I strongly believe in printing images.  Viewing an image on a monitor is fine, but to truly appreciate the depth and spirit of an image, it must be printed.  By investing some money, time and effort into improving your prints, you will consistently get the great results you’re expecting at excellent prices.

Please feel free to contact me with questions or comments on this or any other photography matter.

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