Print lab frustrations

Digital cameras are a wonderful invention, but somehow a photograph just isn’t really a photograph until it’s printed.  That digital image on my screen is great, but having something to hold and look at makes the image seem real.  

I don’t really have much of a need for traditional prints though.  The majority of my “serious” work is done in cyanotype and I do that myself.  Still, I prefer to have a decent collection of my work on hand for viewing – I call them portfolio prints, even though I’m sure most pro photographers use larger prints for their portfolios. 

Which brings me to the dreaded print lab. 

Most pro and even amateur photographers would turn up their noses at this, but I get the majority of my images printed at Sam’s Club.  There are several variables that make this a decent print lab or not, and if any one of those variables fail, I’m doomed to crappy prints despite my best efforts.

1. The staff know what the heck they’re doing.

2. The staff keep the machine calibrated and consistent.

3. They follow my directions to print straight from the file, no alterations.

Because of these variables, no two Sam’s Clubs will print exactly alike.  In fact, most of them probably produce what I would call horrible images – the color is off, or the contrast is spiked to kingdom come.  This particular Sam’s Club usually fits my needs unless one of the regular guys isn’t there.

Most of the time I get lucky and I can work with one or two individuals that really know their machine.   Because the majority of people come in with unedited prints, the machine automatically adds an “improvement” step before it prints.  Getting the machine to stop that is an exercise in frustration, and most of the staff have no clue how to do it. 

My last visit was painful.  The poor guy behind the counter had no idea how to input files directly to the main computer.  He had no clue how to print a file without the machine automatically cropping it – many of my files are an odd size (7×10 inches.)  While I could set the file up as an 8×10 with white borders, it’s usually easier to force the machine to print the file with white borders on its own. 

This time, despite my repeated comments of “no alterations,” he left the contrast/color adjustment on.  Oversaturated colors and blocked shadows, ick!  The normally rich black and white images had a magenta cast to them despite the strict ICC color profile.  And then, to top it off, he tried to charge me for 5 extra prints.  

I think this might be the end of a wonderful relationship.  The cheap date just isn’t worth the hassle.  It’s time to start looking for a classy print lab that doesn’t fight over every little detail.


5 thoughts on “Print lab frustrations

  1. Another cheap option that’s better than costco/sam’s club, is to use Adorama’s service,

    They provide all their icc profiles for the paper choices they offer, and you can decline their color correction easily.

    Again, its another cheap option, I know a lot of pros really liked Calypso for large prints, though they went out of business this year. Their website however refers their customers now to West Coast Imaging, so that might be another option to look into.

    Anyway, hope you find a new lab, I’ve sadly never been much into prints (part of that whole self-critical nature, easier to forget my mistakes if I don’t have a hard copy, lol.)


  2. I don’t print much either, just once in a great while. But I do occasionally run a roll of film through one of my vintage cameras, and I’ve had interesting problems getting good scans back. I used for a while, but I finally decided I just didn’t like the quality of the color I was getting back — the same sick pall fell over all the images regardless of which camera I used. I turned to a local camera shop, which does an okay job with color but I haven’t been happy with the black-and-white results. I’m not that much of a photographer but I do enjoy learning and experimenting — I’d just like to find a lab that consistently returns good scans and, when I need them, prints.

    I came over here after you commented on my blog; thanks for visiting!

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