Why is using a professional print lab so important?

This month marks one year in business. What a stressful and amazing year it has been! My business has changed and grown so much over the past year. The first half of the year I focused so much on posing, lighting, and other basics of photography. The second half of the year I focused more on finding myself with different editing styles. I know I will continue to grow, change and evolve those things each year, but I finally feel like I can focus on what happens after I deliver digital images.

I have spent the last year staring at color every day on my monitor and seeing consistent color has become so important to me. Something I have learned in my first year of business is how hard it is to get consistent color. Sunset light makes everything yellow, a lightbulb left on in a room changes the color, and if you have any natural light in your studio while using studio lights, well, good luck finding a good white balance. And when it comes to viewing images, your image colors can look different depending on the browser you use (Safari, Chrome, etc.) or if you are on your phone vs computer.

Before starting my business, I remember being so annoyed when I got photos delivered and our skin was red or yellow or orange or my pretty purple shirt was blue (?!). What I didn't know is it was the printing lab I was using, not the images themselves. Over the past year these differences have become more and more apparent to me while printing personal photos, but I didn't have the time to devote to making any changes. The more I started ordering my personal photos from professional printing labs, the more consistent I found my images to be, and the more I wanted to re-print all the pictures displayed in my house. By the end of this year, I vowed never again to order an image that will be displayed in my home from a consumer printer.

At first it was hard for me to justify the cost, because professional prints are more expensive, but all it took was one more order where I saved some money to see just how bad the color was compared to the other images hung in my house. I knew as soon as the busy fall season was over I wanted to do some research and start offering prints and products for my clients. 

I chose four different images taken over the last year, with different lighting and different editing. Initially, I just ordered these prints from the professional labs I wanted to compare for my clients. After seeing some subtle differences between the professional labs, I thought it would be a good idea to test consumer labs as well. I used the same four images to compare my professional print lab with prints from a few local consumer labs: Costco, Walmart, CVS and Walgreens. I have ordered from Shutterfly and Target enough in the past to know how inconsistent their coloring is. The point of this test was not to compare every single lab but to show the inconsistencies and differences between consumer labs in general.

Note: Each print was sent the same file with the automatic adjustments and corrections turned off. The prints in this post are a photo of a photo. I am basing my evaluation on the appearance of the actual prints in person. Also, the screen or the browser you are using to view this post may vary from my screen.

Here is the first original image:

Here are the consumer prints. None of them match the original image. Not even close. They all had a wide variety of colors and tones, and the saturation was too strong in all but one. Our sweet little baby boy looks red or yellow in three of the four images. 

Northern Virginia Newborn Photographer

Here is the original image:

Northern Virginia Newborn Photographer

This was the most inaccurate batch. Especially that bottom right image. I love that they moved my crop and cut off her head - and she is apparently really jaundice now too! Although she was slightly red in real life and in my image, she was either orange, yellow or really red in our printed photos.  

Northern Virginia Newborn Photographer

Here is the original image:

Northern Virginia Milestone Photographer

As you can see below, the saturation and color are all off again. The bottom left photo was completely smeared and out of focus. And once again, this sweet baby girl is bright orange in our bottom right photo. 

Northern Virginia Milestone Photographer

Here is the original image:

Northern Virginia Family Photographer

I think the differences in this photo would be the least noticeable to someone who doesn't stare at colors every day. I think everyone can see how much the green grass color varies in each photo. When looking closely in person, you can also see the differences in the skin tones (more orange/yellow/red). The saturation also varies in each print. 

Northern Virginia Family Photographer

This blog post is not meant to bash these consumer labs. I have used them numerous times for a variety of reasons in the past and I probably will again in the future for school projects, etc. but no longer for images that will be displayed in my home.

I spend many hours editing and preparing your images for you. The point of this blog post is to let you know that if you are going to invest money into professional photos, I would recommend you follow up that investment on the products and prints. You don't want to look orange or yellow on that huge canvas above your mantle.

Using a lab that specializes in professional prints truly makes a difference. In the end, this comparison has shown that you won’t receive any type of color consistency through any of these consumer print labs.

Update 9/28/17: Each of my clients are now able to order through a professional printer directly through their online gallery.