There are labs and then there are labs. If you’re not a fussy photographer then maybe you will not realise that there’s much of a difference between a good lab and a great lab. But I’m going to tell you a little story…
I shot a wedding just before Christmas. When I started processing the work I realised I was confronted with a decision…make the look and feel what I want or follow client expectations in terms of output? mmnn well I decided I’d rather give the images a bit of a BJP look and feel so I’ll do my thing….which has been fine with my People and Places work. That would be the ‘before’ version. Thankfully, my clients Jack and Heather were more than happy to let me know of their concern about the colour. The black suit doesn’t look black, can anything be done? Ha ha I thought, yes indeedy, love the digital! Happy to admit I went a little too hard on my own ideas and it didn’t come over so well in a sewn up wedding situation. That said, I apologised profusely and bent over backwards to rein it in and produce a more commercially expected colour set. Blacks are blacks, and on on. You can see here in the before and after the difference. Actually this in itself was an excellent exercise in colour management. I do all my own portrait work, as I like it and building a name for doing it my way, and am not used to meeting client expectations around colour. It cost the client less than a week while they waited for the replacement set and they could still keep the old set. No harm done.
But the way I was able to achieve the correct balance was through managing my own colour onscreen but also the output process with the lab. Now I decided to go local with the choice of lab on this one. I knew I might need someone nearby on this job as I expected a bit of to-ing and fro-ing while I tested the print process, and I also anticipated reprint orders afterwards. Whilst the lab produce archivally sound work, their idea of customer service is up the proverbial. After the colour catastrophe was resolved, the client then submitted some reprint orders. No problems. For one image in particular I submitted a file to the lab to be printed as a reprint, a 5×7″print of the bride with her mother. When I dropped off the file, as I always have done on this particular job, I always say ‘no corrections’. This is important because it means then I can work directly between my screen and the prints without human interference from the lab technicians. No problems, they said. So I get the print back and took one look at it and knew it had been tampered with. It was darker than its on-screen version – the hair was darker and the skin tones muddy, the client is not going to like this…mmnn…I turned the print over and there was the tell tale sign – an uncorrected print will read four N’s on the back, this one had a numerical figure listed against the fourth N. That means someone’s fiddled with it.
I rang up the lab to ask why this had happened, that I’ve ended up with a print that is not what I ordered. I control the process on screen and expect a controlled process off screen. Well, he said, the technician darkened your print because the highlights are reading too high. He even had the audacity to open the file and read me the figures he had onscreen! Sooooo not the point. If a professional lab is looking at clearly a professionally taken wedding photograph and sees something isn’t right, he shouldn’t take license with the image and ‘fix’ it. The image is best altered in the RAW state, from the digital negative, where all the data goodies can be found. You would then export a new jpeg version of the file with adjustments, and run off a new uncorrected print. (By uncorrected I mean that the lab doesn’t do anything to the file, they just open it and hit print). If you just run a darker print off a jpeg file, your print won’t come out with as good quality, because they are fiddling with a compressed file. ANY PROFESSIONAL LAB SHOULD KNOW THIS.
Well, despite the fact that they can run off a print like a lab rat, they porport to being a professional lab but do not provide that service appropriately. I’ve had a few other niggly bits and pieces happen there, no need to go into them here…you know, you put up with some things for convenience or whatever…So sadly, I will just be getting last minute rush prints done locally, and will continue to send my files to Sydney. I know at least, that if my technician in Sydney sees a file that he doubts will be printing correctly that I’ll be getting a phone call rather than a muddy print. (So far, I might add, I have never received a call from Sydney saying, ‘we think you should alter your file’ – and they actually do offer excellent back up support).
Just on that note, the lab I refer to in Sydney that I will happily plug is called Pixel Perfect. I upload my files to their site and the prints arrive beautifully done, matching incredibly well to my onscreen version a few days later. Happily, they will be printing my exhibition work at 20% off in exchange for being a major sponsor to the event and you will see their logo about the place. In fact, I might just post it here, just because I can.
Thanks Steve, at Pixel Perfect for the excellent customer service I have received. I won’t wander from the fold again, I promise.
Have you had any dramas with printing labs? Post your comment here…