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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Choosing the Right Photo Lab 
by Chuck McKern

More and more it seems there’s a photo lab on every corner. You have the "mom and pop" labs, the franchises, chain specialty stores, discount department stores, and now the drug stores and grocery stores, all with one-hour labs. And don't forget about all the mail order labs, as well as the "send-out" labs available at the drug stores, grocery stores, and warehouse clubs that don't offer one-hour service. Which one do you use? The one with the lowest prices, or the most convenient location? Is there really a difference in labs?

A lot of people I talk to don't believe there is any difference between labs. But over the years I've learned the differences can be dramatic. I've seen one of the oldest professional labs in the Philadelphia area scratch the heck out of twelve rolls of 120mm chromes and say, "Wasn't us". The twelve rolls were spread out among 21 rolls that were shot through the same camera. Only the rolls they handled were damaged. Professional labs should never have this kind of problem - period. I have also seen labs that have been certified for handling APS film, ruin film because they were unable to properly extract it from the cassette for processing. So how do you avoid these situations?

The first thing to take into consideration is what services do you need from a lab, and how fast do you need your images back. I shoot 35mm and 120 color negatives and slides, as well as black and white negatives. But 35mm E-6 slides are what I shot most, and I need them processed quickly most of the time. Therefore I need a lab that does E-6 on site. They should also be able to handle my 120 chromes as well as the odd 4x5 (for those rare occasions that I feel energetic enough to lug that camera out), all with same day service. They should also do same day service for C-41 (negative) printing and proofing from 35mm and 120. This ideal lab should also do black and white developing, enlarging, color enlarging (machine print and custom print), as well as custom prints from slides and slide duplicating on site. So how did I find this wonder lab? I asked a lot of questions.

It turns out this small lab has been in my area and catering to both professionals and amateurs for a long time. Over the years I've heard many pros and hobbyists praise them for their consistent quality and professionalism. After my incident with the pro lab mentioned earlier, I found myself in the market for a new lab.

While I was in the process of planning the re-shoot for the ruined job, I called one of the photographers that had mentioned this "new" lab (new for me). I asked about his experiences and how long he had been using them. After hearing he had been with them for three years and was consistently pleased, I decided to give them a try. I shot a single roll of 120 chrome and took it in to them for a test (after all, I wasn't going to take another fifteen rolls and turn them over to the lab without seeing for myself how the quality was!).

When I returned to pick up the slides about four hours later, I was happy to find their quality was better than what I had been getting. I was even more surprised when I found out I was going to pay about 1/3 less than I had been paying for the same service! Before leaving, I told the person behind the counter (who I later found out was one of the owners) that this was the first time I had used them and was very pleasantly surprised with the quality of the work. He stopped what he was doing and asked where I had been getting my work done. This gave me an opportunity to start asking questions as to what services they offered. He ran down a list of services that I couldn't believe would fit in this little building. Most of the services I needed on a regular basis were offered and the rest he was able to farm out to another company for next day service. He showed me a copy of their price list and I felt comfortable with what they were charging (assuming the rest of the quality was as good as the E-6 was).

Next I asked him "Could I see a sample of their printing?" He walked over to a machine printer and handed me the stack of prints that were sitting just outside the cutter. He told me this was a job he just finished proofing and I thought to myself, "These are machine proofs? They look as good if not better than a lot of custom prints." I'd found my new lab.

Your needs might not be as varied as mine but you should still be concerned with quality. I feel one of the most important things to consider before taking your images somewhere is to ask what business they’re in? If I'm going to take the time to create a series of photographs, do I want to trust them with a lab whose main business is not photography?

Today many retailers have one-hour labs to bring people in so they can sell other things: hair care, first aid, food, clothes, and general products. How well trained are their lab people? Many of these labs are installing state-of-the-art printing equipment, but the machines are only as good as the people running them. If you're considering a one-hour lab for convenience, talk to their lab people. Ask them what services they offer and how long they take. Pretty early in the conversation you'll usually get a feel of how well they know their job and equipment. If they seem confident about what they are doing, ask them how long they have been printing and also if they shoot. Ask why some pictures come out too light and why some come out too dark. If they can comfortably explain this to you, ask if they "fix" prints like these while printing or if the machine does it for them. If they try to convince you that the machine will automatically correct the print while the roll is being printed, move on to another lab. As good as machines are getting, they cannot correct a negative nearly as accurately as a skilled person adjusting the machine manually can. If the lab has a counter person, ask if you can talk to one of lab techs. If they have to get from behind the deli counter, move on to another lab. Don't be afraid to ask the same kinds of questions in camera shops and even pro shops. I was horrified to find out how little the techs knew at one pro lab. When I kept asking questions I was told that all the techs were trainees and all the old techs had been let go because they wanted more money! Do I want these guys learning on my film? Not when I've got clients to please.

After you find a lab that seems to fit your criteria and are comfortable that they know what they are doing, order a reprint of a negative that you know is good. Take that print and compare it to your original print. Better yet, have the same negative printed at a couple of other places and lay them all out next to each other (print the name of the lab on the back of each print so you will know whose is whose). What you may see is that the prints that you thought were great now look bad, or vice versa.

The moral of the story is that not all specialty and professional labs are great, and not all "discount" labs are terrible. It takes some time asking questions and comparing quality to find the lab that will do the work you need with the quality you want and deserve. You've spent a lot of money on equipment to make great images. Don't let your lab be the weak link.

Specific Questions to Ask
Below is a list of some of the questions to ask when looking for a lab. This list is meant to get you started into a conversation with the people at the lab. The best way to start is ask about the services they offer and go from there. You can ask these in any order as the conversation dictates. If at any point you feel uncomfortable with the answers you're getting, than you’re probably not in the right lab. And don't forget to ask other photographers. The grape vine is still a good source of information.

  • What services do you offer? 
  • What if I don't like the way my photographs are printed? 
  • How long does it take? 
  • How long have you been doing this? 
  • Can I see some sample work? 
  • How often do you monitor the quality of the chemicals? 
  • How often do you do maintenance on the machines? 
  • Do you manually correct for negatives that are under or overexposed? 
  • Do you check the print quality and redo problem prints before packaging orders? 
  • How many different printers work in the lab? 
  • Can I request a specific lab tech if I like their work?


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