So you have decided to take your photos to a photo lab. It’s not hard to find one, or is it? 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. Before you commit to having a photo lab handle and print your important family images, ask questions such as
- 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 in business?
- 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?
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. Think about it; if you are going to take the time to create a series of photographs, do you want to trust them with a lab whose main business is not photography? 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 enjoy photographing. 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 becoming, they still cannot correct a negative as accurately as a skilled person that adjusts the machine manually.
If the lab has a counter person, ask if you can talk to one of the lab techs. If they have to get from behind the deli counter, that may be a clue to move on to a different lab. Don’t be afraid to ask the same kinds of questions in camera shops and even pro shops.
After you find a lab that seems to fit your criteria and you 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. Take the time to print the name of the lab on the back of each print so you can readily identify and keep track of which lab produced the print.. What you may see is that the prints that you thought were great now, look bad, or vice versa.