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Prints from digital files: Where do you go? (1 Viewer)

John Kilroy

Stunt Coordinator
Jun 30, 1997
I have found remarkable differences in color and contrast among the usual suspects of digital print services (Walmart, Target, Walgreens, etc...). I have about 500 digital images scanned from slide film, and am currently testing many local and online vendors to determine the quality of their printing before having all 500 printed. It is a lot of money, so I want to make sure I know what I'm getting.

For example, one of my test images is an image of a Warsaw street musician playing a flute in the shadows of an arch in a textured, light yellow wall. The color of that wall coming back from different labs varied from peach, to off-white, to flesh colored. In some prints, the shadows are pretty dark, and the man's black suit is just slightly darker, allowing the viewer to see the outline of the man. In some prints, the shadows are just a wash, and the musician's head and hands appear to be floating in mid-air. Now admittedly, this was an exposure decision I had to make in-camera, and ideally, the shadows wouldn't have been so deep. However, to exposure for shadow detail, I would have had to pretty much wash out the beautiful wall textures.

But in-camera decisions like this are everyday reality for serious photographers. The decision I made is reflected in my chrome, it is reflected in the scan, and I want it reflected in my print.

What I have discovered about labs is - it's all about the chemicals. The quality of the lab's output is more dependent on the quality of their chemicals than anything else. Many labs, especially the cheap ones (Walgreens, Walmart, etc) don't change their chems often enough, and if you come in at the wrong time (when the chems are exhausted), you're going to get washed out prints, or bad color casts.

For example, the Target I went to changes their chems twice a day. Which sounds alright, until you consider how many prints they are making all day long. My neighborhood independent camera shop changes their chems once a day, but they do about a 10th of the volume. They are going to have better processing, across the board, virtually any time of day.

Dust control is another factor. So is the lifespan of the print. Try getting the same file printed by two different labs, with different machines, and then leave both on a window sill for massive sun exposure to simulate a few years of age. The prints will look different, and that will tell you something about how they will archive.

By the way, all of this applies to printing from negs as well.


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