|Pictured: Richard Photo Lab, Matte Prints|
I've been putting off print making for years. Honestly, I was broke. Being broke was a great reason to avoid printing until I developed a small budget this year and my excuses ran out. I quickly discovered I can't handle feeling uninformed. So I'm sharing my information journey for anyone interested in the nitty gritty. I'm going to lay this out in a series of blog posts. I hope to cover printing standard prints, printing fine art prints, framing options, packaging, shipping, and developing a storefront.
I've already started my storefront on Etsy. While I plan to offer fine art prints later this year, it is really important for me to also offer a line of affordable small prints. So this is where my journey begins. How to find the perfect little black and white print.
These last few weeks I have explored eight different labs. It is difficult to show differences in quality by taking a picture of a picture, but I have included a few shots for general reference.
The labs in no particular order:
Paper I tested:
Luster: The luster prints turned out fine, very close to my monitor but with a slight cyan tint. Color Inc uses a Fuji Paper which feels thicker than the Kodak Edura used by Mpix/ Millers. These printed comparable to Pro Dpi Luster Prints.
Shipping: Free shipping with $15 minimum.
Price Range: Cheap. Color Inc regularly runs sales and keeps the sale calendar posted for the month here. It's not unusual to see 4x6 prints drop to .19 cents each.
Ordering: Like most major labs, Color Inc uses a ROES system . It's an easy software program that is downloaded to your computer and makes ordering a cinch.
Samples: New customers can order five, 5x7 luster test prints shipped to them for 5 cents. These are not watermarked. Order test prints here. Color inc also sends out a free sample swatch pack of their different paper types.
Who they are for: A pro lab open to everyone. While the luster prints were great, I will mention my fine art print from Color Inc was unacceptable. I will write about that in my fine art paper section. Stay tuned.
Customer Service: Great customer service.
|Clockwise from top left: Richard Photo Lab Matte, Color Inc Luster, Mpix Pro Silver Gelatin|
Paper I tested:
Luster: My prints came out well and were printed on Fuji paper. According to them, there is about 2% post sharpening to all photos. It's visibly sharper in print than on the computer screen. This can be great or not so great depending how you sharpen your files prior to sending them in. Make sure to measure this with your test prints so you can adjust your workflow accordingly.
Shipping: Free shipping with $12 minimum.
Price Range: Their prices are affordable. Their 4x6 proof prints are a nice price, but you do have to downsize your files before uploading to get the proof pricing. If you don't, they will automatically charge you the higher print price. Not worth the trouble for me.
Ordering: ROES software
Color Management: Pro DPI has ICC profiles for several of their paper types. You can download them here.
Samples: New customers receive three, 8x10 watermarked luster prints for free. Also, Pro DPI sends out a welcome packet with paper swatches of all their basic photo and press papers.
Who they are for: Professional photographers. They require a website or other company information to verify.
Customer Service: Absolutely fantastic customer service over the phone. The candy they slip in outgoing orders is an added bonus.
Note: Mpix, Mpix Pro and Millers are all divisions of the same company and have the exact same print quality. This was verified when I called to ask. The differences are in the variety of products offered, shipping, ect.
Paper I tested:
E-surface (Luster): Not a fan. I didn't like the flimsy feeling Kodak Endura paper and some of my prints seemed over sharpened resulting in a digital look. I wouldn't order again. It was my least favorite of the luster prints.
True Black and White (Silver Gelatin): These are processed using black and white chemicals and Ilford Paper. Because of the processing there is no color tint, ever. When compared to luster paper, these are softer in contrast, softer in sharpness, and softer in the highlights. This works really great for some images and not as well for others. I loved my high contrast images on this paper. Mpix states this is a matte finish paper, but I believe it's RC Ilford Pearl paper, the same paper that Digital Silver Imaging uses. It has a soft pleasing sheen. While substantially less expensive than Digital Silver Imaging, these print on the darker side of the spectrum, while Digital Silver imaging prints on the lighter side. More on Digital Silver Imaging later in this post.
Shipping: Shipping starts at $3.95.
Price Range: Decent prices. I can actually get some products cheaper through pro labs that ship free. But not bad. All prices are listed online here. Mpix has the lowest price I found on silver gelatin prints at .59 cents for a 4x6.
Ordering: Ordering is done by a standard upload. This is tedious if you do large volume orders. Also, if you choose to add white borders to your prints, it will cover your image on the sides rather than shrink down your image to accommodate the border.
Color Management: No options that I can find. That being said, they print accurate if you have a well calibrated monitor.
Samples: You can order a paper sample swatch for 3.00. It would probably be just as cheap to order your own photos in 4x6 of the papers you would like to try.
Who they are for: This is Mpix/Miller's consumer line that prints with professional quality. Anyone can order.
Customer Service: Decent customer service by email. No phone customer service available.
|Clockwise from top left: Digital Silver Imaging Silver Gelatin, Richard Photo Lab Matte, Mpix Luster, Mpix Silver Gelatin|
|Left: Mpix Silver Gelatin Right: Digital Silver Imaging Silver Gelatin|
Paper I tested: Same as Mpix with the exact same results. No borders are available for the True Black and White prints.
Shipping: Fed Ex Next Business Day for a flat fee of $5 per order. $15 order minimum.
Price Range: Generally a little more expensive than Mpix and a little less than Millers. It varies by size. There is less of a price difference with the larger prints.
Ordering: Roes Software
Color Management: They provide ICC profiles for their luster and metallic papers but only if you email them to ask for it.
Samples: Five free 8x10 watermarked test prints upon sign up. These ship fast. Choose a good variety so you can compare to your monitor. They also send out paper swatches for most of their photo and press papers.
Who they are for: Pros and aspiring pros.
Customer Service: Good customer service by email. No phone customer service available.
Paper I tested: E-surface with same results as Mpix.
Shipping: Free overnight shipping with a $10 order minimum.
Price Range: They basically work the free overnight shipping charge into the print prices. This is the highest priced line of the Mpix/Millers line of labs. Depending on your needs, this could be worth it.
Ordering: Roes Software.
Color Management: If you would like an ICC profile for the e-surface or metallic papers then you can email a request. If not, just get your test prints and compare them to your screen.
Samples: You will receive 3, 8x10 watermarked test prints on e-surface paper with a duplicate set that has been color corrected by Millers. My corrected prints were pretty awful. To be fair it's a correction service better suited for portrait businesses and not fine art.
Who they are for: Professional photographers subject to approval.
Customer Service: Good phone and email customer support.
|Left: Silver Gelatin by Digital Silver Imaging - Middle: Luster print by Color Inc - Right: Deep Matte by Richard Photo Lab|
Richard Photo Lab
Paper I tested:
Deep Matte: This was my first experience with Fuji Deep Matte paper. I didn't know any better, but it's not an ideal paper for dark black and white images. There is absolutely no light reflection on this surface which creates a soft buttery look. It feels good to the touch. The downside is the blacks appear flat. My guess is this would be a great pick for light and colorful imagery.
Matte: Richards matte paper has a slight luster but not as much as actual luster paper, which they also offer. I remember when this was a standard paper for labs to offer. I was surprised that Richard's was the only lab I tested that still offers this. Also, Richard prints your photos just as you send them unless you choose color correction. This means there was no added sharpening or contrast or any other fixes I didn't ask for unless I chose the color correct print option. The paper was on the thin side but for small prints I was ok with that.
Shipping: Free shipping with a $12 order minimum
Price Range: Affordable prices.
Ordering: Roes Software
Color Management: you can order a $5 calibration kit in their Roes ordering system. It is an 8x10 print of various colors and contrasts that is mailed to you to compare to a corresponding digital file on your screen. If you have a well calibrated monitor already, you probably won't need this.
Who they are for: Both film and digital shooters. They seem to market to film shooters in particular.
Customer Service: Great. I received a follow up call a week or two after placing my first order just checking to see if I had any questions. Phone and email customer service is available.
|Left: Color Inc Luster Right: Richard Photo Lab Deep Matte|
|You can see how the deep matte has no glare when held at an angle. With the right image this may be a neat paper.|
Paper I tested:
Simply Vivid: These are printed on a nice heavy paper. I sampled the all three vivid papers using their free print promotion. I was surprised at how much I liked the glossy, and metallic with my work. The downside is there was a stronger color tint than most black and white photos I've had done. I called customer service and they said the color tint may always be a battle with the vivid line of prints.
Shipping: Starting at $4.95
Price Range: More expensive than most labs I tested.
Ordering: Roes Software. Their website was cluttered and hard for me to navigate so I was thankful ordering was through Roes.
Color Management: ICC profiles are available for a variety of their papers once you are logged into their site.
Samples: Currently three free, 8x10 vivid prints. Details here.
Who they are for: Professional Photographers. Sign up requires a company name.
Customer Service: Excellent customer service.
|From left going clockwise: Simply Color Vivid Gloss, Mpix Luster, and Mpix Silver Gelatin|
Digital Silver Imaging
Paper I tested: I tested several papers but I'll save the fine art papers for my fine art post. For now I will address the Silver Gelatin on RC Pearl Ilford paper. This is the same paper and process as Mpix/Millers True Black and White. DSI had slightly better contrast than Mpix. They also had an easy option to add a small white border around the prints in Roes. These have nothing printed on the back making them a more professional looking surface for artist signatures. This was the only lab that I tried with this feature.
Shipping: $9 for up to 8x11 and $15 for larger prints. 1-2 weeks before your prints are shipped. This makes it really hard to justify buying small prints unless I'm ordering in large quantities. Out of all the labs DSI had the longest production time by far.
Price Range: The silver gelatin prints start at $2 which is around the same as Millers Lab. Except Millers ships free overnight and takes only a day to process.
Ordering: Roes Software for their value prints and online for their custom prints.
Color Management: None provided. The Silver Gelatin printed slightly lighter than both my monitor and the fine art prints I got from Digital Silver Imaging. While they looked nice, It's hard for me to have unpredictable results.
Samples: Their claim to fame is Silver Gelatin on Fiber Paper. It's pricy and I have not tried it. If you want to compare the Silver Gelatin RC and Fiber prints they offer a promotion to get an 8x10 of each with free shipping for $45 here.
Who they are for: Anyone who is interested in Silver Gelatin prints or Fine Art inkjet.
Customer Service: Good customer service. Call if you need the information quickly, otherwise email. They were able to provide detailed answers to my questions via email. These poor labs, I asked a lot of questions!
And my favorite prints of them all? Richard Photo Lab Matte Prints!
Nothing fancy with these, just the opposite. They get the job done without screwing it up. They print maybe a tad soft. But better than printing overly sharp. Now I'm just nit picking. I would consider using a small local lab if they had comparable results and prices. I'm right in the middle of a move to Colorado so I need a lab I can order from anywhere. At .25 cents for a 4x6 proof print, you can't lose. It was a one day turnaround for my prints and they shipped UPS ground. So it took about 7 days total from the time I placed my order to the time they arrived at my doorstep in Missouri.
You see how they are in a paper print envelope? What ever happened to labs using these? I've been so tired of tearing through plastic to get to my prints, this paper was a welcome sight.
Signing the back of regular photo paper proved to be a challenge. A photo lab and several forums suggested using a Sakura Micron Pen. I've heard it even sticks to glossy prints. My signature still smeared hours after signing with the Micron pen.
I settled on Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pen . It's archival and dries much better than the Micron. I still have to let it set a minute, but it works great. I would almost like to buy the finer tipped size but if you go too small the pen skips when you are trying to write on such a finicky surface.
You'll notice in my review that having a 1/4 inch white border was important to me. The border helps protect the image against fingerprints and also gives it a nice pop when you look at the loose print. A border also makes it easier to mat and frame. This way the mat sits over the border and not the image itself.
Well there you have it. As I continue this series I will add the next chapter links here at the bottom. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments about your own lab experiences.