Why do photolab digital prints not look right?

Discussion in 'Digital SLR' started by default, Apr 12, 2006.

  1. default

    default Guest


    I took some of my pictures from the Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D) in to
    Superstore's photolab http://www.photolab.ca/Brand/en/PhotolabHP.asp to have
    prints made.

    I used the kiosk to order the prints in 6x4" and I now have the prints back
    and I am not pleased with them at all.

    Firstly they cropped the pictures about 4mm on all sides. Secondly the
    colours are not accurate. Finally they have clipped both the shadows and
    highlights. They highlights are quite blown and the shadows have lost most
    of their detail.

    Before everyone reminds me that I need a colour managed workflow, here was
    the setup:

    Canon Rebel XT in raw mode.
    Adobe photoshop ACR and CS2.
    Viewsonic VP201s 20.1" LCD.
    Colorvision Spyder calibrated and ICM file loaded.
    The output files were quality 12 jpgs in sRGB colour at 3456x2304
    I copied them back to a compact-flash card and took the card to the store.

    The pictures looked great on the monitor with good detail in the highlights
    and shadows. They also were not clipped but they did have full histograms.
    I assumed that photolabs have the printing machines calibrated to a standard
    so that if I have a calibrated monitor, that the prints that come back will
    look the same. I also assumed that the photolabs don't alter the images but
    just print what you gave them.

    Luckily I only had a 5 prints made, but I am wondering what I did wrong.

    Do the kiosks do levels adjustments or sharpening or colour shifting of some
    sort or do they print exactly as given. It seems that their black level is
    much to high and the white level much to low. My file had values from
    0-255, but the printed output looks clipped to about 30-210 or so.

    I don't plan on buying my own photoprinter as the operating costs are too
    high compared to the 16-24 cents per print at local photolabs.

    How do you prepare your images so that the prints will look right when a lab
    does them? The blown highlights and lost shadow details are the most
    offensive to me, followed closely by the cropping, and finally the colours
    being a little off is annoying but less important.

    Thanks for any responses.
    default, Apr 12, 2006
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    Jeremy Nixon Guest

    You don't need a color-managed workflow (well, you do, but you already have
    one). What you need is for that workflow to extend to the output stage.
    You need a lab that will print your pictures as you give them to you, with
    no "helpful" automatic adjustments. Basic consumer labs are not those labs.
    You were being over-optimistic, I'd say.
    They most certainly, definitely, and emphatically do not do that, unless
    they say they do.

    I use printroom.com, which supports ICC profiles and will do your prints
    exactly as you send them. There are others like that as well. If they
    don't present themselves as a "pro" lab, you should assume they do not
    do these things. Almost no consumer labs support a color-managed
    The one thing you need to understand is that printed pictures will be
    perceptually darker than what you see on screen. I apply a slight gamma
    adjustment to files I send for printing. You sometimes lose the deepest
    shadows anyway; that's the nature of the beast. But, by and large, you're
    doing nothing wrong other than using the wrong lab.
    Jeremy Nixon, Apr 12, 2006
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    Mike Warren Guest


    You have missed a step in your workflow. You must also use an output
    profile to the photolab. There are 3 choices I can think of ATM.

    1) Ask the photolab for a PS profile. This is unlikely with a low cost lab.

    2) Find out what printer the lab uses and use a generic profile.

    3) Make a series of test prints and do a rough profile yourself.
    I had reasonable results using this method with a photolab across
    the road from where I work but it took about 30 prints and is still not

    Mike Warren, Apr 12, 2006
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    bmoag Guest

    I find it astounding that you would invest all that money, time and effort
    (CS2, Spyder, 20 inch LCD) and then worry about the cost of printing your
    own images.
    You expect quality 4x6 images from a do it yourself kiosk?
    This is not a joke?
    The money you wasted on the LCD alone would cover many months of printing
    Pennywise and dollar foolish.
    Buy the printer.
    bmoag, Apr 12, 2006
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    default Guest

    Thank you, Jeremy. I knew they would be a bit darker and not quite the same
    as the print reflects light and the monitor emits.

    I wasn't expecting such a large cropping (about 3/16" of the picture is
    missing on all sides). I've had prints done elsewhere but I didn't compare
    them carefully until I got these back and wondered how I blew out the
    highlights so bad and what happened to the detail in the dark areas that
    were now black. Then I compared carefully and was shocked how bad the
    prints were when the image on the monitor looked so good and wasn't blown
    out at all.

    I'll have to look around for a different place, or go to a small shop where
    the owner runs it and I can ask to have them unprocessed, just printed.

    Do photolabs use an enlarger and do chemical prints, or are they just inkjet
    or laser prints on photopaper?
    default, Apr 12, 2006
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    default Guest

    This is not a joke, completely serious.

    Yes, I spent a lot on good hardware. This only costs me once. I'll may
    never need another camera. I am very happy with my lenses. The spyder
    should work well as long as windows can use colour profiles. These are all
    one time investments in the equipment. The monitor is fantastic, but
    eventually the backlight will burn out, but I will get it fixed. CS2 is a
    great piece of software and should be more than I need for as long as I can
    see. The Rebel XT is my first digital camera. I waited until now because
    prior to the XT, I didnt find the digital cameras to be good enough to put
    money into. They all had some tradeoff or problems that I found
    unacceptable. I considered the 20D but it was 50% more money for what
    seemed to be an only slightly better camera.

    Consumables for a colour printer is an ongoing expense. Printers can be
    quite a hassle, especially if you don't use them frequently. Ink cartridges
    dry out and get unreliable necessitating early replacement. The real cost
    per print for a consumer printer for my infrequent use would be very high.
    Besides, after spending thousands to get well set-up, I don't want
    significant ongoing expenses.

    I don't mind spending a fair bit of money once for a good tool. I hate
    shelling out over and over again to upgrade or for consumables.

    I had presumed that since I had film developing and printing that I was
    satisfied with from the same company, that the digital prints would be at
    least as good, but it appears that they are doing something strange with the
    data to try to "help".

    Do most people have low contrast images and it makes them look better by
    clipping the extremes? Maybe they think if they crop a few percent of each
    side, the image will match the 95% view that the viewfinders give?

    I was just inexperienced in getting digital prints done at a consumer photo
    lab and wondered if there was a way to pre-process the images to make them
    turn out from their process. Many of my pictures end up being viewed on a
    monitor or on the website so I often don't need prints. If I can manipulate
    the images in such a way as to complement the kiosk's processing, I might be
    able to get good prints from it. I am going to take the same images to
    other places and see how they differ first though.

    But thank you for your response. I appreciate differing opinions and
    priorities and I might end up having to get my own printer anyway to really
    have control of the process end to end.
    default, Apr 12, 2006
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    Jeremy Nixon Guest

    Borderless ("full bleed") prints are always cropped to some extent, and
    always were, even with film. Some places less than others; it depends on
    how precise they try to be when projecting the image onto the paper.
    Personally, I order my prints with white borders, which results in no
    cropping at all. I prefer the look anyhow.
    Well, you need more than just unprocessed; for the absolute best results,
    you need a lab that actually supports a color-managed workflow. Then you
    can leave your files in Adobe RGB or whatever other working space you use,
    and the output will be correct.

    The place I mentioned, printroom.com, does this, and also provides an ICC
    profile for soft-proofing. (There is no need for you to do the color space
    conversion.) A "pro" lab should have no trouble with this, and it frees you
    from needing to do test prints, adjustments, and whatever other nonsense.
    It also frees you from having to convert to sRGB, which is good since almost
    all printing processes, especially photographic ones, are capable of colors
    outside the sRGB gamut.
    They will be photographic (optical) enlargements, but nowadays the paper is
    usually exposed with a laser in the digital printing machines. Google
    "Fuji Frontier" to get an idea.
    Jeremy Nixon, Apr 12, 2006
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    default Guest

    I doubt the counter guy would have a clue what it is but maybe a manager
    would know.

    This is an interesting idea if the printer they use is reasonably consistant
    with others of the same type.

    This may be be fairly good. I can compare the originals to the prints and
    figure out what levels they are clipping to and pre-compress the dynamic
    range of the picture into this region.

    Thanks for your suggestions.
    default, Apr 12, 2006
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    Jeremy Nixon Guest

    Ordering photographic prints is cheaper than doing your own printing on a
    really good inkjet, and the results are better to boot. With a real,
    color-manged workflow all the way to output, you have total control over
    the result.
    Yes. Think of the average consumer. They are impressed by oversaturated,
    contrasty images that "pop", or whatever sound it is they're supposed to
    make. That's the target audience. They don't *want* their pictures to
    look just like the files they're sending. They would complain if they
    did, and go somewhere else where they would oversaturate them and clip
    their highlights and shadows just the way they like it.
    That's just being sloppy. Think back to the darkroom -- it's harder (takes
    more time) to set up an enlarger to do a borderless print while preserving
    as much of the frame as possible, than to just let the edges bleed off and
    leave it. To really get it precise every time they would probably end up
    having to adjust it for each run, at least sometimes. And no one but us
    perfectionists is ever going to notice, so why bother?
    Jeremy Nixon, Apr 12, 2006
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    Stacey Guest

    This is why most people do their own printing, not trying to save money. As
    you said the "minilab" 4X6 prints are cheap but this is yet again a case of
    you get what you pay for. Also IMHO a good inkjet print looks better than
    any of the comercially made prints I've had done even at "pro" labs.
    Stacey, Apr 12, 2006
  11. Good inkjet printers are surprisingly cheap (although the ink is sometimes
    costly). Get yourself a good printer and calibrate your computer and
    printer so you get what you expect.
    You mean do they take your CD, generate an image on a projector, project
    it onto photosensitive paper and process it chemically to create a print?
    While that is technically possible (in fact, that is how a lot of movies
    are made--shot digitally and converted to film for distribution), that is
    not what a typical photo lab would do. They use an inkjet or laser
    printer and photo quality printer paper, just as you would do at home,
    only with more professional equipment. "More professional" does not
    necessarily mean better results, however.

    The difference is, at home, you can control the quality. At a photo lab,
    unless you want to pay for custom work, you may get no better than what
    you got on the K-Mart machine. And that applies to film as well as
    digital prints, except it is probably easier for a lab to screw up a
    digital print.

    Also, keep in mind that a monitor and a printer will not have the same
    color characteristics. You have to calibrate each separately. A picture
    adjusted to look good from a printer, may not look good on a monitor and
    vice versa. But calibration software will take care of that for you.

    Merritt Mullen, Apr 12, 2006
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    default Guest

    I see that the printers are very cheap. I wonder how well built though.
    The inks are expensive and you usually won't get all you pay for. One of
    the reasons I went away from film was to get away from developing costs, and
    only have to pay for prints that I want and not have to develop the ones
    that don't turn out. Ink jet printing at home puts much of that cost back,
    although I am starting to see that it may be necessary to get control of the
    I thought perhaps they made a slide and did exactly that. More professional
    sometimes means better built, more reliable, servicable, faster, etc. I
    agree that it doesn't necessarily mean better results as I can see on this
    particular set of prints that I am very unhappy with. I am still going to
    take them to other shops and see what else is available. I have had some
    done at other places that seemed to turn out ok, but I didnt compare them
    after. These ones jumped out at me as particularily bad which is what
    brought it to my attention.

    I calibrated my monitor with a spyder so that I would be viewing it in a
    standard way. I presumed that the printers used at photolabs would have a
    calibration that matched a standard monitor calibration so that everyones
    photos would look correct without having to distribute profiles. I am
    probably wrong about this.

    The colour matching was actually only the minor problem. The contrast
    adjustments that they did was the most offensive part of the service. It
    made all very dark tones black and the very light tones white. The pictures
    look both over and underexposed whereas they were perfectly exposed in
    reality. The problem of the cropping can be solved by getting borders on
    the prints. I am probably going to do that in the future.
    default, Apr 12, 2006
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    Steve Wolfe Guest

    I took some of my pictures from the Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D) in to
    So, why haven't you talked to the folks at the lab to see what they have
    to say? It sort of boggles the mind, but if you want to get good prints out
    of their equipment, they might actually be able to tell you how to
    accomplish it.

    If you've adjusted them on a calibrated monitor, then you might want to
    tell them not to make corrections or adjustments. Most places run the
    equivalent of auto-levels and/or auto-color on the images before printing.
    And remember that your LCD will probably show more detail in the shadows
    than the prints are capable of.

    Steve Wolfe, Apr 12, 2006
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    tomm42 Guest

    Another suggestion is most Kiosk, or cheap printers use sRGB color
    space. If you have created your files with Adobe RGB you will get the
    nasty clipping that you described. Pro labs generally use Adobe RGB,
    but always ask, they will know, at the cheap photo places you may get
    lucky and have a kid interested in photography there, but most of the
    time it is a personal asigned from the cosmetic counter.
    Try to get a working relationship with a pro level lab, some small
    shops are surprisingly good. That way if prints aren't as you thought
    you can ask why. The worst thing is to get bad prints at pro prices.
    The way most digital printers work is the digital file is printed by a
    laser or led lights on photopaper. Some labs are using wide format
    inkjets to print larger pictures 20" wide and up, but why not, in the
    right hands the prints are beautiful and they last longer than
    traditonal photos.
    If you are looking for your own inkjet, get a 13x19 model, HP Designjet
    or Epson are the best. If you print gloss the Epson R1800 iss a great
    printer, HP is coming out with the 9180, pigmented ink that have been
    rated for 200 years.

    tomm42, Apr 12, 2006
  15. default

    default Guest

    Thank you for your response. I just opened each of the images from the card
    I used to bring the images. Each one was using sRGB for colour
    representation and looked right. I think I'll go elseware for prints in the
    future. The price wasn't very good anyway at $0.24/print and the quality is
    unsatisfying. I suspect the people doing it don't have a clue and you can't
    pick which "technician"/cosmetic counterperson does the work.
    default, Apr 12, 2006
  16. Actually he may find one here....


    Drycreek has ICC profiles for many of the chain stores.


    "I have been a witness, and these pictures are
    my testimony. The events I have recorded should
    not be forgotten and must not be repeated."

    -James Nachtwey-
    John A. Stovall, Apr 13, 2006
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    RichA Guest

    Which printers are capable of equivalent or superior printing compared
    to the equipment
    at professional labs?
    RichA, Apr 13, 2006
  18. Nice try, "Rich".

    Another open ended troll bait post.
    John McWilliams, Apr 13, 2006
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    RichA Guest

    You don't know. No surprize there.
    RichA, Apr 13, 2006
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    C J Southern Guest

    Most "labs" are expecting (or assuming) an sRGB profile (which is a standard
    in it's own right). I'm wondering if using the correct profile for the
    printer may actually make the issue worse if the device is set to interpret
    it as sRGB.
    C J Southern, Apr 13, 2006
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