Choosing the best professional photo lab for your business means quality prints and happy clients!
You have some clients and your sessions went amazing. Now it’s time to deliver. Literally. You clients ordered prints! But where should you get your work printed? How do you choose? Today we will talk about choosing the best professional photo lab, including why to use a professional lab, how to choose and what to look for.
Why should I use a professional photo lab?
Printing images is the last step in our creative process as photographers. We shoot a session, paying attention to details like light and framing. Then we painstakingly edit our images, pain being the operative word sometimes. After all that, shouldn’t you use a professional photo lab that adheres to the same standards of quality and consistency that you do?
Professional photo labs deliver a more professional product than most home printers or box stores. You will find the work of a professional photo lab:
- More consistent with your digital images. Colors, tones, brightness and sharpness are more true to your digital image.
- More consistency from print to print and session to session. Your work will always look like your work!
- Delivering quality, lasting products. Professional labs use the best paper, ink and process available. These are prints designed to archival specifications.
Professional print labs have a standard they strive to meet with each and every print. Different printers in the lab are calibrated to the same standard. This ensures consistency and accuracy from your first print to your last in each order and from your first order to the 32nd order.
Drugstores, Box Store Printers and Online Discount Printers
Local stores like Walgreens, Walmart or Costco might be a tempting choice because of convenience or price. But these stores simply don’t produce the same quality of prints that a professional photo lab will. Their printers are on-par or just slightly better than home printers in terms of quality. If you wouldn’t print client photos with your home printer, don’t rely on a one-hour photo printer for your work either.
The same often goes for online discount printers. These printers operate under a volume model and often use software that overrides the choices you so lovingly made for your images. I find these sites to generally have poor contrast, color, and clarity.
If you stop to compare prints from a convenience lab or online discount lab to a professional lab, the differences become apparent. Skin tones aren’t true to life, contrast is wonky and sharpness is usually a problem. The finish isn’t as nice and the paper is often warped or bent, even if stored flat.
These types of stores are about convenience or price, not quality. They are producing for the masses, not finnicky photographers who obsess over sharpness and skin tones. If you don’t believe me, try an experiment. Print the same file through a professional lab and a discount lab or two and see which most closely remembers your original file. You’ll see why having a great relationship with a pro lab is a great idea for a pro photographer.
That’s not to say convenience labs don’t have their place. They most certainly do. I use some for snapshots I plan to scrapbook or for snapshot prints for family and friends. But as a professional photographer, I need high quality, professional grade prints built to stand the test of time for my clients. Think about it…if I am charging $35 or $150 for an 8×10 that anyone can print online for $2.99, the quality better live up to the price!
What Professional Photo Labs Are Available?
Who do professional photographers use for printing? There are dozens of quality professional labs available to professional photographers, both in the U.S. and abroad. We can’t list them all, but below is a list of several great options. Most of these labs do require you to be a professional photographer, so be prepared to answer a few questions about your studio, business or credentials. And don’t forget about your local print houses! There are some excellent labs that serve local photographers, offering you outstanding service in your own neighborhood!
U.S. Based Labs
- Black River Imaging
- MPix (also accepts consumer orders)
- Nation’s Photo Lab (also accepts consumer orders)
- Atkins (New Zeleand & Australia)
- BayPhoto (Canada & Mexico)
- GTAImaging (Canada)
- HCPro (Australia & New Zeland)
- Loxely Colour (United Kingdom, Europe and Mexico)
- NuShots (Australia)
- Nulab (Australia)
- OneVision (United Kingdom)
- Pikto (Canada)
- WHCC (Canada)
Volume Photo Labs
If you’re a volume shooter, such as sports or schools, your needs might be different than someone shooting just newborn sessions. Check out these labs that specialize in high volume orders.
Press Printed Products and Specialty Items
If you need press printed items such as business cards, postcards, flyers or brochures, a professional photo lab isn’t always the best option. There are even more choices when it comes to outstanding promotional material printers. You might find that you can save money without sacrificing quality if you look outside your pro photo lab.
What items are usually press printed? Things like business cards, thank you cards, notepads, stickers, brochures, welcome guides, labels, envelopes, senior rep cards and gift certificates. These items should be of good quality, but as many of them have a short lifespan, they don’t need to be heirloom quality.
Specialty items are another place where it pays to look beyond a professional lab. Blankets, sports balls, towels, holiday ornaments…the possibilities are endless. With some research, you might find a higher quality at a lower price.
What is the best professional photo lab?
Asking what is the best professional photo lab is like asking what’s the best NFL team…it depends on who you ask, where they live, what they use the lab for and what their idea of “best” really means. Instead of relying solely on someone else’s opinion, investigate a few labs and choose for yourself. And realize that you might not just have one favorite lab. I have a favorite portrait lab, a favorite volume lab and a favorite canvas and metal lab. Which lab I use depends on what my clients have purchased.
If you use an online gallery fulfillment service such as Shootproof or Pixieset, you may want the convenience of using a professional lab tied in with your galleries. Orders can go from the consumer to the printer more quickly. These partnerships also have the added benefit of making it easy to set up online pricing sheets and drop shipping.
What should I look for in a professional photo lab?
With a wide selection of printer’s available, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are a few features to look for in your lab!
This might seem like an obvious comparison, but it’s not always as straight forward as who has the cheapest 8x12s. Some labs are cheaper on certain sizes or styles of prints. If you print a certain size more often, make sure to factor that into your final price comparison. To get the most accurate comparison, it might help to price two or three of your most recent orders with two or three labs. Don’t have any orders yet? Act as a client and create your own “typical” order to see how the labs compare.
Many labs have a minimum order requirement. Miller’s for example, requires at least $15 per order, while ProDPI is $12. If you have smaller, more frequent orders, this may be an important factor.
Check out the labs’ shipping policies and cost. Is it free shipping? Actual shipping? Tiered shipping? Do they offer expedited shipping for when you really need it quickly?
Do you want to handle reshipping, or would you prefer the printer drop ship your order directly to the client?
Types of paper
Do your clients want lustre prints? Glossies? How about deep mattes? Not all pro labs carry all kinds of paper. If offering a specific kind of paper such as metallic or pearl is important to you, make sure the lab you are interested in carries it.
Types of products
What kinds of products besides prints do you want to offer clients? Do you want to be able to offer fine art, canvas or metal prints? What about other photo products like buttons, magnets, cards, photo albums or drinkware? Sometimes you can actually save time money going with a more expensive lab that offers all the products you need instead of splitting up your client order between two or three labs. Check to see if the lab also offers studio products you might need like portrait envelopes, chipboard, prepay envelopes, etc.
Does your lab offer templates for products like memory mates, prepay envelopes, tickets, wall clings, key chain, etc.?
Some labs guarantee prints are ready the next day to ship. Others may have longer lab times. Know what those normal times are and how they affect the price. You may find that waiting a few extra days for your prints can result in some cost savings.
Do you need a lab that offers boutique or custom packaging? How much is that fee? Some labs offer custom branded packaging, others just have beautiful (if generic) executive packaging. If you are a volume shooter, does the lab package your order by client (a huge time saver)?
What do the prints look like? How do they feel in your hand? What do their other products look and feel like? It’s a good idea to get a few sample prints and products from a lab before you start. Most labs will send you out a packet of paper samples AND allow you to have test prints for free. Some labs also offer sample products at a discounted rate.
Customer Service and Reputation
What do other professional photographers have to say about the lab? Online or local photography groups can be a great source of information about labs. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and ask about their experiences.
Ease of Ordering
How do you prefer to place your order? Some labs require you to use a ROES (Remote Ordering Entry System) software you install on your computer. Others allow online ordering. Volume labs often accept orders via spreadsheets according to specifications.
Some volume labs price per sheet instead of per print size. For example, two 5×7 prints are one sheet, 8 wallets are one sheet, etc. So if you are ordering a single 3.5×5″ print, you’ll be charged the same as a full sheet. That helps keep costs down when shooting large volume orders but can be confusing when you are first starting out.
Not all labs serve all countries. Location may play a critical role in your selection!
How do I order test prints from a professional photo lab?
After narrowing down your list of labs, order some text prints. Ordering test, or color evaluation prints, is always a good idea before placing large orders with a new lab. Most professional photo labs will allow you to place an order for test prints. These prints are usually 8x10s. They come marked as “Sample” or “For Evaluation Only,” so don’t think you can sneak in a client order as a test print!
Completing test prints allows you to see and hold an actual print sample in your hand. It also ensures that your color and the lab’s color matches up correctly. Most labs recommend calibrating your monitor before ordering test prints.
Explore your lab’s website for details on ordering or contact their customer service department.
How do I order studio samples?
Many labs offer discounts on samples of other products for your studio, including prints, metals and canvases. Not only do you get a chance to inspect the quality and characteristics of a product, but with studio samples, so can your client. Such samples are incredibly useful for IPS sessions or volume display work.
Discounts vary by lab and even from product to product. But before shelling out full price for a sample for your use, check with your lab!
Choosing a professional photo lab is every bit as important as choosing a session location or the gear you use. I’ve found that many new photographers get a recommendation from someone they know and immediately start using that lab. They never stop to consider if that lab is actually the best choice for their business. Take the time to evaluate different labs, their products and their service. You might just find a lab you’ve never heard of is your professional photo lab BFF!