You're a wedding photojournalist who creates thousands of digital files at each event. You offer your clients a variety of packages composed of hundreds of prints and on-screen images, and your weekends are regularly booked for weddings. Hey, you can't afford to mess around. You need a printing system that works seamlessly with your workflow while providing the utmost in quality and efficiency.
Fortunately, many of today's professional labs are up to the task, offering simple and efficient drag-and-drop file transfer, online sizing and specification options, reliable quality, and speedy print delivery - usually in three to five days. Yet you still can't put this stuff on autopilot. There are occasional glitches to be addressed, inflexible systems to be negotiated, and the ever-present human element to deal with. Finding and utilizing the near-perfect digital lab still takes a little trial and error, especially if you're pushing the envelope of wedding photojournalism.
Here a couple of WPJA's medallion winners share their experiences with digital labs, including their recommended workflow practices, good and not-so-good experiences, economic considerations, and the ever-present customer service element - all with a focus on how to minimize downside and efficiently get the quality and quantity of prints you desire.
In addition to quality, which is paramount for any professional, leading WPJA members look for value, compatibility, simplicity, speed and good customer service in their professional print service. Those criteria become even more critical when you're maintaining the highest level of quality while pushing the envelope in your schedule and workflow.
WPJA award-winner Coralee Penner has similar sentiments about what's important to her in a lab. She is also no slacker when it comes to client deliverables, providing more than 600 4 x 6 prints, an online gallery of all wedding images from which they can order enlargements or specialty product, and a DVD slideshow of all the wedding images set to music. She shoots about 20 weddings each year, taking up to 1,600 photos at each event.
Given all of this, Penner also puts a high value on simplicity when it comes to working with a lab, which in her case is White House Custom Colour. On thing Penner likes about White House is its visual, drag-and-drop Reedy Order Entry System (ROES), an alternative to FTP. ROES is Java-based online software that is now used by a number of pro labs, and it quickly processes very large orders while working seamlessly with both Macintosh and Windows-based platforms. "Basically, you just go onto the site and log in, and 90 percent of what you would want you can order right through that platform," she notes. "The only items that I currently offer that aren't available to order through ROES are folded paper cards and postcards. However, these are available through their conventional FTP system.
"They don't do my color correction," she adds. "I've worked in pro labs myself since high school, and I'd rather keep control over that aspect of the processing. I believe the more control a photographer maintains, the better. After all, who really knows your clients' needs better than you?"
True to class, Joe Milton is another wedding photographer who keeps extremely busy with thousands of images and multiple client packages. He works 25 weddings each year, averaging about 2,300 shots per event, and providing his clients with at least 600 4 x 6 images delivered in a leatherette box, a Web site for six months for online viewing and ordering for six months, and two sets (both color and B&W) of high-resolution digital files on CD/DVD.
Milton has taken the personalized service concept even further. Surprisingly, he uses his local Costco for the initial proofs, actually hand-delivering CDs with the high-resolution files to the store. "Costco is fantastic," he says. " I know the staff. They accommodate my special needs and service a number of other pros. Plus, the price can't be beat for initial proofs."
Price? Our experts agree that it's another major factor in working with a lab, and an area in which there is significant divergence, making it definitely worthwhile to "shop around" while conducting some quality testing.
And what about that deal at Costco? Milton says that the print quality, at least for the proofs, is just as good as what is available anywhere else. He has also conducted side-by-side testing with a pro lab, and found that there is really no discernable difference in quality, even to his ultra-critical eye.
"The proofs from Costco are 99 percent of the way there." Milton maintains. "And I'll get them back in one to two hours."
For the final prints Milton goes to a dedicated pro lab, Mpix, because they use better paper and have more color correction options in case he needs to use them. "I'll get special finishing from them, and will usually receive the final prints in three days." he says. "I also like them because they can drop ship the orders directly to the customer for a speedy turnaround."
Logical and savvy workflow practices can help you avoid problems later on at the lab. "If you're using a lab that will not be doing color or density corrections, the responsibility is yours to ensure that your files will produce prints that will be exactly what you want," notes Penner. "That includes making sure your monitor is calibrated and that you are using the right color space for the lab - most, if not all, will use sRGB. Labs not doing any corrections will normally give you guidance to make sure that your settings are calibrated for optimal print results. Heed their advice, as it can mean the difference between a happy and unhappy customer."
"If your post production practices include using printer profiles, a calibrated monitor, and test prints, you will have minimized any problem from your end," agrees Milton. "If despite all of that your lab still has quality control issues, then you'll want to shop around for a better one."
Says Penner, "Keep it as simple as possible for the lab, minimizing the amount of work they are expected to do. And make sure your monitor is properly calibrated. Photographers really need to take the time to get to know their equipment. You need to keep your clients happy by giving them great results."
"It's not rocket science, "agrees Milton. "Use profiles, calibrate your monitor, and send in test prints from time to time to make sure your monitor and the lab output match. Talk to other photographers to get recommendations for labs that have consistent output and good customer service."
So in the end, successful pro printing really is all about simplicity, especially if your workflow and client offerings are complex. Shopping around and doing your homework will help assure an optimal experience with your lab. Of course, the proof will be in the prints.
Coralee Penner: A professional photo lab technician, Penner was the first Canadian wedding photojournalist to join the WPJA. She is a Certified Photographic Consultant (CPC) and a member of the Society of Photofinishing Engineers (SPFE).
* Knowledge is key! Whether we are talking about hardware, software or cameras and lenses, the more you know, the better the lab staff able to help you with color management and other issues.
* Double- and triple-check orders before uploading. This can help assure that you haven't made a mistake, which can happen all to easily when you're dealing with many files and sizes.
* Find a lab that does custom and non-traditional sizes is critical if you want to specialize in unique items and offer the most choices to your clients.
* Be patient. Working under deadline pressure can be stressful, but patience can keep relations civil will be beneficial in the long run.
* Keep on top of what your lab offers. Keeping a mental inventory of all of their services could lead to more satisfaction for your clients and success for you.
Joe Milton: Since starting his wedding photography career in 1990, Milton has garnered numerous awards in international wedding photography competitions, capturing the emotions, expressions, and surprises that make a wedding unique.
* Request a printer profile from your lab.
* Calibrate your monitor. (I use the Pantone Gretagmacbeth Eye-One Display 2, but other devices are available).
* Order some test prints and compare them to your monitor.
* Choose a lab with good customer service response and an easy interface for uploading files.
* Be clear on the lab's price list before you order anything to avoid surprises.
— by Michael Roney for The Wedding Photojournalist Association