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The labs that I deal with to get my images printed offer the option to color correct my images prior to printing. One example of what they do is:

Per file color correction is available. We color correct the entire file for balanced skin tones without causing blown out or color casted highlights.

Is it a good idea to have them do this? When is or isn't it a good idea? Am I taking away my creative abilities or am I giving the images a 2nd opinion before printing? Do you find that they only correct skin tones, what if I have a landscape image? Experiences would be appreciated.

I am not talking about this kind of online color correction: Which online color correction services give good results?

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4 Answers 4

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Letting the lab do color correcting (assuming its a good lab that does good job with color correction) is like using the auto mode on your camera - the lab will make sure everything comes out ok and correct the obvious mistakes but you will lose creative control.

This will help with family photographs edited on non-color-profiled screen but probably a bad idea for fine art, pros or any picture with anything special (deliberate under or over exposing, extreme color effects or even an unedited photo of a subject with unusual colors)

Edit: dpollitt's comments got me thinking - if your output is only prints (not digital files) it makes perfect sense to outsource the tedious and thankless job of color correction to the lab - especially if you are a pro and you can earn more money when taking pictures then when color correcting them.

but:

  1. If your output is digital files + prints you have to do the color correction yourself anyway fro the digital version so there's no point in letting the lab do it.

  2. If you want consistency and repeatability (that is, be able to re-print the image and get exactly the same printed image) then you can't let the lab do it - you can't be sure you will get the same technician and that the technician will make the same choices if you reprint months or years from now.

  3. If the picture is not a standard "well exposed" middle-of-the-road image then you can't let the lab co color correction because they don't know what you want to picture to look like (and this will probably completely throw off any automatic correction they might use ).

So - if you are a pro (as in get paid for taking photos), you're main product is prints and you don't sell or care about digital versions (point 1) and you don't care about reprints (point 2) and you take boring pictures (point 3) then you should absolutely let the lab color correct your pictures.

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Going along with the assumption that it is a bad idea for pros or fine art - why do all of the pro labs have color correction as an option when they only cater to pros? Just wondering your thoughts. –  dpollitt Oct 18 '11 at 13:59
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@dpollitt - when I wrote the answer I was thinking as an artist (want the photo to look exactly right) and not as a businessman (optimize process for profit) - that's actually amusing because in real life I am a businessman and I'm definitely not an artist , I've edited the answer to add a business perspective. –  Nir Oct 19 '11 at 21:26
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@dpollitt - and while the answer makes it look like I'm against pros letting the lab correct the image - I know not every job is a once in a lifetime piece of art and a lot of photography jobs are in fact about producing boring prints nobody will care about months and years from now - and so are perfect for letting the lab correct the image. –  Nir Oct 19 '11 at 21:32

I would think that a lab's color-correcting quality is dependent upon the lab and the skill of the technicians. There probably is not a single, globally correct answer here, as every lab will use different equipment and have different people with different levels of skill. That said, when it comes to color correction for print, taking the paper into account can have a keen impact on the quality of printed color.

I would say that if you give the job of color-correcting an image to someone else, you are always giving up your own personal creativity and style. A lab can't really know how you want your photos to look, and regardless of how skilled the technician may be, they will only be able to make a print look good according to their own vision. If you want to have as accurate a color as you can, you could try asking for ICC color profiles for the lab's print gear and paper, and use Photoshop's soft-proofing to ensure that tonal range is bound to the range of the paper, and that your photo does not include any out-of-gamut colors.

Black point in particular can be a key factor in determining if a print renders subtle shade nuances correctly or not, and that can affect the overall appearance of the image. Blocked blacks can suck up a lot of fine detail that may be important. It can result in an increased level of contrast that is undesired. Sometimes you need to choose a paper that is capable of achieving the contrast you desire, as some papers simply can't support high contrast without losing important detail while others can.

Some papers, particularly fine art papers, often have odd gamut boundaries, and highly saturated colors are often out of gamut. When printed without manual correction, colors may shift, or they may simply be clipped, resulting in odd gradations or unexpected tonally flat areas. Inks used can also be a factor here, and if you have photos with particularly saturated colors, you may want to make sure the printers use inks capable of achieving a wide enough gamut to accommodate your needs. Gamut issues like that can be difficult to correct without affecting the rest of a photo. Correcting such issues with a single specific goal (i.e. always balancing for skin tones) can sometimes have detrimental effects to other parts of a photo that may affect the rendition of your personal style. If your photos are not portraits, correcting for skin tones can have a severe impact on the quality of color, such as mainly green landscapes, or landscapes with richly saturated sunsets and the like.

If you want to end up with a print that fits your personal style and vision, it is probably best to request an ICC profile and use the soft-proofing features of Photoshop to identify problem areas at the very least. If you have the option of correcting those problem areas, and having a small-scale print made (i.e. an 8x10 or something like that) to see if your corrections result in the outcome you desire, you'll have the best results. If you do not really have a specific style in mind, you could probably get away with having a lab do color correction for you. Again, it might be best to see if the lab can send you a smaller size sample print before spending big bucks on a larger print or a set of prints.

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As someone who wants to maintain control over the look, the "allow us to colour correct your image" always feels like I would be allowing the potential for it to be messed up. When it comes to most normal printing, I've found that simply having a correctly calibrated monitor has yielded very close results between monitor and print. –  Nick Bedford Oct 18 '11 at 5:02
    
Thank you jrista for the great answer. I chose another because I felt it addressed more of the professional use case that I was wondering about. Your answer I learned a great deal from though. –  dpollitt Oct 21 '11 at 13:13

I used to work in a small photo lab (back in the days of film), and we took the time to try to understand what the photographer was trying to do in each frame and get the colour, exposure, and contrast just right. But often, when I trusted other (big) labs with my photos, they would do corrections (mostly auto-correction) and they would come back looking poopy. If I intentionally underexposed a frame, they'd lighten it up so it was all grey... greens came back looking too purple cuz the machine tried to compensate.

I would get a small selection of 4×6s printed and see if they're skilled at interpreting your photos without ruining your artistic intentions. Try to include a bunch of different types of photos: portraits, foliage (colour correction most often goes awry on those two) high-contrast, low-contrast, high-key, low-key (exposure correction goes awry on those four).

Oh, and if you're going for the cross-processing or the vintage look, definitely don't get them to colour-correct!

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The problem with the 2nd opinion is that you won't know what that opinion is, so you can't learn anything from it. A fellow at photography club I went to had a print that he really liked, but he was unable to repeat in the same lab with the same paper because nobody knew what adjustments had been done (he did try).

I think lab color correction is meant for people who don't understand the concept or just don't care. If you do, you're better off learning from your mistakes.

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