When you go to a photo-lab like Walmart, Target, pharmacies, etc. are you at the mercy of the printing machine? Is the photo printing process very automatic, or is there a technician making some decisions about how the prints are gonna come out? I heard that some of this places have very good, newer, extremely expensive equipment, sometimes comparable or better than dedicated photo labs.
Yes. And it usually depends how much you are paying.
The more you pay per print, the more likely there will be a human factor.
The big processors(wallmart etc) are unlikely to have the time or skill to go over files before print, its usually a plug-n-go system.
I used to run a print shop - and I specialised in 2 things, Bulk prints, and high end art / photo prints.
For the bulk images I would have a very quick glance at each photo (I saw some things that I really didn't want to some times!!) to check that they were A: in focus and B: correctly exposed, and C: correct white balance. Then de-select any bad / pointless ones and send to print. The printer would apply a slight over-saturation on purpose as i found people liked this more than a realistic print.
For the fine art / photo / gallery prints. I would usually open it WITH the customer on a calibrated screen, show paper samples, offer a mini proof, handle paper with cotton gloves etc - It gets to a point where the customer trusts you to get it right quite quickly, as you also know what they expect. These prints were also archival quality, so should last many times longer than generic consumer prints.
You get what you pay for!
It depends. You can instruct them to not do any "correction" and sometimes you will still get 'auto-corrected' or 'operator-corrected' prints. Some labs offer "machine scanned and corrected prints" at one price tier and "human reviewed" prints at a higher priced tier. Sometimes it depends on who is operating the machine when your prints are created and the policy of that location.
Be aware that unless you maintain a good color management workflow, including properly calibrating your monitor, creating a color profile for it, then using the ICC profile of the printer/paper at the lab/pharmacy/store/etc. to soft proof your edits you will almost certainly not get prints that match what you see on your monitor even if the lab does print the files "as is."
The better question may be, does it matter? For what a low budget print shop can afford to pay their technician, I wouldn't expect anything great. At 2 to 6 cents a photo, even if they can keep the machine running all the time, they probably are not going to have a substantial profit margin. Paying the technician much above $10 to $12 an hour is probably out of the question. Minimum wage is a very real possibility. At that pay level, they aren't going to be able to afford to get someone who is even capable of doing a better job than auto-enhancements. In fact, while the machine may be high quality, it is an unknown if it is even properly maintained and color calibrated regularly (though some high end machines now are self calibrating.)
If you get more up in to the range of $.10 to $.25 a print, (4 by 6) now you are talking a level of profit margins that may actually support a reasonably competent technician and regular printer maintenance. Quality human review might be a possibility though not necessarily guaranteed as it is still pretty cheap for the amount of time required for a competent technician to look at each photo more than momentarily.
Real quality correction takes at least 30 seconds to a minute to make sure it is just right per photo and is really hard to do non-stop, so you figure a good technician should probably be about $15 to $20 an hour and is going to be able to do maybe 60 to 100 photos an hour. That means just the cost of the review is probably going to be around 25 to 35 cents without any profit margin or the cost of the print itself factored in.
This is why, if you are going to do lots of printing, it is worth setting up your own color accurate and calibrated monitor and learning to do your own correction and color management. With proper color management, you can make the proper adjustments yourself and then most print shops offer you an option to disable the automatic and human adjustments and send the files directly, as is. Often, the better shops that do human review will even give a discount for this since they can bypass that step (often in the 25 to 30% off range). The quality you gain and the money you save if you do lots of printing can eventually cover the few hundred bucks extra it costs to setup a color calibrated workflow, though it does involve a fair bit of learning about color management.
There are decisions made in even an automated process that can and do adversely affect the quality of prints. These are, What process, and gamut of that process. What profile and how accurate that profile is on the day you need your prints done. How often the maintenance is done on the spectro used in the calibration process, etc.
It's easy for any custom lab to show their superiority over these volume and low quality print providers, regardless of how new their equipment is, it is not close to what a custom lab can produce. The visual difference is stunning, when a custom lab is highly skilled.
Because I also run a custom lab we have a standard show and tell for any client that expresses the concerns you mention. Just because a lab produces fine art custom printing, does not mean that there is a human variable in the print process. Most of the print process variables are in media consistency and process control. So that is just a procedure and practical business system that provides for a profit in a process that can be labor intensive.
The human factor is in image enhancement not in the print process, because that portion of our process is mathematical, and verifiable. We show our customers the print consistency data and how we can assure limited edition prints done at different times even months or years apart to match as a normal part of our workflow. But we are one of the only high end labs that write our own software to perform process management, and our systems have been certified by Hahnemuehle paper.
The key value that custom labs can provide is for great high gamut color that matches your accurately calibrated image display system. What you see is what you get every time all the time. In the corner store, you get something unexpected every time, because they are not in business to serve the high end market. If calibration or service is delayed because they are busy or if the gamut of their process is not close to Adobe RGB, your not getting prints that have the same color and vibrance you can get in post.
YES, but it may not be what you think. When you submit photos to a lab to be printed a technician will likely see every one and have the option to correct it or auto correct it as they see fit. However, unless you are very discerning or the technician does a bad job you will likely never notice.
The quality of print is more greatly affected by the quality of service to the printer. If it the printer is not serviced well the print quality will be affected. Also to some extent the person ordering the supplies (paper and consumable chemicals) will affect quality. You obviously want a high quality archival paper.
I disagree that price of a print will necessarily dictate quality. If you are ever curious about quality at your local lab ask the technician and if they are knowledgeable it is probably good.
I printed photographs in old days using Noritsu printer for a professional lab back in 90s for 8 years. Then, we did try to color correct print by just looking at the film and running tests before final prints, and I am talking about mid to large format prints. But there were some set industry standards that we had no control over. For example:
What paper we used or who provided us the paper And the chemistry that was used
Then there were three big players:
Agfa Eastman Kodak Fuji
My lab favored Fuji over the other two, and after working with Fuji print paper and chemistry, I understood why Fuji was a preferred vendor. Fuji products by far delivered high quality results with warm tones.
Nowadays, all the printing operations are automated unless you go to good old lab that still runs its business the old way and color corrects each print.
I stopped using these services after trying to make them stop retouching my photos, cropping over the heads and feet, etc. All of the labs I used in the past were having these weird habbits. Very annoying to get your perfectly framed photo cropped over the head and feet just to avoid a white frame around because their format doesn't match... The only service I use now is my local Sam's Club to print 20x30 posters with no correction from my TIFF files.
The Human Factor was a very good film by the way from a book by Graham Greene. And although that story was about spying it in some ways exemplifies how standards change where human intervention is concerned in all industries. None more so in the subjective arena of colour printing.
Mini-lab setups are designed for low operating costs with the aim of providing competitive developing and printing to the consumer. High Street labs were set up for low cost because most customers just wanted a decent print at the lowest possible price. Some pro photographers used those mini-labs when quality became more reliable as technology progressed, especially with the digital mini labs versus the older optical mini-labs which were less forgiving of a bad negative.
The High St labs have now largely been wiped out by digital cameras at the consumer level and now you have to go mail order or pro-lab. The pro labs will have a standard service and an optimum service where the experience of a skilled printer comes into play. This is worth paying for where critical work is concerned. Colour is a very subjective thing and you need someone who can assess it reliably against a colour chart and not just say that's good enough.