While there was a good discussion of using a lab vs. a personal printer, I'm curious what folks see as the advantages to using a pro photo lab as compared to the local drugstore or supermarket. Why should a photographer send files to someone like Miller's or White House Custom Color instead of just having images printed at the local WalMart or Walgreen's?
From a photography business owner's perspective, the reasons I use a pro lab are:
- Paper selection - My lab offers me literally a dozen options for paper.
- Size Matters - Try getting a supermarket to print you a 30x60. ;-) Seriously, though... I rarely print anything smaller than an 8x10, and most of the time bigger than that... Supermarkets are designed to spit out 5x7s or 4x6s by the hundreds, but anything bigger than that quickly gets expensive and slow... Or the answer becomes 'we can't do that.'
- Eyes on the Print - At my lab a human reviews the images before they're printed on state-of-the-art color calibrated gear, and they're trained, competent and I trust them to make adjustments on the fly if need-be. Additionally I can tell them to print 'as-is' (e.g. don't touch or adjust anything!) on a print-by-print basis. At the supermarket whether I like it or not a computer algorithm is going to decide if my prints are too dark or too light and then monkey with the exposure in a formulaic way blowing out all my highlights, or muddying my shadows, without caring a bit for the artistry or intent of the pictures. And if anyone is looking at them, it's generally going to be a pimply-faced minimum-wager with no training to speak of.
- What else can you print on? - Canvas wraps, albums, giclee prints. Try getting those printed at the supermarket.
- When Quality Counts - Better quality ink. Better quality paper. Better quality in general.
- Brand that Sucker! - At my lab I get a clearly printed copyright statement on the back of every print, and a gold-foil logo on the bottom right corner on the front.
Now I do realize that some of the above only apply to business owners, but in general even my students can see the benefit of #1, #2, #3, and #5 even for their personal projects and work that they just want to hang in their own homes...
The big trade-off is quality for convenience.
Grocery and department stores (like Walmart and Target) are pretty common, so they are fairly convenient to get to. Most of those types of stores are limited to prints that are 8x10 or smaller. Their decent enough for family pictures and sharing physical pictures with your friends. However, I find the quality to suffer. The colors are flat, you're forced to buy glossy paper, the kid behind the counter doesn't always know what they're doing. In some cases I've seen the focus on the picture get a little soft, and in other cases it was artificially over-sharpened.
Pro shops have a vested interest in keeping their professional customers happy. They are going to make sure the machines are properly calibrated and color balanced. If you are printing from slides (as I do often enough), they will ensure the colors match the slide as best they can. You can choose several different paper finishes from matte to glossy and a few in between.
If I'm printing a bunch of vacation photos for my wife to use in her scrap booking, I'll go for convenience and cheap. At 4x6, or in a pinch 5x7, the grocery/department store prints are quite acceptable.
if I'm doing any critical work, or submitting something for a competition, I will go for quality and getting it done right. My local pro shop will spend some time with me to understand what it is that I really need when I have special orders. When I did a poster size enlargement, it was just right.
There are a few key differences typically.
- The quality of the ink is higher, usually standing the test of time better.
- The color gamut is usually higher, resulting in richer colors.
- The paper quality is typically higher, resulting in both of the above.
Even among the pro printers, there can be differences. See the Smugmug Photo Lab comparison, for instance.
A while back I sent out the same image to about 10 labs, ranging from consumer to professional, with walk in and mail order labs at either end of the scale. Unsurprisingly, the pro lab images were much higher quality, but usually took longer to arrive (the cheapest lab had amazing service, but a rubbish image).
Taking everything into account, including uploading images etc I ended up going for a pro lab in the next town, mainly for the reasons mentioned in by Jay Lance Photography.
So my advice is to try a few options and see what works best for you!
The main difference is that the mass-market option is going to assume that the source is lousy. Every image gets the equivalent of the "one click photo fixer" option in mass-marketed image editors -- your contrast, sharpness, white balance, and so forth are going to be "fixed" for you. It doesn't do much if your image meets the limits of the histogram profiles they match against, but if you do high-key or low-key images, they'll "fix" them for you in most cases.
Of course, there are some outlets that have conscientious people working there who will override the auto settings on the equipment, but you'd probably have to shop around to find the Robin Williams guy/gal at one of your local minilabs -- and then there's no guarantee that that person will be doing the work next time around.
Of course, there are other benefits to professional finishing, as Jay Lance Photography detailed, that can mean a lot to somebody who wants to display or market their work, but even if all you want is a physical copy of your image for your own viewing, it's worth the trouble to get something that accurately reflects your work.