Choosing A Printer Or Print Lab

WhiteWall’s alternative print shapes are one option for printing “outside the box.”

Back in the analog era of photography, making a print required a choice: serious photographers could take a D.I.Y. darkroom approach or drop film for processing and printing at a local color lab. Color printing was technically possible in a home darkroom, but the equipment was cumbersome, cost-prohibitive and didn’t provide the same type of creative input as the black-and-white process. This is one of the most often overlooked benefits of the digital revolution: Photographers can not only handle color printing at home, but we can also get much more creative with that output. Instead of simply aiming for color accuracy (the analog standard), at-home inkjet printing now provides an unparalleled opportunity for quick and affordable experimentation—the type of trial and error that’s integral to the best creative expression.

Still, the fundamental question that photographers faced in the 20th century remains a consideration in the 2020s: Should we print ourselves, or use a lab? Desktop printing uses inkjet technology while labs are able to output using an updated approach to wet darkroom printing. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each, as well as some options for state-of-the-art inkjet printers and the world-class labs outputting prints to a higher standard than ever before. And remember, nobody’s requiring you to sign a contract. You’re free to enjoy the benefits of both, doing some print making yourself and sending some to the lab. The options, like the results, are better than ever.

Desktop Printing

Nine times out of 10, desktop printing is synonymous with inkjets. These printers have come a long way in the last decade and can now produce images that rival continuous tone prints to all but the most expert eyes. To those experts, we suggest leaving their presuppositions at the door and taking a fresh look at the amazing things the latest inkjet printers are capable of.

Some inkjets use dye-based inks, which look good but don’t offer the archival permanence of pigment-based inks. Pigment inks have increased in popularity in recent years as they have improved in quality and come down in price. They are designed to provide more water resistance and long-lasting fade resistance that’s measured in centuries—as opposed to dye-based inks that look great but fade noticeably in as little as 20 years. When considering permanence, remember that matte papers absorb the ink and therefore remain stable longer than glossy prints. Regardless, for longevity, it’s best to store prints in darkness, frame them behind UV-resistant glass, and don’t hang them in direct sun.

The size of an ink droplet is measured in picoliters, and the smaller, the better as to remain undetectable by the human eye. Variable droplet size also camouflages the dot-printing technique, all in an effort to approximate the truly continuous tone prints that silver halide darkroom paper and chemical processing provide.

Technological marvels aside, one of the biggest benefits to desktop printing is the ability to see results immediately—or within a minute or two. Not only does the speed of inkjet printing provide immediate gratification, but it also facilitates the aforementioned experimentation necessary to make something truly exceptional.

Another benefit to desktop inkjet printing is the variety of substrates available. From traditional glossy RC-style photographic paper to the tactile beauty of a textured watercolor paper, or the classic look of a paper that emulates a silver halide print on baryta paper, the options available today allow you to choose the perfect presentation for each image.

Some papers may appear expensive when considering a 20-pack of 13×19-inch sheets—but compared to the cost of pro lab printing, inkjets win the low-cost battle over time. There is the initial high cost of the printer itself, of course, but then every new print brings the per-piece cost down. For those photographers who plan to print on the regular, especially if those prints are large, it’s hard to argue with the cost benefits of desktop inkjet printing.

Ultimately, it’s the caliber of ink, the quality of the media and the capability of the printer that will dictate the quality of a finished inkjet print. Avoid “all-in-one”-style office printers with scanners and copiers built in. While immensely useful for clerical work and digitizing old family photos, these devices aren’t designed to output high-quality photographic prints. They use fewer inks than the multi-color ink sets that the best photo printers use.

Instead, choose a dedicated photo printer from the likes of Canon and Epson, and look for those that will print at the sizes you want. If larger than 13×19-inch prints are your thing, you’re going to have to be particularly deliberate in your inkjet choice. If you like to use particularly thick paper stock, you’ll want a printer that provides a straight-line path through the machine to prevent curling. If you plan on printing a quantity of images, you may prefer a printer with roll paper capability.

For the majority of photographers, there’s a sweet spot for desktop printing: printers that can output gallery-quality prints up to 13 inches wide. The occasional giant print can be shipped out to a lab, of course, making this size an ideal for 8x10s, 11x14s and more. Both of the printers we’re recommending here use pigment-based inks.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300

Canon’s new imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer makes borderless prints using nine LUCIA PRO pigment inks, including a newly formulated matte black to deliver deeper blacks and improved gradation across a variety of surfaces. Chroma Optimizer coating technology helps to reduce the difference in droplet height that sometimes can be distracting when viewing as light is reflected differently across the surface of an inkjet print. The printer outputs up to 13×39 inches in size and can deliver an 8×10 in 105 seconds and an 11×14 in 2:50. The unique nozzle misfire detection system reserves spare nozzles in the print head that are deployed mid-print if another nozzle becomes clogged, minimizing downtime as well as wasted ink and paper. The integrated HDR and DPRAW Print functions can read RAW image data from EOS cameras to deliver sharper prints and recover highlight detail, too. List price: $899. Contact: usa.canon.com.

Check out the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 at B&H!

The Epson SureColor P700 uses 10 UltraChrome PRO10 inks, including the addition of a new violet cartridge to aid in producing a wide color gamut and vibrant colors. It can print single sheets up to 13 inches wide, and, with roll paper up to 129 inches long, crank out an 8.5×11 in just under 90 seconds and a 13×19 in 2:23. It’s easy to use thanks to a customizable touchscreen, wireless connectivity and dedicated nozzles for both black ink types so you won’t have to swap black ink cartridges when switching from matte to glossy surfaces, which also helps to save ink. The SureColor P700 is also 30 percent smaller than Epson’s previous generation of 13-inch photo printers and prints with a display permanence rating of up to 200 years for color and 400 years for black and white. List price: $799. Contact: epson.com.

Check out the Epson SureColor P700 at B&H!

Working With A Pro Lab

With all of the benefits of desktop printing, why would someone consider sending their image files to a lab? Because there are still some things labs can do better or faster than inkjet printers, and they offer specialty print products like prints on wood or metal that you can’t do with a desktop printer.

If you’re making a large quantity of prints—for a wedding or family portrait photographer’s proof book, for instance, or a high-quantity print order—the time involved in doing volume on a desktop printer is likely better spent elsewhere. Inkjets are ideal for small-batch printing, while labs can handle factory-like volume incredibly well.

Labs also make it easy to print at huge sizes, on a variety of surfaces, and with a number of mounting options as well. Looking for a poster-sized canvas print? The lab can have it for you by the end of the week. Want something mounted on bamboo, perhaps, or printed on metal or a high-gloss acrylic panoramic? No problem. The variety of lab options available would be impossible for any photographer to emulate in a home printing system.

Pro labs can offer more than just premium traditional prints—they can help you transform photographs in objects that can appeal to private customers and interior designers. For example, Bay Photo’s “Splits” break a single image into multiple prints for a contemporary presentation. Photo by Luke Tyree.

Want to make a bound photo book or print some custom coffee mugs or Christmas ornaments? Your lab will be happy to accommodate you. For professionals selling these types of products to portrait and wedding customers, out-of-the-box ideas like these can translate directly to the business’s bottom line.

Non-traditional printing options may make lab services irreplaceable, but it’s the old reliable standbys of continuous-tone darkroom-style prints that keep photographers coming back. As amazing as inkjets are, for some photographers, they’ll never compare to a silver halide print.

These professional labs are also within reach of anyone with an internet connection. Gone are the days of needing a neighborhood lab capable of world-class quality. Now a photographer on the East Coast may choose to work with a lab on the West Coast or another continent. Discerning photographers can work with their favorite lab regardless of location and still have prints delivered to their door in days or even drop-ship the finished product in boutique packaging direct to their customers.

Among the top labs are Bay Photo, WhiteWall and Meridian Professional Imaging, to name just a few. Online ordering systems have become relatively sophisticated yet easy to use for professionals who want repeatability, convenience and exceptional control over the particulars of their print orders. By default, most labs offer color and contrast corrections to help improve your prints, or photographers can request custom adjustments such as sharpening, color correction and even turning color images to black-and-white or sepia output. Ultimately, it’s this variety and versatility that make pro lab printing so useful for professionals and unlikely to disappear any time soon.

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