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Labs: Painless Printing from RAWs

by Philip Greenspun, April 2008

In the film days, most serious photographers would leave the darkroom work to professionals at a good lab. A technician who works in a darkroom 40 hours per week would have vastly superior skills to a photographer who went into the darkroom one evening per week. With black and white photography, there was some justification for a photographer to do his or her own printing. There were aesthetic decisions to be made, e.g., what shade of gray should the stop sign be? It was sometimes quicker and simpler to print the photo oneself rather than communicate one's aesthetic vision to a lab technician. For a color print, however, if the stop sign appeared in any color other than red, it was probably the result of a technical mistake rather than an aesthetic decision. Photographers were a lot more likely to make mistakes than full-time lab techs.

The digital world has opened up a lot of creative possibilities. With desktop editing software, it is possible to edit the luminance of a portion of the image without affecting the color. It is also possible to change the color of part of the image without shifting colors in the background.

Nearly every digital photographer has a personal computer and most digital cameras include editing software similar to Adobe Photoshop, the pioneer of PC image editing. If our goal as photographers is to produce high quality prints, should we editing our own work and sending a final TIFF file to the lab?

The answer should be "no". Being an expert user of a digital camera does not make someone an expert user of Adobe Photoshop. The people who work in labs are expert users of Adobe Photoshop. The lab has a color-calibrated image processing chain from desktop to final print.

Karl Marx deplored the division of labor inherent in an efficient Capitalist economy. Marx thought workers would be happier if they handled every step of a production process from taking the customer's order to putting the finished good in the customer's hand. Marx had apparently never suffered the frustration of being an incompetent Photoshop user.

This article will explore the possibilities of collaboration with a good lab, dividing the labor between photographer and print maker.

What's wrong with most labs?

Why not simply send the camera file to Kodak, Mpix, or Snapfish? The mass market services accept only JPEG files, which are limited to 8 bits of luminance information: 256 different levels. A modern digital SLR camera captures 14 bits of luminance information or 16,384 levels. These extra levels translate to more detail in shadows and highlights, especially in higher contrast scenes. The extra detail is available only if the photographer selects RAW format for image capture at exposure time. With a camera RAW file, an expert Photoshop user has a lot of flexibility to correct exposure errors, adjust contrast, change white balance, dodge and burn (selectively lighten or darken some areas), and adjust sharpness.

A RAW file is like a film negative. It contains a lot more information than can be presented in a final print and only an expert can extract the maximum amount of information from the RAW file. A JPEG file is like a color slide. An exposure error is final. Details in black shadows or blown-out highlights are lost forever.

Our challenge as photographers is to find a lab that can accept RAW files and establish a good system of communication with them.

Local Might be Better

Richard Avedon, the great fashion photographer, had a full-time staff of black and white printers working for him. He would sit down with the proofs and circle areas on the prints with a grease pencil, indicating what needed to be adjusted. There is a lot of value to being able to sit down with the folks who are making prints for you. Consequently, collaborating with a local lab with a small reputation might produce better prints than sending everything off to a famous lab in a big city.

For this test, consequently, we tried to find labs that were geographically distributed and likely to be near the homes of photo.net members.

Our Double-Blind Test

George.  Boston Garden.

We contacted some of North America's best photo labs, folks we'd worked before and some who were recommended by readers. We gave them a set of RAW files and had them make prints all the same size. The prints were labeled on the back with a letter and we asked a panel of viewers to rate the quality of each print. For each image, the prints were labeled with colored Post-Its ("Post-Its of color"?) and presented simultaneously. Neither the viewers nor the people running the test knew the identity of the labs corresponding to each color.

The prints were evaluated under a low-voltage (incandescent) track light. One could argue that it would be fairer to look at the photos under a 5000K color temperature light source or with diffused sunlight. However, most prints are viewed by most people indoors after work and therefore after dark. Even serious photographers don't tend to rewire their house for 5000K lighting.

We asked each panelist to pick his or her favorite version of an image, a runner-up, and a least favorite.


Founded in 1999 and based in the San Francisco area, Pictopia was one of the first labs in the United States to embrace fully the possibilities of digital. Pictopia's goal was to attain quality comparable to the most expensive hand-crafted labs in the U.S. at a fraction of the price. To a large extent, they have succeeded. Pictopia prints museum shows for, among others, Peter Menzel. Pictopia prints onto Fuji Crystal Archive RA-4 paper with an Oce LightJet 7000/430, which is capable of printing up to 120x50". Pictopia charges roughly $12-25 per image for the RAW conversion, then $49 for the first 20x30" print and $34 for additional prints from the same file.


Back in the film days, Kodachrome was the best and most archival color film available. Processing Kodachrome was much more complex, hazardous, and environmentally challenging than processing Ektachrome and other E6 materials. Kodak was the only company that offered the K14 process. Rumor has it that Kodak was refusing to return film sent it by Penthouse magazine. The guys at Penthouse financed A&I to set up an independent K14 line, which quickly became the favorite of serious photographers or anyone needing rapid turnaround time. In the 1980s and 1990s the best place to meet the top photojournalists and commercial photographers in Los Angeles was to hang out near the light tables at A&I.

Booksmart Studio

Booksmart Studio was founded in Rochester, New York, by Eric Kunsman, a graduate of the nation's best photography school, Rochester Institute of Technology. The Booksmart prints were made with an inkjet printer, the Canon iPF9000, and had a significant texture from the paper, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl. Booksmart charges roughly $20 per image for post-processing and the total price from RAW to 20x30" print is about $100.

Boston Imaging

A traditional lab that pushed into digital with New England's first Kodak PhotoCD scanner back in the early 1990s, Boston Imaging has been a pillar of our local photo community. The test prints were made on Lexjet Sunset Photo eSatin paper with an Epson Stylus Pro 9880. Price is roughly $100 per print, including RAW conversion and processing.

New Lab

San Francisco's best film lab, the New Lab, was expected to be a strong competitor in the digital age. We evaluated prints made by a Polielettronica LaserLab onto Kodak Supra Endura RA-4 paper (conventional C-print paper). The price for the first 20x30" print is about $80, which includes a test print and RAW conversion.

Test Results

People apparently love inkjet prints. Booksmart was selected 30 times out of 60 votes as having the best version of an image. Booksmart also picked up 9 second-place votes.

Boston Imaging and Pictopia were the runners-up. Pictopia had 11 first place votes compared to Boston Imaging's 8. Boston Imaging had 22 second-place votes compared to Pictopia's 8.

Want to avoid heartbreak? Booksmart picked up only 2 last-place votes; Boston Imaging only 4. The other labs were about equally distributed in disappointing panelists.


The differences among labs' versions of these images were substantial. Where the image did not contain a large area of neutral gray or white, there was a surprisingly wide range of color and color saturation. Nonetheless, roughly 90 percent of the prints were suitable for framing. Roughly 80 percent were good enough that I would not have asked for any changes in a reprint run. It was only by seeing another lab's interpretation of an image that we were able to see "hey, the dog's fur does look a little yellow". Even budgeting asking for test prints and going back to a lab for some adjustments, the process was vastly easier than printing oneself, especially when one considers the sluggishness of current computers in handling full-resolution images from the latest digital SLRs.

What about doing a RAW to JPEG conversion on your desktop and sending the result to a consumer-oriented lab? The images from the labs reviewed here were much better than what we've seen from those services and, after setting aside a $25 to $100 retouching fee, the cost of individual prints wasn't that different. Certainly if you are having prints professionally framed, the difference in cost will be negligible.

Would you rather be out taking pictures or spending more time sitting in front of your computer? If the answer is "taking pictures", start working with one of these labs.

Contact the labs


If you've collaborated successfully with a lab in your town, please click the "add a comment" button at the bottom and tell the rest of the photo.net community about it.

The Images

Alex on the dock at Menemsha, where the movie Jaws was filmed. Canon 5D and 85/1.8 lens. f/8 and 1/1000th at ISO 200. The challenge here is to have the white Samoyed fur sparkle while preserving detail. raw file

An easy one from Botswana. Canon 5D with 300/4L lens and 1.4X teleconverter, wide open at f/5.6 (effective). raw file

Also from Botswana, but much tougher to print due to the poorly controlled contrast (not easy to ask a Hyena to move to the other side of the Land Rover so that the sun would fall at a better angle). Canon 5D with 300/4L lens at f/5.6 and 1/160th; ISO 200. raw file

Roxanne. Canon 1Ds Mark III with 50/1.4 lens at f/4.5 and 1/500th; ISO 100. raw file

Dancing in the San Miguel de Allende library. What would Mexicans do for entertainment if they didn't have gringos? Canon 5D with 16-35/2.8L (old design) lens at f/10 and 1/400th; ISO 200. The hideous direct overhead harsh sunlight makes printing a serious challenge. raw file

Canon 5D and 85/1.8 lens at f/2.8 and 1/80th of a second. ISO 400. raw file

Wedding photos look easy to print, but they usually aren't. In the online JPEG, this one is missing a lot of highlight detail. It will be a tough challenge for a lab to preserve a natural skin color while keeping the white dress and flowers from washing out. Canon 5D and 70-200/2.8L IS lens at f/4.5 and 1/200th at ISO 100. raw file

One from Istanbul. Canon 40D and 17-55/2.8 IS lens at 55mm. Exposure was 1/15th of a second and f/2.8 at ISO 400. This one could be a challenge due to the non-standard color temperature of the lighting. raw file

This one of Elsa Dorfman should be an unchallenging image to print because the lighting is very uniform. We'll be able to compare it to the 20x24" Polaroid originals that are made in this same studio. Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and 50/1.4 lens at f/8 and ISO 50. raw file

Same as preceding but with the 50/2.5 macro lens at f/8. raw file

Same as preceding but with the 85/1.2L lens at f/8. raw file

Text and pictures copyright 2005-2008 Philip Greenspun, except the photo of George, which is from the ancient days of film.

Article created April 2008

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Paul Trunfio , May 15, 2008; 10:18 A.M.

I have never ever considered sending a RAW file to a lab for printing. There are a few things to consider here. First, the reason I got out of using film was because my "pro" lab (very highly respected lab in Boston) was printing images not the way I wanted them to look like. I would go back, have them print again, and it would be different, but still not what I wanted. And the prints were very expensive. With digital, when I control everything in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop (including the cropping), yes, I output to an 8-bit file, but the image is almost always exactly the way I want it to look like. It's too complex to send a RAW image to a lab, explain your vision for the image and how you want it cropped and expect it to be the way you want it. What if I have dozens of images to print all with different specifications from me? Honestly, I think this is the old school way that you are advocating here and I disagree with it. Creative control in Photoshop is relatively easy to learn and is what is driving the digital revolution. Comparing the old darkroom full-timer with what's possible now is apples to oranges. I just don't get this post.

Ronald Moravec , June 11, 2008; 01:37 P.M.

Certainly a lab can do better with a raw file if they want to accept them.

My philosoply is I am the photographer and I want to decide the exact color, where and how much to burn/dodge, how light or dark the print is to be. Digital allows me to do all these creative things and all the lab has to do is reproduce the file on photopaper exactly as I sent it.

I remember reading years ago a photographer could look over the shoulder of a commercial printer doing your custom print and he would do what you wanted. This cost you a small fortune. Digital allows me the same advantage without the cost.

If you want non creative cookie cutter prints, send JPEGS or TIFFS. Why bother with raw. Of course you need to know how to make good JPEGS in camera. Many think anything can be done with raw to correct photographer errors when in fact the only real thing that can be corrected without loss is white balance.

Gregory Gardner , June 11, 2008; 02:34 P.M.

I frequently review scientific papers that present great research, but lose a lot just in the writeup. I fear this article is in this boat. It is clear you've spent a good amount of time doing some very interesting comparison work, but this article generates more questions than it answers. How about a table to compare the various labs? How come one of the labs (A & I) has no information about the cost or what process they use? How much human involvement did each lab use to produce each image? If there is human judgment involved in going from RAW to paper, how much variation is there even at one particular lab?

More importantly, I'd like to see some insight or opinion into why some labs produced better output -- how much of the difference is a result of the paper they use, vs. the process, vs. the person operating the machines? And, do the differences produce results more suitable for a certain kind of photography compared to another -- all of the test images are essentially portraits.

jacopo brembati , June 11, 2008; 03:31 P.M.

"Why not simply send the camera file to Kodak, Mpix, or Snapfish? The mass market services accept only JPEG files, which are limited to 8 bits of luminance information: 256 different levels. A modern digital SLR camera captures 14 bits of luminance information or 16,384 levels." <br> 14 bit are "marketing", noise make them useless. raw is anyway 12 bit of good values. 256 values are compressed (gamma correction), so 8 bit are more than enough.

Allard K , June 11, 2008; 08:09 P.M.

This post puzzles me a bit. What exactly is the purpose of sending RAW files to print labs? Is it because 8 bits are not enough? I understand there are 16 bit formats like PSD or tiff, or even 32 bit EXR files if you shoot HDR. As a complete amateur I know very little about professional printing, so just to put things into perspective for me: how many bits would one need to make full use of the possibilities of paper and ink that are currently available?

Or is the purpose to have someone else do the editing for you? Then how do you test whether they did a good job? Did you give exact and detailed instructions about how you wanted each print to look to both the labs and the panel? I assume you did not pass by the lab with the dog to show what color it has in reality (let alone the hyena!). So how could they know? In other words: was this a test how well the people at the lab can follow your instructions, or a test how well their choices pleased the test panel's?

Ni Le , June 16, 2008; 01:26 A.M.

Interesting, considering that I'm struggling with writing a scientific paper right now and wish someone would write it better than me. Apparently doing the work is different from presenting it well. If the scientific work or a photograph has a strong subject of interest, it will rarely be misinterpreted by the presenter. The presenter's job now becomes simply to remove distractions from the work. These distractions are usually minimal in a well taken photograph anyway. Lately however, I've been pondering on the fact that digital images might have more distractions than those on film, especially slides. Distractions like color balance, greater depth of field and dynamic range can create alternate interpretations of an image. These alternate interpretations can confuse a presenter of the photographer's original intent. No wonder Ansel Adams processed and printed his own negetives of pre-visualized high dymic range images.

Howard Vrankin , June 17, 2008; 09:03 A.M.

I wonder whether most of us are capable of pulling all of the quality out of an image into a final print, using our desktops and software. I'm impressed by the consistent quality of my enlargements from Mpix. Their prints actually look like the original images on my monitor. Their price for doing it right the first time is a fraction of my previous monthly paper and inkjet cartridge costs. And now I'm out in the field more and at the computer less.

c w , June 19, 2008; 08:15 A.M.

What? That's insane - sending digital RAW files to a lab for editing/printing. All I can figure is that whomever authored this article is getting some sort of bump from the labs he or she identified in the article; i.e., embedded advertising. Zero credibility here on my BS meter.

Hugh Hill , June 22, 2008; 03:31 P.M.

Philip an interesting article but,

I have been working with Photoshop & other image editing softwareï¾’s for almost 10 years now and I spend as much time editing as I do photographing for the finished result is a serious matter to me. I am passionate about achieving the best possible outcome and will go to extreme lengths to get them but for a lab assistant it's just a job and in that job, time is money and the hourly quota is the paymaster and must be met otherwise they would soon be out of that said job because sadly they are not paid to be artists but mere image processors/dispatchers. If I was in hurry and I didn't really like the customer or if I dispised them & thought that they were ignorant and wouldn't understand the difference if it jumped up & bit them in the knackers then I probably would go for the lab. If my clients had lots of money would I pay for an exclusive guaranteed service, probably I would offer them the choice of being done by a lab or by my hand.


Michael Kuhne , June 22, 2008; 10:59 P.M.

Oh, there will come a day when your desktop, laptop, cell phone computer, or even the in-camera computer itself will do it all. Images will emerge as if a top class lab produced them. The computers will have "intelligence" and will understand ideal standards and departures from that ideal. They will accept detailed verbal commands, even for creative effects. They will even present visual samples of computer-suggested alternative adjustments. Manual over ride of image quality parameters will become ever less needed. Just a matter of time.

In the meantime, the tools we must resort to will hopefully become yet easier and more efficient to work with.

Michael C , June 30, 2008; 12:30 P.M.

For all the naysayers who say they can do a better job themselves, I ask this question. Have you tried a custom lab like those mentioned in the article? As photographers we should keep an open mind to all the possibilities when it comes to producing an exceptional print!

Dick Arnold , July 09, 2008; 09:22 A.M.

I took a few of those images, imported them into CS3 and had them ready for printing in less than a minute apiece. That included RAW adjustment, Capture sharpening, cropping, etc. My output is quite good. I have had stuff done that was too large for me to print. I had to make a disk, pay a fortune for the print and my 13x19 of the same image was better than the Lab. Talk about work flow. What is so hard about a RAW conversion, or spending less time than your driving time to pick up the print or waiting in the mail for it. Where were the finished products of your test showing the results from each lab. The article appeared to be hype for some labs. I am not a great photographer, just an average good one who has had his own active photo business. I am telling you, dealing with a labs to get good weddings or other commercial products can be very difficult at times particularly if you have waiting customers on the other side. The photo of the hyena with the bone was not very good to begin with and you are dealing with very high contrast. Even at that it did not take long to get that picture ready for printing, such as it was. You can only sharpen so much, or, restore so much inherent color, or get rid of so much noise without turning the picture into a caricature. From my former life in R&D your observations about variations from lab to lab tells the whole story. Not a very rigorous study, not enough samples, and poor industry standardardization for printing. It is all in the eye of the technician. I will stay at home, thank you, and when I want larger the lab will get a disk that is home processed, and, as I have done before, I will tell them to print my product. Had I authored what you wrote, I would not have been proud of it. It poses more questions than it answers, does not identify assumptions nor defend them and the output is subject to many unknown and and unidentified variables. Oh for the days when Kodachrome came out the same almost every time. Not really. I think creativity begins in ACR. You seem to be telling me that paying over a hundred dollars a print is ok. Not if I am writing the checks.

Donald Ferguson , July 09, 2008; 01:04 P.M.

This Article is written directly for the very wealthy and technologically inept photographer. if you have no clue how to use digital editing software or are so well off and busy that you cant be bothered to work your own prints and can afford to pay the price the author quotes ($50-$100 per print!) then I suppose this article is good stuff.

unfortunately it doesn't do most of us any good because I think digital is so popular because you can control the post processing yourself, and it is very inexpensive. I cant even imagine being willing to pay almost $100 per print just for the luxury of handing over a file and coming back to have it finished for me.

another factor not taking into consideration here is that many photographers (myself included) find what they want during the processing stage, I cannot tell you how many times I have taken a picture and thought I wanted it one way only to move the controls around a little in photoshop and fall in love with what I see.

usually the posts here are very valuable but I honestly think this one was published about 15 years too late to have any practical input.

Brian Chmura , July 17, 2008; 07:31 A.M.

Very interesting...all the way around. Me, personally, I don't have the equipment to print a 20x30 on a textured paper. I guess most of you have this level of equipment. So many of you are focused on whether or not you can make your own RAW adjustments....but MY question is:

If I am going to have a lab make me a 20x30 print that I can frame, should I send them a JPG or a RAW file?

I learned from the post that I can send a RAW file to these labs and get good quality prints back in large sizes. If there is a rationale for sending them a JPG instead, then please share. But just going on about how proficient you are in PS or how easy raw conversion is are missing the point for those of us that aren't able to print hang-on-the-wall quality 20X30s at home.

Ben Quinn , July 17, 2008; 01:06 P.M.

All the critiquers of this must have a the luxury of too much time on their hands, wish I was you. Being able to send off a raw file and get back a perfectly processed print is a great tool for the enthusiast and a pro. Maybe not for all occasions but definately a tool one can use. Thanks

James Johnson , July 18, 2008; 05:21 P.M.

I am astonished at the number of negative comments about this article. I found it very useful to know there is an alternative available when I can't make a print larger (or better??) than my own Epson can handle. I will send one of the printers a file and see what they can do.

To the guy who accused the writer of getting a kickback from the labs: What evidence do you have to publicly demean someone that way? (Perhaps I can accuse you of some terrible crime and publish that accusation on the internet!?!) You owe the writer an apology. You can attack the article he wrote, but not his character. That just isn't right.

The negative outcry may stem from the belief that photo.net is targeted to serious photographers who want lots of technical details...so from that point of view, the negativers would be justified in attacking the article, but they certainly are never justified in making personal attacks on the writer without solid evidence.

I found the article useful and hope we see more in the future. I don't need the highly detailed technical data...but I may be in the minority on this.

Bernie Moore CT , July 27, 2008; 01:41 P.M.

I have set three jpegs out for enlargement: one from the now defunct Sony website and two to Adorama. In each case the 20"X30" that came back was better than the 11"X14" print I made for comparison. $75-100? Wow! Adorama has a sale now and again for $12.99 per. Otherwise it's $19.99. A bit more for special paper, for which I have yet to see the need. All the pics went through raw on my machine for tweaking and were converted in CS3 to jpegs. Mayhaps I am missing something here, but "happy as a clam" ain't bad.

Peter Banks , July 28, 2008; 09:45 P.M.

I am going to question the use of .jpg files. After you have gone to the trouble of taking RAW images why are you saving them as .jpg. Don't you know that .jpg is a lossy format. If you need to convert choose .tif which is all the content of a RAW image but accessible by more software. If your want to do your own printing and enlarge to A3 or larger try using Qimage for Colour or QTR for B&W. Don't print from Photoshop, it's rubbish. Do your editing in PS but print from a print program created for the purpose. The only reason computer users used photoshop was their wasn't anything else available. RIP software is no good for RGB printers. Don't let anyone tell you other wise, they were designed for CMYK printing presses not RGB printers. They are great for job lists etc well Qimage keeps your jobs log as well. Qimage has a algorithm designed for printing with your current printer driver using your raw images. I have Epson R1800, 4800 and 9800 printers and I use QTR and Qimage only.

J Peebles , July 30, 2008; 03:01 A.M.

Honestly, I was shocked to see these prices. I think a frame job could cost about $200 or more for a print of this size, so it could be 300+. I don't think too many sales could be achieved in this market climate at that price point. Even $100 is too high for most of middle America.

An average buyer at a fair or tourist shop isn't going to lay out that kind of money. Now maybe these services are for the ultra-rich. Maybe the quality is so good that people are amazed, but I think I'd have to have the sale locked up before I put that kind of money in a print.

I'm new to the business end of photography, but I have seen a good deal of art. Target price range is $10-25. I can print up on HP Premium Photo Paper 81/2 by 11 at 40cents/sheet. The ink--a huge price problem--might cost that much, so say $1-1.50 per on my HP C5180. Throw on some backing and polypropylene cover for another buck or two and you've got a $5 cost.

Printers can be had for under $500 whose quality is far beyond where it was just 4-5 years ago. I'd be hard pressed to send it in, unless it was so special that I had to do something. And the point about having a technician do it working for an hourly wage is key--I've done digital slide conversion (about 2,000) and putting the extra attention in makes all the difference. I don't batch process, there's a Nikon that does it. They'll charge 29 cents/each, but do no custom processing. Unless the processor knows the original colors like the photographer--very doubtful--recreation will be inferior, whatever the printer quality.

Malcolm Ruthven , August 01, 2008; 12:35 A.M.

I also think this article is way off base for the vast majority of photographers, both for cost reasons and also for giving up creative control. One beauty of digital is that you have your darkroom in front of you in your computer, and this digital darkroom allows much more control than the real darkroom ever did. That said, I do send my RAW-converted and Photoshop-processed images out for printing, and I'm in the process of learning the art of calibrations/profiles/soft proofing, etc. so the prints come back the way I see the images on my monitor.

Michael James , October 28, 2008; 04:26 P.M.

I didn't think this article would go over to well.....Most individuals hit the nail on the head with their retorts. Post processing control is the attraction to digital. Creative control from shutter to print. Sending your RAW files to a professional lab means you will not improve in post processing work. However, I don't begrudge anyone who wishes to use a pro lab. To each his own! If I wanted a really big print once in awhile I could see it. I wonder though, hmmmmmm.... who signs the print? :0)


Leon Sandoval , November 19, 2008; 02:15 P.M.

Of course there are other options for having your Raw files processed. I'm surprised there wasn't a mention of post production services like Colorati that do Raw processing for $0.29 per image. :?

Mark Gordon , November 23, 2008; 05:54 P.M.

Just starting out in Digital Photography and trying to learn all aspects of the craft. Ive got the equipment to print myself reasonable quality prints straight from RAW or JPEG. The high street labs are a joke in Scotland!

Printing at home is low cost and gives (to my mind) a close approximation to my final result which is obtained by sending RAW files to a small outfit in Glasgow. The guy there, an ex-Kodak Associate, uses his experience and skills to finalise and print just the way I want. He's charging $30 per print but this includes all his work and a test print. The only drawback is that I have to go get them or he will charge me postage.

ken allen , December 02, 2008; 03:01 P.M.

I would of loved to participate in this project. I'm a custom digital fine art printer. Next time please include me. Best, Ken Allen

Hugh Hill , May 08, 2009; 05:58 P.M.

The notion to give my Raw files to a lab, would be akin to giving my kids to Charles Manson.

Keep pluggin it Phil and I'm sure suckers will keep chuggin it

Brian Kim , June 08, 2009; 01:46 A.M.

Thank you very much for this column.

I believe RAW is the data equivalent of a film positive or negative. It's the most information you're ever going to have.

This is the first time I have seen something objective about large prints in a RAW workflow. It's nice to know the opportunity and skills exist. It's probably a niche market, but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant.

I'm a hobbyist, but I believe in value as well as price.

I still shoot film, mainly chromes and some B&W, like Kodachrome and TMax. I don't do any developing. I don't even have a printer; I do have Acrobat Pro 8.1. When I print on my sister's IMac, I print PDFs on her HP All-In-One with Vivera inks onto Premium Plus paper. Mostly bordered 8 x 10s, 1" margins on 8-1/2 x 11 paper. Small stuff.

85% of the time, the first print is acceptable. Maybe higher.

A long time ago, I had good work from professional photofinshers. More than once.

Back in the mid '80's, I had 5 x 7's prints made from a Kodachrome 25 slide. It included a 4 x 5 color interneg. I think it was $8 for the interneg and $7 for the first 5 x 7. The work was excellent. Some of my friends choked when they heard the cost, but they admired the print, and they admired the slide. They said little. It was my money.

I used this photofinisher more than once. And at another, I once had a 8 x 10 Cibachrome made. I think that was $27 in the '80s.

Nowadays, I still get drugstore prints, and there's a B&W printer I respect.

For me, for photography, I don't want to need a computer, or monitor color calibrations, printer profiles, or five year hardware and software upgrades, plus inventories of consumables like photo paper and inks. It's expensive, and I can't amortize it.

So thank you for the column. Thank you photo.net also.

Bookmarking this page.

Steve in L.A. , October 27, 2009; 08:14 P.M.

Bob, I greatly appreciate this article. It's exactly the subject I was researching. My interest is in photography, not digital painting or post-processing, and as such my goal is to spend the time available to me capturing exciting, real, unadulterated images of the real world and having the best ones printed by someone who knows more about printing than I ever will (or care to). To each their own specialty, I guess.

To those complaining above, I would simply add, it's not possible to have as much focus on post-processing as those above describe without taking away from your photography (ie, all that time and energy you spend on post - yep, time and energy you AREN'T spending on actual photography). I think one of the big problems with dialogue in the DSLR world is inadvertent and frankly rather thoughtless conflation of digital art noodling with photography. Love of PS is very popular, but folks if that's your love, do remember, there are people (a minority judging from online dialogue, or is it a silent majority?) who still want to go out and do photography.

And, to anyone claiming you can post process an image in less time than it takes to drive to the lab and get prints, I hope your work looks better than the mass batch-processed work my wedding photographer did. His photography skills were impressive, great journalistic candid style, but all his processed digital and print images showed massive artifacts that apparently most wedding clients consider normal. Thank goodness I insisted on receiving the raw files from the beginning. Clearly he was a very busy working photographer who simply didn't have the time to put into understanding post processing. I strongly suspect I'd see pretty much the same thing in most "pros" out there today. There's my ten cents.

Duckrabbit Digital , April 25, 2010; 02:03 P.M.

For black-and-white photographers:

You want to be careful when getting your work digitally printed.Epson produces a set of inks called K3 inks, and these have become the industry standard for black-and-white printing. They use three different shades of black to produce a more detailed image than one could get using the standard single-black cartridge. However, the K3 inks use dots of magenta, cyan, and yellow ink to make its black ink appear neutral (the ink by itself is greenish in tone). This isn’t noticeable on a fresh print, but becomes an issue over time. Color inks do not decay at the same rate, and black and white images printed using a color ink base will experience color-shifting.

There are inks out there that don't use color as a base, but you have to go through a printing company that specializes, or has equiptment devoted to, black and white imaging.

My husband and I own an artisan black-and-white printing company called DuckRabbit Digital (www.duckrabbitdigital.com), and we use Inkjet Mall's Piezography ink set. These inks use 100% carbon in their sepia-toned inks, and the neutral and selenium inks have modifications to the carbon change itself. Meaning, Piezography inks don’t use color as a base, and thus won’t experience the color-shifts K3 inks will.

Glen Johnson , August 05, 2016; 09:34 P.M.

It's already been 8 years since Philip did this lab comparo ... and yet it has been useful to me this evening.  I abandoned photo.net around the year 2000 as my real job demanded more of my time.  I am getting back into photography now, and I found the information about RAW vs. JPEG, and about lab performance to be very helpful.  I was especially happy to see that links to RAW files were included.  This was very nice.

Reading the responses to Philip's tests, I got the feeling that Philip, who some may remember was the conceiver of photo.net, and also its founder, and primary financial backer for many years, is not recognized by some of the beneficiaries of his efforts.  Accusing him of getting a kick back from a lab shows that the accuser was, at least in 2008, classless.

I was one of the guys who did do his own photo processing during the film era ... b&w, color, C41, E6, etc.  In those days I might have argued against sending film out for processing, or against using a custom lab for printing, just as some of these responders have argued against sending digital files out for printing.

But today, I like the notion of sending some of my best files out to see what the best printers could do.  I had forgotten about the photo program at RIT, which of course was in Kodak's back yard.  It was interesting to learn of the lab in Rochester, and not surprising to hear that it was the best of the lot in 2008.  When Kodak was alive, Rochester was home to a very large pool of photographic talent.  At one time I worked for Eastman Kodak designing equipment for the manufacture of fibers, chemicals, and plastics.

So ... thankyou Philip ...  for photo.net, and for sharing this comparo.  FWIW, I still have a couple of your earlier prints hanging, but I retired this week, and so they are now hanging my home office, instead of at school.

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