Photo Printing: Using a Lab vs Buying Your Own Printer

I’m always surprised at the amount of people love to shoot, but hate to process. For me, seeing what I captured and what kind of art I can make of the image is half the fun! Printing, of course, is part of that equation.

Before I discuss printing photos with a photo lab versus buying a photo printer, I’ll disclose my personal choice: I own a Canon large format imagePROGRAF PRO-2000 printer. 24″, 11-color inkjet printer. And you can have it back when you can pry it from my cold, dead fingers. There’s just nothing like picking up a fresh-out-of-the-printer print and putting it up for inspection under a carefully positioned light. Immediate gratification.

I use MOAB Slickrock Metallic Pearl paper almost exclusively to print both portraits and landscape images.

But I have also used Bay Photo and WHCC as well as Digital Silver Imaging, HiddenLight and Bumblejax.

Table of Contents

Making The Decision of Lab vs Printer

The only way to know which paradigm is right for you is to answer these questions:

1. How much printing am I going to do? If 4 or 5 large prints a month – lease a large-format printer. It’s surprisingly affordable and the deal includes consumables. (more on this later). If you do less volume than this, I’d say use a lab.

2. Do I mind waiting to see the results? Or, in other words, how much trial-and-error will I have to suffer getting the lab to return WYSIWYG prints on a regular basis? This question dovetails onto the next…

3. Do I need to calibrate my monitor, or am I going to do so soon? Failure to calibrate and learn about ICC profiles and the color spaces will guarantee you will not be happy with the results regardless of which lab you choose. Your prints won’t look good if you don’t calibrate it properly.

Estimating Your Cost to Print

The only way to evaluate cost is on the basis of per square inch.

Here’s the Canon chart that gives you the square-inch cost of generating a print from their printers:

Caveat: These figures are for consumables only and do not factor in the cost of the printer. The equation assumes that you will print more than the cost of the printer.

Of course, it’s a very straightforward process to figure the p/sq inch cost on a lab print. Cost of the print divided by square inch size (figured as height times width).

Sizing Up Your Lab: Which Lab To Use

I’m primarily a landscape photographer so when I print for clients, I want complete control for the highest quality. But sometimes clients want a print larger than 24″, or a canvas wrap, or an acrylic print, etc. That I can’t generate. So, obviously, a lab will have to be used. This is the place where research can be done.

One of the best ways to assess the quality and reliability is to find out how long the lab has been in business. People don’t use a lab that gets it wrong. The longer a business has been in operation, the better. Bay Photo, WhiteWall, White House, Mpix, Millers, and Adorama (now Printique) are all labs that have been around forever and can be relied upon to get it right, assuming your monitor is calibrated. These labs also offer a mind-numbing array of products, papers, and display options.

There are also “boutique” laboratories that only specialize in one area.

Read also: The Best Online Photo Printing Services

Buying Your Printer: Which One?

You made the decision to get your own printer, but now… which one?

Again, you can go large-format with the $3,000 Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-2100, 24″, 11-colors, stable archiving offering a 300 year color guarantee. It’s a bit pricey to buy outright, and the ink sets are about $1,200 (160 ml). The best option may be to lease. Lease deals were so good I could not afford to pass them up.

The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-2100 large format inkjet photo printer.

I personally used the Austin, Texas-based Professional Plotter Technology, which is the second largest printer reseller in the US. They are great and can ship anywhere in the country.

My deal for the 2000 model was for 3 years at $45 a month with a buyout or turn it in. You can upgrade or downgrade to a different model, either 44-inch or 60-inch at any time during your lease term. Consumables were paid for as you go.

The square-inch usage was calculated based on how many prints were made (there’s an usage display on your printer), and an ink charge was added to the bill. So, if I didn’t print anything that month, my bill was only $45. I averaged around 3 or 4 a month and my consumables cost was around $25 to $35. If I ever needed an ink cartridge, they just sent it to me with no additional charge. Although they can supply paper, I bought mine from MOAB which didn’t have it. This deal is available to any printer that they represent (Epson, HP).

Canon and Epson have other models for smaller print sizes, around 17″ and are considerably less expensive but offer the same 11-color, archival quality inks.

Basically, decide what your needs and budget are and go from there.

Print Labs to Consider

I’ve used all these labs and had a great experience.

Mass Market Labs

These are general mass-market print labs that have been around for a long time and do an excellent job. They are known for their ability to print on almost any surface. They offer high-quality prints and “value” prints that are great, but if you did not prepare the images properly the results will show it; they do no touchup or color balancing on “value” prints.

Specialty (Boutique) Labs

  • Bumblejax, out of Seattle, Washington, specializes in acrylic images. They are excellent and I’ve used their products. They now do just about anything, but their expertise is acrylics. Service is tremendous as well.
  • White Wall, based in Cologne, Germany, is quite possibly the best for high-quality results when you want the highest quality obtainable. They treat each order as a unique project and produce amazing results. They have plants all over the world. I have used them for gallery wraps, and I cannot say enough good about them. The gallery wrap frames are indestructible, made of oak, and the result is a solidly made gallery wrap that will not warp. I’ve only done their canvas wraps, which were built like a battleship — the canvas paper used is just the best; in 7 years my gallery wrap is as solid as the day it arrived with no fading on the print. Amazing turnaround. Although not the most expensive, you get exactly what you pay.
  • Hidden Light in Flagstaff, Arizona, is a small company dedicated to black and white printing old school, by wet process; direct prints from a negative, projected from an enlarger, finished wet-process. You will find the finest B&W prints. Do you have a negative of your image? Do you have a digital image? They can make a negative and then print your image. They also generate a black-and-white print from a special printer that features a B&W ink set that represents 8 shades of grey and black called Piezography. Their prints are spectacular, but are monstrously expensive…
  • Digital Silver Imaging also specializes in black-and-white printing. They also do direct-print wet-process products but are not as expensive as HiddenLight. They’re also the only lab that offers film and print scanning. This includes flat-bed scanning of prints and drum scanning of film. DSI specializes scanning negatives to ensure perfect color balance, sharpness and cleanliness. This means that dust, scratches, mold, and sometimes even mold can all been removed. Although they started with B&W scanning, they have expanded to include all other media. Although I have not used them yet, the reviews seem to be very positive.
  • Costco. And now for the surprise: Costco. You can get a 20×800 poster for $[****************************************************************************************************************************************************************]. You can get a 20×30 poster for $10. And the reason it is included here is to point out that for the money it’s an unbelievable product when quality is not your primary consideration. Notice I said for the money. Costco makes the best $10, 30×20 print out there. It’s easy to see how it compares with other products, although it isn’t cheap. It can be used for school projects, campaign posters, and direction signage. It’s hard to beat.

Low Volume, Local, Custom Labs

  • Precision Camera, Austin, TX. Precision, not to be confused by the monolithic Connecticut repair center, is the final brick-and-mortar store. It is also one of the most prestigious. The team has it all, and they do everything. They are knowledgeable, unlike most other photo salespeople. Their staff can rent equipment and offer classes in person. It’s easy to go into the shop and choose your paper, mount, etc. Most of it can be done within one day.
  • Southeastern Camera in Raleigh and Carrboro, NC. Other great success stories in brick and mortar (Chapel Hill, NC) My experience has been with the Carrboro store, and I cannot say enough good about them. I printed a rather large portrait and was able to stand and watch as he prepared the image for print and direct the cropping and brightness. Then, when the print came off the printer I was there to assess the results. They are the nicest and most knowledgeable people I know. There is a wide selection of vintage and used equipment in the store. CAVEAT: They are very difficult to find in Carrboro, at 205 W. Main St, between Chapel Hill Tire and Weaver Street in the brick office building. The effort is worth it.
  • Horn Photo in Fresno, CA. A long-time photo store with great print service. They do the inexpensive 4×6 prints from the self-service kiosks, and custom larger prints ala carte. A large selection of quality used equipment is also available at a reasonable price and in excellent condition. There have been no problems with my equipment purchased here. The print service is tremendous. In the Bellagio Shopping Center at Nees and Blackstone, down from Barnes and Noble in the corner. Aaron is available to speak with you.
  • Fort Worth Camera. This is one of the most renowned camera shops in America. Gatorfoam mounting is the most popular mounting material and they do great prints. Tremendous print service, again completely custom. You can also find classes about photography and wet-process development.

You may know of a great camera shop not listed here that may do good work. Go in, have the conversation and you’ll be able to discern for yourself what they can do.

As for framing and mounting, I have to offer kudos to Hobby Lobby. I’ve used three different stores and in every instance I’ve had great service and superb quality.

Good luck! You’ll love it if you frame one of your favourite images.

About the author: Phil Hawkins is a fine art landscape photographer who has been shooting professionally since 2004. For over four decades, he has been photographing in Yosemite National Park. You can find more of his work on his website.

Image credits: Photos from 123RF