Photo Printing: Using a Lab vs Buying Your Own Printer

I’m surprised by the number of people I meet who 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’ve also used Bay Photo, Whitewall, WHCC, Digital Silver Imaging, HiddenLight, Bumblejax, and other local, low-volume custom labs.

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. Have I, or will I very soon, calibrate my monitor? 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. Properly calibrate your monitor or just don’t waste your time and money; your prints will never look right.

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. Obviously, the more you print, the lower the printer acquisition cost figures into the equation.

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 cannot generate. So, obviously, a lab will have to be used. And this is where you cannot do too much research.

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. So, the longer the time in business, 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.

Then, there are the “boutique” labs that specialize in basically one thing.

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. These folks are the best and they can deliver nationwide.

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 figured based on the number and size of the prints (There’s a usage display on the printer) and a charge for ink was added to the invoice. 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. They can also supply paper, but I always bought my own from MOAB, which they didn’t carry.

This deal was available for any printer they represent, which includes Epson, HP, etc.

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. Their selling point is how much product they can offer; your print can appear on just about any surface you can imagine. 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. I have used them, and their acrylic products are the best. 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. Each order is a custom project for them, and the results are just incredible. 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. Incredible turnaround. Not the cheapest, but you absolutely get what you pay for.
  • 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. They offer quite possibly the best B&W prints available. Don’t have a negative? Is your image digital? No problem, they’ll make a physical negative, then run your print. 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 are also one of the only labs that offer film and print scanning, with economical flat-bed scanning for prints, and high-quality drum scanning for film. DSI specializes in scanning negatives for perfect color balance, sharpness, and cleanliness, meaning dust, scratches and in some cases mold can all be removed for the best results possible. They started out specializing in B&W, but have branched out into everything else. I’ve never used them, but the reviews are quite good.
  • Costco. And now for the surprise: Costco. I know, the home of the two-inch-thick ribeye offers photo printing services. 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. Hold it up to compare with something from anywhere else, and you’ll see the obvious quality difference, but again, it’s not bad considering the price. For a school project, political campaign poster, direction signage, etc. it can’t be beat.

Low Volume, Local, Custom Labs

  • Precision Camera, Austin, TX. Not to be confused with the monolithic repair facility in Connecticut, Precision is one of the last brick-and-mortar stores left. And it is one of the best. They have it all and do it all. Their salespeople know what they are doing (unlike most photo salespeople), they rent equipment, offer in-person classes, and do custom prints. You can go in, choose your paper, mounting, etc and most of the time it’s done in one day.
  • Southeastern Camera in Raleigh and Carrboro, NC. (Chapel Hill area) Another great brick-and-mortar success story. 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. Nicest people on planet earth and they know what they are doing. The store features a huge selection of used and vintage equipment. 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. It’s worth the effort.
  • 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. You’ll also find a huge selection of used equipment reasonably priced and in great condition. I’ve bought used equipment here and never had a problem. The print service is tremendous. In the Bellagio Shopping Center at Nees and Blackstone, down from Barnes and Noble in the corner. Ask for Aaron.
  • Fort Worth Camera. One of the best camera stores anywhere. They do GREAT prints and use Gatorfoam mounting, the best mounting substrate anywhere. Tremendous print service, again completely custom. They also feature classes on every subject concerning photography, including classes in 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! Print and frame one of your favorite images and you’ll be hooked.

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

Image credits: Photos from 123RF