Tired of getting digital prints from your local minilab or online processor that have unusual color casts, strange skin tones, off-kilter crops, or too much contrast? Sure, you could try to do a better job on your own photo-quality inkjet printer, but it's hard to resist the incredible bargains and convenience most digital minilabs and online photo processors offer-especially for big enlargements or piles of 4x6s. So before you curse the lab for messing up your photos, why not secretly take control of their $200,000 superprinters and show them how to do it right the first time? Just follow these 10 steps.
1. Calibrate Your Monitor
It all starts here, whether you want the best print quality from your home printer, a digital minilab, or a professional photofinisher. Without a calibrated monitor to ensure that you're getting accurate colors on your screen, even a great lab can produce lousy prints. Calibrating is easy to do, takes very little time, and may not cost you a cent.
There are two ways to calibrate, either visually or with a device. Visual calibration uses built-in utilities found in the display control panels on all current Mac and Windows computers. But this method is rarely as accurate as using either a colorimeter or spectrophotometer. Colorimeters, such as the Pantone Huey ($80, street) or the more advanced ColorVision Spyder2PRO ($260, street) can help you calibrate your monitor and create accurate monitor profiles for use in color-managed imaging programs such as Adobe Photoshop CS2, Elements 4, and Corel Paint Shop Pro X.
Spectrophotometers usually cost $600-plus and may be overkill if all you need is a monitor calibrator, but they can also be used to make custom printer profiles for your home printer, published work, or even for a digital minilab (see Color Profiling sidebar).
2. Turn Off the Engine
Many online photo processors include an option to use an automated image-enhancement engine or to turn it off. You'll find a similar choice on the envelope you drop off at the local minilab. Decline the automatic fix, or else the lab's computer will mess with your images. For example, you may have intentionally dialed down the contrast in a portrait, but the automatic fix will see this as a problem and add contrast. Similarly, if you want to make a black-and-white print with a slight sepia tone, watch what happens if you turn on the lab's autofix engine!
When should you use the autofix? When you're in a hurry and know that your images may have incorrect exposures or white balance settings. You might also try it when making prints directly from the camera's memory card at a kiosk.