10 steps to getting the job done right--the first time!
8. Get Organized
To speed up multiple image uploads or to keep track of images sent out for printing, save your files in separate folders prior to writing them to a CD or sending them to a lab. For example, if you plan to send out a 4x6 order, store all of your retouched and sized images in a folder called "4x6 prints." You may also add a date or lab name to the name of the folder. When you go online to place your order, select "Print folder" if given that as an option, or navigate to the folder you've created, open it, and hit "Select all images."
Tip: If you're writing your images to a CD or memory card to be printed at a kiosk, first create a master folder called DCIM, and then store all your print-size folders containing images in it. Most kiosks will look for images contained in the DCIM folder created by every digital camera, but some may overlook other folders even if they contain JPEGs.
9. Make a Trial Run
Don't send 100 images to a lab on your first order; send 5 to 10 that cover the spectrum of your images, including high key, low key, supersaturated, low contrast, and high contrast. Then modify your settings based on the results, or move on to the next lab.
As a rule, the contrast on most digital minilab prints is fairly high (a holdover from film printing days and preferred by most consumers), resulting in blocked-up shadows and blown-out highlight detail. You may want to send a contrast series of one image to the lab to see which setting works the best. Start with a portrait or scenic photo with lots of shadow, midtone, and highlight detail evident on your computer monitor. Adjust the contrast and save five versions from low to moderately high contrast (layer a different letter or number into each version of the image to identify it later).
10. Assert Yourself
If, after following these steps, your prints still come back looking like they were developed by a blind monkey, it's time to either find a new lab or talk with a lab supervisor. Don't expect the person behind the counter or running the machine to be able to help you, since novices may not know the difference between a cyan and a blue color cast. But, in most cases, someone at your lab does; that's who you should talk with. Bring a copy of the image files for viewing on the lab's monitor. Usually, the lab will offer to fix and reprint any of your problem photos.
The color gamut of silver-halide papers used in most digital minilabs is noticeably smaller than the gamut of typical six- to eight-color inkjet printers. That means that certain colors (such as violets and deep reds) may appear washed out or radically different in the prints you get.
Knowing which colors fall outside the gamut of a minilab can be helpful and allows you to make adjustments to improve the image quality of your photos. For instance, Photoshop's Proof Colors tool can give you a screen preview of your lab's color gamut if you have a profile loaded on your system.
Some minilabs or pro labs in your area might be able to provide you with color profiles for their specific printing systems. You can also use a device such as the ColorVision PrintFIX PRO (see The Goods) to generate a color profile from your lab or any color printer you use.
If you use the minilab's profile as the working space in Photoshop and then send images to the lab as untagged JPEGs, you'll get a very accurate match to your screen images. Warning: If you then send the same image files to other labs, even ones using the same equipment, colors might be off.