How to Print: Pro Lab Vs. 1 Hour Lab

I know it’s not super popular, but I’d like to hope that maybe you’ve come across an old roll of film, or a disposable camera and out of habit, you’ve taken it to Walmart to get it processed only to be turned away? Or if they said they’d take it, they’d let you know they were shipping it out of state to get processed and you won’t even get your negatives back, just the prints. SAY WHAT?! Yes, if you haven’t done this, you’ve heard me right! It pains me soooo much cause I have such a huge love for film to see it just vanish like this seemingly so suddenly.

I think it shocked me because when I found this out I was working in a professional lab. I was working with 100’s of rolls a day so to hear that places that were regular drop offs for the every day person was no longer a thing I didn’t understand. I soon started hearing clients coming in saying “I found this but everywhere I went wouldn’t take it so I really hope you could help me” which we gladly did.

Whats the difference between a pro lab and a 1 hour lab?

Another name for Professional labs is a wet lab. Why is it wet? Because it refers back to the idea of processing with chemicals in a darkroom and using photo sensitive papers to get you your product. This may sound archaic but it has been modernized. You might remember black and white darkroom  photography and printing them in a dark room, waiting for the pictures to appear or for color putting your paper in light tight tubes to transfer to a machine that would process your color image for you and it comes out on the side all dry and wonderful. These machines are modern enough to be digital so you can upload your images to a computer, someone sits there, edits them for the machine, then presses print and the machine does the process on its own. The best part though, is it is done on photo archival paper and still goes through the wet process. Images that are made with the wet process are built to last.

Problem is, with film becoming less popular, those machines are expensive to run when it comes to the paper, and the chemicals, and even the disposing of the chemicals when they’ve become exhausted, 1 hour photo places decided to get rid of the process and go full digital. They invested in fast digital printers and ditched their wet lab machines. But with ditching the machines, they might not admit it but they have lost their print quality as well.

So I was spoiled working at a wet lab where I could see beautiful prints, and even print my own from time to time that when I moved back home and went out to make a few prints I was in disbelief at what I got. Now I knew that they wouldn’t be perfect, I just couldn’t believe how BAD they were. When I got that set of prints I saw these problems:

  1. The paper was super thin and flimsy.
  2. The ink was clearly non-archival along with obvious banding across the images.
  3. The color did not stay true to my original images.

You may say, “But I’ve printed at many 1 hour labs and I’ve never noticed an issue!” I’ll say maybe you’re just incredibly lucky or maybe your eyes just aren’t looking close enough.  I’m sure if you are investing in prints, it’s because you want them to last long right? I mean you wouldn’t spend money if you knew they were likely to come apart in a short time correct? When you are investing in other things, you probably go for the best quality so that you get your monies worth right or if you do invest in something cheaper you understand that it may not last as long. Now let me go through these problems I mentioned above.

The Paper

I’m sure you can almost answer this yourself. But things that are made thin are not made to be durable. They can have a tendency to get ruined quicker. Old photography papers (especially fiber paper) were made to last at least 100 years but if taken care of correctly, they could last even longer. Digital papers just aren’t there yet. Don’t get me wrong, large format printing totally has the prospect to last a long time, it’s their smaller and cheaper papers that just don’t cut it.

The Ink

Have you ever done a photobooth picture and hang it up on the wall only to find maybe a year or two earlier that it has fade dramatically? I’m raising my hand high here! The ink needs to be archival and made to last a long time or else it’ll fade. These inks show depth and vivid colors and really kind of carry a weight to them. And bonus, for them to last long, they also need to be put on paper that is made to last long! When you look at prints from 1 hour places you and feel how light and thin the ink is.

The Color

I’m not gonna get super deep into this because I know I’m definitely gonna loose some people but I’ll try keep it easy for the every day person. Prints and Computers have to be constantly calibrated to work with each other. And not just that but every printer is different! If you really wanna get into it, look up how using specific ICC profiles can help preserve your printing colors but for every one else, if you were to print from a computer, it should stay at least moderately close to what you see on your screen to what you receive as a print.  But when I got my images, I noticed some of my colors would go flat while others would pop. Then shadows would go towards a green part of the spectrum. Over all the images just weren’t as clear and correct as I knew they were back in my computer.

Where do I go from here?

Bottom line is to know the difference between the labs and to remember I am basing this on the ideas of those who are printing small prints for their albums or to give to friends and families.

Professional (wet) labs still use darkroom chemicals and light sensitive papers leaving you these beautiful archival images that stay true to what you see on a computer or film for years to come. They also still process film if you need it and are likely to return your negatives. These labs are run by professionals in the photo world that know what they’re doing.  It has become more digitized but there is still someone working the station making sure your images are coming out the best they can be on archival paper that will last you years. Side note: Please don’t process anywhere that won’t give you your negatives, that just seems sketchy to me!

1 Hour Labs are completely digital and automatic. A person simply presses print, restocks machines and packs jobs rather than being really into the work that is being done. They are cheaper, and with cheaper, the product is made cheaper. You don’t need photo experience to work at a 1 hour lab.

All in all, do note, that if you are doing large format printing, either lab will do as they likely use the same printers and inks to print as large as you’d like. I personally would pay the extra money for a professional lab to do my small and medium prints and maybe use 1 hour labs to do anything super large or special prints as they will be made the same way. I say this because so far, in my small print lab tests, nothing has beat that of a professional wet lab.

Check out the blog next week as I go through my print tests from the most common labs that you know! Happy printing! Let me know if you are enjoying this series and tell me where you favorite place to print is.

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