If you have ever visited my studio you know that my family photographs are on display everywhere in our home.  From large canvases, to groupings of smaller canvases, framed prints, and collages, there’s little else adorning the walls of our home.

One reason that prints are included in every session I offer is to make sure that my clients have beautiful memories delivered to their door that they can immediately display on their walls.  I know how busy everyone is and how we have the best intentions to print and hang our photos but that reality gets in the way and it can oftentimes take more time than we would like to decide how we want to display our memories.

Another reason that I provide all my clients with archival prints is to ensure that they have family photographs that will withstand the passage of time and can be passed down to their own children.

The invention of digital photography put cameras into the hands of people around the world and made the art form of photography accessible to nearly everyone.  The downside of the digitization of the art of photography is that the quality of printed products isn’t what it was decades ago when printing the images was as much an art form as the process of taking the photographs.

Photographs printed at retail outlets are done in high volume batches without the attention of a trained professional.  To save money the ink and paper aren’t always of the highest quality, which means the photographs may not last for decades without fading nor will the colours be especially accurate.

Every two weeks I use an external device to calibrate the computer monitor in my office.  I edit all my final photographs in my office because I can control both the settings on my computer but also the ambient light.  

What does this mean for you?  When you look at the images on your computer or smart phone they aren’t going to look the same as what they do on my computer screen.  Very few people have home or office computers that have been calibrated nor are they looking at the images with the ideal amount of ambient light on their monitor.  

What is calibration? When you calibrate your computer monitor you are adjusting the settings to ensure that colour and brightness are reproduced accurately on your screen.  Because my professional print lab continuously adjusts their machines to ensure they are reproducing accurate colour I know that if my digital images on my monitor match the test photographs I have printed every two weeks that I am providing my clients with the most beautiful images possible.

I recently had two images printed at several local retail outlets as well as my professional print lab.  Because I am admittedly a photography nerd it was like Christmas every time an envelope with prints arrived.  Feeling the quality of paper, the finish, and seeing how accurately the colours were printed was a fascinating experiment in just how different the results are when you use a retail print lab!

Family photograph – Professional lab versus Walmart

Compared to the professional print the Walmart print was very thin.  During the printing process Walmart brightened the highlights significantly, which over emphasized the rim light around the family.  The Walmart print is overly sharpened and grainy and the colours have been saturated, which gives the sky a  neon appearance.

Family photograph – Professional lab versus Shoppers Drug Mart

The Shoppers Drug Mart photograph was printed on thicker paper than Walmart.  Both the shadows and overall exposure of the Shoppers Drug Mart print had been brightened substantially and the colour adjusted so that it is more blue and purple in appearance rather than yellow and orange.

Newborn photograph – Professional lab versus Costco

The Costco print of the newborn baby was printed on a medium thickness paper.  The shadows in the image had been darkened substantially making the flowers muddy in appearance.  The left hand side of the print was brighter than the right hand side of the image and the babies skin had an orange glow.

Newborn photograph – Professional lab versus Superstore

The Superstore image was printed on Xtralite paper.  It was heavily saturated during printing making the entire image dark and the colours appear neon.  The little ones skin took on a red and orange hue.

Newborn photograph – Professional lab versus Shoppers Drug Mart

During the printing process the colours were desaturated and lightened, which made the baby’s skin grey. The shadows were also lightened, which makes the photograph appear flat and lacking in dimension.

What does this mean for you?

When you choose a retail lab to print your photographs be prepared for the images to be different each time you print them.  Because you can’t calibrate your computer monitor to their printing machines, you cannot avoid this consistency.  For the image below I temporarily returned my laptop monitor to it’s uncalibrated state so that I could show you side by side what five different prints look like next to a computer monitor.  

If you are printing images to hang in your home have them printed by your professional photographer to ensure the quality and colours are accurate and that the materials used will last for decades without fading or wrinkling.

If the photographs you are viewing on your home computer or laptop are off colour, too dark, or too bright, consider calibrating your monitor.  Although you can purchase an external calibration device I understand that this isn’t a realistic endeavour for the majority of families.  Following the manufacturer’s guidelines for calibrating your monitor will help ensure that what you’re seeing on your screen is as accurate as possible.  

If you do have your images printed at a local or online retail outlet and you aren’t happy with the results make sure to check their policy about having the images re-printed.  While there won’t likely be any additional costs with having the images reprinted (aside from shipping if you had them done online), you do have to factor in the time it will take to return to the retail store for additional re-prints.