Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Should I Do My Own Printing or Outsource it to a Professional Lab?

As someone who prints a lot, I often get asked if it’s worth buying a possibly very expensive printer and printing your work at home. There isn’t a simple answer but in short I would say that if you enjoy the printing process, then by all means go ahead and get one. It can be fun, artistically rewarding, convenient, and may be cheaper than using a lab. The flips side is that you can also waste a ton of money, tear your hair out in frustration, and wish you never bought the damn thing.

To go a bit deeper, it makes the most sense to do printing yourself instead of outsourcing to a print shop if at least a few of the following factors apply to you.

1 - You need prints immediately, either for a deliverable or for feedback

With your own printer, you can have a print in a few minutes whereas if you outsource it will typically take 1-3 days for the lab to print your photo and then additional time for shipping. Even with a local lab, you will waste time driving to pick up your work.

With clients, it’s always better to have faster delivery. Especially if there are tight deadlines or your need to send your print to say a framer which is going to invoke additional delays.

Having immediate feedback is great when you are editing your photos and tweaking them. You can quickly see what needs to be changed and make the edits right then. If you have to wait days for a test print, I guarantee you won’t optimize your photos as much as you could.

2 - You want to print on fine art papers

For example, I like to print on a variety of papers such as those with baryta coatings and papers that are made from 100% cotton rag fibers. It is often difficult to find a lab that will even stock my paper of choice and when they do, it can be very expensive. You can easily pay $15 / sq ft or more compared to $2-3 for printing at home. At these prices, it doesn’t take long for printing yourself to payoff.

However if you print on traditional photo papers (i.e. a chromogenic print made on light sensitive paper), which is main print medium at most labs, the cost comparison is a bit more complicated. At small print sizes a lab might sell an 8x10 for $3-4 which is not much more than if you printed it yourself. However at larger sizes, the lab costs tend to go up quite a bit more. E.g. a 24x36 might run $60 or $10 / sq. ft. On the other hand buying a printer that is large enough for a 24x36 will cost several thousand dollars and only makes sense if you frequently print that large.

3 - You want total control over how the prints are made

Besides obvious choices like paper, there are many different options when it comes to making a print and if you are obsessive about quality, you may want to control some of these factors yourself. E.g. there are several ways of converting the colors in your image file to the paper’s color space and each can yield noticeably different results. You can try different settings on your own printer but you typically don’t get a choice with an outside lab.

Or perhaps you love detail in your prints and want to use the highest quality print settings. Most labs will not use these settings because it takes longer to produce the print and slows production throughput for what they perceive as marginal gain.

Finally, I want to make a special comment about printing of black and white photos. Generally commercial labs will send these through to the printer as a color file and rely on the accuracy of the ICC profile to produce a neutral looking print. While this can work reasonably well it’s not as good as using a dedicated print driver for black & white which printer manufacturers like Epson and Canon provide.

4 - You want to make test prints and hard proofs

I want my prints to look as good as possible and often this means making multiple test prints where I explore different options. This is going back to my first point about immediacy and having my own printer makes this quick and convenient. For example, I might try tweak the colors in an image file to see if I can get a slightly better result when printed than the default conversion. To some extent soft-proofing with ICC profiles can be very helpful here but it has limitations and is not a substitute for a hard proof.

Another area that I’ll frequently test is my sharpening routines. There are multiple ways to sharpen an image file for printing and they all have a number of parameters that need to be optimized as well as various strengths and weaknesses that make it better for some images and not others. But it’s hard to judge sharpness on a computer monitor, so doing a test print is often the best and easiest way to compare different algorithms and settings.

A typical use case for me is that I have to make a large print, often several feet or more on the long side. I will then use test prints to check for colors and how it renders on the output paper. I’ll then resize my image to the final size and use test prints on 8x10 crops to compare different sharpening routines. You can see the steps I take in my printing process here. With test prints, I can confidently make a larger print and be sure that it will come out as expected.

A very large print Before making this 36x72" large print at a professional print lab I made about a dozen test prints on my home printer to verify color and sharpness. I used the exact same paper and because the lab uses a larger version of my home printer the inks were also identical.

5 - You have the right personality for printing

If you don’t find it magical seeing your photo come out of your printer, I would suggest not getting into home printing. There is a lot to learn about printing, to the point where it can be overwhelming to newcomers, and so you really need a strong willingness and desire to learn. Otherise you’ll never put in the time and effort needed to get the most out of your printer.

6 - You are good at trouble shooting and fixing things yourself

There are lots of ways printing can go wrong. Over the years, I’ve had to figure out multiple issues with the colors being off which could be due to any number of factors ranging from the ICC profiles, bugs in the printing software, ink settling in the cartridges, clogged heads, and hardware failures in the printer’s circuit boards. Some of these I’ve been able to fix, others required calling out a technician or sending the printer back for replacemnt.

Mechanical issues are also fairly common. Such as the paper not feeding or getting damaged as it goes through the printer (bent corners, pizza wheel marks on the face). With thicker papers, printers can have head strikes which smear the ink and ruin the print. I’ve also had the carriage belt start to disintegrate and leave debris all over the paper.

To be fair, you will also encounter issues when using an external lab. But most times you can contact support, explain the issue, and they will remake the print without charge if it’s a problem on their end.

7 - You can afford it

Once you get a printer you will print way more often than if you used an external lab just due to convenience. Home printing is not that expensive, perhaps $2-3 per square foot for ink and paper, but it can be eye-popping when you add a few ink cartridges and paper to your shopping cart and see the price come out to a few hundred dollars.

Final Thoughts

Home printing is not an either or proposition. You can have your printer and use it for the majority of your work and then outsource prints to a lab when it makes sense. For example, I do smaller prints myself and then have the lab do anything larger than my printer can handle, prints that are face-mounted, and when I want the lab to hand direct shipping.

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