What no one told you about choosing the right printshop

Sending your work out to a lab or print shop for printing may seem like a very simple decision but there is a lot that should go into choosing a lab that most photographers are unaware of.

The first problem that we face in South Africa is that like photographers, print shops in general have very little concern for precision colour management. Many of these shops used canned icc profiles which are profiles provided by a printer manufacturer for a particular printer model and paper combination. While these profiles are not shockingly bad, they cannot compensate for variances from device to device, from batch to batch of ink or paper and at best can ensure adequate colour.

The real problem comes in when print shops try use these profiles on printer, paper or Rip they were not created for and it the client who ends up paying the price.

Colour management in the printing arena is no longer a difficult task that requires you to be a rocket scientist in fact some of the modern profiling systems will do everything for you with just a few mouse clicks. There is no excuse for labs and print shops to offer sub-standard colour and it’s my hope that the Colorbrate program will educate photographers so that they can start demanding accurate colour from their labs and print shops.

All printers are not created equal

Let’s forget ink longevity because that’s a whole other topic for discussion but essentially printing is all about being able to accurately reproduce colour and once again we encounter our friend the colour Gamut.

If you have been to a Colorbrate talk, you will be familiar with what a Colour Gamut is and why it is critical to understand how it affects colour but for those of you who don’t know let’s do a quick recap.

Colour Gamut

Wikipedia defines it as “the subset of colors which can be accurately represented in a given circumstance, such as within a given colour space or by a certain output device.

So to really make things simple, let’s assume we have a balloon and we fill the balloon with all of the colours that a particular printing device has to use. In the case of an inkjet it will be the physical inks e.g Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Black and any others it may have and in the case of a Photographic printer, it will be Red, Green and Blue from its light source.

For any particular device the balloon will theoretically contain every possible colour that can produce with that devices colourants. In reality the balloon contains a blackish brown mess but you get the idea. So if all the possible colours are contained in the balloon and we call the balloon a Gamut it essentially is a container for all of the in Gamut colours that the device can produce. Not all of the colours in the visible spectrum can be produced by printing devices and these colours will fall outside of the balloon that we have called the Gamut and are therefore out of Gamut colours.

Most printing devices will not produce accurate colour on their own so we need to create an ICC profile for the printer and this does two things. Firstly it ensures that the device produces in Gamut colours accurately so that a colour you specify prints as specified. Secondly and as importantly, it helps the printer deal with the out of gamut colours it can’t produce by mapping them to the nearest in gamut colour meaning you don’t get unexpected results or messy grey colour when these are encountered.

The more colours the larger the Gamut

The more colours a printer has to use, they larger its gamut will be so a Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inkjet will never have a gamut as large as an inkjet that has e.g. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black, Green, Orange and Blue. As a photographer, a printer with a larger gamut means that it can produce more colours accurately which is good for you.

So it’s simple, just make sure you find the printer with the largest gamut!

This would be a good strategy but unfortunately it’s not quite that simple…

The Holy Grail for colour would be a gamut that was a perfect sphere


but in reality gamuts are a pretty distorted balloon and it’s the distortion that causes the complication.

gmut 3d

 A device with a smaller gamut can produce fewer colours accurately than a device with a larger gamut but that doesn’t mean that it can’t produce some colours more accurately than the larger gamut device or that its gamut may be larger in a certain colour range.

This really complicates things because what it means is that you really need to evaluate which the best printer will be for every single image you print based on the image’s colour composition. It gets trickier because while tools do exist to do this, they are designed for colour professionals and are too technical for most people to use.

The good news is that some of this can be done using Photoshop’s Softproofing function and we will cover how to use this in another blog post

The safe Choice

Given the above, the safe choice is to find out the following from your printer:

  • Do they do their own profiling?
  • When was the last time they profiled their printers?
  • Do they profile their device for each and every paper?
  • Do they re-profile every time they load a new roll of paper?
  • What ink does the printer use? If an inkjet, you are preferably looking for a machine with CMYK plus 3 extra colour inks.
  • If it is a photographic printer does it use a laser or does it use an internal screen to expose the paper as many of the mini labs do. Devices with lasers generally have a far larger gamut.
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X-Rite Colour Hardware Special


Very excited to have been given permission to offer X-Rite Colour solutions at a reduced price via the site for a limited period of time, details here

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