Prepare images for online print labs
Avoid disappointment and learn to get the best quality from your prints
It is often said that we don’t print enough of our images in the digital age and it is certainly true that many of us simply archive our processed files on hard drives and leave it at that. This may be due in part to the cost of printing materials – ink and quality paper prices can be prohibitive for home printing, especially for large format prints, sized A3 and above. Online print labs provide an affordable solution, often charging a fraction of these prices and offering shipping worldwide. The downside is that the photographer loses control over the production of prints and badly colour-balanced images or those with incorrect brightness are a common issue. Luckily the causes of this are quite predictable and there are some easy solutions. Follow the simple steps in this guide to minimise the risk of deflating results and guarantee gallery-quality prints to be proud of.
Download paper profiles
Some labs provide the paper and printer profiles for the materials and hardware they use in production. You’ll often find downloadable files on their website which you can easily install in Photoshop and apply to images for consistent colour. Once downloaded, Mac users should copy the ICC profile to Macintosh HD > Library > Colorsync > Profiles, while Windows users can simply Right click the ICC file and choose Install. The profile will then be accessible from Edit > Convert to Profile in Photoshop.
If specific paper profiles are not provided, many labs suggest you convert your images to sRGB before submitting them for print. While sRGB does not contain as much colour information, it is more universal. Follow Edit > Convert to Profile to select your new destination profile. Keep a copy of your photo with the original, larger colour space so you can use this in future.
Check your resolution
Before clicking submit, check that the pixel dimensions of your files match the size you have requested. It is possible to accidentally down-size images when importing RAW files into Photoshop from Camera Raw, so check you are using all available pixels.
Send smaller prints first
Before sending for a large number of big prints, test the quality of a lab’s results by submitting a limited order of smaller-format images. Try sizing some sample photos to around 6 x 4in and requesting a variety of paper types, covering matte and glossy. From these samples you can then choose which medium and size is best for your photo and if the lab offers the quality you require.
Pre-crop your images
Be sure to crop your image files to the correct size before you upload and send your images to the lab of your choice. If you want to print your shot at 16 x 12in at 300ppi, select or create a Crop Tool Preset in Photoshop and crop the image to those exact dimensions and resolution specifications. This will make sure your photo isn’t pixelated due to insufficient resolution or warped to fit a non-compatible aspect ratio.
Send multiple shots for better value
Once you are sure about the quality the lab provides and are ready to send your images, gather a collection of shots and send larger batches for better per-print value. Most labs offer discount for batch orders, with price dropping as print number increases.
Turn off auto-enhancers
Most labs have online software for formatting and submitting images. A common feature is an automatic correction filter, which alters brightness, contrast, saturation and sharpness to improve print quality. These systems are based around average settings however and are really intended for images uploaded straight out-of-camera, by users who have not processed their shots manually. If you have used Photoshop, Lightroom or Capture first, turn off this feature to avoid over-processed images and prints with incorrect exposure and colour.
Using print labs is an economical method of accessing professional-quality printed images, in an almost unlimited number of paper types and sizes. While you may not have total control, correct image preparation removes the unknown element in the production process.