In my last post I discussed some photo printer options for those of you out there that are looking to print from the confines of your home. For this post, we are going to discuss some of the best print labs available online. These range from small regional labs to nationwide labs. As a preface, let me say right now that there are incredible small labs out there that do great work. I am going to cover the top performers that I recommend and then a larger nationwide lab. So, if I leave out the small lab you work with, don’t fret, those labs do an amazing job most of the time and provide great service.
Now let’s get to printing.
Printing is an art in itself and it is easy to produce a print that is not very good. For that reason, I do not recommend attempting to print any of your photos at Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, or any of those quick printing places. The quality will be not be good and you will not be maximizing the files from your camera. Printing at one of those locations is similar to slapping a super cheapo lens on an expensive full frame camera.
If you have an image from a Backcountry Journeys workshop or personal outing that you’d like to print, the first thing you need to do is decide on what medium you want to print. Not all medium is created equal, and each has its own unique quirks. Let’s review paper, metal, acrylic, and canvas.
Inkjet paper is the traditional medium for professional photo printing. There are both high quality and low-quality papers, and each paper is different depending on its type – glossy, lustre, and matte are a few of the paper types you will see. High quality papers like Kodak Endura and Fuji Crystal will make your photos come to life. Some print mediums come ready to hang, but with paper you will have to factor in framing cost as well.
Metal prints have exploded in popularity the last few years, and for good reason. Metal prints are printed directly onto aluminum sheets and come ready to hang. They look absolutely fantastic. The only downside is proofing your images for print on metal can be difficult. In general, the available color gamut when printing on metal is much lower than what your camera captures. Thus, if you don’t proof your images properly, they might come out looking totally different.
Just like metal, acrylic has become an increasingly popular medium. Acrylic is my favorite medium to print on. Acrylic prints are essentially paper prints that are face mounted with acrylic. This means that the acrylic mount is placed on top of the print and the view looks look the mount to see the print. Acrylic prints are extremely detailed, vibrant, and have a 3-dimensional feel to them, and a lot of those features are due to the mounting process. They come ready to hang as well, but tend to be fairly expensive.
Canvas is a favorite of many photographers, they have great colors and a unique texture. I am not going to spend too much time on canvas because I don’t think canvas is a great option for landscape or wildlife photographers. The textured look of canvas can be a great attention grabber, but it can drown out the details that we nature photographers love so much. Thus, I recommend the other mediums. If detail is not important to you, canvas prints can be very nice. They are so popular because they are easy to print on, easy to hang, and do not require framing.
Soft proofing is the process of using your calibrated monitor and a specific profile to gauge how an image on your monitor will look when printed out on a specific medium. Soft proofing will save you time and guarantee the best possible print. The first step is the make sure your monitor is calibrated (I recommend Spyder or X-Rite color management software). The next step is to navigate to the lab you intend to use. They should have a ‘ICC Profile’ for the prints they offer. Download it and load it into Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom (I can cover this in a future post). You are then able to toggle the profile on and off to visualize how the print output might look. Oftentimes, you will have to make luminosity and color adjustments. Sharpening for print is very important too, but an entire book could be written on the topic so I will save it for another time. Generally, I use the Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen filter in Adobe Photoshop to sharpen edges.
You can get any type of print for the most part from Nevada Art Printers, but their specialty is acrylic. Nevada Art Printers is a small team of fine printmakers headed by Robert Park. They develop gallery-grade acrylic prints and are responsible for handling printing for many renowned photographers. Nevada Art Printers, and Robert Park specifically, is the creator of LUMACHROME technology.
As stated on their site, ‘The LUMACHROME process is engineered to overcome and surpass the limitations of traditional Fujiflex chromagenic processes and inkjet processes. Details appear to emerge in 3D from the depths of the image with the LUMACHROME process thanks to the transparency layer that is infused with iridium particles and is encapsulated in a layer suspended between the white poly surface and Acrylic.’ LUMACHROME acrylic prints even surpass Fujiflex acrylic prints (much of Peter Lik’s work is on Fujiflex), which was the previous high-quality standard.
- Brilliant Colors Lasting Over 120 years
- Superior Gamut vs Traditional Fujiflex Prints
- Incredible 3D Depth and Dimensionality
- Unsurpassed Detail and Ability to Hold Highlights
- Superior Shadow Luminosity and Detail
- Radiant Glowing Response Under Halogen Lighting
- Neutral Skin Tone Reproduction
I have a few LUMACHROME prints of my work and they are by far the best prints I have of my work. The detail and 3-D appearance of the prints is absolutely breathtaking. They are expensive, but I urge you to try a LUMACHROME print, especially if you have a ‘favorite’ image. Support is extremely personalized at Nevada Art Printers, too. They lead you through the process and make suggestions during proofing (brightness, sharpening, enlarging). I have had great experiences and I guarantee you that you will not get a better print anywhere.
If I am not interested in an acrylic print, I turn to HD Aluminum Prints out of Vancouver, WA. Randy Hopfer started the company is 2009 and turned it into one of the best metal print labs in the country. Randy and his team use a dye sublimation process that results in beautiful, vibrant, durable and waterproof metal prints. Although less detailed than acrylic prints, the metal prints produced by HD Aluminum Prints are more durable, much lighter, and less expensive (and that’s not to say the prints are extremely detailed, acrylic is just tough to beat).
The website is great for ordering too. Different finishes are visually displayed and range from high-gloss white to clear matte. The metal prints are shipped ready to hang, but there a ton of framing options available through HD if you are looking to upgrade framing. I really like using HD Aluminum Prints because the pricing is good and I have received many great prints from them. I especially like the discount for first time customers (25%), which is why I recommend anyone who hasn’t printed on metal or acrylic to experiment with HD first.
I also recommend checking out www.metalprints.com. I have not printed with them, but I have heard their quality is excellent as well. They do offer a 25% discount for first time customers too.
The first two options on the list are smaller print labs, Bay Photo is quite a bit larger. Based in California, Bay Photo operates across the nation and has come to be known as a ‘do it all’ print lab. They are definitely one of the larger professional print labs in the country. I have tried a host of the nationwide labs (Pro DPI, White House, mpix) and I think Bay Photo is the best. They offer every kind of print you can imagine, from fine art acrylics to photo jewelry.
Bay Photo has distinguished itself by offering the most print products (with great customization options) at the best overall quality. I have purchased acrylic prints from Bay Photo that are exceptional. They are not the same quality as Nevada Art Printers LUMACHROME, but they are still very good…and much cheaper. I like Bay Photo for their customer service too. They are a larger company, but one that feels much smaller because of the personalized service they provide. I once ordered a print that was damaged during shipping and Bay Photo replaced it and mailed the new print next day without a single question asked. Bay Photo is usually the place I get my paper prints done too, try them out, they have a first time 25% off coupon too!
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com