Have you ever gone to pick up your prints, gotten them home and then wondered what the heck happened? Why your red rose is now purple, why your blue eyes are a dull grey or why your blue house is now has a nauseating yellow hue? The simple answer is in-lab colour correction. When you send your order to a typical consumer lab, your photos are automatically colour "corrected" based on the perceived colour flaws, as determined by either the print machine's computer, or sometimes by a technician. Without going into crazy detail, each image has a range of colours, primary and complementary, that come together to create the image as we see it. With the naked eye, the small variances in tone or hue cannot be discerned. But the sensor in your camera is not quite so sophisticated, and it is sometimes fooled into adding too much of one colour to the mix, throwing off the delicate balance. This becomes even more noticeable when images are printed, since we mostly view images on back-lit screens, like computers or the back-of-camera LCD, which are brighter than a print and tend to hide a bit of the colour casting.
When you get your images back from the lab, sometimes the colours can be slightly (or not so slightly) different than what you saw on your screen. If these are simple snapshots of your family or friends doing everyday things, this may not be a huge concern. But if you have invested time and money in getting professional portraits done, you will want only the best quality product to end up on your wall.
As a professional photographer, it is part of my job to help you get the highest quality final product. Whether you are printing through me (using my professional lab) or printing from your digital image collection, it is important to have beautiful prints/canvases to display in your home and to share with family and friends. When you hire me to capture your family and children, part of my process is to colour balance, both in camera and in post-processing. By calibrating both my camera and my monitor to the colour settings that match those used by professional labs, I ensure that when the image goes to the lab, it will come back looking the same. So you can imagine my frustration when a consumer lab changes all of my carefully calibrated colour corrections! (Try to say that 5 times fast!) :)
To demonstrate the differences in output between a pro lab and a consumer lab, I recently did a print comparison. I am proud to say that my pro lab is GTA Imaging, based in Toronto - they are awesome! I am always so pleased with the prints they produce. I will leave the consumer lab unnamed, since I don't like to sling mud, but I can give you a hint: It is a large retail store that is always rolling back prices. ;)
Here are the results of this experiment:
The original image is warm, not too contrasty and is clear and sharp.
The print from my pro lab comes very close to the original in colour, clarity and tone. It is slightly darker, with more contrast, which is to be expected due to the difference between seeing it on a lit screen versus seeing it as ink on paper. It is also a bit cooler than the original, but not to a significant degree.
The print from the consumer lab is washed out, with a very cool tone, causing her skin to look almost grey-green. It has lost some of its sharpness and is overall a poor representation of my work.
I have had clients who have, unfortunately, had to learn this lesson the hard way, ending up having to pay for all of their prints twice - once from a consumer lab (which were completely underwhelming) and again from a recommended lab. This is why is it so important, if you are not buying your prints from your photographer, that you ask him or her which lab they recommend. In the end, everyone will be happier. :)
I hope this helped you all understand how colour correction can affect your final prints and that you will think twice before sending your beautiful professional images to a not-so-professional lab!