Friday, January 9, 2009

Tools: Choosing a Print Fulfillment Lab

Most new photographers have little experience in print fulfillment. Sure, we have all printed our images on our home printer, or taken them down to the local discount store for prints. Some of us as leveraged consumer labs like MPix, Shutterfly, Winkflash or Flickr. While these labs can produce good quality prints at good prices, they are often not set up to produce consistent output with the kind of interfaces that a photography business needs to remain efficient. For example, the ability to use online order management tools like ROES (Remore Order Entry System) and FTP (File transfer Protocol) is often a key requirement of a photographer doing regular print fulfillment business.

When I got into the professional business, I spent some time evaluating print labs, and learning how to interface to the labs. I found that most labs will work with new photographers on account setup, trial prints and developing the interface between photographer and lab. During that journey, I identified several areas that you may want to consider as you search for the print labs that will become your business partners.

Print Fulfillment Lab Evaluation Criteria

Often the first thing you look for. Look at unit costs. If you plan to do lots of printed proofing, the 4x5 or 4x6 bulk proof cost may be important to you. If your major fulfillment will be 5x7 or 8x10, look for good unit prices on them. If you will be sending small orders in (less than about 20 prints per order), see if they have minimum order amounts. Also figure in shipping if it's separate.

I like to identify a couple "typical" order scenarios and price them at different labs, such as:

Proofing: 150 4x6 proofs, no color correction
Small Order: 5 wallet sheets, 5 8x10s and 10 5x7's, no color correction
Large Order: 20 wallet sheets, 30 8x10s, 5 11x14 and 60 5x7's, no color correction

Figure out how much each lab would charge for your typical orders, including shipping.

This is a tough one to evaluate objectively. First, you MUST be color correcting your monitor with profiling tools! I suggest choosing three or four represenatative images from your portfolio and having them sample printed at each lab. Each image should be 300dpi at the print resolution - or in pixel terms for an 8x10, 2400x3000 pixels. Choose at least one color headshot if you do people photographs, at least one black and white (color space converted, not B&W space), and some with bright primary colors, particularly red and yellow. Each of the labs' print devices will have a different color profile, and the prints will come out different. Without getting into lab printer profiling, you want to understand how their equipment prints your images.

If your lab offers color correction as part of fulfillment and you want to use it, request some of the test images to be color corrected and some not, to establish some measurement of the impact.

How quick will the lab turn around your standard print products? How about more sophisticated print items like cutting, backing, canvas, gallery wrap, press printed items, books and specialty items? Most labs will quote standard turnaround times for various print types. When you do your sample runs, make sure you note their turnaround time.

Many labs will have a cutoff time for next-day shipping. I know at least one large lab that staffs a third shift on Sunday night to catch all of the weekend photography uploads and ship them on Monday. This is a huge benefit for those that like to provide quick turnaround to their clients.

I group tools and responsiveness under Service. How easy is it for me to order what I need, track my orders, know when they shipped, and contact someone if I have problems?

Upload mechanisms - a minimum requirement for me is a good ROES system, where I can drag and drop images and send the order to them on the web. If the ROES system has lots of options for titling, multi-image collages and such, that's a plus.

Responsiveness - If I have a problem, I like to talk to a warm body. I run my business after normal work hours, so having someone answer the phone after 5PM EST is great for me. Getting an email or phone response by mid-day the following day is an absolute requirement.

Extra mile - Some labs excel at packaging, follow through and proactive contact. When I switched my winter high-volume work from one lab to another, I received a call from the old guys and we had a good discussion on why I switched. Based on that feedback, I went back to them for some of my other business. That same lab tosses a lollipop in the box on occasion. A nice treat!

Packaging - Some labs have impeccable packaging, where the product is always preserved. They include 2-day shipping in the product cost. Others put the product in an envelope and hope it doesn't get crushed or bent along the way. Belive me that there is nothing more frustrating than opening an envelope to see bent or creased prints!

Upload/workflow capability - I already mentioned ROES as a minimum. If the lab has special software for book design and other special items, that's even better. Online order review and tracking and shipment tracking is great.

Drop Ship - The ability for the lab to drop ship orders to customers in unmarked packaging may be a need for you. Check them out with a sample order to your mother!

Product Capability
Newer photographers may not know the whole realm of products offered beyond the traditional glossy or lustre print. There are metallic prints, special papers, stickers, tiles, canvas, press products and a huge range of photo products.

Bound proof books - available in many sizes from 4x6 to 11x14 and up, these books are great ways to show session proofs to customers, should you choose to do that. Many customers will also buy these if they look good enough!

Canvas products - gallery wrap canvas, where the image wraps around the inner frame, is very popular now and is a great upsell.

Press printed products - produced on printing presses, the quality of production is often very high, and the labs offer books, posters, brochures, bookmarks, greeting cards and more.

Novelty items - Stickers, tags, dry erase boards, mugs, coasters, cutouts, puzzles, clothing and many more items are offered. You may choose to do your main print fulfillment at one lab and doing your specialty items at another lab.

What Labs do I Use? (today...)

These are my personal choices and evaluations. Please make your own decisions, your mileage will vary from mine!
Richmond Camera ( my choice for high volume, gallery wrap and specialty items. Pros:cost, capability. Con:service (still hasn't changed shipping, no wallet die-cuts by default)
White House Custom Color ( - Pros: quality, service. Con-price, capability (novelty items)
McKenna Pro - Pro-capability (Dry erase, novelty items, press-posters, ROES capability). Neutral-cost

Do your own homework. Evaluate all of the aspects of their offerings: Cost, Quality, Delivery, Capability, Service. I will be evaluating other labs later in this blog. Your war stories and input is appreciated!

1 comment:

  1. Hi John,
    I've been following your blog for a few weeks now and really enjoy it. I should be upfront and let you know I work for LabPrints, which is another ordering interface. Unlike ROES we also have composite design, projection, online services, and album building capabilities. Our ordering interface is free and provides a direct link to your lab. Just wanted to throw that out there to your followers! Thanks for the great insight!