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Communicating with Your Photofinisher

Let's face it — a lot of people are meek consumers. They usually take what they get. But if you're serious about getting the best prints that you possibly can from your photofinisher, then it's time to stop caving in when it comes to your important photographs.

As a photofinishing customer, you have a right to prints as good as can be made from your negatives.

Some photofinishing companies make a big deal about good print guarantees — that they'll reprint a picture at no extra charge if you're not satisfied with the print. Well, they're all supposed to do that. Satisfactory prints are what you're paying for when you hand your money to a photofinisher.

At the same time, be sure to keep in mind that bad negatives do happen to good people. And when negatives are bad, it's impossible to get a good print. Photofinishers see a lot of bad negatives.

This is where a relationship with a minilab can come in handy. Minilabs have their own developing and printing machinery right on the premises. You drop off the film there, it's processed there, you pick up your prints there. If you go to a minilab on a regular basis, it knows you. It knows you can take pretty good pictures. It knows you're not a crank. If you have a not-so-good but important negative, the minilab should be willing to try a couple of print variations for you to see what looks best to you. For your part, if the lab gives the print its best effort, there comes a time to acknowledge that the picture may not be a "keeper." Even professional photographers have their share of "dumpers."

And good negatives can be hard to print. A classic problem is a picture with bright sky above green foliage. A print with lots of leafy detail and bright color in the foliage will probably have a blank white sky. A print with a nice blue sky tone may have dark, nearly black trees. Here, a good photofinisher can compromise — adjusting the print's exposure to give you a reasonable balance between the two areas.

As with any relationship, the key is communication. Here are some guidelines for communicating with good minilabs.

  • Always bring the negatives! The negatives are the real pictures. The print is just one rendition of the negative. How do you know whether it's a bad rendition of a good negative (the lab's fault) or a pretty good rendition of a bad negative (your fault, or your camera's)? You don't. The only way to troubleshoot a bad print is to look at the original picture — the negative — with the help of your friendly lab staff. (Looking at the negative is really only an option with 35mm, because APS film is hard to withdraw from that little cassette.)
  • Be specific about your complaints. Point out the exact objections you have to a print. This doesn't require any technical lingo. Use direct visual descriptions: "too yellow," or "too blue," or "too light," or "too dark," or "I can't see any detail in my aunt's face," or "My Uncle Clive just came back from Florida, and he's nowhere near that pale" are just fine. (Being explicit is particularly important with mass-market photofinishing, because you will have to write reprint instructions on the envelope. "Print is no good" is not a very clear set of instructions.)
  • Ask to be shown the problem. If your photofinisher says a negative can't possibly print any better, ask him to show you, in the negative, exactly what's not up to snuff. The photofinisher may be right. Then again, when he looks at the negative, he may see detail that can be brought out in a print.
  • Be firm, but reasonable. If you really don't like a print or reprint, say so. Labs depend on satisfied customers, and good labs will want a second chance. At the same time, don't throw a fit because one or two prints are a little off in a batch of 72. No lab is perfect all the time.
  • Warn the lab about unusual shooting circumstances. If you've shot a roll almost entirely under household light or office fluorescents — both of which can produce color casts — be sure to inform the lab when you drop off the film. This way, the machine's operator will know to watch for these pictures and adjust the color to make the prints look more natural. Likewise, if you have a 35mm camera that can shoot panoramic pictures and you've taken some shots in this format, tell the lab beforehand so that the technicians can retool and print them in the correct shape and size. That way, you get panoramic prints with your original order and don't have to have them reprinted at extra cost.
  • Learn from mistakes — yours and the lab's.If you've gotten some muddy prints because you've taken flash pictures from too far away, get closer for your next flash shots. (Or use a faster film, ISO 800 instead of ISO 400.) And if your lab made an honest goof in printing some beach pictures — say it made them too dark, so that the sunny scene looked overcast — you can alert them next time you take similar pictures so they print them accurately.
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