The magic of the photo lab

Everyday, people upload their digital images or bring film to our lab and few understand what it takes to produce a quality print product.

The process is not so much magic, but the practice of due diligence. The first thing I would like to point out is that as some of our equipment is state of the art, the procedures or fundamentals behind maintaining proper workflow or best procedures go back to 19th century photographic theory and the study of sensitometry. So just like the concepts in capturing the the perfect moment and having the best exposure with your camera, film or digital, the same backbone in theory resides in the modern photo lab.

I would like to tell you about the basic steps and procedures that make your prints look as good as they can be; a story of magic of printing in a modern digital lab. 

The Wet Lab

The term wet lab is a recent label for a photo lab that uses traditional silver halide process that involves chemistry that has a developer and a bleach and a fixer as well as a wash system. 

The paper is light sensitive and must be exposed in absolute darkness. We have 4 processors that we have to maintain on a daily basis. One of them is a film processor that develops colour negative film. The other 3 are printers that expose and develop RA4 colour paper. Two of the machines are lasers and one—the Chromira—exposes with LED technology.

The first step to the quality control process is to balance the chemistry itself.

I like to compare the chemical process to that of a human body, and specifically to that of a person with diabetes. The developer is an alkaline and is the key to optimizing the exposure made by the printer. It is kept in balance by being replenished by fresh developer (food) from separate replenisher tanks. When the paper or film goes into the developer, an oxidation process begins. Similar to how water and air make a nail rust, the developer reacts with the silver creating the beginning of the latent image. A developer that is too weak will result in flat, muddy images and too strong will result in darker contrast ones.

We use a tool called a control strip that we process before the start of every work day. It is read by a densitometer that shines a light through the strip and reads the red green and blue layers.

The industry is standardized, thanks to Ansel Adams and the Zone System. We have a standard process control strip to compare to and the difference between the two is plotted and graphed to allow our technicians to take action where and when required. If the developer is too active then the machine requires starter, like insulin to a diabetic, to bring the process in control. In a nutshell, it's the balance of acid and bases, and if you're a good wine maker you would catch on fast.

The next step is to balance the printer to the chemistry status. That involves yet again a standard print with grey patches (again the zone system) that are read on the densitometer. In the case of our chromira 20 zones or shades from complete black to pure white including 18% grey are read and graphed. The process can take a hour or more to meet the target before a single print is made.

Once we have a perfectly balanced machine, we when then can create custom profiles for every paper we use. This involves a similar process to balancing, except we use different software and read 1800 patches to define the profile, allowing you to have the widest colour space and best print quality from your images.

Important point—if we are not balanced to true Black and White then your colour or B&W photos won't look as good as they should.

The Dry Lab

The dry lab is another term coined by the industry that is basically any process not wet.  Our dry lab consists of Epson 11880's and Rioch printers that are Giclee or Ink Jet. 

Since no chemistry is involved, the procedures are strictly on product specific custom profiles. Our Dry Lab in many ways sets standards for our quality control. Although it is a collaborative effort, Geraldine has a true touch when it comes to tweaking the profiles for canvas, william turner and any other print product we wish to use. 

This, in a nutshell, is what we believe separates us from the rest. We adhere to procedures and set our own standards. Box stores and many Pro labs don't drill this deep as it takes experience and resolve to stick to what can be a time consuming, but ultimately rewarding process. Would you want us to trade off quality for speed?