A Quiz For Portrait & Wedding Photographers; Six Questions To Ask Yourself Before Becoming Your Own Lab

I'd like to preface this article by telling you that I have been involved in this industry as a professional photographer for over 30 years. Outside of the fact that I feel really old now, I think it's important, because as a participant and observer of the portrait and wedding photographic world since the mid-1970s, I've seen many changes and milestones in the business. And I think having gone through these many changes has given me a unique perspective.

Model: Ashley Mensfelder
© 2008, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

Color photography was in its infancy when I started. My first job was working in a studio darkroom making black and white prints. Besides giving me the eyesight of a rabbit and a pallid skin tone, I learned how to be a good black and white printer. I even made a few color prints using the "drum" system, the first really practical way of making small volume color prints yourself. Then the roller transport systems from companies like Durst, Colenta, and Hope came along. I'll forgive you if those names aren't familiar to you, they're either gone or retreated to just professional use.

In any case, the question photographers would ask the representatives was always the same--I heard it many times and even asked it myself. The question: "How much volume do you need to be doing before you should become your own lab?" I asked the same question. I bought a lab. I lived to tell the experience. That's why I can tell you this: we all asked the wrong question. Like they seem to say on most every TV show this season, "It's complicated."

OK, so maybe it's not the wrong question, but it should be just one of many. Deciding to become your own lab then, and now, is more than just a spreadsheet analysis. So let's take a look at what you should be asking yourself if you're thinking about becoming your own lab.

1) What's the initial cost?

When you buy a camera and ask the camera salesman what camera should you buy, he should always respond with, "What kind of photos do you take? And how often?" The same goes for buying a printer. If you want to do all your printing, you may need a printer up to 24" wide, like the Epson 7880, which runs $3000-$4000, depending on model. Then figure $1000 for ink and another $1000 or so for enough paper to get started and you're into it for about $5000-$7000. You may also need RIP software, calibration tools, and other odds and ends. So let's say $6000-$8000 should do it.

Now let's take a different view. Maybe 90 percent of your photos sold are 11x14" or smaller. You don't need a big machine, you can print all your smaller prints and send the bigger prints out to a lab. Make sense? Maybe it does for you. In this case, maybe something like a 13x19" printer would do.

2) What's the per print cost?

Ah, you say, here's the big one. Just factor in how much each print costs, approximately how many prints you make per year, check how much you spent at your lab last year, and compare the two. If it's cheaper to make them yourself figuring two years to pay for the equipment, you're done, right? Well, not quite. First off, "your mileage may vary." It's impossible to nail down a firm price since there are so many variables such as OEM inks vs. independent inks, your waste, paper brands and surfaces, etc. But at least a "spread" will tell you if this is something you should contemplate. Consider this figure a "big" ballpark.

3) What's the time value?

Those earlier costs neglected time value. You shouldn't. If you have to spend time color balancing and making test prints, you need to take it into consideration. If you're big enough, you may need to hire an employee just to do those things. Either way, the time cost is not inconsequential. Also, consider the "learning curve" time, the time it takes from when you unpack the box until you know how to get good, repeatable results. If you're a business owner, any time you spend printing is time you could be taking photos or promoting your business. It may seem obvious but the reality is that many photographers I know do not value their time as much as they should.

4) What's your personality?

You might think this question out of place here. You'd be wrong. It may be the most important question here. Are you concerned about every detail of your business? Do you micromanage your employees? Are you a stickler for details and technically oriented? If so, you and a lab may be a perfect match. If you are the type to do things quickly, dislike detail, and prefer to delegate, you may find that becoming your own lab does not suit your personality and soon you'll be trying to sell it. Don't discard this element--it's crucial!

5) Do you want to maintain quality control?

While this is related to some of the other questions, it's important that this should stand on its own. You may enjoy inspecting every print that you make and making corrections until it's just perfect. You may be of the opinion that you can make your prints better than the lab. You may want to vary paper surfaces for different types of jobs. You may enjoy the feel of crafting each print individually. And you also may enjoy the feeling that every image you are now creating is personally done by you, from the initial exposure to the final print that you sign.

6) What type of work do you do?

This one is really important. Just as the camera store asks you about the type of photos you take, before you invest in your own lab you should ask yourself, "What kind of work do I do?" Are you a high-volume studio with many weddings and thousands of images to print each week? Are you a portrait photographer specializing in wall prints? Are you a school photographer who needs to print hundreds or thousands of "units" per week? Or are you a fine art photographer who can take as much time as needed on each print to make it "perfect"? Is speed important to you?

If you are a school photographer you might upload your work every night to a lab that starts printing the next day, so a lab makes perfect sense; fine art photographers might enjoy the printing experience and savor the time spent creating beautiful pieces.

The objective of this article is for you to consider that there are many variables beyond the "cost-per-print" guideline. Even using a pro lab gives you many options. My lab (www.lustrecolor.com) can make a color corrected 8x10" for $3, and if you want to take care of color correcting and density yourself, the price is only $1.50. A 4x6" is only 30 cents. Lab prices have actually come down in recent years and turnaround time is very fast. Figuring it costs you about $1.50 to make your own print, you'll want to weigh the factors very carefully. Remember, it's your time and your business to structure as you will.

A special thanks to fellow "Shutterbug" contributor Jon Canfield for his assistance with this article.

Steve Bedell has been a portrait photographer for over 25 years. To subscribe to EPhoto, a free e-mail newsletter with tips for photographers, contact Bedell at sb@stevebedell.com. Also ask about his lighting DVDs.