Sunday, September 06, 2009

Printing At Home - The Verdict

A while back I had the need to get a large volume of 4x6 prints made for my daughter's scrapbook project. Coincidentally at the same time I was printing a collection for an exhibition I was preparing for. I was going to send the 4x6 prints to our local Costco because of the excellent price they were offering. I decided to throw in one of my exhibition images to see how well Costco would do compared to what I was printing at home.

When my wife picked up the Costco order she looked at the 8x10 and thought it was stunning, but when we compared it to the print I made at home the DIY was superior. (DIY means Do It Yourself.)

I had talked to several photographers at work about the printing processes and many were interested in seeing for themselves. So I took it in for them to compare. Universally the home print was picked as superior. There were several who weren't able to come to my office to compare. One joked that I should fax them over to him to see. This is what inspired today's post (thanks Gary). Fax won't work, but I realized I could post high resolution samples of the prints.

First, the original picture itself. This was shot in RAW with a Canon 40D, using a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM USM Lens. The are two very dominant colours, magenta and green. 

1/30 f/14 ISO 400 EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM @ 195 mm Canon EOS 40D

The processing for the two was the same up until the final output step. Lightroom 2 (Lr) was used for RAW processing. The home print was direct from Lr to my Epson R280 printer (Claria inks) onto Epson's Ultra Premium Glossy paper. Lr managed colour. The Costco print was output to JPEG (sRGB) at 300 dpi and printed on Fuji Crystal Archieve paper. I requested no intervention on their part.

Three sample areas were then photographed with the same lens plus a Canon 500D macro adapter. A Grey card was shot first and the white balance was set in Lr so that all are identical.

The most obvious difference you will notice between the two sets, is that the two prints have a marked colour difference. The DIY prints are closer to the true colour. In samples below, the DIY images are first.

Right away you will notice that the DIY print has a much smoother graduations. In particular examine the lower left quadrant of each image.

The same situation is visible in the next pair. One observation from a few people who viewed the prints directly was that they thought the Costco print was sharper. I suppose it would appear that way because the sudden transitions create an illusion of more contrast. Overall the DIY print has more subtle detail.

The final pair is taken from the base of the flower to show that it wasn't just in the magenta areas of the photos. You can see the same behaviour in the green areas.

My printer is a 6-colour Epson R280. You might be able to find it for under $100 on clearance. It has been replaced by the Epson Artisan 50.

Conclusion? My 6-colour home printer produced a better quality print than did Costco. But my print cost me about $3 whereas the Costco print was $1.39. The other aspect to consider for yourself is that I have spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to fine tune my print process for the best quality I can manage. I don't have the same control over the Costco process and likewise if you try this for yourself you might find the Costco process produces better results than your own process.

I am continually amazed at the quality of image I can get from these low cost printers. Maybe someday I'll step up and try one of the more professional printers like the Epson R1900 or 3800. The R1900 is still not terribly expensive, but it needs a lot of desk space.

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