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Notes on Digital Color Printing

Last Updated July 8,  2000.  This is now sufficienly out of date that I wouln't consider it to be a reliable predictor of current results.  In general, the quality and uniformity of digital prints has improved, so perhaps this should be seen as only of historical interest.

As anyone who has ever been in a darkroom will tell you, color is really hard to get right.  For ordinary purposes, something close to accurate is good enough, and in many cases, accuracy isn't really the goal anyway; the goal is to produce colors you like.

However, commercial labs who are mass producing color prints don't have the luxury, or goal, of producing colors especially for your taste; they should be producing as accurate, constant, and neutral a rendition of color as possible.  This ought to be especially true of prints from digital originals, since any manipulation of color can be done digitally. "Bits is Bits", the results should always be the same, at least from the same lab.  Any deviation from consistency is simply evidence of poor quality control.  No other excuses are possible.

This page features the Macbeth Chart image from my test set, which is my main reference for color and exposure of "ordinary" images.  The full set of images I use to evaluate prints can be seen here.  Each of the images in the test challenges the printing process in a different way.

With the above in mind, read what's below and weep.
This is a single shot, so although the lighting may not be perfect, it is consistent.  Click on the photo to study the full size image.  All the 4x6 prints are from the same digital original, so in theory, all should look alike, or at least all from the same lab should look alike. 

The digital original is from a Kodak PhotoCD scan of a slide, which I judged to be the most accurate among many I've taken with various types of film and lighting.  Note the 50% gray card positioned behind the Macbeth chart in the composition.

Shutterfly Ofoto PhotoAccess PhotoLoft
Shutterfly Ofoto PhotoAccecss The original Macbeth Chart
PrintRoom Ofoto (on a blue day) FotoTime --
Shutterfly.  Note that all three shutterfly prints have an extremely weak yellow. Ofoto Ememories --

Some Tentative Remarks

Additional Reading:   Matt Dittrich has done similar research and reported his results.  Sharing site Smugmug has done an elaborate comparison test with a large set of photos and print providers.
comments/suggestions to:
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