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Are You Getting Optimal Output from Your Lab?



TECH TIPS


Are You Getting Optimal Output
From Your Lab?
Finally, Quality Is Quantifiable

BY PETER LEBOVITZ


One of the big pluses with digital images is the ability to copy them without any loss in quality. Since the image files are made up of a string of numbers, they can be duplicated over and over again, and the last copy will be identical to the original. So far, so good.
But what happens when you want to make a print? Will every print look the same? Perfect in every respect? No such luck.
With today's technology, direct digital output on photographic paper is the gold standard for image quality. Labs have made enormous investments in new technology. Such systems make it possible to easily produce prints on traditional color photographic paper at a quality level previously almost impossible to achieve.
The key words are "make it possible." Which is to say, it doesn't always happen. It's also possible to produce mediocre work on these expensive systems.

The images above were printed on a $200,000 Durst Lambda laser imager at a Midwest lab, optimizing the color gamut. The result: bright, colorful images, with brilliant highlights, deep shadows, and perfectly defined detail. The prints below, made on an identical Lambda at another lab, appear pale and lackluster because the technicians hadn't fully mastered the Lambda's operation.

IS QUALITY JOB ONE?
In a digital environment, every aspect of an image's appearance can be precisely controlled. More contrast, less contrast, darker shadows, brighter highlights, even sharper sharpness.
But if all this power is not used wisely, the results can be unfortunate. Flesh tones turn lifeless, colors lose their brilliance, and the world becomes a flat and dreary place.
The images were made from identical digital files sent to two different labs. The prints at the top were made on a Durst Lambda laser imager at a lab in the Midwest. Not bad at all. The prints below it were made on an identical $200,000 Lambda at a lab several miles to the south. Unfortunately, the technicians hadn't fully mastered its operation. The result is easy to see.
The culprit here is color gamut. Every imaging system has the potential to produce a certain range of color, which can be represented in "color space," as shown in the diagram. The circle represents the entire range of color the human eye can see. The green outline shows how much a hypothetical imaging system might reproduce. That would be the maximum color gamut for that system.
What happens, though, is that the imaging system might not be fully optimized. The red outline represents how this could affect the available color space. In this case, we're missing some yellow-red. The results might look OK, but they're not as good as they could be. Sometimes, they might not look OK, but the lab may not recognize the real reason. Instead, they might assume the digital image file had been faithfully reproduced. And not knowing any better, the customer, that is, the photographer, might think so, too.

DIGITAL QUALITY SERVICE
When Agfa began supplying color photographic paper to digital labs, we quickly became aware of the potential, and the challenges, this new technology presents. We also recognized that the quality-monitoring tools that were in place did not completely address some of these challenges. So we designed a completely new system to fill the gap between the needs of conventional projection printing and digital photographic imaging.
This system, Digital Quality Service (DQS), allows our lab customers to achieve the highest possible quality from their digital imaging systems. Consistently.

This "color space" diagram shows what happens when an imaging system is not fully optimized. The red outline represents how it could affect the available color space. Here some yellow-red is missing. Your digital lab has the means available to deliver optimum quality from your digital images. But is it? There are ways to find out.
Send copies of your digital image files to a few of the labs you would consider using. Give each of them the same printing instructions, and compare the prints when they come back. The results will speak for themselves. Imagine buying a fine medium-format camera, say, a Hasselblad 503CW. On such a camera, all the adjustments are calibrated within extremely close tolerances, and can be set with exceptional precision. Exposure can be controlled to the most exacting requirements.
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