The answer is – much as it often is in the field of photography – it depends.
BUY A PRINTER IF:
1. You have time to learn color management, printer profiling etc.
2. You are an artist and want complete control over the final product from capture to post to print.
3. You aren’t in a high-volume situation where you need to make hundreds of prints a month.
4. You can financially justify the cost of the printer, ink and paper against what it would cost you to use a lab.
USE A LAB IF:
1. You don’t have time or interest in learning color management, printer profiling, etc.
2. You are in a high-volume situation and you make so many prints that you spend a significant amount of your time (or staff time) making prints.
3. You are concerned about technology advances leaving you in the dust. Your printer may need to be upgraded often and printing labs tend to be able to respond to trends faster.
4. You can’t financially justify the cost of a printer, paper and ink against the cost of the lab’s costs.
This isn’t an in-depth discussion of this problem – it’s more of an idea starter. There are some less tangible things to consider such as what you enjoy doing; if you’re a professional would your time be better suited selling and shooting than printing? Do you have the physical space to house the printer and store supplies such as paper and ink? Lastly, do you have the ability to ship prints from your base of operation easily and affordably? If you need to move prints from your studio to your customer, you may find the hassle involved in boxing and shipping to be more trouble than its worth.
The good news is that no matter which path you choose, you are likely to get great prints. Today’s labs, having survived the switch from film to digital and then the recession, are stronger and better than ever. Most of them turn out good to great work. Today’s digital printers are leaps and bounds better than anything we could buy 10-15 years ago. Archival solutions are easier to come by and print quality from even $300-500 printers can rival anything done in a darkroom 20 years ago.
If you’re on the fence, experiment with a lab first. See how you like the quality, the customer service and the relationship. If that doesn’t do it for you, try one of the less expensive printers to get your feet wet and then graduate to more professional solutions if you’re happy with your own prints.
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