I’ve already told you what I think about choosing a RAW processing company to handle your digital post-production.
Now it’s time to get some inside information – straight from lab owners themselves.
I asked the heads of five prominent labs everything from which size they think is best to a big thing no one in our industry talks about – companies that send your images to India for processing.
I’ve been using labs for years, but some of these answers still surprised me.
Be advised, this is not a brief post. I made the decision to keep their answers a bit long because I think you can handle it. If you’re looking for a perfect RAW lab partner you want all the inside information you can get.
Enter the experts.
Mike Connell, Lavalu
- Mike started Lavalu with his wife, popular educator Mindy Sonshine. Lavalu offers “completely custom workflows”, ready and willing to do everything from choosing images for blogging all the way to predesigning and retouching your albums.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services
- Victoria is known globally as The Lightroom Queen thanks to her hugely popular instructional books on Adobe’s software. Her clients get special access to her technical expertise.
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish Design
- Chad runs HappyFish alongside his wife Karen, who provides full album design and ordering services for photographers around the globe. HappyFish backs up your final files free for one year and, after RAW processing, specializes in Photoshop retouching to enhance your images.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit
- Vital Edit is one of a precious few companies that offers edits in Lightroom, Aperture, and most other RAW applications as requested. All 12 of Dustin’s editors are also working photographers, something he considers an essential aspect of his success.
Marcia Gold, Mango Photo
- Marcia’s shop is the ultimate underground boutique, known only in a few circles by her very loyal clients. “The main benefit I offer is the one-on-one personalized service that comes complete with tons of guilt and deep discounts for waiting even a day past the due date!”
SHOULD I EXPECT PERFECTION FROM A RAW LAB?
Marcia Gold, Mango: There’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ in the art of wedding photography, because it’s so subjective. All a wedding photographer can do is try to find a RAW processor with similar sensibilities, so they know the post work will be in the same style. I carefully review the client’s website and I like to send a small batch of images back and forth until I realize their expectations (or at least get close).
Mike Connell, Lavalu: We don’t aim for “accurate” because that is too much of a moving target. Different lighting conditions will always yield slightly different results, and in the end, there is always some judgement call. We do our absolute best (including re-doing all work for free if necessary) to create an end product that the photographer is happy with. No matter what, it will never be *exactly* what the photographer would have done themselves; there are too many places where things could be moved one degree in one direction or another.
We aim for “Happy Client” and we think our photographers should set their expectations relatively high for that.
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish: My goal is to have your images look like you would really want them to be. Your processor should adjust every image manually; presets are not to be used blindly. I always go through each image individually because if you try to do bulk adjustments there are always fine subtleties that get skipped.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: It depends on the lab and their pricing. Some focus on cheap high volume and batch process everything. Others will spend longer on each image and their prices reflect that. We fall in the middle, aiming for pleasing consistent colour at an affordable price.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: Just like personalities, every photographer has their own standard. This standard can change depending on the season or even depending on the location of the wedding. For example, we see a higher calling for warmer images during the fall – to bring out the color and feel of the leaves and approaching winter. These are all things that need to be conveyed before editing. If the photographer finds that they need to make major changes to more than 3-5% of the shoot, that is not acceptable. Re-edits should be minimal, period.
HOW CAN I TRUST A LAB TO CHOOSE MY KEEPER IMAGES?
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish: The honest truth is… it is tough. As a photographer myself, I would have the hardest time letting go of the culling step because I have ideas in my mind as I’m shooting and feel the emotion of that image. So while we do offer culling services, I will talk to the photographer about the event and get on the same wavelength in terms of artistic vs. technical merit. This is the sticky point.
There are situations where the only existing shot of someone’s special aunt who flew in from Europe just for the wedding is blurry – do you cut it or keep it? After the culling has been done, I do recommend that photographers run through the shoot afterward to take out images or add some in as they see fit.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: It’s like a photographer being able to shoot a wedding, even though they’re not part of the family and don’t know everyone. You learn who the important people are, and you learn the photographer’s style. We can view the images more objectively because we’re not emotionally involved. Nothing is final, so the outtakes can always be put back in, although that’s rarely needed.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: A photographer’s job is to tell a story through images, to convey emotion. Our job is to build on that story by removing the parts that don’t give emotion. I even find I’ll start laughing or smiling at certain moments, such as the first look or the smile on the bride’s face as she’s walking down the aisle. It’s moments like those that make the story possible. You should feel that throughout the final cull.
Marcia Gold, Mango: It’s actually easier to cull a wedding I wasn’t at because I can be more objective. However, I first review the images to make sure I won’t cull out any images that tell the story of the day or are of important guests or family members.
Mike Connell, Lavalu: It actually isn’t as hard as it sounds. We don’t have any ‘lab techs’ – the only editors who do culling work are those who shoot weddings themselves, so it is really just one photographer working on the work of another. The photos themselves tell the story of what happened, who is important, etc. You don’t have to be there to be able to tell who the best friends are, who the parents are, or that photos of grandparents are important. You don’t have to have been there to notice that there isn’t a good photo of one of the bridesmaids walking down the aisle, and to thus decide to include a less than perfect image to keep the coverage consistent. The photographers tell us what is important by the images they take.
SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE INDUSTRY ‘SECRET’ – WESTERN LABS THAT USE EDITORS IN INDIA?
Mike Connell, Lavalu: Many companies are just customer service “fronts” for what is truly a middle man that then re-outsources to India. I would think there will continue to be more and more of these, with higher and higher quality branding to make it difficult to determine who is a real company or not. It is hard to say how much of the work goes overseas. When it is an existing company (like a photo lab or album company) offering it as a new add-on service, I would guess many of those situations are outsourced but I have no inside information on that. When a company won’t let you keep your work with a single specific editor, or if they can’t be flexible with deliverables or turn around time… that would be another bad sign.
Marcia Gold, Mango: You get what you pay for. I know the pricing in those areas is much lower, but all I can do is my best work for a reasonable price, which is what I do.
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish: We have personally heard from a couple of our clients that have had experiences with outsourced work from overseas and have complaints about communication and consistency. Personally, we don’t believe that re-outsourcing someone’s outsourcing is morally the right thing to do.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: I tried two well-known raw processing companies physically based in India a couple of years ago to see how good they were. I was horrified by the results. There may be better companies out there, and I may have just hit on a couple of bad ones. Going for companies who are too cheap is a false economy in my opinion. To set their prices so low, they have to focus on volume and speed, which means that the quality suffers and you don’t get that personal touch.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: Too many editing companies outsource overseas. They fail to understand the key concept – only fellow photographers can really understand what another photographer is trying to convey. It takes years to understand the editing process, the cull, everything that makes the shoot what it really is, a story. These companies can end up giving the photographer a bad experience and sour taste to outsourcing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Everyone made it clear they have no hard information about precisely how widespread this overseas editing practice is. I asked one company that sends work overseas to participate in this interview – they declined.
DOES SIZE MATTER? (LAB SIZE, OF COURSE.)
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services (2 editors): We think we’ve got the size just right. As there are two of us, photographers don’t need to worry about what will happen if one of us falls ill or goes on holiday. On the other hand, you get that personal service and build a relationship with the person who is editing your pictures, which is essential.
Mike Connell, Lavalu (15 editors): We are small enough to give exceptionally personal service, while large enough to handle the volume that comes in without extending our delivery times. We are also just large enough that if an editor is sick or on vacation, we have enough help to pick up the extra workload without our clients feeling any delay.
Marcia Gold, Mango (1 editor): I think my clients love that they can email or call me at any time and get an instant response. Sometimes I can turn a small job around in a few minutes. If it’s really small I don’t even charge for it, and where else can they get that kind of service!
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish (1 editor): As photographers, we know that getting to know the bride and groom helps us produce great photos throughout the day. Knowing the little things about the client are often the biggest things that make you as a small studio unique over the large wedding mills. This is the same with HappyFish. Being a wedding photographer myself I truly understand the wants and needs of photographers.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit (12 editors): It’s about the relationship you build. I’d consider us a smaller lab with a personal touch. Having someone you can talk to you and get to know is our focus, no matter how big we may get. We have the opportunity to really focus on each photographer and their likes/dislikes of editing style.
HOW SHOULD I TELL MY LAB WHY I’M UNHAPPY WITH A JOB?
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: This business is all about feedback. If for any reason the photographer is unhappy, call! We need to review your images and find out why. You can then explain scenarios that you would have edited differently. You can never expect someone to ‘just know’, especially if you have a unique editing style.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: Sending example pictures makes a huge difference. Different people use different language to describe things – a photographer may say the pictures are too red for their preference, when actually they mean magenta. Or someone may say they’re too dark, but actually mean they want a little more shadow detail. When someone shows us a picture, or better still, their preferred settings, we can see exactly what they’re looking for without anything getting lost in translation.
Mike Connell, Lavalu: QUICKLY! Seriously, we never want any of our clients to feel like they have to “re-do” work that they are paying us to do. So they should just tell us (in as much detail as possible) exactly what they didn’t like, and we will redo the work (usually within 24 hours) no questions asked. We are available by email, phone, live chat & carrier pigeon.
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish: We always have open communication with our clients. All they have to do is email or call – we want to hear the honest truth, no sugar coating needed. We’re happy to make it right.
Marcia Gold, Mango: I prefer them to be very specific on their needs and wants; for instance, “I like more contrast” or “Always hide the larger arms with a crop” or “I never use negative clarity” or “I love vignetting” instead of “I don’t like this but don’t know why.” The more specific the expression of what the client likes or doesn’t like, the better.
WHAT’S THE STRANGEST THING YOU’VE SEEN AT A WEDDING?
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish: There seems to always be pancakes and syrup in weddings in the Netherlands. Also, we have seen about four grooms cakes that are a horrifically realistic brain just sitting there on a platter.
Mike Connell, Lavalu: The bride wearing her small dog in an infant carrier during the reception.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: There was a wedding that had the groom and groomsmen taking the bride’s wedding ring and loading into the barrel of a shotgun (unbeknownst to her!). I’m hoping this meant he was celebrating his marriage! But then in the next scene, they were fishing the ring out of a drain with a coat hanger.
Marcia Gold, Mango: The little person bride who I first mistook for a flower girl; followed closely by the bride who’d had a miniature of her dress made – for her dog.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: A wedding set in the Swiss Alps, with a goat as the ring-bearer, dressed in his own little suit. And the reception was held in a derelict train station which looked more like a squat (aka abandoned building).
WHAT DO PHOTOGRAPHERS OFTEN FAIL TO UNDERSTAND?
Mike Connell, Lavalu: That their time is valuable. Just because they *can* do something themselves, doesn’t mean they should. If outsourcing something for $100 opens up time to do marketing or another shoot that makes $500, then outsourcing can be the key to growing a business to make more money.
Victoria Bampton, Photoshop Services: We can’t read minds, so communication is essential, particularly when getting started. Everyone has different preferences and none of those are ‘wrong’, so if we haven’t fully understood what you have in mind, talk to us.
Chad Dahlquist, HappyFish Design: Many are trying to make Lightroom replace Photoshop for producing final images. Lightroom has brought proofing to a whole new level, and the images out of Lightroom can be very close, but final wall prints and album images should always be further worked in Photoshop.
Dustin Bandimere, Vital Edit: It’s all about feedback! Every photographer is different and has a different style of editing. What you consider standard, another considers far too bright! Convey to us your style of editing, and we’ll be one happy family! Oh and… there are no magic elves! We’re photographers just like you!
Marcia Gold, Mango: Just like brides fail to understand how much work photographers put into the day, sometimes post-processing clients might not understand how much work is done on their images to make them look good. It’s more than time; it’s education and experience.
PARTING WORDS FROM KEN
Big thanks to all of the labs who participated in this interview roundup! Each is a brand worth a good look when you’re searching for a RAW partner.
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