Today’s Question: I captured a photo in RAW and loaded it into Lightroom CC. I converted to black and white and exported to my hard drive at a resolution of 300ppi with pixel dimensions of 4608×3456. I sent the image to a photo lab to have a 12×18 print made. I have a 27” monitor (iMac) and the image looks fantastic on it, sharp as a tack and rich in contrast. When I got the print back from the lab it looked blurry and dull. This has happened to two different labs. Am I seeing it wrong on my monitor?
Tim’s Quick Answer: It sounds like you are using an appropriate workflow here, so either two labs did a bad job of printing the image, there was a problem in the file you provided, or you’ve not gotten a clear view of the actual image quality.
More Detail: While a typical monitor display without calibration is about a full stop too bright, this issue won’t affect the relative appearance of sharpness and detail in an image. The typical complaint I hear about prints is that they are too dark, which is often attributable to the lack of calibration. That, in turn, leads to the application of improper adjustments to the image.
However, this won’t cause problems with the appearance of sharpness and detail in the image. That said, it is important to zoom in to a 100% view to get an accurate sense of the sharpness of the image. If you’re not zooming in to evaluate the image it is possible you’re simply not getting an accurate sense of how sharp the image should be and therefore what you can expect in the print.
You might also confirm your export settings for the image. I assume the pixel dimensions stated in the question are the native pixel dimensions for the original capture. When possible you want to provide the printer with a file that has as much data as possible, up to the intended output size. In this case the file is large enough that good output quality could be reasonably expected.
However, you haven’t prepared a file sized to the final output dimensions. Whenever possible I recommend sending the printer an image sized to the exact output size, typically based on a pixel per inch (ppi) resolution of 300 ppi. So in this case you would want to provide a file of around 5,400 pixels by 3,600 pixels.
I also highly recommend having a conversation with the print lab you are using. They should be able to confirm that the file you sent was prepared properly, and provide you with a print that matches the source image. One printer I have been recommending for a long time is Fine Print Imaging, which you can learn more about here:
It is worth keeping in mind that a print will never have the same luminance and depth that a monitor display is capable of presenting. Therefore, it is also important to have realistic expectations based on what is possible in a print. But in this case it does indeed sound like there is an issue causing a print that is not matching the potential of the source image.