How to Make Exhibition-Quality Prints on a Budget

You can spend your life savings printing photographs and many people do.

An exhibition-quality, 11×14 print from West Coast Imaging, one of the finest labs in the country, goes for well over $100, and you won’t be disappointed by the quality. But put that print behind glass, in a frame, in a dimly lit gallery and how much of that beauty really shines through? And are potential buyers even aware of what you’ve spent?

Consider the Economics

If you’re going to mount an exhibition of 25 photographs, for example, you’re looking at an investment of at least $2,500 in prints if you go with a top-notch lab, plus whatever you decide to spend on framing.

You have to consider the economics. Are you going to make that money back from a show at the local photo league? If so, then go all out if that’s what you want. But if you’re like most fine art photographers, you spend more than you earn, so you have to figure out a way to maximize quality without maxing out your credit cards.

Face it. We’re in a financial crisis. Fine art is not flying off gallery walls. It’s time to cut costs while continuing to work, exhibit, and hopefully sell. There are a number of options that will allow you to do that at a fraction of the price of what the big, premium labs cost.

I’m currently putting together an exhibition of prints that will be shown in four galleries in Mexico. Know where I’m printing them?

Sam’s Club.

Printing for Less

Here in Mexico, I pay about a dollar for an 8×10 printed on Fuji Crystal Archive paper on a Fuji Frontier machine at Sam’s. The machine is calibrated daily and prints electronically onto real, photographic paper. Prices are similar in the United States and sometimes lower.

I pay less than the equivalent of five U.S. dollars for a 12 x 18, which is as large as Sam’s Club will print, which may be an inconvenience for some photographers. The prints are beautiful judging by the comments sent to me by people who have them in their collections. I have heard similar reports about Costco but have not tried their print services myself. But I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

I have also had good results from Adorama, and have heard great things about Mpix.

Prints on Crystal Archive paper have a life expectancy of at least 60 years, which is pretty good. And potential buyers don’t have to know where you print. All they care about is the photograph you’re selling.

Prepping Your Prints

There are a couple of keys to making high-quality prints at Sam’s Club.

The first is pre-processing. Calibrate your monitor. Keep a close eye on your histograms. Learn about sharpening, and use it, preferably two-step processing with an initial filter to enhance local contrast, and a second and final filter to bring out fine details.

Size and prep your photos exactly as you want them reproduced. Use 300 dpi, an srgb profile and 8 bits and you shouldn’t have any problems. My own Sam’s Club prints are going up in Guadalajara and Xalapa in Mexico, and in Minneapolis in the United States.

The second key is to start with a fine quality image. Whether you’re working with digital images or scanned film, a flawed photograph is never going to amount to much of a print.

When to Pay More

Now, if you’re selling a print to a museum for their permanent collection, it’s well worth investing a little money for something more archival.

One of my prints is in the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. I printed it at West Coast Imaging and spent what was necessary. The photograph, theoretically, is going to be there forever, and I wanted to spare no expense.

However, bear in mind that the quality of professional photo labs that make optical prints is diminishing. As more people go digital and discover that even Wal-Mart can do just as good a job, there is less need for trained lab techs, less volume at pro labs, and less inclination to refresh chemicals.

The age of the pro lab is quickly disappearing, with certain exceptions, such as the aforementioned West Coast Imaging, which does such fine work that they will likely always have business. Use that kind of premium lab for premium clients, or for work that is going to hang in a museum forever.

But until the dark clouds of the economic crisis roll past, consider printing cheap for exhibitions.

10 Responses to “How to Make Exhibition-Quality Prints on a Budget”

  1. I've ordered a bunch of different products from mpix, and while ok, they haven't really been acceptable for display.

    Agree that starting with a great image is the best way to end up with a great print - common sense really, but sometimes overlooked.

  2. Hi John!

    Great post! There certainly are a lot of options available today....far more than when we started offering prints 10 years ago. Each photographer has to choose what’s right for their work. All I can do is a lab owner is try to make a product that meets a need in the market, and I understand no product will meet all needs.

    However, I do want to make one correction to your article. You mention our $100 11x14 Exhibition prints as a point of comparison. An Exhibition print includes scanning, RAW conversion, and custom color correction as needed by our Expert Printmakers. You presented an apples to oranges comparison.

    If you want to compare apples to apples, you need to look at our Print Lab pricing. For photographers who create their own files, you can print an 8x10 print for us for as little as $6, and even less with our sister company Aspen Creek Photo. At those prices, you get a professionally produced Chromira print with excellent ICC profiles made by people who know you’ll spend more on matting and framing than on prints, so you don’t want prints with dings, scratches, and other defects.

    So, a 25 piece 11x14 exhibit from us could cost as little as $260 if you prepare the files yourself.

  3. Hi Rich,

    You have a point. On the other hand, I think we can agree that the prints a photographer prepares on his-her own and send to your company (which as I say, does fantastic work) are not of the same quality as the work you good folks do starting from a RAW file or a scan.

    Frankly, I was a bit uncomfortable about mentioning your company so many times in the article because it felt like free advertisisin. But I think it was worth doing because from my point of view as an exhibiting photographer WCI represents a certain benchmark.

    Best to you and feel free to write.

    [email protected]

  4. Great post, and thanks for the feedback re the good results you've had from AdoramaPix.
    If you ever have a query or concern regarding an order from AdoramaPix - or Adorama Camera - please don't hesitate to contact me directly.

    Helen Oster
    Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador

    [email protected]

  5. There are indeed times to use a pro lab and times to use a mass-market lab.

    When I'm making very large, or very specialized prints, I work with a local pro lab on par with WCI; with the added benefit of seeing the proofs and test-strips in-person.

    But for volume prints, portfolio prints and small (16x20 or smaller) gallery-quality prints, I've really had great results from Meridian in Kansas.

    Files can be sent electronically through a ROES interface (which sucks, but is quickly becoming the standard), and both drop-shipping to the client or delivery to my studio is extremely reasonable.

    And they can also do fast. Very fast if necessary.

    I almost never plug companies, but Meridian is really great for what they are.

  6. Now how about an article on the other 3/4 price of getting a print on the wall, the mounting, matting, and framing. ??
    I'm trying to do my own, progressing slowly though.
    So many supplies needed.
    It has completely stopped my thoughts for now of an exhibition.

  7. Thanks everybody. This is a great article for ideas for keeping the flow of creativity after the photo has been taken. I want to give my clients an absolutely great looking presentation for portraits, and look carefully for products that have the look of high quality and acid-free materials. For mats I found Nielsen and Bainbridge precut mats at my local art store. They have beautiful, thick mats and board kits, of standard sizes and a special higher-quality museum board at around $20 a mat. But most of all I like that they also come in black.

  8. I am a iranian teacher in a village. I am a painter too.I have drawed a lot variant painting.
    I want to show my paintings in a exhibition . How can I do this?
    Besides, Please help me about this
    Email : http://[email protected]
    My Website :

  9. Greetings All,
    very lovely article.
    would it be better to print on a mat,glossy, or canvs?
    take care all

  10. To AZIZ, i personally prefer printing to a matte finish:]

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