Eventually, you get to the point where Walmart and Ritz simply cannot match the quality you expect in your photographic prints. The quandry then is what to do? The first step I took was to go to an online photographic lab. They allow you to upload your photos and will promptly ship them back to you. Prices and quality will vary greatly, but there are many great labs available. I have used MPIX (http://www.mpix.com/) for my mail order printing needs for many years with great success.
If you have a special photo that you need printed to hang in a musem, or are a wedding photographer that does not want to mess with the details of printing, I reccomnend going to PPS (http://www.photoproduction.com/) in South Charleston if you are in the neighborhood. Clayton and his associates will take very good care of you. It is what I do when I need to make a print larger than my printer can handle, and where I used to go for all of my fine art printing needs. There are many other high end printers out there, but I believe in supporting local businesses when I can.
This summer, I got a great deal on an incredible printer (Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mk II). After the rebates, the price of my wide format printer was free! Now that can be a dangerous thing for a photographer! Why? Well, since getting my printer, I have been experimenting, learning the differences in papers and what the different settings will do. The cost of paper and ink will add up! OK ... I know that I am not most people when it comes to photography; most people will simply use thier home printer to crank out a bunch of small prints and be very happy with the results. Of course, most people would not be spending $500 on a printer either, but like I said, I am not most people, and most who read this blog know that!! Come to think of it, if you have read this far, you aren't like most people either!
At this point, I have to confess that I am still very new to printing photographs, and there is much to learn. But I also believe that the process of getting here is similar to that of most photographers. As you grow in this craft, you learn that the more control you have over each step of the process, the better the end result. First, its a point and shoot where we learn to press the shutter button, then we learn the details of exposure and composition. After that we move on to developing our pictures and posting them for others to see. Finally, we delve into the art of print making, matting, and framing.
It is an art, and I know people who have earned advanced academic degrees in this one discipline. I am not there yet! But, here is a short list of the things that I have learned about printing over the last couple months:
If you are interested in learning more about the art of fine art printing, I suggest the Rocky Nook book "Fine Art Printing for Photographers." It is a couple years old (2008), but presents excellent and detailed information that is timeless. The other book I mentioned is Bruce Frazier and Jeff Schewe's "Real World Image Sharpening." both are excellent resources that will guide you to making the most out of the already excellent photographs you have waiting to be put to paper!