After buying a new digital camera and going on my honeymoon, I have more than 1,000 pictures, about 100 of which my wife wants to put in photo albums. Therefore, I decided to investigate which online digital photo lab was the best. In part one of this article, I evaluated 11 different services in terms of cost, ease of use, and range of products. When I began this project, I thought I could look at the companies' Web sites, order some samples, and see which services were better than others. That was enough to eliminate a number of the services from the running, although I included almost all of them in the quality tests that came next.
I initially thought the print quality from the different services would be roughly the same. Not only did that not prove true, examining the prints afterward revealed a few flaws that I could have corrected before sending off the files. Pay attention to the areas I failed to take into account, and you'll get better results.
Cropping -- My first mistake was to ignore the issue of cropping. Most digital photographs use an aspect ratio that matches computer monitors and televisions, featuring a 1.33:1 ratio between width and height. Standard photograph sizes, however, don't match that aspect ratio, taking their cue instead from 35mm film, which uses a 1.5:1 ratio. Prints measuring 4" x 6" (1.5:1) and 5" x 7" (1.4:1) are wider and shorter than digital images; 8" x 10" (1.25:1) and 11" x 14" (1.27:1) are narrower and taller than their digital counterparts. Only PhotoAccess offers prints whose ratio matches that of most cameras and monitors and do not have to be cropped, but of course they may not fit properly in traditional photo albums and frames.
There are three solutions to this problem. The first is to resize the picture disproportionately, but that's unacceptable in almost all cases, as it would make people look as though they were reflected in fun-house mirrors. The second is to shrink the photo proportionately, which works fine, but means the image won't completely cover the paper. The picture ends up looking like a letterboxed movie, not using the very top and bottom of the print for narrow sizes, or putting white borders on the left and right for wider sizes. That's the safest option. Third and finally, you can crop the photo, which eliminates some of your image. That may be fine if you're doing the cropping yourself, but it can be disastrous if a service does it automatically and gets it wrong.
Naively, I assumed that the first photo service I used would be smart enough to compensate for the aspect ratio differences. But because the process is automated, the results weren't great. I should have manually cropped each photo. Most sites offer cropping tools, and I also had the option of cropping the photos before uploading them. If done on the services' Web sites or with their uploading software, as they recommend, cropping takes less than 30 seconds for each photo. Had I taken the time to do this, I would have been much happier with my initial prints.
Shutterfly and Apple stand out as having the most versatile cropping options. Customers get total control over what is printed. Other services feature less control, with Ofoto simply offering the option to print extra borders to fix the shape, or to crop the image automatically by keeping the center and cutting off the edges equally. Shutterfly's upload application and Apple's iPhoto let you crop your images to a specific aspect ratio to fit the different photo sizes perfectly. Once a photo is uploaded to Shutterfly, you can change the cropping even if you cropped earlier.
Cropping also affects how large you can have a photo printed. When you remove portions of a photo, you're reducing the image's overall number of pixels. If you crop too much of the image, there may not be enough information to make a picture look good at larger sizes. Cameras with more than two megapixels of resolution can produce decent-quality photographs at sizes up to 8" x 10", but if you crop too much, you may not be able to print at the size you want. Fortunately, all of the services I tested give some kind of warning about which images will print well at what sizes, though some are more obvious than others.
Gamma -- Digital color is tricky to do right. Different monitors display colors differently, as do different cameras, scanners, software applications, and operating systems. This happens because they all have slightly different assumptions about which combinations and intensities of red, green, and blue should be used to represent any given color for each pixel. One aspect of this situation is gamma correction, which controls the overall brightness of an image.
Macs are usually set to a gamma of 1.8, and PCs are set to a gamma of 2.2, which explains why an image created on the Mac will look darker and will have more contrast when viewed in Windows, and images created in Windows may look washed out on the Mac. Since most computers run Windows, photo services seem to try to match their output to a 2.2 gamma setting to provide what most of their customers expect. Unfortunately, that meant almost all of my test prints came back looking darker than I expected, and pictures where the color was just right on my computer weren't as good in print.
Apple's ColorSync technology helps resolve the variations in colors that result when an image is reproduced using different devices, applications, materials, and printing processes (and is used by iPhoto when printing directly from your Mac), but it doesn't help with any of the photo services. I learned from the president of Ofoto that they often try to achieve a similar goal by examining a JPEG image's EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) information. Ironically, iPhoto strips out EXIF data whenever you modify an image, preventing Ofoto (which prints pictures for iPhoto) from using this technique when printing from iPhoto.
This area is where Apple has the opportunity to stand out, and part of why Apple was wise to introduce its own photo printing service. Because Apple knows that all the photos it gets are coming from Macs, it alone has the potential to calibrate the output to match typical Macintosh monitors. Unfortunately, this isn't yet the case, although there is hope for the future: Ofoto's president seemed receptive to the idea of applying a common correction to all prints ordered through Apple. Right now, however, the only way to do this seems to be editing the images in a separate application such as Photoshop or GraphicConverter, which realistically is more than what most users want to deal with. And even using Caffeine Software's free (and utterly cool) PixelNhance to edit every photo may be more trouble than most people want to take.
I've spoken with a few of the services, and none of them yet have an answer for this problem. Shutterfly was also responsive to the issue, and is considering offering a setting for platform in the customer's profile. Unfortunately (a word that pops up a lot with this topic), they can't promise anything.
The Most Important Test: Quality -- I sent the same six files to every service so I could examine the results. It turns out that for any given picture, these different services sometimes deliver rather different results. And none of them quite match what I wanted to see, in part because of gamma issues and in part because the brightness of my PowerBook G4's beautiful screen simply cannot be duplicated on paper.
After I received the first (less than satisfying) set of prints from the services, my goal became to figure out which service delivered the best results. With all these prints, surely I would be able to compare the quality of the different services! To help, I enlisted my wife, my mom, and a few friends. I simply asked everyone to select the best version of each picture, and tallied the rankings using broad categories of good, medium, and bad.
Every service delivered prints which offered plenty of detail and were printed on glossy stock, just like the ones I've received from the drugstore all these years. The problem was always the color in the prints. In addition to being darker than what I expected, some came out a little more golden (making everyone look like Oscar statuettes), or a bit more brown (giving my palest friends a nice tan, and my Indian wife and in-laws a dark muddy complexion). One horrible set from dotPhoto (which lacks a Macintosh application for uploading, but which I've left in the competition because of its inexpensive pricing plans) made everyone green (or, to use iMac colors, a sage that's somewhere between seasick and Kermit the Frog). Still others looked washed out. In every set, details of my wife's black coat and our friend's tuxedo were lost due to color problems.
As surprising as I found this to be, there was a greater surprise in store. For the same picture, with the same digital file, prints from Ofoto, Apple, and ImageStation (all of which are actually printed by Ofoto) are often quite distinguishable from each other. It wasn't just Ofoto - I accidentally placed the same order twice at dotPhoto, and the two sets of results couldn't have been more different. One was by far the worst set overall, while the other came close to being the best set. Why was this? Even though the original files are digital, most of the processes used by these services are chemical and analog (the same RA4 process used to develop and print conventional pictures). Plus, although at least Ofoto recalibrates its equipment multiple times each day, temperature and humidity variations lead to slight, but noticeable, differences.
In fact, the big problem was that print quality from all the services varied widely. Each service had its share of good, medium, and bad results. None of the batches clearly stood out as being the best. Having finished what felt like our one millionth examination of the results, my wife asked which service I planned to use for my next order. Based on the vast range of quality, I couldn't give her an answer. No service was definitively the best.
Overall, I am rather disturbed by these results. I truly wanted someone to offer the best pictures. I even wrote a draft of this article assuming that Apple's service through Ofoto would take care of the gamma issues, but the prints did not show that. The only results that matched the color I saw on screen were in the book I printed from iPhoto (which uses a laser printing process which does not bring out the detail that the photographic process shows off so well). I wanted Shutterfly, with its beautiful Web site, to be the best, but its results were no better than the others. I was also rooting for PhotoAccess because it offered prints in sizes comparable to the images' actual ratios, but it too failed to offer consistent quality.
No One Is Picture-Perfect -- No single service stood out. Apple's iPhoto makes ordering the easiest, but offers the fewest additional products. dotPhoto offers the best price, but is a pain to use and delivered the worst results. Ofoto prints the quickest. PhotoAccess offers 1.33:1 aspect ratios and the widest range of merchandise, but its output (like the others) ends up too dark. Shutterfly has the best Web site, great customer service, and has supported Macs the longest, but they suffer the same color problems as the other services.
Almost every service offers free prints when you sign up, leaving you to pay only for shipping. That certainly makes it worth trying multiple services. Due to the ease of ordering prints through iPhoto, and because I think the Apple/Ofoto combination is most likely to adjust its output for Macintosh users, I plan to order most of my prints from Apple in the future. However, when I need a product that Apple does not offer (such as mousepads, mugs, or other extras), I won't hesitate to order from Shutterfly or PhotoAccess.
Despite the uneven results I experienced, I still think it's worthwhile to use an online service to print your best digital photos. The alternative, which I touched upon in part one of this article, is to print the photos yourself on an inkjet printer. I received a lot of feedback from TidBITS readers about this topic, pointing out the cost savings for large prints plus the capability to produce comparable results in image quality. With some help from a reader who has a lot of experience printing photos at home, I intend to explore printing at home in a future article.
[Alexander Mishra Hoffman is an IT Manager in New York City, a Red Sox and Pats fan, and a newlywed.]