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Series: Printing Digital Photos
Alex Hoffman evaluates online photo print services...and they're a mixed batch
Article 1 of 2 in series
by Alex Hoffman
I recently bought a new Nikon Coolpix 775 digital camera for my wife. We were about to get married and I thought we'd enjoy taking lots of pictures of the wedding weekend and the honeymoon weekShow full article
I recently bought a new Nikon Coolpix 775 digital camera for my wife. We were about to get married and I thought we'd enjoy taking lots of pictures of the wedding weekend and the honeymoon week. I was right: we took more than 1,000 pictures over nine days.
Although I'm most interested in putting together a CD showing off most of our pictures (hundreds, I tell you) for our guests and friends, my wife prefers old-fashioned photo albums and wants to print some of the pictures.
This situation prompted the question of the best way to print digital photos. While we might want to print only 50 to 100 pictures now, eventually we'll have many more. Should we buy a photo printer, or should we send them out to be printed by a photo service? If the latter, which one? Since these aren't just everyday snapshots, I decided to investigate both options.
Buying a Printer -- Although I had no doubts about the quality of prints coming from digital photo labs, I wasn't so sure about the photo quality of any printer we could afford. I've used inkjet printers for years, and have never been truly happy with the quality of their photo output.
However, I've never owned a "photo printer," a printer whose quality is supposed to be good enough to approximate a photographic print. I've also never used real photo paper, which is specially coated to make such high resolution printing possible. Unfortunately, this paper is expensive: around $0.30 for a 4" x 6" piece, and $0.50 for an 8.5" x 11" piece. I also know that while inkjet printers are relatively cheap, ink cartridges are expensive and printing photos uses an enormous amount of ink per page (text covers about 5 percent of a piece of paper, but photos typically cover 90 to 100 percent of the page).
Expensive ink cartridges, plus the cost of photo paper, made me rule out buying a photo printer. I didn't see any monetary savings, and I am still distrustful of the quality. This doesn't mean you can't get good results, especially if you plan to print relatively few pictures. But since we already own a black-and-white laser printer, we didn't see a compelling reason to add a photo printer.
Digital Photography Labs -- In the past, I've read about different digital photo labs, but I never paid full attention. I understood a few of their major issues and that their services cost a lot more than normal film developing. But one of the major benefits of digital photography, in my mind, is that you print only a small percentage of your pictures, which leads to overall savings. So I decided to try some of the photo labs listed in Yahoo, the most popular of which were Shutterfly, Club Photo, ImageStation, Ofoto (owned by Kodak), dotPhoto, Snapfish (owned by District Photo), PhotoAccess, eFrames, and searsphotos.com.
I added Walmart to the list, since it has such a huge retail presence, and I also added Apple's iPhoto-based service, which uses Kodak's Ofoto for prints. After a quick run through their sites, I developed some criteria for comparing the services: cost, ease of uploading, quality of the Web site, and range of products offered. I naively assumed that quality would not be an issue, thinking at the time that their output would be highly similar.
I should have known better. First, working in information technology (including supporting ad agencies) drilled into me a long time ago that color correction is a huge issue. Second, I know that traditional photo labs aren't identical (a roll of film that comes out poorly is not necessarily your fault). I knew better, but my optimism about the possibilities of digital imaging blinded me at first. I quickly learned.
Cost - All of these services offer the same basic print sizes, 4" x 6", 5" x 7", and 8" x 10". Some offer wallet and larger sizes as well, but for price comparisons, I stuck to the three basic sizes. For the most part, the prices are roughly the same as well (most also offer 3" x 5" prints at the 4" x 6" price.)
Size Cost ----------------- 4" x 6" $0.49 5" x 7" $0.99 8" x 10" $3.99
However, there were few standouts on price.
On the negative side, searsphotos.com charges three times as much for 4" x 6" prints if you want to do even the simplest of image manipulation (including cropping and red-eye correction). Snapfish charges 20 percent more than the others ($0.59), and both are clearly set up for film developing. Although I did send a few samples to Snapfish to be developed, both companies failed the price test and were eliminated from competition. The searsphotos.com price was so out of line that I didn't even include them in the quality test. (The searsphotos.com service also limits files to 500K, clearly hurting their print quality, while Snapfish's ordering Web pages are horrendous.)
On the positive side were PhotoAccess ($0.45, $1.09, and $2.95), Walmart ($0.26, $0.96, $2.98) and dotPhoto ($0.29, $0.95, and $2.95). Though Walmart also offers packages (one 8" x 10", two 5" x 7" prints, and 16 wallet-sized prints for $9, for example), dotPhoto beats everyone on price and pricing options, offering subscription and bulk pricing. For $5 per month, you can order up to 26 4" x 6" prints ($0.19 per print), or you can pay $10 per month for 60 prints. Both plans offer lower prices on other sizes as well. Amazingly, any prints you do not use in a given month do carry over to the next month. The only downside is that dotPhoto requires one year subscriptions. dotPhoto also allows you to purchase prints in bulk, where you pay up front for many photos, and have two years to use up your credit ($70 for 400 4" x 6" prints, $35 for 50 5" x 7" prints, and $50 for 25 8" x 10" prints). If price is your main criterion, no one comes close to dotPhoto.
Shipping costs vary by the size of your order and your chosen transit method. There wasn't much variation here, other than from Club Photo, which offers free standard shipping using the U.S. Postal Service. Walmart offers the option of picking up prints at a Walmart store free of shipping charges, but takes an extraordinarily long time to make them available if you do. Apple seems to be at the high end here, but not by enough to eliminate them from the running.
Ease of Uploading -- The most obnoxious part of using online digital photo labs is uploading multiple photos at once. Every site allows you to select files to upload manually, but this process involves clicking a Browse button and locating the files on your hard disk. The process gets old fast when repeated more than a few times.
Fortunately, most of these services offer alternatives. For some, a standalone application can send multiple image files. Others use a plug-in for the Windows version of Internet Explorer. Requiring easy uploading from a Mac knocked a few of the services out of the running including eFrames, Walmart, dotPhoto, and ImageStation.
The remaining services - Apple, Club Photo, Ofoto, PhotoAccess, and Shutterfly - each have a Macintosh application onto which you can drag the photos you want to upload. Apple is the only service to offer a Mac OS X-native application, but because iPhoto runs only under the new operating system, Mac OS 8 or 9 users are out of luck. Of the others, only PhotoAccess even mentions that they're working on a Mac OS X version. All four of the other companies' applications do run under Classic.
Web Site Evaluation -- Each of these sites relies on the picture album metaphor for organizing pictures. You can name photos and add new ones as often as you wish. ClubPhoto charges customers more to keep their photos accessible online, with two packages ($25 and $35 per year) that also include discounts on all orders. Regardless, charging to keep photos from disappearing after just 30 or 90 days seems out of line.
A great thing about digital photography is that you can edit and crop your photos before you print them. Any digital photo lab for consumers must make this process practical, especially for users who lack image editing software. The remaining contenders differentiated themselves in this round.
PhotoAccess offered the most minimal editing capabilities. Its upload application can rotate pictures, but the Web site offers no further editing possibilities, most notably no red-eye reduction. ClubPhoto also lacks red-eye correction, although its Web site can brighten or darken each picture.
Ofoto's image uploading program can fix red-eye and crop images. Their Web site offers further capabilities such as adding borders to your pictures; however, this becomes Ofoto's most distressing feature, because the border covers most the image, rather than resizing the image to fit within the border. Ofoto can also print the images in black and white, sepia tones, or sepia-like tones (in red, green, or blue). Last, it can "fix lighting," which lightens dark images and darkens washed-out images.
Shutterfly's Web site offers the most options, though its software does nothing but upload photos. At Shutterfly, you can add borders to images (which are automatically resized), fix red-eye, switch to black-and-white, change the color saturation, soften or sharpen the focus, or change the color tone. Shutterfly's site is also the easiest to navigate, especially when looking at albums with many photos in them.
Apple uses a completely different model, with iPhoto handling all the organization and editing of your photos. Its editing capabilities are limited to rotating images, performing red-eye reduction, cropping (with a nifty aspect ratio tool), and conversion to black-and-white, although all Macs now ship with Caffeine Software's free PixelNhance, which extends iPhoto's editing capabilities nicely. There are no tone controls (for sepia-like prints) or any of the other effects offered by the others. Although iPhoto is far easier to use than any of the Web sites, it doesn't offer as many features, and nothing at the level of Adobe PhotoDeluxe. That said, I expect that future versions will address most of my concerns in short order.
Finally, although I didn't test this feature, each Web site lets you share your photos so that other people can order their own copies of your prints. Apple's solution here is that iPhoto makes it extremely easy to turn photos into a Web-based photo album at homepage.mac.com, but the free space Apple provides limits the number of high resolution photos you can share. Services which remove photos after a short amount of time limit the usefulness of their sharing functionality.
Range of Products -- Most of these services don't stop at printing photos. A few also sell digital camera and digital video equipment, though not at competitive prices. Mousepads, customized greeting cards, and mugs are the rule, and most offer picture frames as well.
Shutterfly offers only the basic items that they all share. Ofoto adds a huge range of frames and photo albums, along with Archive CDs priced starting at $10, based on the number of photos). Club Photo offers $8 Album CDs, which contain up to 60 photos, and Archive CDs (also starting at $10, based on the number of images), which contain all of your photos. Other products from ClubPhoto include frames, food (really!), checks, stamps, Post-It note pads, puzzles, posters, stuffed animals, aprons, t-shirts, jewelry, and even a night light. PhotoAccess extends the basics with t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, puzzles, aprons, playing cards, canisters, tote bags, slides, and even customized wrapping paper. Most interestingly to me, PhotoAccess is the only service to offer "digital prints" whose proportions match that of most monitors, televisions and cameras.
Only Apple's service offers an impressive hardcover book (measuring 11.5 by 9 inches). The linen cover comes in your choice of black, burgundy, light gray, or navy, and you can choose six formats when designing your book and laying out the photos. Unfortunately, the price is high ($3 per page with a 10 page minimum and a 50 page maximum) and the paper/print quality isn't amazing (something like magazine quality). That cost quickly adds up, especially for larger books, even though you can have multiple photos per page. Although others haven't experienced the same problems, I had troubles - particularly when rearranging pages in book mode - building books larger than about 12 pages. Rearranging photos in organize mode and designing the book left-to-right worked better.
iPhoto is actually a front end to a Web service called myPublisher. Although ordering directly from myPublisher offers a few more options, including leather covers and dust jackets, iPhoto makes the process of building and ordering a book vastly easier. For all the trouble I had with iPhoto, I can't imagine trying to use myPublisher's Web site for a real project, which requires uploading photos individually from a browser.
Shutterfly also offers a book to its customers, albeit a very different one. The Snapbook is a spiral-bound book with a translucent plastic cover containing up to 40 pages, available in a 4" x 6" or 5" x 7" size (priced at a maximum of $25 or $30, respectively, depending on the number of photos, up to 40). You can choose from a handful of designs, but unlike Apple's books, they offer only one picture per page. Although I like Shutterfly's Web site, I had a few problems putting my book together. Still, the Snapbook's price is compelling, especially given that the largest Snapbook costs less than buying the pages individually, and is the same price as a 10-page book from Apple.
After examining all of the companies' Web sites and ordering prints from each, I couldn't name a clear winner. Different services had different strengths, whether price, variety of products, site design, or ease of use. However, as soon as I received my first set of prints, I realized that there was a lot that I hadn't considered properly. In the next installment of this article, I'll detail my mistakes and the surprising final result.
[Alexander Mishra Hoffman is an IT Manager in New York City, a Red Sox and Pats fan, and a newlywed.]
Article 2 of 2 in series
by Alex Hoffman
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 bestShow full article
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.]