Digital cameras are wonderful toys - the instant feedback, and the
freedom that comes from every press of the shutter being free - are
Sorting through your digital photo collection on your PC can be satisfying, but at some point it's nice to get a hard copy. Maybe you want your best photos on the wall, or you want to share them with a relative who doesn't have a broadband connected PC.
A lot of people put some glossy paper in their inkjet printer and think that's 'good enough'. They convince themselves that the limited resolution, the poor colour gamut, and the dither patterns are 'not that bad.'
I don't think that makes sense.
I've seen printouts from some pretty good printers, and they do look 'pretty good', but there are always some defects. Slight banding, dither patterns, or colour variations.
When you bought your digital camera you probably worried about how many mega-pixels it had, whether the lens was good, and generally about whether it would take good photos. It doesn't make sense to ruin those perfect digital images by not printing them properly.
I'm firmly of the belief that, unless you spend a lot of money on a high quality photo printer, you should leave printing your photos to the professionals.
If you get your digital pictures printed online or at a photoshop, they don't use a printer. They actually turn your bits and bytes into a photo. Using lasers or some equivalent method, they expose a piece of photographic paper to make an actual picture. The result is indistinguishable from a photo taken by a traditional camera (as long as you have enough resolution, at least 200 pixels per printed inch).
One exception is if you want a large print - bigger than 5x7. At that point the cost of a print from a photo printing shop starts going up quite steeply, so the savings and convenience of doing it yourself may make it worthwhile. The other exception is if you need the printout immediately. Any online printing service will take a few days to mail the pictures to you.
I haven't tried taking a memory card into a local photo shop, although that is one option that is worth exploring. I have tried several online photo printing services, and I wanted to share my experiences with them.
Unfortunately, the conclusion I came to is that all three of the services that I tried are fatally flawed. The fairly simple problem of efficiently uploading your photos has been bungled by all three companies, in unique and frustrating ways.
The services I tried were:
PricingDesert Sun Media was the winner in this category with the lowest regular prices, and some good sales. 4x6 photos at DSM are $0.35, and the spring sale they had when I used their service had 5x7 photos for the same price. Ofoto and Shutterfly charged $0.49 for 4x6 photos, and $0.99 for 5x7, so the price savings could be considerable.
Shutterfly offered fifteen free prints for new users, and has various other sales.
Shipping and handling prices seem to be fairly consistent, starting at about $1.49 for small orders and going up to $4.00 as you get over fifty prints. DSM makes it hard to see the shipping costs until you have placed an order, and didn't mention in their price list that 5x7s were actually cheaper than what was listed, due to their spring sale.
Uploading photosThis is a crucial aspect of photo printing. If you've accumulated a few dozen good photos that you'd like to print then easy uploading is crucial. The default way of uploading photos is to use a file dialog to specify each file individually. Depending on the site you may be able to specify ten at a time, and then have to wait for those to upload before specifying the next batch.
This is incredibly tedious and error prone. If uploading photos is hard then you will tend to not want to do it, and you'll tend to accept sub-standard results rather than uploading your photos again.
Desert Sun Media doesn't offer an alternative. You just have to do it manually. This, apparently, is the price you pay for low-cost printing. When you are uploading the photos you get no feedback whatsoever on progress - they just have an obnoxious running bird that is supposed to amuse you while your pictures are transfered.
Ofoto and Shutterfly both offer photo uploading programs - and that's where things start getting interesting.
At this point I have to describe my hardware setup, so you can decide whether or not you think the problems I encountered are due to something wrong with my computer. I have an eight month old laptop, running Windows 2000. It's hard drive has 6Gbytes free, it has 512Mbytes of memory, it has a 1GHz processor and a GeForce2Go. In other words, it's new, it's fast, and there's really no excuse for software to not run on it.
Shutterfly Smart UploadShutterfly offers two methods for uploading pictures. I tried Shutterfly Smart Upload, version 2.2. This program is bad. Very bad. When I ran it it crashed. But it didn't just crash. First it locked up my machine. Hard. This is not supposed to happen on Win2K.
It took me a minute or two of frantic Ctrl+Alt+Delete to finally get it to timeout or give up or whatever it needed to do. Then I could finally see the crash dialog and dismiss it.
I tried this program twice and then uninstalled it. I reported this problem to Shutterfly and heard nothing back from them. Also, it appeared that just having this program installed - even when I wasn't running it - was interfering with the operation of ACDSee. I had to uninstall Smart Upload and then reinstall ACDSee to restore normal operation.
Shutterfly also have a well hidden browser plug-in. You can find it by going to the Smart Upload Download screen, then clicking on Installation Guide and then going to Features. Then you'll be given the option to download their plug-in. I tried the IE version of this and, much to my surprise, it worked. When I dragged and dropped .jpg files on it, it started uploading them, in a very sensible manner. It works poorly if you cancel an upload (it always insists on retrying it later, which is not always what you want). And, it doesn't handle shortcuts.
ShortcutsI have hundreds of photos on my computer, and most of them are not very good. I delete the terrible ones, but I have a lot of mediocre photos that I don't want to print, but I don't want to delete. So, I create directories of shortcuts to the good images. I don't want to duplicate the images because this wastes memory and it severs the connection between the original and the image I'm showing to people. I use ACDSee to browse this directory of shortcuts when I am showing my best photos to people, and I want to use this directory of shortcuts when uploading images. Shutterfly's upload program supports .jpg files, not shortcuts to .jpg files - it just doesn't understand them.
Ofoto NowFinally I tried Ofoto's uploading program, Ofoto Now, version 3.0.2. This program installed and ran cleanly. It has a poorly designed interface, but I figured out how to navigate to my directory of images. Unfortunately, Ofoto Now also doesn't know how to handle shortcuts. And, it didn't stop there. Shortly after installing Ofoto Now I started having problems with some of my programs. I would click them on the task bar and they wouldn't come to the front. I eventually realized that this only happened when Eudora was running. It seemed that Eudora had become an 'always-on-top' window, and was not cooperating well with other programs.
I tried restarting Eudora, I tried rebooting my machine, and nothing worked. Then I uninstalled Ofoto Now and suddenly Eudora started working again. The really scary thing about this is that this bizarre behavior in Eudora was happening when Ofoto Now was not even running. Some sort of service (possibly the USB detection service that I had asked to not have installed) was running, in a bad way. Clearly that sort of interference with other applications is not acceptable.
At this point I gave up and used Desert Sun Media. The only advantage to the other two sites was their image uploading software, and it didn't work. Two of the three image uploading programs either crashed or interfered with other programs, and none of them support shortcuts. Uploading images to Desert Sun Media is tedious, but it works, and the prints are reasonably priced.
Solving the shortcuts problemI'm a programmer, which means that I can solve problems that other people can't. I wanted to be able to use Ofoto Now (before I realized its fatal flaw) and the Shutterfly upload plug-in, so I wrote a program that takes a directory of shortcuts and creates a new directory, containing all of the images referenced by the shortcuts. I can run this on my directory of shortcuts just before uploading, and then delete the temporary directory later. If you want to try using the Shutterfly upload plug-in, or some other software that works well except for a lack of shortcut support, you can use this simple command line tool. No warranty, and no redistribution rights are granted - this is for your own personal use only.
Ordering printsThe only site I have ordered prints from is Desert Sun Media. They make it harder than it has to be. While DSM lets you upload pictures ten at a time, you have to order them twelve at a time, because that's how many they display on one album page. To order prints of my thirty nine photos I had to repeat the first part of the ordering process four times. Once I had chosen all thirty nine photos (a five second job dragged out to a couple of minutes) it was fairly easy to choose quantities for the various print sizes and finish off the order.
Ordering prints seemed to work more smoothly at Ofoto. It took just a couple of clicks to select my entire album for printing.
Shutterfly only displays a limited number of prints in each album, but unlike Desert Sun Media they understand that 'select all' means 'select the whole album', not just the limited number that are visible. This appears to make ordering prints from many photos a fairly painless operation.
MiscellaneousDon't confuse Ofoto with a completely different company called ophoto.com, an obnoxious site that throws tons of pop-up windows at you.
Shutterfly likes to bring up a pop-up window every time I visit their site, in order to sell me something. I find such behavior barely tolerable in free web sites that need advertising revenue to survive, but it's quite obnoxious in a site that is already going to charge me for services. They should stop using pop-up ads.
Shutterfly has a nice option to print an eighty character message on the back of your photos, by default the name of the photo and album. That could be useful.
Desert Sun Media does a poor job of letting you know the state of your order. You don't get an order confirmation e-mail, and there is no obvious way to find out when your order was shipped. But, my order arrived in four days, and the pictures looked great.
None of the sites seem to let you download images you have placed there. That makes them useless as a photo sharing repository. Pity.
SummaryMy first order was placed through Desert Sun Media, because they were cheapest and because uploading images to them was no harder than to other services - before I worked my way around some of the problems with the photo uploading programs.
Now that I have my ResolveShortcuts program, and the Shutterfly upload plug-in, I will probably use that service. Shutterfly seems to have the best user inteface for printing images, they have an upload program that doesn't mess with other software, they have nice special offers, and their prices do scale down slightly for larger numbers of prints.
This information was accurate when I wrote it, April 20, 2002. I hope that these problems get fixed, but I have heard no responses from the companies, despite reporting these problems.
If you have different experiences, or experiences with different photo printing options, please let me know.
Now that I've started printing digital pictures, I've started thinking about the possibilities. I'm not restricted to just printing out the photos I've taken. I can print out any digital picture. Since having the realization of how easy that suddenly is I've printed some Hubble telescope pictures (at 3000x4000 pixels they are good candidates) and some high resolution fractal images from Fractal eXtreme. Next I think I'll move onto satellite photos, Maya renderings, and other computer generated imagery.