|Introduction to Digital
by Frank Phillips
There is still a lot of confusion surrounding digital cameras and digital photography. With all the new cameras and options it just seems to get more confusing instead of clearer. It is easier to approach something if you can take it in small bites. So in an effort to make digital easier to approach and understand I've grouped together everything you need to know to get started in ten easy to understand lessons.
Lesson 7: Getting Glossy 4x6 Digital Prints
Now that you've captured those stunning photos of the kids, you want to frame a couple and share them with your friends and family. You've tried printing your digital pictures on the inexpensive inkjet printer that came with your computer but they didn't look very good. Now what?
For now you have four realistic options: a high-end printer (inkjet or dye-sub), prints from a local lab or drug store, a camera docking station with a printer (only available for some cameras), or an online photo printing service.
The first thing you should know is that, with very few exceptions, most digital cameras shoot in a height-to-width ratio that is taller (proportionally) than your traditional 4x6 print ratio.
The photo of these birds is an example; assume that the photo was shot with a 2 megapixel digital camera that provides an image that measures 1600 pixels wide by 1200 pixels high. The ratio of 1200 to 1600 is 1 to 1.333. The ratio of a 4x6 print is 1 to 1.5, the difference being the dark areas on the photo covered by the phrase "This is the part you will lose when cropping to 4"x6" ratio". So before you send an uncropped photo to your inkjet, printing service, or local lab for 4x6 prints, keep in mind that you are going to "lose" part of your photo to the reduction in the ratio of height to width.
So if you know you'll be making 4x6 prints from your images it's best to align your shots with a little extra room on the top and bottom (for a horizontal photo), or to crop your photo to the 4x6 ratio before you ever print it using the imaging editor in your computer or the one that came with your camera.
Losing the dark/yellow area on this particular shot ruins it; imagine if you have a tightly framed shot where your subjects' heads are near one edge...you run a good chance of chopping off the top of someone's head. Do yourself a favor and crop before you print - that way YOU maintain control of what gets "chopped".
Your Options for Getting Prints High-End
Inkjet or Dye-Sub Printers: These printers have come a LONG way. At one time they were expensive ($350 to $500) with quality that could be described as merely good when compared to what you could get from a good photo lab.
Today, they are much more affordable and quality has improved dramatically - you can now get a great photo printer for about $100. If you know what you're doing and use high quality papers you can match or even exceed the quality you'll find in your neighborhood photo lab. But make no mistake - it takes a lot of practice in Photoshop to get your inkjet printer to perform at that level.
It also takes time. A lot of time. So much time in fact that it's faster, and in many cases cheaper, to schlep down to the local Ritz, Wolf, or Sam's Club. In fact that's usually the best answer for snapshots.
But for the serious photographer who wants total control over the process from end to end there is no substitute for the high-end home printer. Printers like the Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (around $700) and Epson Stylus Pro 4000 ($1,800) allow the serious digital photographer to create the equivalent of a high end photo lab right in their home. The 2200 can create prints up to 13x19 inches and the 4000 prints up to 17 inches wide!
That's great, but what about the rest of us? I thought you said I could create really good prints on a $100 inkjet?
You can. Printers like these are great to have around in a pinch when you just want to print a quick photo on glossy paper.
In general these kinds of "quickie" inkjet prints won't rival the prints from a good lab but they will rival what you'll get from the drugstore or megastore that does machine printing (more on that in a minute).
You should also remember that the cost of inkjet prints can actually exceed the cost of prints from a lab or drugstore. Ink cartridges can range from $20 to $35. Likewise good quality photo paper for your inkjet isn't cheap and unless you get pre-cut 4x6 sheets you'll have to cut your prints out.
I have guesstimated that the "variable" cost of printing a 4x6 on most inkjets with glossy paper is in the range of 35¢ to 50¢ each. The real advantage of having one of these printers is that get good (but not excellent) quality glossy photo printing on-demand, kind of like having your own 1-hour photolab next to your PC. Why do I say "good but not excellent"? Remember excellent takes time.
Some inkjet photo printers have slots to take memory cards, and can print directly from these memory cards without a computer hooked up. Some are even equipped with little LCD screens.
There are a limited number of dye-sub printers out there. Dye sub, short for dye sublimation, printers use special paper and ribbons to achieve high quality prints. At one time dye sub printers produced noticeably better quality than most inkjets. Today that is no longer the case. The chief advantage of dye sub printers is that in general dye sub prints tend to resist water and UV damage better than their inkjet counterparts (unless you buy high quality inkjet papers and properly mount the prints in a sealed frame. The disadvantage of dye sub printers is that while the cost is around the same as inkjet printers of similar quality, dye subs can't be used as "regular" printers for printing plain text.
Your Local MiniLab, Camera Store and Mega Store: More and more photo shops are replacing their old film printing machines with newer digital machines that will print from both film and digital memory cards. One of these machines is the Fuji Frontier, and it is one excellent machine! I've had some 4x6 prints made at a local chain camera store and they were spectacular! At the time I wrote this, that store was charging 49¢ for a 4x6 and the turnaround time was next day.
These machines aren't cheap, though, so it may be some time before you see these pop up in your corner drugstore where you used to dropping off your film. One of the neat things I should mention about these new machines is that some have intelligence built-in to automatically improve the lighting, contrast, and sharpness of your photos. So even if you take a really bad shot, chances are good that this machine can at least improve on it. Be on the lookout for machines at your local lab.
Also, I now know that Sam's Club uses the Frontier machines on matte paper, and they charge only 20¢ per print! I've tried them, and the quality knocked my socks off! But keep in mind that the quality may vary significantly from one store to the next so it's best to try a few prints first before giving them the 300 shots from your vacation.
One other option that is beginning to show up in the local camera shop (especially shops in your local mall) is the photo kiosk. These are standalone machines with slots for your memory cards and your credit card. Insert both, follow the directions, and you'll be amazed at just how much intelligence is built in to correct everything from bad lighting to red-eye. Since no lab tech is required to process your photos kiosk prices are usually less than dropping off your shots with the lab.
Docking Stations: These handy little devices are available from Kodak, Canon and several other manufacturers. You simply place your camera in the docking station, make some choices from the camera's menu and your prints pop out of the front of the docking station. It's that simple. And since the docking station is set up to work with just a few different cameras it can be optimized to make sure colors are accurate for the camera you're using (colors can vary from camera to camera).
This is truly a one touch solution and the cost is around 50 cents per print and it's amazingly convenient. I recently heard from a couple that took a Kodak 4.0 megapixel camera and docking station on a cruise with some friends. During the day they'd do off-ship excursions. Each night at dinner they already had a stack of photos from the day's outing. So what's the catch?
The catch is your prints are only as good as the photos you take. The docking station can't correct your mistakes the way a lab can.
OnLine Services: If you have pictures with at least 1.3 megapixels of resolution, you can consider online services. The idea is that you upload the pictures you want to one of the services' websites, order the prints you want, and they'll be mailed to you. But the best part is that the quality I've seen out of some of these services is stunning. It's so good that I've shown people a shot I took with a 2 megapixel Canon S100 (the digital ELPH) printed 5x7 at Ofoto, and they never knew it wasn't from film. It's really that good.
These services provide high quality prints at a cost that is comparable to other methods. Costs range from 25¢ to $1.00 for a 4x6 glossy, and about 49¢ on average (it depends on which service you use). The drawback is you have to wait for them to be mailed to you (usually a week, sometimes more), and if you don't have access to a dedicated high-speed Internet service (like DSL or cable modem) it can take hours to upload a "set" of pictures to the service's website. Sometimes this is worth the wait, though, as most of these services hold your photos in "albums" that they allow you to "share" with other people, as I discussed previously. For example, if you take digital photos at your daughter's 2nd birthday party, you can upload them and then "share" that album with others like your out-of-town friends or family (while at the same time denying access to people you haven't authorized to see the album). Then if they want to, they also can order prints from that album, saving you the hassle of ordering them and sending them yourself.
I have seen output from many online printing services including Ofoto, Club Photo, Dot Photo, Shutterfly, EZPrints, Wolf, Wal-Mart, and others. Based on this experience my personal recommendation is Club Photo or the Wal-Mart Photo Center simply because they have the best balance of price and quality i.e. "value" in my opinion. Dot Photo was the cheapest and the poorest quality, while Wolf was the most expensive (online). In fairness to Wolf, many Wolf stores now have the ability to provide excellent prints in-store for 49 cents. But in my opinion, Wal-Mart and Club have outstanding photo quality (on high resolution photos) for only 26¢ per 4x6 print, and the process is really simple.
Online printing services are a great option, especially for their flexibility with sharing photos, and I highly recommend that digital photographers check them out.