Now that you've captured some stunning photos of the kids, your mother wants one to frame. But you've tried printing the picture on your "old" inkjet printer with poor results...now what? For now you have three realistic options: a high-end inkjet or dye-sub printer, an online photo printing service, or a local lab that prints on good equipment, like the Fuji Frontier.
Preliminary note: 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, just keep in mind that you are going to "lose" part of your photo to the reduction in the ratio of height to width. It is best to first frame your shot (when you shoot it) with a little extra room on the top and bottom (for a horizontal photo), and then crop your photo to the 4x6 ratio before you ever print it. 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".
Once you've cropped and optimised your images you may also want to upload them to your online photo gallery on Picasa or Flickr. You'll need a fast Internet connection such as with O2 broadband packages or the packages you get with other companies. It will make the whole process much easier for you with a fast speed internet connection.
Option 1, The High-End Inkjet or Dye-Sub Printer: These printers have come a LONG way in the past five years. They used to be very expensive ($350) with only "good" quality output (like old HP PhotoSmart P1000). Today, they are much more affordable (you can get a great photo printer for about $100 now) and the quality has improved dramatically. I would go as far as to say that they can match a pro machine (discussed below), and I recommend them for those of you:
Printers like these are great to have around when you're in a pinch to print a photo on glossy paper. If you're in the market to replace your old inkjet printer, I highly recommend that you look into one of the newer models of inkjet printers available from Epson, Canon, and HP. If you've already got a printer that suits your needs, you don't need to go buy a "photo printer" unless you really just want one.
The quality I've gotten from the "high-end" inkjet photo printers is outstanding. Also, this type of inkjet printer (HP, Espon, Canon, etc) uses a tremendous amount of ink (at about $35 per cartridge) and the 4x6 glossy blank sheets are about 15¢ each, at best. I have guesstimated that the "variable" cost of printing a 4x6 on these inkjets with glossy paper is at least 25¢ to 40¢ each. The real advantage of having one of these is that you get excellent quality glossy photo printing on-demand, kind of like having your own 1-hour photolab next to your PC. One other feature of some inkjet photo printers is that they have slots to take memory cards, and can print directly off of that media without a computer hooked up, and some are even equipped with little LCD screens. I've never used mine that way, but I know people who have.
There are a much more limited number of dye-sub printers out there...these printers use special paper and ribbons to achieve what I've read is very good quality. The one that comes to mind is the Hi-Ti printer (shown at right); read Steve Sanders' review of it here. The cost is about the same as a high-end inkjet with glossy paper, but you can't use these as "regular" printers, and the prints they make will last about as long as regular inkjet printers.
Option 2, The OnLine Services: If you have pictures with at least 1.3 megapixels of resolution, you can consider these services. The idea is that you upload the pictures you want to one of the services' websites, order the prints you want, then 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 know it's not from film processing. It's really that good.
So the obvious advantage to these services is the high quality prints you get, which are significantly better than inkjet prints, at a cost that is comparable. The cost of these services range from 20¢ to $1.00 for a 4x6 glossy, but many are 39¢ each on average (it depends on which service you use). The only drawbacks are that 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 a T1, ISDN, 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 in my "sharing" section. For example, if you took 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 then sending them yourself.
Online printing services are a great option, and I highly recommend that digital photographers use it if they can't take advantage of the first or third option:
Option 3: Your Local MiniLab (if available in your area): More and more high-end photo shops like Wolf Camera (acquired by Ritz Camera) are beginning to replace their old film printing machines with newer digital machines that will print from both film AND digital files. One of these machines is the Fuji Frontier, and it is one excellent printing machine. I've had some 4x6 prints made at Wolf (from a Frontier) and they were spectacular!. At the time I wrote this, Wolf 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 (correct me if I'm wrong about this) is that they have intelligence built-in to automatically improve the lighting, contrast, and sharpness of your photo. So even if you take a really bad shot, chances are good that this machine can at least improve it some. Be on the lookout for these where you drop you film off...when you see it, it's time to get a 3 or 4 megapixel and go digital. Also, I now know that Sam's Club uses the Frontier machines on matte paper, and they charge only 16¢ per print! I've tried them, and the quality will knock your socks off!
Summary: Assuming the quality is the same from inkjet vs lab prints, then it really boils down to cost, convenience, and speed. With the inkjet printers you get it immediately, but it costs a bit more. At Sam's it's only 16¢, you get them next-day (or sometimes same day), and there's no investment in printer equipment. The online services take a week, but they're about half the cost of Wolf's 49¢ price.
Below is a matrix that I hope summarizes the Pros and Cons of each of these options.
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