Digital Photography

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 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 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.

Here is a response I recently gave to a reader to clarify the difference between resizing for screen viewing vs. resizing for printing:

"You must consider the "environment" in which a digital image will be used. The environment in which an image may be viewed is either on screen or on paper. The difference between the screen environment and the paper environment boils down to how "tightly" the pixels are packed into a linear inch of space (rated as "dots per inch" or dpi). Most computer monitors display 72 pixels for every linear inch of screen; this is 72 dpi. Images optimized for printing need to have the pixels packed much more densely, like 300 pixels for every linear inch, or 300 dpi. Thus, if you have a horizontal line on your monitor that is 720 pixels long, it will take up 10" of screen space (720 pixels divided by 72 dpi equals 10 inches). But if you "pack" these pixels more tightly (say 300 dpi) and print them, you'll still have the same number of pixels in the line (720) but the length of the line on paper will be only 2.4" instead of the original 10". The math for this is [720 pixels / 72 dpi = 10"] or [720 pixels / 300 dpi = 2.4"]; the pixel count hasn't changed, just the number of pixels we "cram" into a linear inch has changed.

The "photo resizer" I reference in my "sharing" section is for resizing images for screen viewing at 72 dpi. To me, a horizontal image that is 600 pixels wide is pleasant to view on-screen (600 / 72 = 8.33" on screen). But if you print that same image at 300 dpi, it will end up being only 2" wide on paper (600 / 300 = 2"). Thus, you need to do two different calculations when resizing for screen viewing vs. resizing for printing.

For screen display, if you want an image to be 6" wide, then it should be (6 x 72 =) 432 pixels wide. But for printing, if you want the image to be 6" wide (on paper), then it should be (6 x 300 =) 1800 pixels wide. This is why I recommend keeping one set of JPG files for screen (at 72 dpi), one set of JPG files for printing (at 300 dpi), and one set that has the "original" number of pixels.

Digital Photography

One final comment regarding resizing for making prints. I believe that anything you give a printer over 300 dpi is overkill and thus will not be noticeable to the human eye (this applies to inkjet, laser, Club Photo, Wolf Camera, etc). Thus, a 4x6 for print should be 1200x1800 pixels; a 5x7 for print should be 1500x2100, and an 8x10 should be 2400x3000 pixels. Likewise, a 4x6 for screen should be 288x432; a 5x7 for screen should be 360x504, etc.  In the most technical sense, this is not really the case, but in what you'll truly be able to SEE, it applies to everyday use."

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:

  • Who just can't wait an hour or a day (or a week, sometimes) to get prints from a digital minilab (discussed below)

  • Who must have total control over the entire process

  • Who don't feel like schlepping to your local pharmacy, Ritz, Wolf, or Sam's Club.

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.  This is the six-color Canon i950...a great photo printer!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.

This is the Hi-Ti dye-sub's gotten good reviews.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.

A note about longevity of inkjet prints: Aside from the dye-sub printers, there are only two kinds of ink available for inkjet printers today....dye based inks and pigment-based inks.  Dye-based inks are especially good for high-gloss photos, but they are susceptible to fading, depending on the amount of UV light and air they are exposed to.  Some dye-based inkjet prints will begin fading in a matter of only weeks or months if left "out" and exposed to light and air, so just be aware of that weakness.  Pigment-based inks, on the other hand, are more like paint, and they will last for decades, even when exposed to air and light, but they are not as good-looking on glossy paper (but you can hardly tell).

So why shouldn't you just choose an inkjet printer that is dye-based?  Only if cost is a factor.  The ink cartridges themselves don't cost any more than dye-based ink cartridges, but the printers themselves are very limited in availability and they are rather expensive compared to dye-based printers.  Currently (as of Jan 2005) the only manufacturer of pigment-ink printers is Epson, and they offer only three printers: the $200 "PictureMate" (which prints only 4x6 prints), the $350 R800 (which will print up to letter size), and the $650 model 2200 (which will print 13"x19" prints).  When you compare this to a $99 Canon photo printer, the cost is much higher...but if you must have your prints last for generations, choose one of these Epson printers.  I currently use the R800 model, and it does an excellent job.

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, Ofotosometimes 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).  Wal-Mart Photo CenterThen 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 Digital PhotographyAND 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.

Inkjet / DyeSub
Photo Printer
Quality of Glossy Prints Excellent Excellent Excellent
Added Features, such as online "albums" Excellent none none
Cost per 4x6 Print Low Low/Medium* High**
Speed of getting Prints Week Day Minute
Convenience Poor Very Good Excellent

Digital Photography


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