One of the great things about digital photography is that you can choose to print only the photos you truly love—and then leave the other 20 shots of your cat perched precariously on the windowsill stored safely away for posterity. Far too often, though, even our best pictures never leave the confines of our computers. But if you have an Internet connection and a few minutes, you can turn your great shots into finished prints—without a photo printer, and without even leaving the house. Just upload them to an online photo-printing service and place your order.
There are a lot of online photo services out there, but there can be a huge difference in results from one online photo finisher to the next. To find the best option, I took a look at nine online photo ser-vices: Kodak EasyShare Gallery, Mpix, PhotoCheap, PhotoWorks, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Wal-Mart, Webshots, and the Order Prints option built into Apple’s iPhoto 5. I sent five different images to all of the services and then asked a jury of Macworld editors to evaluate the prints’ image quality. I incorporated their opinions into my overall evaluation of the services.
While I was hoping to find a clear winner that always produced superior prints, the frustrating truth is that most services produced good prints at some times and bad prints at other times. However, once you weigh price, speed, ease-of-uploading, and a few other considerations, some services stood out from the pack—in particular, Snapfish.
Submitting Your Images
All the services I tested accept JPEG files, the standard format for digital cameras. Mpix, PhotoWorks, Wal-Mart, and Webshots also accept TIFF files. However, since TIFF files are substantially larger than JPEGs, they take much longer to upload. Unless you’re printing a large image and are extremely picky about image quality, I recommend sticking with JPEG. If you’re shooting in your camera’s Raw format, you’ll need to convert the images before uploading them to any photo service. iPhoto 5 does this automatically during the upload process.
Uploading With the exception of iPhoto 5, which handles uploading for you, all the sites I tested let you upload images via a Web interface. However, I don’t really recommend doing so unless you have only a few images or are looking for a tedious way to pass the time. Having to locate each file one by one is cumbersome. What’s worse, you can upload only small batches of images at a time—which can make for a very time-consuming process. But while none of the Web interfaces were a pleasure to use, PhotoCheap’s clunky, and at times confusing, Web site was the worst of the lot.
To make uploading easier, Kodak, Mpix, PhotoWorks, Shutterfly, and Snapfish offer either stand-alone applications or browser plug-ins. Kodak, PhotoWorks, and Snapfish take the lead here; their well-designed upload tools let you simply drag and drop files from the Finder (see “Painless Uploads”).
Sharing One great advantage a Web-based photo service has over your local photo developer is that it lets you share your prints with others. All these services let you create online albums, fill them with images, and then send announcements to friends and relatives. Guests can look at your images and even order prints of their own—saving you the hassle and expense of creating and mailing duplicate pictures to multiple people. Most sites will leave your photos up indefinitely as long as you order prints at least once a year.
All but one of the services I looked at offer very good sharing services: PhotoCheap forces you to upload your images a second time, to a separate area designated for sharing. iPhoto’s built-in sharing option requires membership in Apple’s $99 .Mac service, and it doesn’t allow visitors to order prints. However, some iPhoto plug-ins will let you upload your images to a dedicated photo-sharing service; for instance, Fraser Speirs’s free FlickrExport uploads photos to Flickr.com.
Preparing Your Order
Just as your local photo lab provides a variety of printing options—from glossy paper to artsy borders—many online photo services let you customize your order; some offer an astounding array of options.
Print Sizes and Finishes All the sites I tested offer the basic print sizes—including 4 by 6 inches, 5 by 7 inches, and 8 by 10 inches. Mpix offers the greatest variety of sizes, with 20 choices ranging from wallet size to 20 by 30 inches. PhotoWorks offers the largest size: 24 by 36 inches.
However, depending on the size of your files, not all of these options will be practical for your images. If you try printing a two-megapixel image at 8 by 10 inches, for example, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with the results; the image will likely suffer from blocky details and fuzzy compression artifacts. All these services provide guidelines that explain how many pixels you’ll need for specific print sizes (see “Counting Your Pixels” ). And all but Mpix and PhotoCheap will warn you if you don’t have enough pixels for the job.
In addition to standard glossy prints, Mpix, PhotoCheap, PhotoWorks, Shutterfly, and Snapfish offer a matte option. PhotoWorks and Shutterfly also offer a Canvas option. The texture of matte papers can vary—some are more pebbled than others. One editor on our panel of jurors, for example, disliked the matte finish from Mpix; he thought it made the image look blurred. I recommend ordering a small sample before committing to a big matte order.
Cropping to Fit Traditional photo sizes, such as 4-by-6-inch and 5-by-7-inch prints, were created to accommodate the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm film. However, most digital cameras use a 4:3 aspect ratio—the same as a TV screen. (Digital SLRs, such as the Canon Digital Rebel, are an exception here. They usually shoot at 3:2.) Because of this discrepancy, most digital images won’t fit traditional print sizes without cropping. If you forget, some of the services will crop for you—though not with any real thought given to the composition of the image. Others will leave white borders along the sides of your image.
Of the sites we tested, Mpix, PhotoWorks, Shutterfly, and Wal-Mart provide the most flexibility when it comes to cropping or zooming. All offer easy-to-use controls that can be applied either to an entire batch of photos or on an individual basis. Kodak also provides good cropping controls that let you crop each image separately—to either predefined or custom sizes—but it doesn’t work in Safari. You’ll need Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla’s Firefox.
PhotoCheap doesn’t offer Mac-compatible cropping features. Instead, it gives you the option of printing at a 4:3 aspect ratio, such as 4 by 5.3 inches. PhotoWorks also offers special 4:3 sizes, including 3.75-by-5-inch and 4.5-by-6-inch prints. These options save you the trouble of cropping. However, the prints won’t fit a standard picture frame. That’s not as much of a problem as it used to be, thanks to online frame vendors, such as Framesbymail.com, which provide 4:3 frames.
At the bottom of this pile are Snapfish and Webshots—neither of which provides zooming or cropping controls. Surprisingly, iPhoto also offers weak support in this area. Unlike the other online services, iPhoto gives no warning if your images don’t fit your chosen print size. And once you’re in the ordering process, there are no zooming or trimming options. You must have your images properly cropped and adjusted before you click on the Order button.
If you have any panoramic images, or if you’ve cropped your pictures to a different aspect ratio—say, to fit a square frame—you’ll want to have the service letterbox your photo so the entire scene fits on the page, rather than cropping (see “Going Wide”). Of the services I tested, only Mpix didn’t offer such a feature.
The Waiting Game
Delivery times differ greatly from service to service. And because of your geographic location, you may find that your delivery times differ from ours. When I had prints shipped to my office in San Francisco, I got the fastest results from Kodak and iPhoto (not surprising, since Apple uses Kodak for iPhoto prints), which delivered the prints to my door the next day. Most services delivered within two or three days. The slowest responses were from Webshots and PhotoCheap; their photos took six and eight days, respectively. In all cases, the prints were sturdily packaged and arrived intact.
If speed is of the essence and you live near one of Wal-Mart’s more than 3,600 outlets, Wal-Mart may be your best option. The company lets you upload your photos from your computer, prepare your order, and select a store, and within an hour your prints will be ready for pickup at your chosen location. You’ll also avoid the shipping charge.
Of course, the true test of any photo service is the quality of its prints. I submitted a variety of images to each service, including a bright landscape shot, a couple of indoor portraits, a low-light test, and a black-and-white image (see “Proof in the Print”). Although no single service gave me the best version of every print, I did find some clear winners and losers.
Overall, Snapfish sent the best images. Its prints all had good exposure, contrast, and detail. The saturation was nice, too. Mpix, which also handled exposure and brightness very well, was a close second. Despite being the slowest service and offering the fewest features, PhotoCheap’s prints were good overall but slightly low on contrast and saturation.
As Macworld has seen in past reviews of photo services (“Turn Pixels into Prints,” June 2002, and “Hot Shots,” October 2003), there was a slight difference in quality between prints ordered from iPhoto and prints ordered directly from the Kodak site, despite ostensibly coming from the same place. Kodak’s print was slightly better than iPhoto’s, but the differences were subtle, and both delivered good results overall—though not as strong as results from Snapfish or Mpix.
The worst of the bunch was Webshots. Its photos were consistently dark, low on contrast, and just plain dingy. Although not as bad as Webshots, both PhotoWorks and Wal-Mart also yielded images that were a little too dark.
The most difficult service to judge was Shutterfly. It provided an almost even balance of acceptable and unacceptable prints. Although no service provided perfect prints for all of my samples, Shutterfly was more varied in quality than any of the others. Before relying on any of these services for a huge order, I recommend trying out a few shots and judging the quality for yourself.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
For getting the best print quality possible, Snapfish and Mpix are my services of choice. While Mpix offers an amazing array of sizes, Snapfish’s excellent image quality and Mac-friendly interface make it the all-around standout.
If ease of use is your top priority and you already own Apple’s iLife suite, iPhoto is your best bet. Although the pictures weren’t the jury’s favorites, they will satisfy most customers, and the time you save on uploading images to the Web may compensate. If you absolutely must have your prints right away, Wal-Mart’s walk-in service may be appealing. However, you’ll get comparable quality by just walking into a nearby photo center. If you go either of these routes, I recommend brightening your images before submitting them.
[ Based in San Francisco, Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography , third edition (Charles River Books, 2004). ]
If you can’t wait a couple of days for your prints and you don’t have a printer at home, look for a drugstore or a one-hour photo lab such as Wolf Camera. Many of these establishments have photo kiosks that can read all major media, including CD-ROMs. After you insert your memory card or disc, you’ll be led through options very similar to what you’d see on a photo-printing Web site. When you submit your order, it’s delivered to the in-house photo lab, which develops your prints just as if you’d dropped off a roll of film. Turnaround times can vary, depending on how busy the store is, but you can usually come back for your prints within an hour or two. I sent my test images to Wolf for processing. Although the results weren’t as good as what I got from some of the better online services, they weren’t bad. If you’re in a hurry to get your prints, or if you don’t have a fast Internet connection for uploading, then kiosk printing is a speedy, affordable alternative.
Counting your pixels
Although different services may have different specifications, here are some general guidelines for how many pixels you’ll need to print at standard image sizes.
Keep in mind that if you’ve changed the Quality setting on your camera, it may not be using its full pixel capac-ity when snapping shots. So while your camera may be able to capture 3-megapixel images, if you’ve set the Quality to Medium to save space, your images may be considerably smaller. If you’re using iPhoto, you can check your image’s pixel dimensions by selecting it in the library and pressing Command-I. In Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, go to Image: Image Size and Image: Resize: Image Size, respectively.
|Print Size||Minimum Resolution|
|4 x 6 inches||1,280 x 960 pixels (roughly 1 megapixel)|
|5 x 7 inches||1,600 x 1,200 pixels (roughly two megapixels)|
|8 x 10 inches||1,600 x 1,400 pixels (roughly 3 megapixels)|
Print at home or order in?
Online printing services will deliver your favorite photos right to your door within a few days. But they’re not your only option for putting those pixels on paper. Thanks to the prevalence of small, affordable desktop printers, it’s easier than ever to print your own photos at home. Many of these printers will even print stacks of borderless 4-by-6-inch prints just like the ones you’d get from a service. So which route is right for you?
How It Works Photo-printing services use a combination of digital and traditional film printing technologies to create your prints. The digital data that you submit is used to expose a piece of photographic paper. That paper is then processed and developed just as if it had been exposed through a piece of photographic film.
The Good The advantage of a photo service over a desktop printer is that the prints you get back will have a truly continuous tone, which means that you’ll never see individual pixels or printer dots (though with low-resolution prints, you might see other annoying artifacts). In addition, the prints you get back from a photo-printing service tend to be far more resistant to fading and color shifts than what you’d get out of a home printer—although that’s becoming less of an issue, thanks to today’s long-lasting inks and papers.
Then there’s convenience. With a photo-printing service, you upload your images and then get back to your life while you wait for your prints to arrive in the mail. You don’t have to worry about choosing papers, trimming borders, or clearing paper jams.
The Bad If you don’t like the results you get from a particular service, you can’t tweak the image and reprint it without a lot of hassle and more waiting. And for larger print sizes, doing your own prints is usually a little more cost-effective, especially when you add in the cost of shipping and handling.
How It Works Ink-jet printers spray tiny droplets of ink onto a page. By combining several (between four and seven) different colors of ink, they create the illusion of a continuous-tone print.
The Good If you need prints in a hurry, or if you want to tweak your prints to perfection, then you’ll be better served by printing yourself. If you discover that you don’t like the color or that the image seems soft, you can make adjustments and print the image again. For low-fuss printing, consider getting a printer that prints only 4-by-6-inch prints, such as the $250 Epson PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition or the $200 Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 375 Compact Photo Printer. These compact printers can print from your Mac or directly from a media card. However, getting good results may take several test prints. This will mean using more ink—the most expensive part of the printing process. Still, the per-print costs for these printers come to around $0.29 per page, which makes them competitive with photo-printing services. And you won’t have to pay shipping fees.
The Bad Making your own prints is more work than ordering from a service, especially if you’re hand-correcting your images. Of course, that labor pays off in better image quality, but if you need to quickly crank out dozens of snapshots, doing your own printing may not be a reasonable solution.
In the end, you can think of these printers as a home darkroom. When image quality is paramount, it may be better to do it yourself. When you need many images with little effort, you should probably go with a photo service.The Epson PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition can print 4-by-6-inch prints from just about anywhere, thanks to an optional battery pack.
Fine-tune prints for iPhoto books
While I might not put the photos ordered through iPhoto 5 at the top of my list, the program’s photo books are a different story. With the release of iPhoto 5, Apple unveiled new book-printing features that offer more options and higher quality than the previous service. Now, in addition to the original hardcover book with single-sided pages, you can choose between several sizes of paperback books, all with either single- or double-sided pages. The new sizes not only cost less (as low as $15, including shipping, for three tiny softcover books) but also offer more design choices, so you can craft books that are appropriate to more situations.
Though setting up a book is easy, it’s not without pitfalls. Here are some tips for getting the best-looking images from your books while avoiding some of the program’s quirks.
Before You Enter Book Mode
If you want your iPhoto books to look fantastic, give the images you include a bit of special attention:
Lighten Dark Shadows iPhoto books suffer from dot gain , a darkening of images that’s caused by the paper absorbing too much ink. So it’s a good idea to err on the side of lighter images. If you have a very dark image, use iPhoto 5’s Adjust controls to brighten it up. Obviously, you don’t want a washed-out image, but if your picture has lots of dark, shadowy detail, a little adjustment can help ensure that you don’t lose it.
Add Contrast The human eye loves contrast. A photo with strong distinctions between light and dark tones will be more pleasing and yield slightly punchier color. Adjusting contrast is very easy in iPhoto 5. Consult the histogram in the new Adjust palette, and set the white and black points so they sit right at the edge of the graph. ( Click here for a tutorial on reading and using the histogram.)
Sharpen The printing process used for iPhoto book printing doesn’t yield tremendously fine detail. Individual hairs and delicate textures can sometimes get lost. So it’s a good idea to apply some slightly aggressive sharpening to your book’s images. This will give you better detail, and it will help to improve the contrast in your final image. Too much sharpness can be a bad thing, though. Don’t push the sharpening to the point where you see noticeable halos around the fine details in your image.
Rotate You can’t rotate images in the book-layout mode, so you need to be sure that all your images are properly rotated before you begin laying out your book.
Convert Books don’t support Raw files, so create JPEG versions of any raw images you want to include, before you start laying out your book.
Perfecting Your Book
Creating a book in iPhoto is simple. Select the images you want to include—either in the main library or in an album—and then click on the Book button. A simple dialog box will let you pick the type of book and an overall theme.
Mix and Match Each theme has a unique overall design and a number of different lay-out schemes that fit into that design. While this helps ensure that there’s a little something for everyone, it also means that you’ll need to do a fair amount of experimentation to find the layout that works best for your project. For example, some page designs crop your photos. You can scale and pan within the cropped area, but if you want to display an image with an unusual aspect ratio, you might need to change that page type, or even pick a different theme. Some page designs also include a field for text, which can affect your page-design choice. You can easily drag and drop new layouts onto a page to change the way each page looks.
Rearrange You can drag images only between facing pages. To move an image from one two-page spread to another, drag it off of the current page; this makes it available for use, and you can then place it on a new page.
Double-Check Your Work iPhoto’s thumbnail display is not always up-to-date. Once you’ve completed your layout, look at each page and be certain it’s correct. Don’t rely on proofing via the thumbnail images.
Force Save Laying out a book can take a while, and iPhoto doesn’t have a Save command. It’s a good idea to quit and restart iPhoto every so often, to force the program to save your book design.iPhoto’s improved book-design interface makes it easy to select layouts for book pages,and to quickly move images from page to page.