Jun 15, 2005

Should You Print Your Digital Photos at Home or Use a Photo Printing Service?

by Valerie Goettsch

There are lots of options available for getting your digital photos printed, but which method is the best and most economical choice for you? Let's look at some of the options and the pros and cons of each.

PRINTING YOUR DIGITAL PHOTOS AT HOME

Convenience and instant gratification are two popular reasons for printing your digital photos at home. Depending on your printer, you can print directly from your camera or from your memory card in most cases. Or if you want to touch up your photos first you can copy them to your computer, use your photo editing software (I like Photoshop Elements 3.0) to enhance your images, and then print right from your graphics program. You don't have to make an extra stop to drop off your photo memory card at the photofinisher or drugstore and then return to pick up your prints, and you save the shipping fees the online photo services charge.

However, printing your photos on your home printer may be more expensive than you realized. The per-print price can approach $1 per picture when you factor in the cost of buying a photo printer, high quality photo paper and lots of color ink cartridges. If you print a lot of photos you'll go through ink cartridges and paper rather quickly, which gets expensive, especially if you make mistakes and have to reprint. If you use inexpensive or off-brand paper, you will likely find that your photos may start to fade or discolor within a few months. According to industry experts, if you print at home, use the same brand name paper as your printer manufacturer (i.e. if you have a Canon printer, use Canon photo paper). Your prints will be better quality and last longer.

USING AN ONLINE DIGITAL PHOTOFINISHER

Online digital photofinishers like Ofoto and the new PhotoWorks make the process of printing your photos very easy. You can edit your photos either using your own photo editing software or download free software from the online line printing service to crop, fix red-eye, and add special effects or borders to your images. Then simply select the images you want to print, click to upload to the photo site, and you will receive your order, printed on high quality photo paper, in your mailbox in approx. 2-5 days. In addition to prints you can order customized photo calendars, photo cards, photo books, mugs, and other photo items. With some online services, like Shutterfly, you can even try out and order frames for your photos.

The downside: you do pay a shipping charge, so you may want to wait and order a number of photos or photo products at one time to make it more economical. Print costs for 4x6 inch photos range from about 19 cents to 29 cents, depending on the company.

Wal-Mart.com's prints are inexpensive and the bonus is you can upload your photos to their website and then pick them up at your local store and avoid shipping charges. Photo stores like RitzCamera.com or WolfCamera.com are also good options because you can either upload your photos to their website and pick them up at a local store in as little as an hour, or you can drop off your memory card at the store and pick up your prints later.

PRINT YOUR PHOTOS AT THE DRUGSTORE

Digital printing is now available at drugstore chains such as Walgreens and Longs. You can bring in your memory stick and use their photo kiosk to crop and edit your images and then print them. The cost is about the same as an online printing service, but you have to stand there at the kiosk and edit/upload your photos. Not something I really want to do, nor do I want to wait in line while someone else finishes their photo order. The good news is these drugstores also offer online photo services so you can upload your photos to their website and you can pick up your prints at their store usually the next day.

The other option is you can drop off your memory card or CD at the drugstore's photo department and pick up your prints anywhere from an hour later to a day later, depending on the service selected, just like the "old days" of 35mm film. The print cost is about the same as full service online photo finishers (less the shipping fee). There are frequent sales, so the per-print cost can be relatively low if you hit a sale, but you don't have the option of cropping or enhancing your images unless you edit your photos then burn them to a CD first.

My suggestion is to experiment with several methods and find the best one that works for you. Whatever you do, don't just let all those digital photos pile up in your memory card or on your computer, get them printed so you can show them off. Of course you can also share them online with family and friends, but that's another article.

Valerie Goettsch publishes the digital photography website http://www.digitalphotos101.com featuring reviews of photo editing and album software and digital photo printing services.