In summary Full review For all the undeniable advantages of digital photography, until recently the missing link has …
For all the undeniable advantages of digital photography, until recently the missing link has been an easy method of obtaining good quality prints from you digital camera.
While home printing is a satisfying final stage in the cycle of making a photograph, in practice it has tended to limit the number of pictures that see the light of day rather than the glow of the PC screen.
Home printing is an excellent way of producing one or several enhanced and colour corrected ‘fine print’ enlargements, but it’s a time-consuming, tedious and not particularly cheap way of knocking out 20 or 30 postcard-sized prints to share with friends or to put in the family album.
Systems like Adobe’s PictureMate and Kodak Easyshare automate snapshot printing at home, but aren’t for everyone.
‘Digital camera owners are using a combination of printing services to meet their needs,’ said Kerry Flatley, a consultant at US-based InfoTrends/CAP Ventures in an article in www.kioskmarketplace.com. “Digital camera owners who print at home and at retail prefer a retail environment for enlargements and for printing more than 10 photos. Printing at home is considered a convenient option and the best choice when producing fewer than 10 photos. These locations are not mutually exclusive…the two will continue to co-exist.”
– This will be a welcome development for on-site photo stores. While there has been a massive increase in the number of pictures being taken now that digital cameras are a mainstream consumer product, the number of prints being made has been falling away, resulting in minilabs around the country closing their doors in unprecedented numbers in the past 12 – 24 months.
In the days of film camera photo processing we ended up purchasing a bunch of dud or indifferent shots along with the nuggets. Now we’ve swung to the other extreme, where pictures which probably deserve to be made into prints miss out because it’s all too hard, or there’s not enough hours in the day.
Through 2004, however, over 1000 digital photo kiosks were installed around Australia in photo specialist stores, consumer electronics stores and mass merchants. Harvey Norman alone plans to have 65 kiosk-equipped stores by the end of June, with at least four kiosks in each. Along with online services – which will no doubt increase in popularity as so-called broadband internet connections expand – kiosks would appear to represent the future of commercial digital printing outside the home.
We decided to conduct a very informal survey of these services. Armed with two digital image files of no great distinction (they just happened to be on the Compactflash card) Photo Review trialled a range of kiosk ‘solutions’ in Melbourne and Sydney.
Under the hood
There are two distinct printing technologies used in photo kiosks:
Some kiosks take the digital file and forward it on to a connected digital minilab, which is usually behind the counter, but sometimes at a remote location. Silver halide paper is exposed to laser light to produce an otherwise conventional print in a bath of processing chemicals.
On-the-spot kiosks use a “dry” thermal dye transfer printer housed inside the unit to produce prints. The economics go something like this: a digital photoprocessor or minilab costs several hundred thousand dollars, but allows the store to use silver halide paper, which is much cheaper than the consummables used in thermal – or for that matter inkjet – processes.
On the other hand, the purchase price or lease on the thermal, while-you -wait technologies is much less, but the store pays more per print for the paper and thermal ribbons to make the print.
Several kiosks that we trialled were hybrids, in that they offered the while-you-wait option as well as being linked to a digital print processor.
Surprisingly given the quality and increasing speed of photo quality inkjet printers, no kiosks we saw used inkjet technology.
To generalize, the quality delivered by silver halide-based systems is better than thermal printers – so price aside, there’s a trade off: wait for better quality, or accept a slightly lower quality product on the spot.
While each of the prints we purchased would slip into the ‘merchantable quality’ class, there were great differences in the look and even the feel of individual prints within the sample. I was amazed at just how many different renditions of a blue sky could still look fundamentally realistic!
When a side-by-side comparison was made, the results from the kiosks as a category started to look a little ordinary. By themselves – which, importantly is how most people will see their prints – they looked quite acceptable, but there’s a noticeable lack of punch when up against most of the silver halide examples. Yet the best of the thermal prints – a Fuji PrintPix from Camera House Camera Action in Elizabeth Street Melbourne, was remarkably close in colour and contrast to the store’s silver halide examples, while perhaps the weakest print of all was on photographic paper, from a Sydney Big W store running an Agfa D-Lab. (The other print from this store was, on the other hand, quite good, as the machine delivered pleasing (flattering?) skin tones.)
Interestingly, prints from a Big W store in Melbourne were quite different to those from the Sydney Big W store using the same Agfa equipment, but nevertheless problematic for different reasons, namely a distinct red colour caste and underexposure, which made mid-afternoon light appear like early twilight.
(At this stage we should put all this in context: it’s neither fair nor reasonable to judge an individual lab in one visit with just two sample prints. Nor are these opinions supported by anything more than subjective visual judgements and a loupe. Please view these comments as ‘impressions’ rather than something more definitive.)
Side by side comparison of the printers revealed another interesting difference – the severity and area from which cropping of the image takes place. Most crop from top and bottom of a horizontal frame. Camera Action in Melbourne offered an innovative service – the alternative of 6×4.5″ prints. While these won’t fit into a standard photo album, they give you the full picture.
Ease of Use
Fr a population that has taken VCR programming, ATMs, EFTPOS and internet banking in its stride, the digital photo kiosk should hold no fears. The ’round hole, round peg, square hole square peg’ quest to find the right slot in which to insert your memory card is probably the most challenging part of the process.
It’s quite easy to make adjustments to an image and crop it. Some units also offer red-eye removal and more advanced editing and enhancement functions. While these are great for, say, brightening up a distinctly dark shot, making finer corrections is trickier unless you can be assured the screen is reasonably well-calibrated and properly lit.
Unless you’re familiar with the screen of the particular kiosk you’re using, you’re probably better off simply hitting the ‘Autocorrect’ button and trusting in the system to do the calculations for you.
The people behind you on the queue will also think more kindly of you. As kiosks become more popular, ‘Kiosk Rage’ is no doubt going to emerge as a new societal dysfunction. Waiting behind someone ordering up 50 or 60 prints with cropping and captioning while the person behind the counter looks on idly and helplessly is bloody irritating. Expect to see the photo kiosk version of supermarket Express Lanes before too long.
If you want to print out a lot of digital files at best possible quality, you would be better off making your corrections and enhancements at home with Photoshop or the like, and authoring the images to a CD.
– There’s a lot of waiting involved with photo kiosks. Even though it’s possible to bang a print out of a digital photo printer in a matter of minutes, most stores with silver halide prints asked us to return no sooner than an hour, and more often than not, next day. The exception to this was Paxtons in Sydney, which had prints ready in a more realistic 15 minutes.
The payment side of photo kiosks is another area begging for improvement. At present it’s a matter of taking a docket that issues from the kiosk to the counter, and then returning to pay for the order and collect the prints. The kiosk ‘model’ is crying out for the addition of a built-in EFTPOS facility.
The variations in quality in this survey were minor compared to variations in price! There are a few factors at work here: first it’s a new retailing category, and no-one’s quite sure what the market will bear in terms of price. Secondly, we have some of the big guys of Australian retailing, in the guise of Big W and Harvey Norman – offering cheap printing as a lure to get shoppers through their doors. It makes sense – each person who comes in with a print order has to come back again to pick it up, so that’s two visits for the price of one cheap service.
This is going to make life very tough for the independents, who have to actually make money from their digital printing equipment – and almost definitely paid more for it in the first place. Now Extrafilm, which has cornered the lucrative airline vomit bag segment of the market, is offering digital prints at just 15 cents. This will make the independents even more queasy, as it appears that consumers are particularly price sensitive to digital prints. Big W’s 25 cent prints created a 10-deep queue for print collection in Melbourne, while a Harvey Norman outlet in the same shopping mall with 33 cents prints was distinctly quiet. But without a 25-cent competitor, the Sydney Big W store reported they were handling about 2000 prints per day with their 33 cents prints.
Independent photo specialists just can’t compete with those sorts of prices, but nonetheless represent good value for discerning, quality-conscious photographers. Photos from Camera Action (Melbourne, 65 cents), Camera House (Sydney, 60 cents) and Paxtons (Sydney, $1) were among the best in this survey, there was no waiting to use the equipment, the range of options was larger, and service people were on hand to offer knowledgeable service.
(Having said that, both service and quality from Harvey Norman and its Fuji kiosk/Frontier system was surprisingly high for a mere 33 cents, and its prices for enlargements were also the best on offer.)
The common denominator for quality from this small and highly unscientific survey seems to be Fuji equipment. All prints from Fuji – be it from Camera Action in Melbourne, Camera House in Sydney or Harvey Norman in Melbourne, were very pleasing and had a consistent look to them.
Paxton’s Kodak kiosk/Noritsu lab equipment combination produced good-looking, highly saturated but slightly cool prints. The Agfa equipment in Sydney and Melbourne delivered wildly different-looking prints, neither of which set were from the top shelf.
When it came to dye transfer prints, the stand-out performer was the Fuji PrintPix system at Camera Action – it was also the cheapest of the while-you-wait alternatives.
In terms of keeping qualities, The Wilhelm Institute rates Fuji Crystal Archive silver halide paper as the best medium, with a life of 40 years in home display conditions.
Overall we found the kiosk experience enjoyable, excluding the occasional queue and some extended turnaround times. Quality achievable from a moderate resolution original was better than anticipated and this combined with prices currently on offer make kiosks an attractive alternative to ‘mass production’ home printing.
But don’t take our word for it…
Big W – Melbourne city
Noticeable colour casts
Harvey Norman – Melbourne city
Big W – Sydney
Camera House – Sydney
Camera Action – Melbourne city
Best dye transfer
Camera Action – Melbourne city
Kodak Express –
Copal Dye transfer
Average – contrast lacking
Paxtons – Sydney
Kodak Kiosk to MiniLab
Good colour, high contrast
Kodak Express – Melbourne city
Kodak Xtralife (dye)
Average – slight overexposure
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