Control vs. Cost

So far, all the advice has been about improving photo prints which you print yourself, on an inkjet or dye sublimation printer. The argument in favour of doing your own printing is that you have much more control and can print out single or multiple copies of any image, any time you like. This control and immediacy can cost more, though, when you compare the price of photos printed at home with those produced by an online or high street bureau.

In the same way you can take in a roll of 35mm film to have it processed in a shop, you can now take in a memory card or a CD, or upload images to a website and have processed prints delivered back to you, sometimes more cheaply than from some inkjet printers.

We sent some of our test images away to be printed by Truprint (www.truprint.co.uk), one of the best-known online bureaus, and by Boots, using one of its in-store photo labs with a kiosk-like front-end. Truprint charges 9p for a 15 x 10cm print, rising to £1.20 for a 12 x 8in. Compare this with anything from 10p-25p for a 15 x 10cm inkjet print, using manufacturer's consumables.

Boots offers both photo labs and Kodak photo kiosks, depending on the store, and there's an online service, too. Photo labs offer both one hour and 24 hour services at different prices, while photo kiosks deliver while you wait, but at a premium price. 15 x 10cm prints cost 30p each for up to 49, using one hour processing, but this drops to 15p each if you're processing over 150 at a time. On the 24 hour service, equivalent prices are 20p and 6p.

From a Kodak kiosk you pay a fairly staggering 42p per print, unless you're printing 50 or more, when it drops to 25p. There's some scope for editing your images at the Kodak kiosk, but with the photo lab, although you can upload them from most memory cards or a CD, you take what the processing gives you.

Our test prints from the Boots photo lab are good, with bright, vibrant colours. Detailed elements are reasonably well reproduced and even areas of dark shadow don't bleed to black. These are traditional photo prints, of course, so are continuous tone, with no hint of dottiness, as you may occasionally see from an inkjet print. The prints themselves have a very high-gloss finish, though there is some trimming of the original image and details near the edges may be lost.

Looking at the Truprint set, the Boots set doesn't look quite so good. Skies in the Boots set have obviously paled more - there's more blue left in the Truprint and far more shadow detail. We're always mentioning shadow detail in printer reviews, to the point where you may think we're obsessed, but there's no reason to lose elements of an image, simply because there's less light available. The information was captured by the camera, so the print should show it.

Comparing both these sets of images with those produced in our recent review of Epson's new Stylus Photo PX800FW - a high-end, photo all-in-one - the Stylus Photo produces images with less red, in fact paler colours throughout. This can be compensated for in software, of course, and an improved photo is just the cost of another print.

And that's the point, really. When you print your own photos, you can fiddle around as much as you like, both to correct prints for problems and to improve images where the originals aren't perfect. You can apply deliberate effects, too, and remove them again if you don't like the results. The versatility of being able to produce a print in a minute or so, without having to wait for the result or leave home to pick it up is the biggest reason for photo inkjet printer sales.

From this brief survey of what's available, you don't save nearly as much as you once did in monetary terms, either. However, the quality of the prints from the photo bureaus, particularly the Truprint samples, were more than acceptable. Buying the right printer for the job, feeding it the best paper and tightening control over colour reproduction using the features of the printer driver and controls such as ICC profiles can produce excellent results on even some quite humble photo printers.

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