Digital Camera Chronicles
32 -- Making hard copy prints of digital pictures
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
I don't know about you, but printing my digital images is one of the things that annoys me more than almost anything. Try as I might, I almost always seem to run into one snag or another that eventually makes me throw up my hands in frustration and simply give up. As a result, I have large digital image libraries on most of my computers, and a huge one on my main machine. I also carry copies of my most favorite family pictures on a USB storage key on my keychain and on my PDAs. I even have some of those pictures on my cellphone. On the other hand, only a handful of the thousands of digital pictures I shot over the years exist in print. That sometimes worries me. I think my pictures are fairly safe because I keep copies in multiple locations, but after all is said and done print has the kind of lasting value that any kind of electronic storage does not. For example, I have faded but still very acceptable prints of my grandparents and great grandparents that are over a hundred years old. Those prints still give me pleasure (and, of course, I scanned them all so I have digital copies). I highly doubt that had some sort of electronic storage mechanism existed back in 1900 I would be able to read it today. Heck, I probably have interesting data on some of those old 5-1/4 inch floppy disks stored away in my home office and chances are I'll never be able to read those again.
So why do I not have more hardcopy prints of my pictures? There are many answers, but the bottomline is that today's consumer-oriented printer technology is a total pain. I am not saying all printers are bad. We've had probably hundreds in our test labs here at Digital Camera Magazine, and the results they can produce are nothing short of stunning. IF, that is, you take the time to set them up just right, use the exact right driver, calibrate the thing just right, have a brand-new printing cartridge for just that model, and the exact right paper. And you also use the exact right software for it, properly set up. Then you can get some really terrific prints even from one of those dirt-cheap inkjet printers that you often get for free when you buy a computer (you pay later when you have to fork over a fortune for ink cartridges).
Problem with those printers is that you rarely ever have the time to set everything up just right, drivers become obsolete or stop working, software changes all the time, brand-name cartridges cost a fortune and so does brand-name paper if you can even find the right kind. And finding the right supplies is becoming a big problem. So much so that they now even have TV commercials poking fun at the endless list of cartridge numbers and codes.
However, even if you do everything right, chances are you still run into snags. I don't do color prints every couple of days, and by the time I get to it the printer cartridge is usually dried out or so clogged up that I waste precious sheets of costly special paper. Or an otherwise still half-full cartridge runs out of one of the colors, making it useless. Or the printer all of a sudden decides to misfeed paper no matter how you adjust it. Or the expensive paper for some reason decides not to work with the expensive cartridge, leaving non-drying sludge all over the paper. Or the software somehow can't figure out how to properly size an image. Or there aren't enough pixels in an image and it comes out looking terrible. I could go on and on. Bottomline is that the current state-of-the-art in consumer printing technology just doesn't make it for me. And likely for many among you either.
All of my pent-up hardcopy frustration must have led to a massive mental block against other possibilities. I could, for example, transfer my images to one of the numerous internet labs and have them send me the pictures by mail. But that's really what I wanted to get away from when I switched to digital.
There is, however, another solution that's been staring me in the face every time I went to a drugstore for the past few years. They now have those machines where you simply stick in a memory card, click on the pics you want, and then the machine either does the prints by itself or they get transferred to a dedicated printer operated by an attendant. I tried this recently at a Walgreens drugstore and was blown away by how easy it was and by the results. I simply stuck a Secure Digital card onto which I had copied a number of my favorite pictures into the multi-card reader of the machine. It found all my pictures and let me select which ones to print. Within a few minutes, an operator handed me an envelope full of truly terrific prints, just like we used to get from the photo lab in the olden days. No smudges, no frustration, nothing. Just a set of nice, glossy prints. For just 29 cents each, and even less in quantity.
I was very pleasantly surprised and immediately began compiling a larger number of my best pictures. Next Sunday when my 8-year-old son and I went for our family walk we stopped by at Walgreens where I promptly ran into another glitch in the system. The machine supported every conceivable storage card, but not my USB key. Auuugh!