Photo printing kiosks: Got what you paid for?

Don't assume paying more for digital prints will get you better prints.

Introduction
Skip the queues
Kiosks aren't kiosks
The results
Worth the full thousand words?
Proof in the pictures
 

Photo
Don't assume paying more for digital prints will get you better prints. David Braue finds some surprising results after road-testing seven Australian digital photo kiosks.

Thinking of printing your latest round of digital photos at home? If you add up the cost of your ink and special photographic paper, commonsense economics will probably convince you to head to your local photo store instead.

Now common in photographic, electronic and department stores everywhere, photo-printing kiosks combine do-it-yourself convenience with the lower per-print cost and high-quality printing process of a conventional photo lab. They take a little getting used to, and you need to be able to get pictures from your computer onto a CD-R or memory card - but after a little bit of practice, it's possible to quickly get excellent results.

Not all printing services are equal, however, and some are downright horrible. Most places offer prints at around AU$0.50 each, but heavy discounting and loss leading by some of the bigger electronics stores have brought sale prices down to around AU$0.15.

Customers flock to such offers, but Harvey Norman recently learned the hard way that this kind of discounting has its downsides: stores were suffering from queues of up to 20m long, four-day turnaround and computers that simply crashed because they couldn't keep up with the load.

At such low prices, logic would argue, surely something is lost? Do you really get what you pay for when it comes to printing at a photo kiosk? We hit the streets to find out.

Introduction
Skip the queues
Kiosks aren't kiosks
The results
Worth the full thousand words?
Proof in the pictures
 

Kiosks aren't kiosks

CNET.com.au recently visited five different photographic printing outlets at Melbourne's Westfield Southland shopping centre: Ted's Camera, Kmart, Big W, Southland Camera House, and Harvey Norman. We also visited our local professional printing shop, Jade Studio in suburban Mentone, to get a set of prints produced under the eye of an expert.

Prices ranged across the full spectrum, with Big W matching Harvey Norman's bargain-basement AU$0.15 per print offer. Regular prints at Camera House and Ted's were AU$0.49 each, Jade charges AU$0.60 each, and Kmart's instant thermal prints (more about these later) topped the charts at AU$0.59 each. Barring Kmart's thermal prints, all shops offer discounts as you print more and more prints in a single job.

At each store, we printed eleven digital images selected to give a wide range of tonality, colour and lighting. Images included colour-soaked sunsets, sodium lamp-soaked pictures from the Australian Open, red-eye-ridden indoor happy snaps, full-sun beach shots, a commercial picture of an astronaut in space, and a green-heavy rainy-day picture. Images were taken to each kiosk on a single SD card, then loaded and printed with default settings.

The only exception was the indoor happy-snap, in which we used the kiosk's red-eye removal feature to replace this extremely obvious picture flaw. Curiously, all of the kiosks we tested replaced the red pupils with a mid-tone grey that looked strangely abnormal during the editing process and just passable when printed. If you want convincing red-eye removal, use a program like Paint Shop Pro (which offers dozens of pupil colourings) to do the job properly before you head to the shops.

Three of the outlets (Harvey Norman, Camera House and Jade) were using Fuji kiosks, while two (Kmart and Ted's) were running Kodak Picture Maker 5.0 software. Big W was using kiosks from once-giant German photographic maker Agfa, although that company's ongoing demise means Agfa kiosks will likely disappear or be renamed in the near future.

In our experiments, the Kodak kiosks had by far the best user interface. Screen quality was bright and clear, making it easy to select pictures to print from a preview. The Kodak and Agfa kiosks loaded thumbnails quickly and only copied over the images it needed to print after they were selected and edited -- making the whole process far quicker; by comparison, the Fuji kiosks wanted to copy all of the 150-plus images from the SD card to their hard drives before allowing our 11 test images to be selected and edited.

The kiosk software can clearly be heavily customised by shop owners, since all three Fuji displays offered a different sequence of options, not all of which added value to the experience and many of which made the process of selecting and editing the pictures less than intuitive. Some kiosks, for example, allowed us to select glossy or matte prints, while others skipped this option and left it up to the operator. Overall, the Kodak software was by far the most intuitive, although the Agfa kiosk deserves commendation for its capable, if less polished, interface. Camera House's Fuji kiosk, in particular, seemed to drag on and on by asking too many questions.

All three kiosks offered similar features, such as the ability to easily select quantities and sizes of prints; basic editing such as red-eye and cropping (which, incidentally, is important to check carefully as aspect ratio differences mean most digital prints will be cropped when printed); and fancy effects such as adding text captions and making calendars and cards.

Introduction
Skip the queues
Kiosks aren't kiosks
The results
Worth the full thousand words?
Proof in the pictures
 

Worth the full thousand words?

Ultimately, however, the decision about which kiosk to use comes down to the quality of the prints that come out the other side. To be as objective as possible, we labelled each set of pictures with a number corresponding to a particular print house, then mixed all prints in each set and put them in order from best quality to worst.

In some cases, the differences between prints were obvious. Shots with large expanses of blue sky, which is filled with subtle tonal differences, showed marked differences between kiosks. The sunset picture showed the biggest variation between prints, while the well-balanced outdoors happy snap, which lacked extremes of tonality or colour shades, was the most consistently good print between kiosks.

Lacking an objective measurement to judge photographic quality, we ranked the pictures based on their overall aesthetic appearance. This included attention to each picture's sharpness, colour richness, detail in darker parts of the picture, rendering of colour tones, warmth of flesh tones and the saturation of bold colours such as the green grass.

The results were surprising. Camera House, the most expensive retail chain, came up tops overall, with an average ranking of 2.81, and Jade Studio wasn't far behind at 3.00. Big W outranked fellow cut-price printer Harvey Norman, as well as Kmart and Ted's -- confirming that you can get good pictures without paying a bundle. Kmart's thermal printing, which uses the kiosk's built-in printer to spit out your prints while you stand there, came up the worst, with an average ranking of 5.54 (buyers beware: many stores without photo labs, such as Officeworks, only offer thermal printing).

We took these results back to Jade Studio, where proprietor Doug Foley has spent the better part of 20 years printing pictures both digital and film-based. Although Foley still prefers film-based photography for pure quality of image, he recognises the shift towards digital has become inexorable -- even though it means a reduction in print quality that seems acceptable to most consumers.

For many such consumers, cost is king: with sale prices dipping below AU$0.20 per print, he says, many big operators are using loss leading to sell prints at below cost. The strength of the convenience sell, Foley believes, can make it hard to convince consumers to pay that little bit more for good-quality printing at their local store. In many cases, he adds, the overall quality of the print ultimately comes down to the printing unit operator -- and whether pictures are just batch printed with automatic exposure settings or get individual attention, as is more likely in a smaller shop.

"Digital printing just doesn't offer the tolerance that photographic film has," Foley explains. "If the printing of a digital image is just a half-stop in the wrong direction, the image can be right out. It's far easier to get good tones from a film negative than a digital image."

Print quality also depends on a host of other factors, ranging from the temperature and mix of printing chemicals to dust on the printing lens, paper used, and operator training and judgment. These all vary from store to store, but our tests confirmed that cheaper stores aren't necessarily skimping on these essential ingredients.

One issue we couldn't test is the longevity of the prints; some papers hold the ink better than others, and all prints will last longer if they're kept out of direct sunlight. We didn't test image permanence in this exercise, but stay tuned. What we did learn was that paying more money for digital prints won't necessarily give you better quality; consider all alternatives until you find the one that consistently produces pictures that suit your tastes, and then stick to it.

Introduction
Skip the queues
Kiosks aren't kiosks
The results
Worth the full thousand words?
Proof in the pictures
 

Skip the queues

Kiosks may be convenient, but that doesn't mean everybody uses them quickly. In fact, the range of image adjustments can be a downright pain if the person in front of you insists on cropping and colour-correcting each of the 200 birthday party pictures they're printing.

Fortunately, the big chains offer online printing services for people who just want to get their prints and get out the door. It will cost a little more per print, but all you have to do is log on, upload your prints, then pick them up from your nearest store when you have a spare minute.

Here's where to go:

Agfa http://www.agfaphoto.com.au
Big W* http://www.bigw.com.au
Camera House http://www.camerahouse.com.au
Fuji http://www.fujicolor.com.au
Harvey Norman http://www.harveynormanprints.com.au
Kmart http://www.kphoto.com.au
Ted's http://www.printed.com.au

*Also offers massive prints in four sizes up to 92cm x 122cm

Introduction
Skip the queues
Kiosks aren't kiosks
The results
Worth the full thousand words?
Proof in the pictures
 

The results

Table 1. Blind ranking of image quality using seven different printing methods.

Picture Tested Best
Worst
Outdoors house shot Green saturation 4 2 1 5 6 3 7
Rollerblading happy snap Overall balanced tonality 4 2 5 7 6 3 1
Dog on lawn Bright sun balance 3 1 5 4 2 7 6
Australian Open crowd shot Indoor artificial light 1 2 3 4 6 5 7
Astronaut in space High contrast, rich colour 3 6 7 2 5 4 1
Inflatable boat at beach High reflection, full sun 1 3 2 6 5 4 7
Dog and girl Shadows in portraiture 1 3 7 2 4 6 5
Beach with shelter Sky tonality, reflective beach in full sun 1 4 2 6 3 5 7
Indoors happy snap Flash-lit photograph, redye correction 2 3 1 5 6 4 7
Australian Open closeup shot High zoom, artificial lighting 3 1 2 6 7 4 5
Sunset at beach Low light, heavy colour 5 4 1 2 7 3 6

Numbers correspond to the outlet at which the pictures were printed (as listed below in table 2).

See the proof in the pictures.

Table 2. Comparative ranking and pricing of photo-printing kiosks.

# Store Avg. rank (lower is better) Paper used Cost per print / Quantity
1 Camera House 2.81 FujiColor Crystal Archive (matte) AU$0.59 (1-10)
AU$0.39 (11-199)
AU$0.29 (200+)
2 Jade Studio 3.00 FujiColor Crystal Archive AU$0.60
3 Big W 3.28 Agfaphoto AU$0.20
4 Harvey Norman 3.91 FujiColor Crystal Archive AU$0.29
5 Kmart 4.63 Kodak paper (photographic) AU$0.29
6 Ted's 4.90 Kodak Royal AU$0.59 (1-10)
AU$0.49 (11-199)
AU$0.39 (200-299)
AU$0.29 (300+)
7 Kmart 5.54 Kodak Xtralife (thermal) AU$0.59

Average rank for each outlet was calculated by averaging the scores given for each picture printed at that outlet. A lower score is better.

 

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