Photo calendars: Does it have to be this hard?

The first three Web sites I tried to print my online calendar didn't work out. $198.27 later, nine calendars made with Apple iPhoto are on the way.

I live on the Net. I turn to a browser when a question needs answering, the Web houses my e-mail and photos, and my news and entertainment arrive via broadband.

So it wasn't until the third online Web site failed me that it dawned on me: maybe software running natively on a computer might do better when it comes to printing this year's photo calendar. After iPhoto got the job done, I ended up spending $198.27 for nine calendars through Apple--but even the company that arguably pays more attention than any other to a smooth user experience still made me grind my teeth a couple times. Does it really need to be this hard?

I ended up using Apple's iPhoto to create this year's calendar.
I ended up using Apple's iPhoto to create this year's calendar. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are times when service at phone companies, insurance companies, and car mechanics frustrates me, but their interests--extracting as much of my money as possible--are often poorly aligned with my own. In the case of ordering up some calendars for family members, the roles seemed reversed: I was happy to pay real money, but it seemed like the online companies didn't want to take it.

This was by no means an exhaustive test of publishing sites. I didn't try Shutterfly, WebShots, or any other rivals, and I haven't even judged the output yet. But since the promise of Internet-based business for more than a decade now has been low-friction commerce, I thought I'd share my experience with the world that indicates there's still work to be done. Here's the route my journey took:

First stop: Qoop
In 2009, I ordered my calendars through Qoop, so they had incumbent status this year. I fired up the site, picked an 8.5 x 11-inch calendar, cropped my photos accordingly, and started uploading.

The first problem arrived when about half the images wouldn't upload. I tried again, but had the same problem. A third try with somewhat lower-resolution images seemed to do the trick, but there wasn't any feedback from the site. Each time I clicked through the somewhat cryptic error messages, I saw only my selection of last year's photos at the site.

As it turned out, the photos had uploaded--twice in many cases. I built up the calendar, though, and when I was done, went to the purchasing phase.

That's when the earlier problems turned into a full-on showstopper. Qoop said my mother-in-law's house in the Detroit area wasn't a valid address. Assorted variations and a different browser didn't change this verdict. The site was down for me and co-workers on Friday, and I didn't hear back after a request for comment.

Second stop: Snapfish
So I tried Snapfish, Hewlett-Packard's photo-printing service. Snapfish supplanted Qoop in the Flickr printing arena thanks to a recent deal with Yahoo, so I figured I'd give them a whirl. They were a bit more expensive, but I like the output from HP's Indigo printers, and the Flickr tie-in was convenient.

Snapfish has plenty of calendar options--just not the one I want.
Snapfish has plenty of calendar options--just not the one I want. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

First, I uploaded the shots to Flickr, then used the "Organize and Create" link, and finally the "Print & Create" option to hand off a selection of photos to Snapfish. Alas, one gargantuan high-resolution JPEG I took with a medium-format digital camera was too big, so I had to re-upload a smaller version first.

Then came the sensory overload. Snapfish had a huge array of options for photo calendars--15 choices for "vintage travel," 18 for "damask," 12 for "baby blue," 15 for "colorful stripes," and so on.

Nowhere in the list was the option I wanted: no border at all. I began laying out the calendar with the minimally intrusive black-and-white option, but gave up when I realized I just didn't like it. If I wanted small photos, I'd send my family 5x7s.

"We have found that many Snapfish users enjoy borders around their photos as they allow the ability to add text and captions, making their calendars as personalized as possible in addition to the themes or colors selected," Snapfish said of its approach. More interesting to me, though not in time, they also said they're considering the full-page photo option.

Third stop: Lulu
Next on my trial came Lulu, a self-publishing service I used for my calendar two years ago. I like Lulu's approach, but two years ago I didn't like their quality. Now they have a prominent calendar shown on their site, and given that some Lulu users actually try to make money selling their works, I figured they probably had improved things.

Helpfully, Lulu could also draw from my Flickr account, so I gave the service access to my photos to save on the upload hassle. Or so I thought. Perhaps because I'd marked the photos at Flickr as visible only to me, they didn't show at Lulu.

I considered changing the permissions at Flickr temporarily, but then I thought back to Lulu's quality problems in late 2007 and my inability to find anything conclusive saying quality was better. So, even though Lulu had the best price of so far, I decided against it.

However, Lulu said Friday it's better now. "We've stayed on the cutting edge of digital printing--which has leaped ahead--ensuring our print partners around the world are up-to-date with their technology," the company said, and heavier paper stock makes it harder for a photo to be marred by what's printed on the back side of the paper showing through.

And apparently some people are convinced: "Year over year, the number of calendars published on Lulu has increased 50 percent. Contributing to that growth are several enhancements that we've made to our creation tool prompted by customer feedback," Lulu said.

What else was on my list? Kodak knows its way around a photo print, and I'd had an account there since 2001 or so. But they didn't seem to be as keen on keeping my business when they sent me this message last August: "Because we value you as a customer and we want to continue our relationship with you, we're writing to let you know that according to the Gallery's Terms of Service, you do not currently meet the minimum purchase requirement established by our new storage policy. Please be aware that your stored photos may be deleted if you do not act soon."

In this day and age, printing is secondary to sharing online for me, and my dislike for Kodak's attitude outweighed my sympathy for their cost control needs. So I decided last year to let those online wedding photos at Kodak disappear into e-blivion, and the sour taste in my mouth didn't incline me to sign up again now that I actually was willing to spend money.

Last stop: Apple iPhoto
At this stage, I wouldn't say I was at wit's end, but I was surprised how a task I thought would be routine turned out not to be. A twittered plea for help yielded, among other things, a reminder that another option was closer to my side of the network: Apple's iPhoto.

I don't generally use this software, with my catalog stored mostly in Adobe Systems' Lightroom, but one advantage iPhoto and its big brother, Aperture, have over Lightroom is a direct link to Apple's printing service. I've seen Apple photo books, and though the price was a notch higher than I'd prefer, time is money, and I'd frittered away hours at this already.

I fired up iPhoto, imported the photos, clicked the option to create a calendar--and discovered I'd have to recrop my photos to 10.4 inches by 13 inches. Happily, that's easy in Lightroom, so I re-exported a new batch. From there, I was pleased overall.

(To clarify, the old 8.5x11 aspect ratio and the new, slightly squarer 10.4x13 aspect ratio were not quite the same. Although iPhoto can crop just fine, including in the calendar program, I wanted to do so from the originals, not the JPEGs I'd imported into iPhoto. That let me add back a smidgen of photo to the top and bottom edges, not just slice a whack off the right and left edges.)

The native application gave a much richer user interface than the Web applications I'd been using. iPhoto let me scroll through the project, drag and drop images, shift photos left and right, zoom them in and out to fine-tune the image, revise my photo choices, and generally do it all a lot faster than the online applications (though to be fair I didn't get too far through Lulu's creation process). The software processed the photos locally, downsampling them so the upload was only 20MB rather than the considerably larger size my original photos consumed. And I easily duplicated the first calendar as a starting point for a second one I made for a different batch of relatives.

To be sure, Apple's process wasn't flawless. Because of either operator error or some user interface glitch, I got stuck re-authenticating to my Apple account four times to set up four different shipping addresses. I also had to re-upload the same calendar once for each different destination address.

Finally, I didn't like the space-squandering mandatory subtitle on the cover, which I just left conspicuously blank.

Overall, though, it was a relief to be done with the process, and early reports of the calendar quality are favorable.

Today's cutting-edge browsers enable fairly splashy Web applications, but online services often are hobbled by support for that pesky lowest common denominator from 2001, Internet Explorer 6. I edit my photos on my own machine for a reason, and at least in 2010, calendar creation is another task that I liked better locally than in the cloud.

Updated 10 a.m. PST December 12 with clarification about why I recropped the images in Lightroom, not iPhoto.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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