November 30, 2004

Photo Kiosks Reviewed

Digital photo kiosks are dandy, but not all are created equal


There was a time when one-hour film processing seemed like a great deal.

The P-I printed out 12 test pictures from a CD at a variety of local digital print kiosks. See how they rated.

Then came the digital age, with instant images on the back of the camera, but nothing to pack in your wallet, hang on the wall or pass around work.

Now there's a new breakthrough: digital photo kiosks.

They advertise do-it-yourself prints in minutes. As an added bonus, most allow idiot-proof, on-the-spot editing -- from cropping to adjusting colors to eliminating redeye.

Sure, we could print our digital photos at home -- if we want to become Photoshop pros to do the editing and invest beaucoup bucks in a high-quality printer, ink and paper that will stand the test of time. (Industry analyst Kerry Flatley says cost estimates for quality home 4-by-6 prints range from 50 to 70 cents apiece.)

Or, we could drop off our memory cards, CDs and the like at the same one-hour counters where we used to take our film. However, we don't like to leave our personal electronics with strangers, and that whole concept doesn't scream "added convenience."

Incandescent indoor lights make this photo a tough one to print, giving yellowish tint to white clothing unless the printer corrected for it. We also tested how well the kiosks let us crop this photo into a separate portrait of the couple on the left.
So the P-I recently tested how various do-it-yourself digital kiosks measure up against traditional printing techniques.

We loaded a CD with 12 photos taken with a midpriced Nikon camera, choosing a range of challenges -- difficult exposures, poor lighting, varied skin tones and other test markers -- and headed out to the stores.

For added comparisons, we also checked out an online photo service and a high-class professional lab.

Then we asked P-I graphics editor Julie Simon to rate the results in a blind test of our 4-by-6 prints. Details are in the accompanying chart. Here's what we also found:

Wow! -- We're impressed with some features on the more elaborate kiosks -- the tricks that used to require mailing your negatives off to specialty shops and waiting weeks for results. Want to add borders or captions, or use photos on calendars or holiday cards? Done! Beyond the basic editing -- say, removing redeye -- some machines allow fancier options, such as converting photos to antique-style sepia tones.

Overall, the quality is good -- Most of our prints were at least comparable to one-hour film printers. The best prints by far, though, came neither from a kiosk nor a lab, but from Kodak's official online service, (We didn't sample other online services, such as Shutterfly and Snapfish.)

Cost doesn't necessarily equal quality -- The cheapest place we tried -- Costco's 14-cents-per-print machines -- got the highest overall score of any kiosk. And our most expensive kiosk prints -- 59 cents apiece at the Sony machines at Kinko's -- ranked close to the bottom for quality.

It can pay to go to the pros -- Especially with tricky prints. Overall, Prolab, the well-regarded company we anonymously asked to print our photos, scored in the middle of the second wave of "pretty nice" prints that ranked after Kodak's But Prolab's 99-cent prints were the clear winners when we considered only the three "toughie" prints -- dim lamplight, a shadowed face in snow and dark skin tones. Conversely, Costco, which scored so well overall, got poor marks when we considered only those three difficult prints.

We used this photo to test how well the printers fared with sharp details and fine lines. Some succeeded with the detailed dandelion tufts, but couldn't pick up the delicate green colors of the stem.
Time wasters -- Most kiosks work quickly once you get started. However, even a single person ahead of you in line can mean an annoying wait if they spend time on editing, adding captions and general decision making. Plus, two of the stores we tried (Rite Aid and Kinko's) required flagging down a clerk for a password before we could make our final prints. Some stores (Walgreens, Costco) didn't provide instant prints, but transmitted our information behind the counter and told us to return in an hour for the goods. There are no credit-card swipers on these machines, so all require a separate wait in line at the cash register.

Money savers -- Just as digital cameras eliminate the cost of film, kiosks allow you to print only the images you really want. Say a friend sends you a CD of her wedding photos: You can view them all on the kiosk screen, make five copies of your favorite, make single copies of a few others, and not bother with the rest. Plus, editing features like cropping allow you to make usable prints out of images you might not have liked otherwise.

The technology is less than perfect -- The Walgreens kiosk was out of order on our first visit, sending us on a lengthy detour. And when we tried loading our disk onto the Fuji Printpix kiosk at Cameras West in Northgate, it listed three of our 12 images as "corrupt" and therefore unusable. A salesman told us the problem was a common one. He tinkered with his own laptop and used some Photoshop tricks to get our images into a form the kiosk would accept. (When we loaded the disk into another Fuji kiosk at a different store, it recognized all 12 pictures, and a Fuji spokesman tells us it sounds like the Northgate store had an older model.)

This photo helped up test how well kiosks fared with dark skin tones and shadows. Some of the printers darkened the man's face until we could barely make out his features.
What you see isn't necessarily what you get -- Kiosk screen images and finished products may differ. The nifty caption we added to one photo at the Walgreens kiosk, for instance, was printed closer to the bottom edge than we expected on the final print. And we thought we had lightened a dark print to an acceptable level when we looked at the screen of the Kodak Picture Maker at Rite Aid, but it came out of the printer darker than we anticipated.

All machines are not created equal -- Not even all versions of the same machine are created equal. When we first used a Kodak Picture Maker, we thought it had lots of great editing options, but they were of little use for our print-a-few-snapshots goal. The machine wouldn't allow us to make single 4-by-6 prints; we were limited to $6.99 sheets that forced us to cut out three 4-by-6 prints by hand. When we checked with the Kodak folks, they told us that about 15,000 of the 25,000 machines in use in the country are newer models that do produce single prints for between 29 cents and 39 cents apiece.

David Badders/P-I
Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research Associates in Rockville, Md., who specializes in digital kiosk comparisons, said her research showed a wide variation in quality even between the exact same kiosk models. How the machines are maintained, she said, appears to be the big factor that separates one from another.


Kiosk print technology is gaining in both popularity and availability, with 39 percent of digital camera users trying kiosks this year compared with 28 percent last year, said analyst Kerry Flatley, a consultant with the Massachusetts-based Infotrends.
Flatley predicts we'll see more kiosks adding conveniences such as accepting phone-camera images. And both Flatley and digital kiosk researcher Francie Mendelsohn expect to see kiosk printers in more places in coming years, from coffee shops to tourist traps.

"I think you're still just at the beginning," said Mendelsohn.

One of the advantages kiosks offer, she notes, is that some allow users to save images from the camera to a CD in addition to printing them on the spot. "If I'm at the Grand Canyon, I want the security of knowing everything I shot is safely on a CD. But I don't necessarily want to print them, I want to go ahead and reuse my memory card."

Although we thought the do-it-yourself editing was one of the best features of the kiosks, Mendelsohn thinks we'll soon see less of it, or at least more no-edits-allowed kiosks.

"If you have to wait in line while someone is fiddling around ... you're going to say life is too short and you leave."

Fujifilm offers two types of kiosks, said spokesman Andrew LaGuardia -- an Aladdin Digital Picture Center that allows photo editing and is linked to a state-of-the-art photo processor, and the Printpix we used, which is a stand-alone "immediate gratification printer" with no editing options.

-- Rebekah Denn

P-I reporter Rebekah Denn can be reached at 206-448-8190 or [email protected]

Digital photo kiosks are dandy, but not all are created equal

Posted by Craig at November 30, 2004 08:55 PM