A Digital Darkroom in a Box

New printing technology gives you photos in a flash--at home

Instant gratification has always been the lure of digital photography. Instant, that is, until it came to getting your images turned into prints that could be pasted in albums, passed around the office, or posted off to distant grandparents. The typical drill was to drop off the camera's memory card at a digital minilab and pick up the prints an hour or so later. Or you could upload your work to an online photo processing site and wait a week for the pictures to show up in the mail.

Now there's a better way: Print them at home--or even on the go--on portable printers designed solely for snapshots. The prints range from a smallish 2-in.-by-2 1/2 in. up to 4-in.-by-6-in. postcards, depending on the printer. In most cases, the prints are dazzling, rivaling the quality of professionally printed ones and far better than what you can accomplish on a home inkjet printer, even using the highest quality photo paper.

I've been playing around with four of these personal photo printers, which range in price from $179 to $500. What a kick it has been. You can take your camera and one of these little machines to parties and churn out snapshots on the spot. Or make a sheet of adhesive-backed, postage-stamp-size photo stickers, a surefire hit with children.

Polaroid cameras spit out instant photos, of course, but that takes special film and special cameras, and the black-backed prints they produce can't be trimmed. But these printers turn out pictures on ordinary photo paper, just like the ones from the drugstore. The secret to their good looks is a thermal process called dye sublimation that prints continuous tones rather than the sprayed-on dots of color on prints that come from inkjet printers. That dot pattern--you can see it under a magnifying glass--tends to give the prints a soft, almost blurry, look.

The ink for dye-sublimation printers comes in cartridges containing a long roll of clear film impregnated with a repeating sequence of one each of yellow, cyan, and magenta dyes, the primary colors that make up a photographic print. A tiny motor pulls the paper in and out of the printer three times and, each time, a different section of the color film is pressed against the paper, transferring its color to the print. A final, clear overcoat is added to protect against ultraviolet rays and moisture. The process takes about 90 seconds for each print. Prints cost from 40 cents to $1 each, depending on size, manufacturer, and the quantity of paper and ink that you buy. So they're generally more expensive than the 40 cents or 50 cents you would pay a retail or online photo processor.

Dye-sub printers, as they're called, have always been big and expensive. Olympus changed that last year with its P-400 printer, the first dye-sub for under $1,000. That one can handle prints up to 8 in. by 10 in. It now has a little brother, the Camedia P-200, designed for 3-in.-by-4-in. snapshots. The P-200 sells for $399, although some stores still carry an earlier package that includes a rechargeable battery for $449.

I also looked at Canon's $299 CP-10, which produces wallet-size photos or sheets of eight stickers, and Sony's new $499 DPP-SV77, which can print either 3 1/2-in.-by-4-in. or 4-in.-by-6-in. snapshots or sticker sheets. It's an upgrade to Sony's DP-SV55, which ranges from $299 to $349. The difference? The new one has a flip-up color display so that you can select and edit your images on the printer instead of on a PC or TV screen.

WALLET WORTHY. My personal favorite was Canon's CP-10, which I saw in a funky blue translucent color. Its wallet-size prints were exquisite. They're borderless, if you want, and the card stock has rounded corners, giving them a very professional look and feel. This isn't a printer for everyone. The prints are small, and the printer doesn't use batteries, so it's only portable as long as there's an electric outlet nearby. It only works with Canon digital cameras, and then only such newer ones as the PowerShot A10 or S300 Digital Elph. The printer comes with a cable that hooks up to the camera; you use the camera's LCD to pick the images you want to print and how you want them printed, with or without borders, say, or in multiples of eight images on a sheet of adhesive stickers.

The Olympus and Sony printers, which print the conventional snapshot sizes, are much more mainstream. The Olympus weighs in at nearly 3 lb with its huge NiCad battery, but that's good for 50 3-in.-by-4-in. prints. (A 25-sheet paper-and-ink pack costs about $20.) It has slots on top for CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards, the most common memory cards used in digital cameras today. You insert the card and use the printer's controls to select which shots you want to print, or for limited editing, such as sharpness control and cropping. The cable and software to link it to a computer, should you want to do more detailed touchups in a photo program, retails for $50. Skip it. You can always upload your finished pictures back to the camera and slip the card out of the camera and into the printer.

Sony's DPP-SV77 is more a tabletop printer than a portable one. It's the most flexible, though, with its built-in touch-screen display for editing. Besides cropping or rotating, you can add text or freehand drawings to your photos, say, to make personalized postcards. It also offers special effects such as paint and sepia looks. The machine makes two different size prints, depending on the paper-and-ink packs you pick.

I was quite intrigued with one other portable printer, the $179 PocketColor 200 from SiPix, a Taiwanese company that recently entered the U.S. market. The cheapest of the lot, it's truly portable, the size of a camera, and weighs a flyweight 13 ounces. But while it looks and acts like a dye-sub printer, it's not. It's another thermal process, and it lays down tiny dots rather than continuous color. The pictures are a scant 2 in. by 2 1/2 in. and don't measure up to the quality of the others. It's an O.K. budget choice if you're only in the market for a novelty printer.

Sure, the dye-sub printers--and prints--are a bit expensive. But these new printers are designed to make digital photography a little more convenient and a lot more fun--and on those counts, they perform quite well.

By Larry Armstrong

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