Digital Photos, On the Double

Self-service kiosks and digital minilabs are cropping up everywhere

The cool thing about digital cameras is they let you see the picture you just shot -- so you can delete it and try again if it didn't come out right. But turning the keepers into prints has been a hassle. You had to use a home printer or upload them to a photo Web site, and wait for prints in the mail, or find a specialty photo shop to send them out for processing at premium prices.

Now there's an easier way. By the end of the year, you'll be able to walk into just about any big discounter or drugstore and use a machine that prints out your digital images -- if not on the spot, then within an hour. Retailers are rushing to outfit their one-hour photo labs with equipment to read the images from your digital camera's memory card. Some are installing stand-alone kiosks with a dedicated printer that churns out prints instantly.

Prices have come down, too. You'll spend about 29 cents apiece for minilab-made 4-in.-by-6-in. prints, roughly what you now pay per print to develop and print a 24-exposure roll of film at a one-hour-photo center. Snapshots from an instant-print kiosk will run more because the retailer's ink and paper costs are higher. Still, in the long run you'll save money. That's because, with a digital camera, you've already deleted the duds you would otherwise be paying for on a roll of film.

I did my own, admittedly unscientific, survey of retailers that print photos. I took the CompactFlash card from a Hewlett-Packard camera and toted it around Los Angeles to shopping centers, strip malls, and drugstores in quest of a simple, album-ready, 4-in.-by-6-in. glossy. What you find when you walk into a store is still pretty much hit-or-miss. Employees at some told me their minilabs could not yet print digital images. Others, such as most Eckerd (JCP ) and Target stores, want you to leave your memory card or CD and pick it up when you claim your pictures. (It's a good idea to write your phone number on the card itself.) Some stores have self-service kiosks: I tried out versions made by Eastman Kodak (EK ) Fuji (FUJIY ) Pixel Magic, Noritsu, and Sony.

DO IT YOURSELF. I paid from 19 cents per print at a simple Noritsu terminal at Costco (COST ), a membership warehouse club, to 79 cents at a Sony PictureStation at a one-hour-photo shop in a Pasadena (Calif.) strip mall. In between: Target, Walgreen (WAG )s, and Wal-Mart Stores charged 29 cents, the same as a reprint from film; a Ritz Camera shop with a Fujifilm kiosk wanted 49 cents for a 3 1/2-in.-by-5-in. print (it couldn't make a 4x6); and a strip-mall photo store charged 50 cents each for prints from a Pixel Magic iStation.

All the kiosks work pretty much the same way. You insert your memory card -- some will also accept CDs and floppy disks -- and your images come up on a screen. The machines guide you through the process of pointing at the images on the screen to select the prints and sizes you want. Most of them will let you do simple editing, such as zooming and cropping to center the subject, or removing red-eye and adjusting the contrast. (Some have turned off the editing features to keep customers from tying up the machines.) You usually can add an index print with thumbnail images of all your shots for about $1 and archive them on a CD for $3 to $5.

One caution. Most of the Fujifilm Aladdin and Kodak Picture Maker kiosks you'll find in stores were designed to make reprints from scanned-in photos. Many have been upgraded to handle memory cards, but the price hasn't budged. It's $4.99 to $8.99 for a single sheet. You can get three 4x6 prints per sheet, but that means they'll cost you as much as three bucks each.

The kiosks are connected to their own printer or to the store's photo minilab. So when you push the final button, either the prints start coming out instantly, or the kiosk prints out a receipt that you use to pick up your prints later. Tip: Don't forget to retrieve your memory card from the machine.

I was more than happy with the quality of my snapshots. The difference was largely in the heft of the photo paper -- ranging from pretty thin for the Noritsu prints at Costco to postcard stock from the Pixel Magic machine. They certainly looked better than the same pictures printed on standard Canon (CAJ ) and HP inkjet printers at home.

Eventually, you'll be able to get your prints anywhere -- as the kiosks start popping up on cruise ships and in hotel lobbies. That has never been possible with film. For now, it's easy enough to find a place to make hassle-free prints at a reasonable price. That means it's finally time to print out all those pictures lurking somewhere on your hard drive.

By Larry Armstrong

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.