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We have spent the last month trying out four of the biggest on-line photo printing sites.  What follows is the abbreviated story of what we learned from our adventure... and BOY did we learn a lot!

How it all started.

It all began with some vacation pictures we took in the Southern Caribbean this last fall.  We bought a new digital camera while down there and wanted to share some of the photo's with friends and family.  As always with snapshots, especially those from a camera we were still learning to use, not all the pictures were all that well composed, exposed and otherwise ready for print.

Cropping helped, but we still needed some improvements if we were going to send them to family and friends.  My wife, Kathy suggested we use some of her digital scrap pages from her sight (PrincessCrafts.com) as digital photo frames and set them up as digital scrapbook pages. That way, even the worst of the pictures could be enhanced with journaling and clipart to make them more interesting.

Hey! I love trying new things, so it didn't take much to get me started. Unfortunately, like so many that just dive in without doing much research; I found out the hard way that there's more to these sites than meets the eye.

Now, I don't want you to think I jumped in without really doing any research at all. I checked out four different sites (all offering free trial prints - just pay shipping). We used Webshots (great screensaver program), Shutterfly, Ofoto and Dot Photo. I read the basic instructions page at each site and noted the file type (all sites - .JPG or JPEG) and size requirements for each size print. 

We'll review the results later. First, let's take care of a couple of common questions. The ones I had were:

Q: What are the minimum recommended resolutions for uploaded images?

A: When you order pictures from any of the major online photo printers, you may get a "not recommended" message if you try to order certain print sizes. This means that the resolution of your picture is too low for the size of print you want. They all recommend comparing the resolution of your pictures to these resolution guidelines. Using these resolutions as a guide will help you print the best pictures possible.

less than 640 x 480 Only wallet-size prints recommended
640 x 480 Absolute minimum resolution for 4x6 (results will vary) 
1024 x 768 Minimum recommended resolution for 4x6
1152 x 864 Minimum recommended resolution for 5x7
1600 x 1200 Minimum recommended resolution for 8x10
11 X 14 at 3MP* or better
16 X 20 at 3MP* or better 
20 X 30 at 3MP* or better
* MP (Mega (1,000,000) pixels)

Q: What does image resolution mean?

A: Resolution refers to the number of pixels in an image. Resolution is usually referred to by the width and height of the image but, may also be used as the total number of pixels in the image. For example, an image that is 1600 pixels wide and 1200 pixels high (1600 1200) contains 1,920,000 pixels (or almost 2 Megapixels).

One major note here - if the original photo is blurry or out-of-focus, even if there is sufficient 
resolution, the final print will still be blurry or out-of-focus!

Lesson #1: Different size prints equal different sized images required

The dimensions (height x width) of your digital image are not always the same as those of the print you want to make. In other words, the size needed for an 8 X 10 is different than what is needed for a 5 X 7 and therefore, some cropping (trimming) of your original image is required to make it fit the paper size you choose.  Of course on a straight digital image, there's plenty of empty space on the sides to cut off with little or no effect on the final image (most of the time).

But, on a digital scrapbook page, where we made full use of all the space and left nothing to cut off... cropping, even a little bit is something we don't want.

So, what do we need to do?

We asked that very same question to all of our test sites. Here's what they said:

WebShots and Ofoto.com gave us a list of precise ratio's (one of this equals one and one half of that). They told me that the following aspect ratios are standard: 

For a 4 x 6" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.5. 
For a 5 x 7" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.4. 
For an 8 x 10" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.25.
For an 11 x 14" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.27. 
For an 16 x 20" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.25. (same as 8 x 10") 
For an 20 x 30" print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.5. (same as 4 x 6") 
For a Wallet-size print, your photo should have an aspect ratio of 1:1.5. (same as 4 x 6") 

Dot Photo on the other hand told us to:

Add .1 inch to all dimensions, then multiply by 300. This meant that for an 8 x 10 = (8.1 x 300) x (10.1 x 300) = 2430 x 3030 pixels.

This one really made sense to me. You take the size of the print plus a .1 pixel margin and multiply that times 300 dots per inch resolution (max printer resolution) and you have the perfect print at the printers max capability. Of course this greatly increases the file resolution from the sites stated minimums. 

with this method, the minimum resolution for a 4 X 6" print would be: 1230 X 1830 instead of 480 X 720 by the ratio method. That's almost 3 times the file size. If you have the capability, great! If not, stick to the ratio's above.

Learn more on how Dot Photo's cropping works at: 
http://www.dotphoto.com/Go.asp?l=demo&P=&AID=12369&GID=24566&T=1&Pres=1

Last, but not least, Shutterfly just said you want to make sure the uploaded image matches the aspect ratio of the desired print size. So for a 4x6 it would be 2:3 [1:1.5] and for an 8x10 it would be 4:5 [1:1.25].  I think they just liked to divide by two. As you can see, this was the same as the more precise ratio's provided by Webshots and Ofoto. I guess they really are standard.

So, what does all this mean to us as customers?

1: The higher the resolution, the better the quality and the bigger the print you can have made
2: The higher the resolution, the bigger the file that you have to upload. Allow lots of upload  

    time for large prints. Especially if you use a dial-up connection.
3: If you want full frame prints, here's the chart again in actual Pixels needed (minimums):

These are all at less than 300dpi resolution, but should bear good results. Of course bigger is always better if you have it. Math example: Stated min resolution for a 4X6 was 480X640. the correct ratio is 1:1.5. So, (1x480) X (1.5x480) = 480 X 720.

480 x 720 Absolute minimum resolution for 4x6 (results will vary) 
768 x 1152 Minimum recommended resolution for 4x6
864 x 1210 Minimum recommended resolution for 5x7
1200 x 1500 Minimum recommended resolution for 8x10

Since no exact minimum resolution was stated for the larger prints, only that they needed to be three Megapixels or better, we used the times 300 pixel methods for these and divided the results until we got close to the lower limit. With these larger prints, we really recommend making your resolution as large as possible.

1665 X 2115 Minimum recommended resolution for 11 X 14 at 3MP* or better 

(times 300 method divided by 2)
1725 X 2153 Minimum recommended resolution for 16 X 20 at 3MP* or better 

(times 300 method divided by 2.8)
1587 X 2376 Minimum recommended resolution for 20 X 30 at 3MP* or better 

(times 300 method divided by 3.8)

Bottom line, if you don't apply a crop tool (yours or theirs) to your picture yourself, the printer will. They will automatically crop your image to fit the dimensions of the print size you chose. If the printer does the cropping, they will crop equally from top/bottom or the sides of the image to make it fit. Which gets cropped depends on the print orientation (bigger gets cut).


Lesson #2: If you don't want to deal with exact sizes, use the no crop option.

All 4 of the sites we tested provide a no crop option, one (Dot Photo) even provides a 4 X D (D for Digital) option. This 4xD size is based on 4 in. x 5.33 in. print paper and provides a full dimension digital print, the way you captured it, unmodified. (If you have edited, cropped, added digital frames or adjusted your image in any way, You'll have to order 4x6 or larger prints.) 4XD is for digital prints only. It is not recommended for scanned or prints from film.

If your picture does not otherwise fit the dimensions of your selected print size you can still have your entire picture included on the print. Do this by selecting the 'No crop' option on the sites cropping or order menu. Sites like Shutterfly will then allow you to select 'Crop preview' to see the results. 

What happens is that the print will get an extra white border on one of the sides to compensate for the difference in image resolution. This is what allows the entire image to be printed.

One word of caution if you plan on using this option. This is not the normal procedure for any of these sites, the operators are used to just bringing in the image, selecting the print size and letting the automatic crop features do their thing.

When we asked Dot Photo to not crop any of our images (and we confirmed it in the order printout), they cropped them anyway. More on that in the reviews of each site at the end. Right now, just note that this option may not work as advertised.

Reviews of the sites:

First let me say that, short of cropping problems, you will be extremely satisfied with any of these four sites products. All our photo's were as good if not better than those from film prints and the whole test cost us less than $8.00us to complete. The prints were a lot better than we could have done on our own printer and will last many years longer that what can be expected from most inkjets.

The two sites, Ofoto and Dot Photo, that used Kodak processes and papers had better skin tone colors, deeper reds and brighter whites than the other two that used Fuji paper and processes. But, you really had to have them side-by-side and look very closely to notice the differences. We were happy with all the prints for quality.

That said, let's get to the individual sites and nit pick them a little.

Webshots

Likes - We loved the screensaver that you can get for free from the site. We now use it on all our computers to display our own photo shows. The order process was straight forward and as we said before, the prints (Fuji) were great. The upload process was also very easy to understand and went very smoothly. Best and quickest of the customer services. We got detailed, easy to understand answers to all our questions in less than 24 hours each time. If you do end up having problems, they fix it quick and right the first time.

Needs work - This was the most expensive site of all we tested. While that was only pennies per print, it would add up over time. They also had the least amount of free prints to try the site out. Our biggest complaint, if you can even call it a complaint, was the fact that we could only upload one photo at a time. It was a little annoying to have to keep browsing back to my directory path to get the next photo. I also had to keep track of which photo was the last one I uploaded (hint - rename your files so they are not all numbers).

Dislikes - Nothing here to report. The site is well organized, pretty easy to use and you can't beat the service.

Our rating would be eight out of ten. If you're one of those who always has trouble with technology or needs some extra help with a tough order: We would highly recommend spending the extra few dollars to get the insurance that a great customer service department like Webshots provides.

Shutterfly:

Likes - Besides the 15 free prints to try out the site, we loved the upload interface. Browse to your directory, select all the files you want to upload and then just sit back and wait for it to get done. And, if one or more files doesn't get there, it tells you about it. The price was also the cheapest of all the sites, they seem to always have a sale going on.

Needs work - Customer service was quick, but not always complete or correct. When we asked for the ratio or method to use to get full frame prints, it took us 3 e-mail rounds to get the half answer that we used above. The good news is that once we get it all figured out, this should become a non issue.

Dislikes - The cropping tool didn't show the exact image that was printed. I know this would be no problem for a standard photo that had space to cut, but for us with our framed images, it was a disaster. With even just a small amount of the frames cut off, it made the whole print almost useless. Now that I have the correct ratio's, this becomes less of a problem, but it would still really be nice if I could use their tools to verify my prints before I have to pay for them.

Our rating for this site has to be a six out of ten. Great price, good quality prints, a wonderful upload interface, but with poorly trained customer service and built in tools that don't work real well, it wouldn't be the site I would choose if you need full frame prints or help learning the ropes. However, if you know what you are doing and need good quality at bargain prices... it could save you a little money.

Ofoto:

Likes - Best quality photos that we got. Their customer service, while not as complete as Webshots, was accurate and gave us information that we could understand and use. They also let us upload multiple files at once. Very similar to Shutterfly's.

Needs work - The only complaint I have about this site is how they set up the share photo's process. They require you to enter the e-mail addresses of your family and friends into their online e-mail system. Then they send them the notice and link. Even if they don't capture the addresses and use them for themselves, this is a whole lot of typing when the other sites just give you a link and let you mail it out from your own address book yourself. Minor, yes, but annoying just the same.

Dislikes - I don't have anything really bad to say about this site.

I rate this site nine out of ten. It is my chosen site for most of my current and future photo printing needs. While I'll be using three of the four sites depending on my photo type, this one will get the vast majority of my orders. Kodak paper, good customer service, easy to use and navigate and prices that are only slightly higher than the cheapest site. What more can I say.

Dot Photo:

Likes - The only good thing I have to say for this site is that they used Kodak papers and processing and the quality of the prints were great. Tech support was also good with good detailed answers.

Needs work - The upload process, while it does allow multiple files at once, you have to select each file individually on a different line on the page and navigate to the file each time. The site then uploads your files in one session. You do get to see as each file completes and the progress as they load. Site navigation is also not real intuitive. It was by far the hardest to get around and it took me more than 30 minutes of trial and error to figure out how to delete files from the site. Not real friendly.

Dislikes - I ordered un-cropped images and they cropped them anyway. I notified customer service and only got references to frequently asked question pages and other site information that did not address the issue. At no time did they even attempt to remedy the order problem. As I only paid for shipping on the photo's, I felt lucky to have lost so little. This site has pricing plans that have you paying in advance in exchange for cheaper rates. I now understand why they do that. It locks you in to using them before they have a chance to show you how really incompetent they are.

Our rating... four out of ten! If it wasn't for the quality of the processing, I'm not sure they would rate anything. Do yourself a favor, use any of the other sites out there. This one's not worth your time or money.

My final thoughts.

As you have seen, this was quite a learning experience. You really need to try this out for yourself, with or without the digital frames. The cost was well worth the learning experience and on top of that I got some really great prints. I can't wait to try the largest prints in the months to come. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the mean time, Shutterfly and Ofoto have some great photo taking tips and tutorials. Here's just some of the links below.


Photo Links:

Photo tips that work - http://www.shutterfly.com/foley_tips/index.jsp

Secrets to enduring travel photos - http://www.shutterfly.com/foley_tips/travel.jsp

Photographing kids and pets - http://www.shutterfly.com/foley_tips/kids.jsp

Wes Waddell

PrincessCrafts.com

5505 Whipshaw Rd.

Peyton, CO  80831

(719) 683-5780

 

PrincessCrafts has a great deal arranged for you...

Ofoto, A Kodak Company

 

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  We use and recommend Ofoto and Shutterfly.com -- Kathy