Thinking about buying a digital camera? Sure, your friends will be impressed when you start snapping pictures — and showing the results immediately on a small, built-in screen. But you’ll quickly notice some drawbacks. That little color LCD screen is a battery hog; downloading the pictures into your PC is a pain; and, unless you have a top-of-the-line color printer and special paper, your prints will come out looking like Seurat on a bad day.
In fairness, digital photography does have its advantages. Once you have an image on your computer, you can adjust the colors, clear out red eye and remove unwanted background objects. You can e-mail pictures to friends or use them to create greeting cards. And your computer is a better file cabinet than that overstuffed shoebox in the back of the closet. But even though prices for digital cameras keep dropping, for most people they’re more fun than practical, and sales have been slow to take off.
Three companies — Picturevision, Kodak and soon Sony — have forged an elegant solution to this digital dilemma. They’ve created Internet-based photo-developing services that let you take advantage of the new technology while using your regular camera. You send them your ordinary rolls of film, they send back prints and negatives — and also upload digital scans of your pictures to a password-protected area on the World Wide Web. By logging on from your home or office PC, you — and your friends — can view, download and e-mail those photographs just as if they had been created with a digital camera. Picturevision CEO Phil Garfinkle says these services bridge the gap between traditional and digital photography. “People win always keep their analog camera,” he says. “But it won’t matter whether the photo print is digital or the result of chemical processing.”
We used 20 rolls of film from a recent trip to Africa to test the services. The first step was to send the film to Kodak’s Picture Network for processing. Kodak says the service is available at 30,000 retailers, but we had trouble finding outlets familiar with the new system. We ended up sending the film directly to Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. The prints came back looking great — just what you would expect from your regular developer.
Then we logged on to Kodak’s Web site (www.kodak.com) and “joined” the service by entering a user name and password. After punching in ID codes that came with the prints, thumbnail images of the first shot on each roll appeared on the screen. Though small, the images were easy to identify; after choosing a roll we could scroll through its contents, zooming in for “medium” and “large” views of each picture (on a 17-inch monitor, the large image is roughly equivalent to a four- by six-inch print). Under each photo is a space for a short caption — make that very short (Kodak says it’s making improvements). Images can be downloaded and on your PC, from where you can crop, e-mail and print. You can also send “e-postcards” of individual pictures directly from the site.
Our complaints? The service was slow and clunky even with a 56K modem — you’ll want to use that fast Internet hookup at the office. We also found the interface as a whole a bit awkward, requiring more mouse clicks to get around than it should.
On top of normal processing fees, Kodak charges $5 to scan a 36-exposure roll of 35-mm film; after that, you pay $5 a month to store up to 100 pictures; each additional picture costs just a penny. Reprints can be ordered by credit card and sent to any retailer or home by either the photographer or anyone you’ve given access; cost and quality are comparable to traditional reprints. The difference, of course, is that this process makes reordering prints a lot easier than finding the negatives, marking them and driving to the camera store. And you can use the service even if you don’t have Internet access. Kodak has set up “Image Magic” workstations at retail photo counters and stores nationwide. There, you can look at your pictures online, and technicians will help you digitally enhance your pictures.
Picturevision’s two-year-old Photonet (1-800-PHOTONET) provides the same type of service as Kodak but has partnerships with retailers like Konica and Wolf Photo. Film can be dropped off at retailers or sent by mail to Mystic Color Lab. Envelopes for the mail-order service can be ordered from the Web (www.photonet.com) or from America Online (key word: Mystic Color Lab). After logging on, the site is easy to navigate, letting you see an entire roll of thumbnails instead of just eight at a time as with Kodak. Photonet says turnaround time is two to three days both for prints and digital files; processing and storage fees are on a par with Kodak’s. If you use Microsoft Pictureself or Adobe PhotoDeluxe, you can access Photonet directly and import photos without launching a Web browser.
Later this year, Sony will launch the Sony Image Station (for more information, go to www.sony.com/technology). Although similar to the other two services, Sony plans to move beyond simple film processing. The company says you’ll be able to send your own digital images — pictures and graphics that you have created or enhanced on your computer — and have them turned into high-quality photographs. “Professional printing services will always be better than what you can do at home,” says Sony’s Jim Hollingsworth. “That’s the difference between amateur and pro.” We may be amateurs, but with these new services, it’s getting harder to tell the difference.