20 March 2000 (Updated 3 April 2000)
A set of 50+ images consisting of various digital images were submitted to Ofoto and Shutterfly companies for prints on the same day. These images included web page captures, images of popular stars from web sites, scans of exisiting photographs, and a Photodisc test target image file (an accurate color digital image created by Photodisc for reference use that includes four standard color test charts, like Macbeth, and digitally photographed under careful control). Subjects included web site, popular stars, cars, planes, flowers, advertisements, etc. Varying sizes of images, varying in image quality, were submitted to test the quality of their color and resizing adjustments. 4x6" prints were ordered.
A smaller set consisting of the Photodisc test target and several images were submitted to Photoaccess.
The free Photodisc test target can be downloaded from ftp://ftp.photodisc.com/pub/test_targets/ and use the decompressor at Aladdin to unpack the files.
Here, Shutterfly gets the nod for having a plugin that allows for mass downloading of images by simply dragging and dropping groups of images into their plugin loader embeded in the web page. However, the plugin download is large, and for IE, was not successful installing on the first try on my machine. There was not indication of how much longer to wait on the IE download; the plugin for Netscape installed the first time and you could track the progress as it was a regular file download. Ofoto requires you to type or browse to locate each and every file you upload through the web page, but does offer a stand-alone download (about ~1.2MB) that allows you to select photos and upload them all at once. Ofoto does let you input up to 10 names at a time for uploading through their web site, so it is not too bad if you choose to manually select and upload files, esp. if you have numbered your images numerically.
Ofoto does not provide any progress bar indicator during the uploading of files, so there is no way to tell if the connection has failed and needs to be retried. Shutterfly does provide a progress bar.
Shutterfly is more annoying if you have already grouped images together for uploading. It first thumbnails all of the selected images, then you must click to upload the images. If you forget this second step, you must start over again. Ofoto uploads all images chosen in one step.
Photoaccess requires you to upload a single file at a time through their web interface. Otherwise, you may download a ~800KB application that allows you to upload multiple images at a time. One failing point is that it decodes each image entirely to create a small thumbnail for you to see when you choose files. Thus, unlike fast image viewing programs like ACDSee, where only a very quick image preview is generated, you'll need enough spare HD swap space for this program to open up each image. (eg. ACDSee can generate an image preview of the Photodisc test target in a matter of seconds w/o having to open up the entire 40+MB file, and does not take more than a few KB of swap space if RAM is not available. The PhotoAccess download takes up the full 40+MB of swap space! to generate the same tiny image preview, which takes minutes waiting for the HD to stop thrashing about.)
Shutterfly fails here in that you cannot delete all albums. You must first create a new blank album before deleting the last filled album. Ofoto allows you to delete all albums so you can clear out all prior images in preperation for new ones.
Right away, Ofoto and Shutterfly fail. Neither allows viewing of the original image at the original size, instead, reducing the image to fit their smaller dimensions. Photoaccess allows you to view and download the original images at their original sizes as uploaded.
Shutterfly is more troublesome in viewing the albums. It only displays two rows on-screen at a time, and scrolling up and down through albums of dozens of photos takes forever. Clicking to view an image loads it in the same frame, so when you go back, the two rows of thumbnails must be reloaded again -- a much slower browsing method than what Ofoto uses. Ofoto simply loads the thumbnails for all images in the album at once, and a click brings up the image in another popup window. Photoaccess has 16 image thumbnails on-screen at once, and a click brings up the image in a new window - a good balance.
Unfortunately, neither Ofoto nor Shutterfly has gotten the idea to display the thumbnails along the left or right column, whereby a click brings up the image in the main frame in the middle. Clearly, they've never looked closely at famous fan pages where this sort of thing is commonly used to provide a good balance between thumbnail load time and the ability to view the full sized images easily.
Missing features, esp. for larger albums, include a selector that would let you pick how many thumbnails to display at once (eg. 10 at a time for slower connections, 100 at a time for those of us with fast connections), and the ability to view the original file at the original size. However, Photoaccess does show the number of total pages in an album and lets you jump directly to any page.
Unfortunately, Shutterfly is confused. Adding an image to an order at 4x6"
updates the price, but selecting another image size means several more steps,
and there's no way to apply a new size to all images in the order w/o additional
steps. Additionally, bringing up the Edit Order button pops up another window
animal they've got for editing the order.
Photoaccess only lets you add a package of prints for the entire album or you must pick one photo after another, a tedious event given that you must click on the photo then mouse across the screen to the 'Add To Order' button. Prices per print for all sizes are displayed. Shipping costs are not displayed here, but later as you enter the checkout area.
Here, Ofoto gets the nod for having a very clean layout where all pictures in the order are displayed at once, along with the price & shipping costs for every size. You can easily apply options like selecting different sizes and quantity to single photos and the entire order in one step, far exceeding the yucky, buried interface at Shutterfly. Having the price and shipping costs just one click away from any point in Ofoto's site is an excellent point and beats having to dig deep into Shutterfly to find the same information. Ofoto's clean and quick interface gets pluses here.
Here, all companies are even. After submitting all photos for prints, all companies finished processing and delivered within days.
The Ofoto package came in two partially opaque envelopes, both inside a heavy,
brown cardboard envelope. No photos were damaged during shipment.
The Shutterfly package came in a more colorful envelope just slightly larger than the size of a single, partially opaque envelope (the same used by Ofoto) that contained the photos. Again, no photos were damaged during shipment.
The partially opaque envelopes both companies use is a poorly constructed item. A few rounds of use and the glue fails and the envelope falls apart - requiring either glue or tape to hold it together. Even the cheap, expandable paper envelopes used at local processing stores hold up to more use than these, and clearly, neither has thought of Tyvek waterproof and tearproof envelopes.
Photoaccess delivered the photos in a sturdy envelope with the photos inside in a paper envelope. No problems here.
Both Ofoto and Shutterfly companies give you the satisfied or your money back guarantee, and both CEOs provided their direct email addresses for comments. Shutterfly provides their mailing address at the bottom for those of us who still write letters; Ofoto provides the email for their support team - a plus when you aren't satisfied with their prints. Photoaccess provides the address and guarantee, but points you to their support email address instead. No CEO/Owner email is given.
Examination of prints made these
companies provided insight into the quality
of prints. In this case, identical images had been sent to both companies,
including one test target image that is highly accurate in color balance and
Here, Shutterfly gets the nod for producing the best prints when viewed unmagnified. Photo prints came out more accurate in color saturation and contrast, matching the originals more closely than Ofoto prints. No visible scan lines were visible with the unaided eye.
Ofoto is poorer in two areas. The first is Ofoto prints images with too much contrast. As a result, shadows and colors print darker than the original. Not only that, a test image of yellow on yellow came out orange and red on yellow instead -- clearly too much contrast adjustment!
The second is Ofoto prints occasionally have visible scan lines across various parts of the image, like across dark skin areas. This is caused by the imager scanning to create the image on the photo, unfortunately, not accurately or with adaquate resolution.
If you want photos where the chins of gals are noticably out-of-round due to heavy pixelization caused by even lower scan line resolution than Ofoto's, Photoaccess has them. While they do not have a contrast problem ala Ofoto, their photo rendering hardware is of such low-resolution, I can easily see scan lines and pixelated chins on the images of the people I've sent.
This changes however under magnification.
Ofoto prints do not have any color misregistration under 8x loupe magnification viewing; Shutterfly prints do. This misregistration is particularly evident around all Shuttfly prints of color test charts in the one calibrated & accurate test target image sent to both companies for printing. Halos appear around all square test target cells in the Shutterfly prints, but visible only under magnification, not with the unaided eye. Photoaccess prints were worse in that scanlines were much wider than those used by Ofoto, and details that could be seen clearly in either of the other two prints were blurred beyond recognition on the Photoaccess prints.
Finally, the Shutterfly prints were sharper (ie. higher resolution) than the Ofoto prints. This was confirmed using the resolution bars in the test target image, with Ofoto unable to cleanly print half of the tighter resolution bars.
While Shutterfly prints are less contrasty and subdued than the Ofoto prints, unless you want exacting matching of colors to the original and know what the exact image should look like, both will produce acceptable prints for the most part from the majority of images submitted. Both were capable of outputting the rare, stunning prints from various images just as they were capable of poorly adjusted prints. Photoaccess prints were lower contrast than the Ofoto prints and similar to the Shutterfly prints.
A closer look at the three prints revealed this interesting note: Ofoto was better than the other two companies at rendering the blackest pure black. All three were poor in this area because under 8x loupe magnification, you can see the slightly visible edges of the scanlines and pixels, even in areas that were 100% black (0,0,0 RGB) in the original images. Clearly, upon side-by-side comparison under direct lighting and lighting from behind the prints, you can see that the Ofoto blacks were superior however. This contributes to a wider color gamut on the Ofoto prints and the added feeling of depth you see in the Ofoto prints despite their wacky color balance (that turns yellow flowers petals into orange-red!).
You may wonder why these defects occur. There are two main ways of rendering an image to photo that have been used for decades. Scanlines are generated from CRT/Laser sources that project the image onto photo paper; LCD/DLP with light shining through or on them to create the square pixels.
Photo paper is white unless exposed before processing. Thus, any areas that the light generated during the imaging process will turn that area to another color. Areas missed will remain white. Clearly, the problem with all result from the inability of their imagers to cover black areas 100%. As a result, slight white areas will remain, and when viewed normally, appear less black than a pure photo black ought to be. The closer the pixels or scanlines, the better they can provide full coverage.
High-quality images as low as 640x480 could be printed with very good results,
much like images taken with an average point and shoot camera. Naturally, a bit
of softness is to be expected due to the lack of detail in such low-resolution
images. Heavily compressed images, such as those stored in JPEG format at all
sizes, however, arrived pixelated and blocky. Images at 1024x768 size were very
crisp and sharp -- this is the lowest suggested resolution for a very sharp 4x6"
Most images were satisfactory as long as they had enough detail in the original images. While the lower-resolution files did come out blocky, this is identical to what you'd get at home on your printer with minor adjustments. Only extensive photo retouching work would allow better prints, whether from these online photo printers or at home. Naturally, this simply means that you should expect good prints as long as you submit high-quality digital images to them. They are not in the photo retouching business, nor will bad images look amazingly sharp when requested printed.
Photoaccess was the sole company that produced prints that were bad to look at and worse than Ofoto's. The comments above do not apply to Photoaccess prints given that you can see obvious stair-stepping on chins whereas the same print from the others were rounded and smooth.
All images that were of high-resolution and printed exceeded all home photo inkjet printers previously available for <$500. Today, printers that match the quality of these online photo printers are the Alps 1300/5000/5500 dye-sub printers and other, more expensive dye-sub and/or thermoautochrome printers, and the affordable Epson 870/1270 6-color photo inkjet printers. (see my Dotty Spotty review on the excellent Epson 870) The quality of the Epson 870 is so good in fact that it appears slightly sharper and crisper on the Photodisc test target than all three. You might as well buy an Epson and print photos at home -- at least you can control the color balance whereas you can't with any of these online printers and get better results.
The Shutterfly prints came on unbranded photo paper; the Ofoto prints came on
Kodak Professional Digital Paper photo paper; the Photoaccess prints came on
Kodak paper. All are not waterproof, unlike
dye-sub prints from the Alps 1300/5000 and other dye-sub prints, and wet fingers
will leave an impression that cannot be wiped off with a dry cloth.
No archival data is provided to determine the longevity of prints from either company. All papers feel like regular, glossy photo paper.
Shutterfly does not allow any options and fits all images to the borders of the
4x6" paper, croping and triming the original digital image as they please to
make it fit. There is no way to specify which portion of the original image to
keep. Photoaccess is the same.
Ofoto goes one step better by allowing the option of fitting the image within the 4x6" paper, leaving white borders around the image, but maintaining the entire image as originally sent.
Sadly, none remember the age of the 60s and 70s where photos all came with a
small white border around the entire image for all photos. This is advantageous
for keeping fingerprints off the main image, just hold it by the edges as well
as for framing and mounting in photo albums with photo corners, which overlap
the paper slightly and thus a white border would be preferable.
Taken a step further, they should also allow printing of the title and/or date and other data in this white border frame just like photos were printed decades ago.
Shutterfly gets the mark for printing a unique PrintID number and date printed on the back of every photo. Nothing is printed on the back of the Ofoto prints. A few lines are printed on the back of the Photoaccess prints, but nothing else - and those lines don't seem to be barcoding anything significant either. None have any sequential numbering of prints made in one order (eg. Order #1, Photo #1. Order #1, Photo #2...) that you would expect to help you keep the photos in order. You can submit your own titles for each print to any company, but this is extremely tedious when doing more than a dozen digital prints.
Ofoto gets the mark for identifying the order and shipment # on their index prints, along with the total quantity of prints per size ordered. Shutterfly does not identify anything on their index prints besides the unidentified barcode and number underneath. The small index photos are approximately 1cm wide on each and are adaquate for identifying all photos shipped. Photoaccess does not index print and only identifies the order number/date on the letter itself.
Neither Ofoto nor Shutterfly identifies the quantity and order of their index prints (eg. index 1 of 3, index 2 of 3, index 3 of 3) unfortunately, nor dates them with the order date to help track, sort, and identify orders and photos. Photoaccess gives you the total quantity of prints in the letter, along with the order date.
All companies should, at the minimum, index every photo with a order # and
photo #, both of which should begin at #1 for every new customer. In addition,
every index print should reflect this information (ie. order # + photo # under
every index photo for quick reference). This is used by Mystic Photo Labs, a
mail order photo developer back east, and is very convenient. (eg. every new
order should increment by one, the photo number should start from 1 on every new
order and count to the number of photos submitted for that order.)
Naturally, it would be convenient if this was reflected online so that entering an order+photo # would instantly find the original photo for reprints and reference.
No company has an option to order only a set of index photos, indexed by order#+photo#. This option would open up many avenues of use - index file for semi-pros so they can print photos to order for customers that want to buy a print of their work, to mail to family who are not on the Net so they can order prints of photos you have, allow you to check a box next to each and mail the index back to them to have more prints made of favorites, etc.
Unfortunately, neither Shutterfly nor Ofoto offers slides from images, an option perfect for
doctors (so they can present their findings and digital images of cells, xrays,
etc. at meetings), any projected meetings (slides can project up to wall size
vs. the much smaller 8x10" prints), etc. Also, slides inherently have a much
broader color and light range than prints. Thus, slides made from digital images
will be truer to the originals and more colorful. (eg. Dmax of slides is ~3.6 vs
~2.5 for prints, the logrithmic range between darkest and lightest colors
reproduced by any medium.)
Photoaccess offers you the opportunity to order 35mm slides made from your images.
Too bad none offer dye-sub prints or coated prints that are waterproof like dye-sub prints are. This would be ideal for prints that are handled often, and coated dye-sub prints can be easily wiped to clean off oil and water marks.
Additionally, they need to accept much larger, uncompressed images, such as the 30+MB 4x6" Photodisc test target vs. the smaller JPEG version (after all, 8 megapixel cameras are arriving soon, and 3-4 megapixel cameras today can already create uncompressed files of 5MB and larger easily. (jpeg compressed files are lossy file formats -- they lose information vs. the original by tossing out colors and pixels you might not notice to save space)
For the enthusiasts, and for most people, there should also be exacting color management controls that would allow people to adjust colors, contrast, etc. accurately before printing. The current print-and-pray still produces off colors in the Photodisc test target and none are as true to the original images as they ought to be. Similarly, positioning, cropping and bordering controls should be introduced (even a NeoPrint sticker booth lets you do more with fun and fancy borders!).
The downside is that you must wait for the photos to be printed and delivered, the photos may not have the color balance and/or contrast you envisioned, you must wait a long time to upload the larger highest-resolution digital images to them over a modem (imaging uploading a set of 24 high-resolution 1MB+ 1800x1200 images to any over a slow 56Kb modem! That's at least 24MB and a lot of time.)
The upside is that friends across the country can view your images and have prints made without troubling you at all. You certainly do not have to deal with the hassles of getting a new printer connected, calibrated and running, nor with buying paper and ink to feed it. And if you have a faster connection, the upload times are much faster.
But for now, for the home digital or film photography enthusiast who likes to tweak color and contrast himself and wants to print higher-resolution images, or anyone who wants to print photos in the privacy of their own homes and don't mind the required maintenance and setup of printers, a printer like the Alps 1300/5000 dye-sub printers or the Epson 870/1270 inkjet printers are a better choice. (See my Dotty Spotty section for the Epson 870 Quick Review.)
I easily print in 3:30 minutes, 4x6" versions of the Photodisc test target to the Epson 870 printer, and the results are sharper and better than the three online photo printers. I can print with borders, manipulate colors until they're just right, make as many copies as I want without having to wait for the mail to deliver them, etc.
These online photo printers are convenient and good for people who do not need exacting color control (just garden photo shop quality) and do not want to worry about printing images themselves. The images will look decent and they'll generally be happy within the limitations and problems noted above.
However, for anyone who has ever compared their prints to a proper print from a pro-photo shop or a properly made printer print, there's a world of difference. I'd pick the Epson 870/1270 or Alps dye-subs myself and print my images at home where I can get much better quality and color/image control than with these three online photo printers.