This is my personal thoughts, opinions and musings place. I will also rant about things, especially politically-correct things that irritate me. And sci-fi. Did I mention sci-fi? There'll be lots of sci-fi stuff here. And movies, too. Mmmmm... Movies

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The cost of printing pictures

With the explosion of inexpensive, though relatively high-quality, digital cameras into the mass market has opened a world of photography for more people than they ever thought possible. Now, you really could take as many pictures as you wanted, and it would cost you anything until you decided to print them, and now you can pick-and-choose which shots you print. As well, the huge gains in personal computing power, coupled with marked improvements to digital image handling algorithms in modern photo editing applicationsm led to wild claims of “personal digital darkrooms”, combinations of hardware, software and architecture where one can do all sorts of arcane editing of their pictures, editing that was previously reserved to professional chemical-based darkroom operators. People therefore invested thousands of dollars into new computer and photographic hardware, new software and new printing equipment.

As far as they went, these claims were perhaps justified. It was now possible for ordinary people to create special effects on their pictures, to frame them, to color-balance them, to print them, and to do everything else that only professional color labs were able to do just ten years ago. The trouble was that the professional color labs weren't professional because they utilized professional equipment; they were professional because they employed professionals, and they generally worked on images shot by professionals. It takes more than using the Adobe Photoshop's “Adjust all levels” command or PaintShopPro 9's “One-step photo adjustment” command to make great pictures.

One of the problem the personal digital darkroom faces is that most people know very little about computers and digital images. More importantly, most people know very little about photography in general or even how their cameras work. One of the idiotic things that salespeople tell customers is not to worry about taking great pictures, because their computers will able to fix them right up. Except that it's not true; computers can't create new data, they can only adjust what's available to them. Pictures should be good or excellent at the camera, because then they can easily be edited. If you picture is badly over-exposed and blury, no amount of computer processing will help it. And so, many people are disappointed in their pictures, despite spending countless thousands of dollars. Though, today, computer hardware and software, camera equipment and printing equipment is much cheaper than it used to be, so it's as big a problem as it used to be.

Another huge problem for the personal digital darkroom is the ridiculous cost of printing. True enough, you can buy a printer for $74.99, but replacement cartridges will cost you over a hundred. Yes, you can use third-party inks, sometimes, but not if you're doing serious printing that requires inks color-matched to what the printer drivers expect. As well, some printers use a single cartridge for the 3 colors(Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta) plus a second cartridge for Black. What most people don't realize is that colors aren't used at the same rate. One picture will use a lot of Yellow and not much Cyan or Magenta, but another one will use more Magenta than Cyan or Yellow. It all depends on what's in the picture. This means that printers that use only a single cartridge for all three colors will be very wasteful, because if one color runs out, the whole cartridge has to be thrown out.

Some printers, like my trusty old Canon S600, seem very efficient in their ink usage, and they use very large tanks, relatively speaking. The printer, like most modern Canons, uses four cartridge, one for each of black, cyan, yellow and magenta. Any of the colors runs out, and I can keep using the others until they run out also. My new Epson R200 printer is a different matter, however. It uses six cartridges instead of four, black, cyan, yellow, magenta plus photo-magenta and photo-cyan. The color cartridges are smaller than the color cartridges on the S600, and the black cartridges is a lot smaller. Prices for individual cartridges are about the same, though. The thing about the Epson is that it burns through 6 smaller(thought equally-expensive) cartridges about twice as fast as the S600. This explains why I recently(read, yesterday) resurected the S600 and will now use it to print everything except real high-quality photographs on photo-paper.

Speaking of photo-paper, people aren't usually told in the beginning how expensive inkjet photo-paper is. Prices vary between different(don't let Epson convince you that you can't use Kodak or Canon paper on their printers and with their inks), but they're all still pretty high. This ads to the overall cost per page.

The bottom line is that for most consumers, digital photography means getting snapshots to send through email to family and friends. If they want to print their work, it's time-consuming, difficult, requires a lot of learning, and is pretty expensive. Is it as expensive as buying, developing and printing a roll of 36-frame 35mm film? Probably not, especially for the most expensive films. But it's not cheap, nor is it without a certain investment in time.

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