‘Tis the Season To Print Badly

We’re not big fans of home color printing. Inks drying out, jets clogged, paper jams, fiddling with driver settings for custom print sizes, expensive color paper, getting anything but standard size paper to go through the printer properly… it’s a perpetual pain in the neck.

A couple years ago we ditched our home color printers, keeping only a b/w laser, and started using online services for color photos. We’ve tried iPhoto/Ofoto (both use Kodak printing), Snapfish, and Adorama, and have had superior results and consistency from Adorama. Prints are affordable, on your doorstep a couple days later, and always look great. Why mess around with this stuff at home when you can use someone else’s $.5 million printer? But with mail order, you lose the instant gratification factor.

This gap is bridged by the relationship many online print houses have with Walgreens and other stores. Order your prints online, pick them up at the drugstore an hour later. This system worked out marvelously for us last year, when we shot and Photoshopped our Christmas card, uploaded it to Snapfish, chose a card template, and picked up our cards all in under an hour. Magic.

Adorama doesn’t offer greeting card print options, so it was back to Snapfish+Walgreens for 2006. Things didn’t go so well this year, to say the least. Web site overloaded, timing out on us throughout the order process. Four hour estimate for pickup, rather than one hour. When I opened the box, turned out pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Our cards were interleaved with another family’s. Once I got that sorted out, found the photograph we had spent half an hour tweaking in Photoshop way too dark, detail-free, and very, very green.

The employee claimed he could print them again, but could not edit or adjust them at all. But he did have a brilliant idea: He was willing to scan the bad image and try to adjust it for me. Scan the bad image? Ever heard of GIGO buddy? I declined.

Finally talked to another employee, who showed me that not only was it possible to edit the print, but allowed me to use the software built into the big kahuna printer myself. But whoa – once I got my hands on it, realized that the problem was not easily solvable. Turns out Snapfish composites your photo into the card template on their end, then sends a fully rendered image to your local Walgreen’s. Therefore, we had no way to adjust the brightness or color balance of the image independently of the card template. And the software had no selection tools to let you tweak the image area separately from the template area. All or nothing, baby.

Got things looking as good as possible, then sent a test print. Promised 10 minutes, took 30. The test print was lighter, but still horrendously green. The monitor on the printer bore little resemblance to images pooting out the other end of the printer. Tweaked it a second time, bringing the green WAY down, and waited another 15 minutes for a test print. This time the color was OK, but everything had gone fuzzy. So now, instead of fiddling with a home color printer all day, I was getting frustrated in the back room of a Walgreens. Ho ho ho. Canceled the order.

But wait, there’s more. I had also uploaded and sent the cover for this year’s Christmas CD. Needed a 5″x5″ result, so sent my finished 5″x5″ through Snapfish to Walgreens, ordering 5″x7″ prints. Figured there would just be black or white vertical bars on the sides I’d trim with our cutter. What came out of the package was a disaster. Somewhere along the line, a human had apparently intervened, found the square image, not known what to do with it, and rotated it 90 degrees. Result – words on the cover sliced right down the middle, image off-center and larger than intended. Unusable garbage. Finally resolve this by generating a full 5×7 rectangle with my black bars already built in. No chance for ambiguity, and the 2nd run worked out fine.

The system worked so well last year, but everything went to hell this year. As if dealing with one giant faceless corporation isn’t hard enough, this is what happens when you deal with two of them at once. No hand knows what the other is doing, and your only interface is with unskilled employees. Next year will be better. Back to the drawing board. Suggestions welcome.

Music: Caetano Veloso :: Neolithic Man

6 Replies to “‘Tis the Season To Print Badly”

  1. “Once I got that sorted out, found the photograph we had spent half an hour tweaking in Photoshop way too dark, detail-free, and very, very green.”

    Sounds like a color management issue. Does Snapfish/ Walgreens give you instructions about how to prepare files for reliable printing, e.g. work in sRGB color space, etc.? Another factor could be your Photoshop color settings and the way you’re proofing your images on your display, but your photos always look good on the web, so this might not be so. Or they could have just fucked it up. “The monitor on the printer bore little resemblance to images pooting out the other end of the printer.” That points to a major kink in their color management setup — you can’t have been the only one getting crappy prints.

  2. I’m with you on home printers – I have 3 here, none of them work (clogged printheads etc), so now everything I print goes through someone else.

    I used Snapfish once for photo prints, and the results were absolutely appalling. Colours completely out, strange graininess which wasn’t in the originals. Now I use Photobox (which I think only operates in the UK) and they produce wonderful results (although I had some problems when I got them to print postcards for me – seems they use a different emulsion, and there where little white dots where the black part of my print had flaked off. They offered me a reprint, which I accepted: same problem. At least I now have twice as many slightly dodgy postcards).

  3. I use shutterfly and love their cards every holiday so far. At home I use an epson R1800 with continuous ink system from ink republic. Send me your address and I can send you one if you want.

  4. Sounds like a color management issue.

    Larree – Yes it does (sound like that), but the image was as vanilla as all the stuff I work with – no embedded profiles or any other funny business. However, the image did have some tricky tonal shifts and some blown out areas we worked hard to correct at home before sending. My theory is that the trickiness of the image, combined with the lightness of the template, worked against each other once Snapfish composited them together. The printer at the Walgreen’s end tried to come up with a decent average color value and failed miserably.

    Dan, Photobox sound like they know what they’re doing. Just need to find a U.S. equivalent…

    Jason, thanks for the Shutterfly tip, will check it out.

  5. Also, Snapfish could be a really foolish piece of diversification for HP. Since my one terrible experience with Snapfish printing, I now can’t see myself buying an HP printer. It certainly doesn’t make them appear to be experts in the field of printing, if they can’t get decent results even when they have the equipment in-house.

  6. I should say again that our 2005 experience with Snapfish –> Walgreens was great, and that when we’ve done mail order through them we’ve been more than happy with the print quality.

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