With Online Finishing, Family Photos Are a Click Away

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Planning to share this summer's snapshots with friends and family? Before searching for negatives and spending a fortune on reprints, think about going digital.

A growing number of photofinishers offer scanning services: Check a box when you drop off or mail your exposed film, and your pictures will be developed and then digitized. For about $5 more per roll, you get conventional prints as well as image files that you can e-mail to Aunt Mary.

Some services also let you create online photo albums that friends and family can view over the Web. They can even order prints and enlargements as they browse.

"With the growth of the Internet, you're going to see more and more people opting for online photofinishing," says Julie Janovsky, managing editor for Photographic Processing, a trade magazine. "People like to share pictures, and this makes it faster and easier."

I tested three services and found an appealing mix of options--and some rough edges. Here's a snapshot of the field.

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Most roads in online photofinishing lead to Herndon, Va., and PictureVision, which launched its PhotoNet Online service last year. In March, Kodak purchased a 51% stake in PictureVision and turned it into an independently operated subsidiary.

PictureVision sells and leases scanning equipment and software to one-hour photo outlets and mail-order labs that want to offer online photofinishing. These outlets now scan 250,000 rolls of film per month, according to PictureVision Chief Executive Phil Garfinkle.

I tested PhotoNet Online using Mystic Color Lab, a large mail-order photofinisher in Connecticut. Three business days after I mailed my film from California, an e-mail announced my photos were online. At Mystic's Web site, I pecked in some access codes to get to stamp-size thumbnail versions of my images. Clicking on any thumbnail displayed a larger version and a button for adding a caption.

Other options enable you to download some or all of the images to your hard drive and order enlargements or items such as photo mouse pads or T-shirts.

You can also e-mail individual photos to others, or give them your access codes to allow them to browse the entire roll and order their own reprints. Bill Jordan, a shutterbug in Charlotte, N.C., plans to do this with some shots from a recent vacation. "One of my son's friends was along, and his father wants me to e-mail him the pictures," he says.

Photos are left online for 30 days. But for $3 a month, they can be left for up to six months.

PhotoNet service is also available through photo retailers such as Ritz Camera and Wolf Camera. And Kodak's variant, called Kodak PhotoNet Online, is available through any retailer, from camera store to pharmacy, that offers Kodak processing.

How long does it take? That's the bad news. Few retailers have their own PhotoNet scanning equipment; most send out negatives to be scanned, which takes about three days.

One Ritz Camera outlet, at 2530 S. Harbor Blvd. in Santa Ana, does on-site PhotoNet scanning. But the transfer to the Web won't be immediate; it takes place at night.

In May, Kodak and America Online announced plans to bring PhotoNet to AOL. AOL's "You've Got Pictures" service, scheduled to launch later this year, will wrap PhotoNet's features within AOL's beginner-friendly software.

PhotoNet's Kodak backing and AOL affiliation put it in first place in online photofinishing. But the race is just beginning.

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PhotoNet's strongest potential competitor comes from Kodak archrival Fuji Photo Film, which launched its Fujifilm.Net service in February.

Like PhotoNet, Fujifilm.Net scans your images when they are processed, then posts them on the Web for 30 days. Scanning adds $4.95 per roll to the processing cost. Access codes needed to retrieve your shots are tucked in with your prints. As with PhotoNet, you can e-mail scans to others and order reprints and trinkets.

Fujifilm.Net's online photo albums are flashier and more fun to create than PhotoNet's. For $4.95 a month, you can store up to 125 images in any number of online photo albums, each with its own Web address. (Additional images cost a penny per image per month.)

To create albums, you use a program called Fujifilm Album, which you can download after signing up with Fujifilm.Net. With it, you can customize each album page, adding captions, changing backgrounds and choosing page layouts. You can also include images from digital cameras and desktop scanners.

Fujifilm.Net scanning is available through Long's Drug and Wal-Mart stores and some camera dealers. But right now it's available only in California and metropolitan New York. It goes nationwide on Sept. 1.

The Web technology behind Fujifilm.Net was created by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Pictra Inc., which launched PictraNet in May 1997.

PictraNet doesn't do processing and scanning. Instead, it enables you to turn existing digital images into online albums using its Pictra Album software, which is free.

Because images must already be in digital form, PictraNet is best suited to digital camera owners. David Jordan, dean of administrative services for Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, Ore., uses PictraNet to publish digital camera images of college events. "It would take hours for me to create those Web pages myself," he says.

Fujifilm Album and PictraNet Album are available for Windows only. Pictra will offer Macintosh versions in August.

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How do Fujifilm.Net and PhotoNet compare where it really counts--in image quality? My test shots from both services looked great, but PhotoNet's had richer colors and fewer compression artifacts (visual flaws caused by crunching image files so they download faster).

If you're quality-obsessed, PhotoNet offers high-resolution downloads for $1 an image. A high-resolution image measures 1536 by 1024 pixels; the standard resolution is 768 by 512 pixels, which is fine for on-screen display but may not be good enough for high-quality prints.

I also tested a third service: PhotoMail, from mail-order lab Seattle FilmWorks. PhotoMail, which debuted in 1995, was the first Web-delivery service. It's showing its age. My test scans looked fuzzy and washed-out, and the service itself lacks the range of options others provide. Seattle FilmWorks says a revamped version of PhotoMail will be available this summer.

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Once your photos are digitized, you can use image-editing programs to modify them--removing the telephone pole that fouls a scenic view, for example, or creating postcards or calendars. Several consumer-oriented imaging programs provide direct support for online photofinishers.

What are the downsides to online photofinishing? Start with the Internet itself. Downloading images over a modem can be slow, although it's faster than scanning.

Typical Web frustrations can surface--I spent 20 minutes ordering reprints on Fujifilm.Net only to receive a cryptic error message when I tried to pay. (The problem was fixed the next day.) And PhotoNet was inexplicably slow on some days, speedy on others.

Moreover, the technology is moving faster than the retail world's ability to educate its employees. Mentioning online imaging is one of the easiest ways to elicit a shrug from a pharmacy clerk.

Mail-order companies are best able to adapt and offer new services, but they handle only about 7% of the 720 million rolls of film processed in the U.S. each year.

Finally, there are complexities that could scare away some consumers. It helps to know about image-storage formats and file transfers, for instance, and anyone paranoid about online credit card security need not apply.

PhotoNet and Seattle FilmWorks offer alternatives to download hassles and security fears. The PhotoNet Floppy service delivers your scans on a floppy disk rather than the Internet; Seattle FilmWorks delivers images on a CD-ROM. The cost is the same, but disks can't provide the Internet's sharing and online reprinting benefits. High-end CD-ROM options such as Kodak's PhotoCD format are also available, but cost $1 to $3 per image.

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Online Photofinishing: The Big Picture

A number of companies now offer online photofinishing, each with different features and services. Here are some of the options.

Kodak PhotoNet Online (http://www.photonet.com or http://www.kodak.photonet.com)

Pros: Nationwide availability; best image quality; optional high-resolution downloads.

Cons: Bare-bones online photo albums; somewhat difficult to upload digital camera or scanned images.

Fujifilm.Net (http://www.fujifilm.net)

Pros: Terrific online photo albums; easily combines photographic scans with digital camera and scanned images.

Cons: Limited availability until Sept. 1; no high-resolution downloads; scans have more compression artifacts than PhotoNet's; no Mac version of photo album software until August.

PictraNet (http://www.pictranet.com)

Pros: Terrific online photo albums; this summer will begin offering prints and photo gifts.

Cons: No photofinishing service available; no Mac version of photo album software until August.

PhotoMail (http://www.filmworks.com)

Pros: You also get images on disk for no extra charge.

Cons: Inferior image quality; non-standard image file format; available by mail only.

Freelance writer Jim Heid can be reached at http://www.heidsite.com.

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