A Snapshot of Photo Print Deals

3 Ways to Save on Photo Prints
A lot of people thought photo prints might go the way of the Dodo once digital cameras and sending snapshots via email became popular.

But it seems people still want something to hold onto, press into a scrapbook or stuff in a shoebox. That said: Times sure have changed since those little Fotomat kiosks used to dot our shopping center parking lots. So where can you find the best photo print bargains? We'll get the picture in this week's Savings Experiment.

As you might suspect, options abound in terms of how you choose to get prints made. To keep things as consistent as possible, we'll stick with the standard of 50-60 prints in the 4-by-6 inch size, except where we're talking all-digital technology.

Printing at home offers a big advantage -- and a big disadvantage. On the plus side, you can take your time toning and adjusting photos in your computer, a big boon if you know how to use programs such as Adobe Photoshop Elements ... or have some arty image manipulation in mind. But if you do any sort of printing in volume, be forewarned: You could take a drubbing on ink refills, which can get very expensive depending on the printer you use.

Figure that you'll have to replace cartridges every 200-300 pages, no matter what you print -- and at Staples, cartridge prices for a typical all-in-one printer such as the Canon MX300 run $19.29 (black-and-white) and $28.79 (color).

As for the paper, Staples offers its house-brand photo paper for $32.99 for 50 glossy 81/2-by-11 inch sheets. So, let's assume you can fit 2 4-by-6 photos onto one page. What's the cost breakdown, including ink?

50 4-by-6 prints = $21.25 (43-cents per print). Ouch! Well, maybe you can save significantly buying papers and ink in bulk ... or printing smaller photos. But you won't save time, likely.

Many national pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, offer one-hour photo developing if you need those prints fast. Depending who's running the photo machine, you may run into a mishap with chewed-up film or a mishandled order, as I have in the past. But for the most part, these services are convenient, competent and economical. Walgreens just days ago offered pre-Easter special running through March 27.

How much? Walgreens priced 60 4-by-6 prints for $6.99 (12-cents a print). Sing with me: Here comes Peter Cottontail, bargain-basement prints on sale ...

Costco and Walmart have of course gotten into the act of photo developing, too. (Where else but Costco can you buy a safe, jumbo crab legs, a funeral casket ... and get your photos developed?) At Costco's Photo Center, 60 4-by-6 prints run $7.80 (13-cents a print) for in-store pickup, and with no shipping on standard delivery through the U.S. Postal Service.

At Walmart, 60 4-by-6 prints cost $9 (15 cents a print), and will be ready in an hour for in-store pickup., unless you order glossy prints.

Camera stores also do a fair share of photo printing. Wolf and Ritz Camera stores, for example, have labs on site. And while the prices may not match what you'll get at a Walgreens super sale, keep in mind that photo stores do nothing but photography. They're staking the very reputation of their business on giving you print quality and expert advice that's a step above what you're going to get at an emporium that also hawks Pringles and Preparation H.

Wolf and Ritz Cameras do have competitive pricing, too. At most stores, you'll pay 19-cents a print, so long as you buy at least 60 ($11.40 total) -- and usually get them within an hour. They also have an online site where you can order 4-by-6 prints for as little as 9-cents each, plus shipping. You'll have to wait, of course, but in this case, biding your time is money.

The online world offers you this major convenience factor: You can upload photos and get your prints sent to you. Sites such as Snapfish.com offer you 50 FREE 4x6 prints with first upload, unlimited photo storage and mail-order & pick-up options. They also market photo gifts such as posters and calendars.

60 4-by-6 prints = $5.40 (9-cents a print). You can also send in rolls, but be advised that you'll pay a $2.99 per-roll charge. Prints can be picked up at Duane Reade, Walgreens, Meijer and Walwart locations.

Clark Color Labs also offers 8-cent 4-by-6 prints every day with $1.99 per-roll charge. The KodakGallery is more expensive--between 15 and 38 cents a print-- but bases its prices on Kodak quality and reputation.

Ah, Polaroid. When I was a kid, my family had one of those SX-70 cameras that shot out the undeveloped picture -- and then, in best Outkast fashion, you'd shake the print until it developed. (And let's face it: "Shake it like a digital camera" just isn't as catchy to sing, either.)

The new Polaroid PoGo camera, I've got to admit, is one nifty-looking gadget. It's not only a digital camera, but can print its own pictures, too. The pix Pogo can print from the camera itself are small (2-by-3) but they're sticky-backed (fun) and pop out in about a minute (fast). The PoGo runs about $200 on Amazon.com, and the photo paper costs about $30 for an 80 pack.

After about 300 photos, figure that the PoGo runs you about a $1 a print--but don't forget, that includes the cost of buying the camera. The prints alone, so long as you buy paper in the 80 pack? 38-cents a print. Plus, you can get prints from it made at any photo shop or service, just as with a digital camera.

Digital photo frames seek to give you the best of all worlds -- the storage-space friendliness of digital, with the size and attractiveness of a physical print in a frame. Not too long ago, the technology was clunky, harsh-looking and expensive. But prices have come down of recent as quality has gone up.

Now keep in mind, some digital frames come with a ton of gingerbread -- Web browsers, streaming Internet radio, text news feeds. (What, no sausage maker?) Let's just keep it simple and deal with photo frames that hold electronic photos. Most important, you want minimum resolution of 640-by-480 pixels. (An easy way to remember this is that it sounds roughly like the 4-by-6 print!)

Highly recommended: the 8-inch PanTouch Clear Digital frame by Pandigital. It costs $100 and can hold up to 6,400 images. Wow. Think of all the shoe boxes you can get rid of. My only complaint is that it has no "airbrush" feature, meaning I'll have to think of other ways to hide my freaking bald spot.

At my old employer, the Chicago Tribune, reporters were told that those good old disposable cameras could take pictures suitable for publication, provided the outdoor lighting cooperated. Still I'm not a big fan of these cameras; that they come in cardboard casing speaks volumes. You can't focus, you can't zoom, indoor pictures look amateurish, and they always cut the heads off the people I shoot -- oops, that's my problem, not the camera's.

So long as you're taking typical outdoor, souvenir-quality photos, disposables can do the trick, though. A Kodak FunSaver (don't mess with cheapo brands, folks) runs $7.99 for 27 exposures. To do 50 photos, you'll need two cameras, and at 15 cents a print, that adds up to a cost of $25 for 50 snapshots. It's a good short-term fix, but trust me: If you're even the least bit serious about your images, buy a digital camera instead. It'll pay for itself in less than two dozen rounds of the disposable cameras, or about 600 pictures.

Geez. I could take 600 pictures of my daughter putting noodles on her head. She's so cuuuuuuuuute.

Where are the best bargains? That depends on what kind of work or play you're doing with your camera. Our findings:

1) If you're taking tons of snaps of your kids, you'll probably want to go with the best price, period. Among online sites, Clark Color Labs emerges as cheapest; for one-stop pickup and drop-off, Walgreens and CVS often vie for the best deals. Amateur shutterbugs won't notice much in terms of quality between one printing outlet and another.

2) Those more serious about their photography will want to go with labs that have the best of both worlds -- thrifty prices and personnel who work only as photo techs and experts. Wolf-Ritz locations and their ilk make a good bet there.

3) Avoid disposable cameras except as a quick fix when you forget or don't want to take your camera.

4) The Polaroid PoGo is a novel concept and offers instant gratification of instant prints, but it won't be as cost effective as other options.

5) Digital photo frames are for that one location in your life where you'll watch photos again and again (such as your work desk, when you want to avoid work.) They do store photos economically, but they're not made to be as portable or cheap as prints, unless you're loading them up 1,000 pictures at a time.

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