Do-It-Yourself Picture Makers

If you have an old photograph but no negative, pictures on disk (floppy or CD) or a digital card (SD, MCC, Compact Flash, Sony Memory Stick, etc.) and need to get pictures made there’s a newer, faster and cheaper method you may not be aware of: Picture Makers.

These are found today in shopping malls, many department stores and chain store pharmacies. Places like Wal-Mart, Walgreens or CVS. Some supermarkets are even experimenting with these self-service machines that clone your images with generally superb image quality.

There are two basic machines: One is from Kodak and it’s called the “Picture Maker” and the other is from Fuji Film and it is called the Aladdin Digital Photo Center. While similar in features and operation, they are drastically different in how they make a photograph.

The Kodak machines use a dye transfer method, similar to the old Technicolor movies of the 1940s. The image information is either taken directly off your digital media (cards or disks) or made by scanning your pictures much like a photocopy machines does for text documents. This image information is then placed onto glossy, photo quality paper using an electrical charge for each color. Then three sheets of color dye gels are heated onto the paper, the colors stick only to the charged areas. This transfer process is done inside the machine using the colors cyan, magenta and yellow. The results are nothing short of astonishing! Picture copies come out in about one minute for small 4 by 6 inch prints and in two minutes for larger 8 by 10 inch prints. The colors are vibrant and the glossy finish looks identical to the traditional drug store prints you get when you drop off a roll of film for processing.

Some of these Kodak machines can work from film negatives and slides, others only from prints and digital media. Some of these Kodak machines can produce hard items like coffee mugs with a photo on the outside of the cup, other machines just provide you with paper prints.

The Fuji machines are generally only found at stores that offer traditional “One Hour” photo processing using the newest generation of Fuji Digital Processing Equipment (the Frontier 390 machine, for example). Unlike the Kodak process, these Fuji machines turn your images into a digital file which then generates an actual photographic paper print that must be processed in their equipment, thus it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to get your finished pictures. You also can’t get all the various sizes if images on prints that you get with some of the Kodak Picture Makers, but the price for printing is generally less than with the Kodak Picture Makers.

Since the Kodak machines work with only two basic paper sizes there are two fixed prices for prints. These prices vary from location to location. For the 4 x 6 prints we have seen prices go from 40 cents to a dollar. For the 8 x 10 prints the prices go from around $5 to about $7 each print.

Some of the Kodak machines offer you multiple prints on the 8 x 10 sheets, but these are charged at the higher rate, so if you get 3 pictures in 4 x 6 size on the 8 x 10 inch paper you will be charged over $5, while if you made them on the 4 x 6 inch paper the cost would be only $1.50 to $3, which is a considerable savings in money.

A few of the Kodak machines will also let you make wallet picture or ID size photos on the 8 x 10 inch paper, but again you are paying upwards to $7 to get 9 or 14 small pictures, while you may only need a few of those images. You can also get 5 x 7 inch pictures, but these come two at a time on the more expensive 8 x 10 inch paper.

With the Fuji Digital machines you can only get 4 x 6, 5 x7 and 8 x 10 inch prints, but these come one at a time and generally at a lower price. Wal-Mart, for example, is currently charging 24 cents per 4 x 6 print and only $2.84 for an 8 x 10 using the Fuji Digital machines (not all stores may have this new equipment, call first to see what is available in your area). This is about half the price of the Kodak Picture Maker prints, but you have to wait about an hour to get your pictures from the Fuji Digital stations, while the Kodak prints pop out in minutes.

The big pharmacy chain CVS uses a swipe card to pay for the pictures you get out of the self-service Kodak Picture Makers they have in some of their stores (check with each individual store to see if they offer this service in your area).

It is possible that at some mall locations you can pay using cash, ATM or credit cards.

Some of both the Kodak and Fuji machines are set-up to let you add borders, text and even make custom greeting cards or a calendar with your pictures on the finished prints. Almost all of the machines let you do simple editing to crop the pictures, adjust brightness, contrast and make simple color corrections.

With the Fuji Digital machines your pictures will come out with a finish chosen by the location, which can be either glossy or the pebbled matte finish. Ask at your Fuji One Hour place which type of paper they use if this matters to you for the look of your final pictures.

From what we’ve seen, these machines are quite popular, with lines of people waiting with their old photos, digital cards and disks. These are like arcade games for grown-ups.

As for the longevity of the pictures, since the Kodak process uses dye layers on the surface they are prone to being easily scratched. The Fuji Digital process is an actual photograph so the dye is underneath the top layer of the picture. Both processes will probably fade with time and sunlight, as the dyes get bleached white over the ages.

For those of you who are curious about the inner technology, both the Fuji and Kodak machines are based on Microsoft Windows NT or 2000 technology using dedicated software that boots up after the operating system is in place. Both use a touch screen to guide you through the picture making process. The Kodak machines seems a little more user friendly than the Fuji process, but both are still easy enough for almost anyone to master in just a few minutes.

To use them you simply place your paper prints on the flatbed scanner (the Kodak one is located on the main area of the machine, while the Fuji one is in a drawer you must pull out from the casing) or insert your cards into the slots. Not all Kodak machines take the smaller XD cards (which is a Fuji/Olympus invention). The Kodak machines use a pop-out drawer carrier for the CD disks, thus those using smaller CD-Rs (such as those produced by the Sony Mavica cameras) or speciality disks like the "business card" CD-R disks can often be used better in the Kodak machines. The Fuji machines often use a front-loading CD drive which only takes full size CD and CD-R disks. Images must be in JPG format for either machine to read.

The Fuji machines generally allow you to get both an index print (thumbnail picture on a single photo for all your images) and have a CD-R burned by the One Hour Photo machine equipment. Some, but not all, of the Kodak Picture Makers may also burn a CD-R for you from the stored images. The CD, however, may not contained any of your edited pictures, only the original scans.

Since professional photographers own the copyrights on all photographs by law (see our piece from 2001 on this subject) most commercial establishments won't allow you to make copies of any professional or school portraits, wedding pictures and other obvious commercial photographs without written permission from the photographer.

Kodak, by the way, also makes a mini-version of their dye transfer process for use at home with selected Kodak Easy Share digital cameras. This unit, priced around $200, makes only 4 x 6 pictures using similar dye transfer sheets and paper that is found in the second generation of commercial Kodak Picture Makers found at some malls. The cost to make 4 x 6 pictures at home is between 65 and 85 cents per picture based on the $25 to $30 cost of the 40 print cartridge. Again, this printer only work with some models of the Kodak digital Easy Share Cameras.

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