If the shift from film to digital photography has had a big impact on the way we take pictures, the effect it's had on printing them is nothing short of revolutionary. When using 35mm film, most of us printed every frame that we shot. But now that we're shooting pixels, the research company IDC has found that only 13 per cent of us print every single digital snapshot " and nearly half of us don't print any at all.
Confusingly, the same survey showed that about two- thirds of us still prefer to view physical prints rather than images on a computer screen. So why aren't we printing more? Part of the problem is that while digital cameras have become easier to use, home computers are still a mystery for many. But now that manufacturers have convinced us that digital cameras beat old-fashioned film, they're fighting to show us how easy digital printing can be, whether in the home, at the shops or even over the internet.
The easiest way to print your digital photos is to take the whole camera to a photolab and tell them what you want. Most photolabs now have the technology to read the memory cards on which digital cameras store your images. They'll copy the images across and produce your snaps on the same machines they use for film printing.
There are many advantages to printing this way: you get high- quality prints; you don't have to deal with computers; and it can be cheap " as little as 10p to 15p per 6x4-inch print when you buy in bulk (from 50 prints). But there are drawbacks, too. If you empty your memory card and start over again each time, you won't have a permanent copy of your images. Think of image files as digital negatives from which you can make perfect prints again in the future. If you delete them, you'll only have the print that you made to work from. Some larger labs can produce a CD containing your image files, but it'll cost you extra.
Finally, if your camera is prone to producing red eyes in portraits or struggles with tricky lighting conditions, you might be disappointed with results straight from the camera. Some photolabs (and, increasingly, stations, shopping malls and airports) now have self-service digital photo kiosks, too. These accept most memory cards and allow you to perform basic editing tasks on your snaps " correcting red eyes, zooming in to highlight details " using simple touchscreen instructions.
There's usually no extra charge to do this, but if you have many images to work on, you'll be spending a lot of time in the shop. Single 6x4-inch photos from kiosks generally cost around 50p each, with discounts for multiple prints. It's worth noting that the latest kiosks can also print directly from most cameraphones, via a wireless infrared or Bluetooth connection. Don't expect great- looking photos from cameraphones just yet " although five megapixel versions are already available in Korea " as most will look pixellated or blurred when printed out.
PRINTING AT HOME
If you just can't wait to see your photos, printing at home has never been easier or quicker. Unlike film photography, where setting up a darkroom takes a lot of time and messy chemicals, many of us already own a fully functional digital darkroom: a home computer.
At the heart of any home printing set-up is the printer itself, usually a photo-quality colour inkjet. Today's inkjet printers are extremely flexible, capable of producing everything from crisp, black text for letters to high quality colour prints that are almost indistinguishable from traditional photographs. Although even cheap printers can create good-looking prints, it's usually worth replacing the basic inkjets that come free with many computer bundles.
Most printers designed for photography use six ink colours instead of the four used in everyday inkjets. Using extra colours enables a printer to produce smoother, more subtle tones, and some more expensive printers now use up to nine inks to produce the brightest colours and darkest blacks. …