Computers and digital cameras have given amateur photographers without darkrooms greater control over their snapshots through the years. The last hurdle has been printing great images.
But long-time printer manufacturers have been attacking the problem with relish, and two printers on the market represent the best and most economical solution for photographers.
You can print crisp, colorful photographs from your computer with the Epson Stylus Photo 870. Or you can get nearly equal results with the Kodak Personal Picture Maker PM 100 by Lexmark, which prints photographs directly from a digital camera memory card or an external Zip drive.
Epson's $299 printer fits the more traditional vein of inkjet printers and works with Macintosh and Windows-compatible personal computers.
Once attached to a computer through the USB port or the standard parallel port, the Photo 870 can print photographs from digital cameras, scanners or the Web. The printer uses a six-color cartridge, two more than found in the regular four-color inkjet printers.
Three print settings - 360, 720 and 1440 dots per inch - provide variety in speed and quality. Low settings allow for fast printing; higher settings provide for better quality. Photographs can be printed on glossy photo paper or heavyweight matte paper, neither of which comes with the printer (although a roll of 4-inch-wide photo paper is included for making 4-by-6-inch prints).
Epson says high-quality prints from the Photo 870 will last 10 years without fading, just like one-hour prints.
The prints we made were reminiscent of one-hour lab work in many respects. Smaller photographs were nearly perfect in color and grain while 8-by-10 glossies showed a tiny amount of grain, which is acceptable in casual snapshots.
The Photo 870 ships with two programs, Epson Software Film Factory, and the popular Adobe PhotoDeluxe, both of which can be used for photo editing or organizing.
Several photographs we took with a digital camera that appeared too dark when printed without editing were downright perky by the time we finished sharpening and brightening them with the software.
But what happens if you're a master of digital photography and don't need to enhance your pictures before printing?
No computer is needed for the Kodak Personal Picture Maker PM 100 by Lexmark. SmartMedia or CompactFlash Type I digital camera memory cards can be popped into slots on top of the PM 100 for immediate printing.
You can create an index print, crop a photo or personalize it with captions by entering your selections into a small control pad on top of the printer.
The printer also has a connection for a 100- or 25O-megabyte Iomega Zip drive to print photographs from a Zip disk. And the printer will allow you to download your photographs from your camera's memory card to a Zip disk through the printer.
More traditional digital printing can be done via computer through a standard parallel port connection.
The PM 100 has two print qualities, 600 and 1200 dpi, both of which are more than adequate for creating home snapshots. As with the Epson, the colors were bright and the images popped out from the glossy photo paper.
If you're no master with the digital camera or you have a low-end, low-resolution model, you may not like the PM 100 in its stand-alone mode. Some of the photographs printed directly from the CompactFlash card were dark in areas or bluish in tint. The lower quality of the photographs wasn't the printer's fault; the blame belonged to the camera and photographer.
Pictures printed after minimal work with a computer image-editing program - we brightened almost all of the photographs we took before printing - had brilliant colors, good flesh tones and great detail when created as 4-by-6-inch prints with the PM 100. The 8~by-10-inch photographs were good, too, but suffered from more grain than the same size photographs created with the Epson.
The PM ioo, which costs $150 after a $50 rebate, does not ship with image-editing software. A program like Adobe PhotoDeluxe would make it more appealing to those of us who don't take perfect digital pictures every time.