Got a new digital camera over the holiday? Move those photos from the hard drive to the fridge
(MONEY Magazine) – Sure, digital cameras eliminate trips to the one-hour photo mart, with its chemical fumes and lack of adequate parking. And they let you erase snapshots immediately, scrapping the misfires that in the old days you would've paid for. But for all their promise of instant gratification, digital cameras never quite made the camera-to-photo-album process as smooth and quick as it should be. E-mail programs let you share photos, and websites such as Shutterfly.com and Ofoto.com do it in exchange for the vague promise that your relatives might order prints of your photos online. That's fine, but if you wanted the prints now, you'd be out of luck. Until recently. A new crop of high-quality printers make a once-daunting process simple. What's more, photo-editing software—which lets you fix red-eye, sharpen color, adjust background lighting and eliminate your weird cousin from photos—is becoming easy to afford and easier to use. Whether you're Ansel Adams or Homer Simpson, these printers and photo-manipulating programs will help you get the most out of your new—or old—digital camera.
Software: Fix photos before you print
Editing software enables even a novice digital photographer to make adjustments to color, sharpness and contrast that can elevate so-so pictures to magazine-quality portraits with a few clicks. Once you download the photos from your camera to your computer, they're yours to tweak to perfection.
To test photo software, I first dug up a dozen old pictures I wish had turned out better. During my tests of four programs (see the table below), I managed to rehabilitate 11 of the 12 guinea-pig shots. (It turns out that science can't save a shot of people with too much flash in their faces.) Adjustments are trial and error, and it's actually fun to manipulate family photos with psychedelic color palettes and kaleidoscopic image rotations as you attempt to make them look right.
For bad lighting or dull colors—even sun bleaching—the first step is to try a one-click fix. Open the shot in the program and use the instant-repair feature, which, depending on the program, will be called Enhance or Auto-Fix. The software looks for problems, from poor contrast to dull colors, and tries to fix everything all at once. Better programs, such as Ulead PhotoImpact and Adobe Photoshop Elements, offer slightly more advanced, step-by-step correction features that play out like an eye exam: Does it look better like this or like this?
If the one-touch fix and the step-by-step fail you, start fiddling with brightness and contrast, which work similarly to the controls on your TV but with greater extremes. Often, near the brightness and contrast controls, you'll find a tool called Fill Flash, which brightens just the faces of the people in the foreground. For color correction, play with hue and saturation settings, but be careful—hue settings tend to swap one color for another, which can make people look like Teletubbies extras. Saturation is the more effective tool because it makes colors more vivid or less vivid. In some programs, you can use it to remove colors in certain areas—excessive yellow in a candlelit moment, say—without messing with the rest of the photo.
The final frontier in trying to fix poor exposure is the level-adjustment feature. Better programs let you manipulate levels on a graph called the histogram—you don't have to comprehend what it does because you can see what's happening to the picture as you tweak. I've saved many photos from the recycling bin with dumb luck and a healthy respect for level adjustment.
No matter which program you choose, it will likely have a useful cropping tool. In the past, I've been dismayed at how some printers cut off peripheral objects because the picture's aspect ratio is different from that of the paper. Now you can pick a ratio (be it 4x6, 5x7 or 8x10) and crop proportionately, so that when you print, you get exactly what you want—which, after all, is the whole idea.
Printers: Suitable for framing
All your painstaking retouching is futile if your printer undermines the photo's true quality. I tested eight printers—some inkjet, some that use thermal dye technology—to create more than 100 glossy 4x6 shots using each printer's own brand of high-end paper and a set of 10 images. I labeled the back of each print and shuffled them for a blind test, keeping an eye out for poor contrast, uneven ink (which creates an artificial separation of the elements in the picture) and the excessive, unnatural blue color often produced by inkjets. To determine smudginess (that's a technical term, of course), I wet my finger and tried to smear the ink. (For the tests, I printed from a Dell Dimension 8400 computer, but most new printers and cameras feature PictBridge, allowing you to print directly from the camera.)
A printer's output must be attractive and affordable enough to justify forgoing online or in-store printing services. Image quality doesn't necessarily follow price: The two best-looking prints in our tests came from the Epson PictureMate and the Sony DPP-EX50. That's why small printers advertise the cost of each print, which can range from the Epson's and HP Photosmart's Wal-Mart-competitive 29¢ to the rich 57¢ of the Sony. Printers that use speedy, durable thermal dye technology, such as the Dell Photo Printer and the Sony, tend to cost more than inkjets. But manufacturers of both types of printer bundle measured amounts of paper and ink to ensure that when you run out of one, you run out of the other.
With the larger, all-purpose printers, the cost per print is fuzzier. Paper and ink are sold separately, and ink tanks can vary in size and price from manufacturer to manufacturer. With so many variables, the only number that means something is the price of the 4x6 premium paper itself. It can be steep—up to 40¢ a sheet—and that's before you buy ink. And if you want to save money on a lesser brand of paper, your prints might turn out mediocre or downright lousy. If you feel like you're paying too much, test some cheaper paper. If you like what you see, swell. If not, you didn't waste much money.
The one experiment I didn't have time to perform is the longevity test, but the outlook is good. Once upon a time it seemed that inkjet printers were disposable, destined to die after a year of use. Today, printers from all the leading brands are designed to be long-term purchases. That's a good thing, considering the rate at which your phone, your MP3 player and, yes, your digital camera are already becoming obsolete.
These new editing programs make all your photos keepers
Note:  Also comes as part of Easy Media Creator 7 ($100). Sources: MONEY research and the companies.
Compact photo printers that function well with or without a PC
For 4x6 prints, plus the full gamut of other printing chores
Sources: MONEY research and the companies.