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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY

With Online Finishing, Family Photos Are a Click Away

June 29, 1998|JIM HEID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Planning to share this summer's snapshots with friends and family? Before searching for negatives and spending a fortune on reprints, think about going digital.

A growing number of photofinishers offer scanning services: Check a box when you drop off or mail your exposed film, and your pictures will be developed and then digitized. For about $5 more per roll, you get conventional prints as well as image files that you can e-mail to Aunt Mary.

Some services also let you create online photo albums that friends and family can view over the Web. They can even order prints and enlargements as they browse.

"With the growth of the Internet, you're going to see more and more people opting for online photofinishing," says Julie Janovsky, managing editor for Photographic Processing, a trade magazine. "People like to share pictures, and this makes it faster and easier."

I tested three services and found an appealing mix of options--and some rough edges. Here's a snapshot of the field.

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Most roads in online photofinishing lead to Herndon, Va., and PictureVision, which launched its PhotoNet Online service last year. In March, Kodak purchased a 51% stake in PictureVision and turned it into an independently operated subsidiary.

PictureVision sells and leases scanning equipment and software to one-hour photo outlets and mail-order labs that want to offer online photofinishing. These outlets now scan 250,000 rolls of film per month, according to PictureVision Chief Executive Phil Garfinkle.

I tested PhotoNet Online using Mystic Color Lab, a large mail-order photofinisher in Connecticut. Three business days after I mailed my film from California, an e-mail announced my photos were online. At Mystic's Web site, I pecked in some access codes to get to stamp-size thumbnail versions of my images. Clicking on any thumbnail displayed a larger version and a button for adding a caption.

Other options enable you to download some or all of the images to your hard drive and order enlargements or items such as photo mouse pads or T-shirts.

You can also e-mail individual photos to others, or give them your access codes to allow them to browse the entire roll and order their own reprints. Bill Jordan, a shutterbug in Charlotte, N.C., plans to do this with some shots from a recent vacation. "One of my son's friends was along, and his father wants me to e-mail him the pictures," he says.

Photos are left online for 30 days. But for $3 a month, they can be left for up to six months.

PhotoNet service is also available through photo retailers such as Ritz Camera and Wolf Camera. And Kodak's variant, called Kodak PhotoNet Online, is available through any retailer, from camera store to pharmacy, that offers Kodak processing.

How long does it take? That's the bad news. Few retailers have their own PhotoNet scanning equipment; most send out negatives to be scanned, which takes about three days.

One Ritz Camera outlet, at 2530 S. Harbor Blvd. in Santa Ana, does on-site PhotoNet scanning. But the transfer to the Web won't be immediate; it takes place at night.

In May, Kodak and America Online announced plans to bring PhotoNet to AOL. AOL's "You've Got Pictures" service, scheduled to launch later this year, will wrap PhotoNet's features within AOL's beginner-friendly software.

PhotoNet's Kodak backing and AOL affiliation put it in first place in online photofinishing. But the race is just beginning.

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PhotoNet's strongest potential competitor comes from Kodak archrival Fuji Photo Film, which launched its Fujifilm.Net service in February.

Like PhotoNet, Fujifilm.Net scans your images when they are processed, then posts them on the Web for 30 days. Scanning adds $4.95 per roll to the processing cost. Access codes needed to retrieve your shots are tucked in with your prints. As with PhotoNet, you can e-mail scans to others and order reprints and trinkets.

Fujifilm.Net's online photo albums are flashier and more fun to create than PhotoNet's. For $4.95 a month, you can store up to 125 images in any number of online photo albums, each with its own Web address. (Additional images cost a penny per image per month.)

To create albums, you use a program called Fujifilm Album, which you can download after signing up with Fujifilm.Net. With it, you can customize each album page, adding captions, changing backgrounds and choosing page layouts. You can also include images from digital cameras and desktop scanners.

Fujifilm.Net scanning is available through Long's Drug and Wal-Mart stores and some camera dealers. But right now it's available only in California and metropolitan New York. It goes nationwide on Sept. 1.

The Web technology behind Fujifilm.Net was created by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Pictra Inc., which launched PictraNet in May 1997.

PictraNet doesn't do processing and scanning. Instead, it enables you to turn existing digital images into online albums using its Pictra Album software, which is free.

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