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Picture Your Own Art

Photowow.com and other sites can enlarge, restore, enhance, add special effects to and even frame your pictures with great results, but the cost is steep.

January 31, 2002|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I've spent many hours playing with photo-editing software--changing colors, adding decorative borders and designing artistic effects.

So I had low expectations for Photowow.com, an online photo imaging and printing services company that also restores, enhances, adds special effects and even frames artistic renderings of customers' photographs.

The field has become fairly crowded, as increasing numbers of consumers turn to digital cameras and photo-editing software. And like Photowow, dozens of local photo stores, graphic arts companies and even Kinko's will produce giant-size blowups of a photo or print them onto mugs, T-shirts, artists' canvas, mouse pads, pillows or various other products.On simple enlarging and transferring jobs, prices are competitive at Photowow, which ships products nationwide. It also has stores in Brentwood and Encino and an affiliate in Valencia.

Printing a photo onto an 11-by-14 sheet of semi-gloss paper, for example, runs $39; putting the same image on canvas, for a painted look, is $48.

But Photowow also offers higher-priced products and services that few, if any, of its competitors offer, resulting in art-like finished pieces that sure wouldn't be confused with a Kinko's print.

Although the average price for a fully designed Photowow piece is $300, I had no trouble running up a far bigger tab for a framed poster-size design featuring my favorite artistic subject, Molly, my 18-month-old wheaten terrier.

My 22-by-22-inch canvas Molly piece, with a one-time design cost of $90, a transfer/print onto canvas cost of $96 and large stretcher-bars frame for $69, meant a finished, ready-to-hang piece for $255. A Molly mug and T-shirt run $15 and $20, respectively--something one would do with a designed piece only if already buying something else, because to buy the mug I got, with no other piece would mean a $90 design fee on top of my $15, giving me a $105 mug.

A giant 42-by-42 glossy poster, if purchased by itself, would be $188 unframed or $416 in a 2-inch-deep black frame--$90 for the design, $98 for the glossy print and $228 for the frame.

Still, for a special-occasion group gift--say, Grandma and Grandpa's 50th wedding anniversary--it could be worth it. Think of a restored wedding picture, for example, blown up to 3 feet by 2 feet. Now imagine it with images of each grandchild placed in the background and designed to look as though they had been photographed together. Or as though they had been guests at the wedding, or for that matter, with their faces superimposed onto doves flying overhead.

The process begins on Photowow's Web site, where customers can use dozens of sample pieces or design their personalized photo art. Prices are a combination of the one-time cost of creating a stylized design, if there is one, the price of printing the design onto paper, canvas or other medium and, if a customer wants, a frame. Once a design is created, Photowow saves it for possible later reprinting.

Many of the design possibilities are particularly cool, including turning a photo image into a cartoon rendering.

The site also shows examples of merging two pictures. You could take your family's picture in front of the Glendale Galleria and make it look as though your group were gathered before the Eiffel Tower.

I went with Photowow's pop-art series, a la Andy Warhol, consisting of several frames of the same image, with wild colors as the only contrast.

With the magic of Photowow, you can choose how many frames will make up the piece (up to 36), the specific contrasting colors that will comprise the finished piece and whether the image will be clearly defined, softly brushed or so on.

Other than a few Web crashes, the tools on Photowow's site were a terrific help. I simply chose the pop-art example with the colors and style I liked best--from a special section of pet images--chose glossy paper as my medium and picked a frame.

I then sent along a snapshot. To fully appreciate Photowow's ability to turn my photographic efforts into art, I chose a shot of my dog that also contained half of my husband's arm and another random puppy.

No problem. What I got was a perfectly excised image of Molly's head, as if the original shot had been a studio-quality close-up, in my choice of a four-image design, each with different colors.

Most people probably wouldn't spend the couple hundred dollars it would take to make a smaller version of my new "Molly art." But I'm thinking my upcoming birthday is a very special occasion.

Abigail Goldman covers retailing. She can be reached at abigail.goldman@ latimes.com.

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