Note (2004-04-17):

I am keeping the mention of Wal-Mart in this article for historical reasons. It has since come to my attention, however, that Wal-Mart has in many cases violated racial discrimination and immigration laws, locked in its night shift employees, potentially putting their health and life in danger in case of medical emergency, and repeatedly stolen from its employees by illegally witholding overtime pay and fraudulently altering computerized time sheets. The frequency of these reports suggests these are not isolated incidents, as the company asserts, but rather actively condoned or encouraged, and the result of a system of perverse incentives and pressure on middle management that can only be achieved by resorting to these criminal practices.

I do not believe it is morally permissible for me to patronize such an ethically dubious firm, and urge you not to either. In contrast, Costco is cheaper, and yet offers decent working conditions, pay and benefits to its employees.

I received some prints I made from Wal-Mart Photo Center by uploading digital photos taken with my Canon EOS D30. I made a mix of 4″x6″ and 8″x10″. The quality is very good, much better than that of traditional silver-halide photos I took with my old Nikon N6006, and when you look at them with a 10x loupe, they completely blow the supposedly 1200dpi inkjet prints from my HP Photosmart P1000 out of the water.

These prints are made on real photographic paper (Fuji Crystal archive, rated at 25 years) by a  Fuji Frontier laser photo printer which exposes the photo paper by passing red, green and blue lasers on it, and the print is then developed conventionally.

Wal-Mart has also improved the uploading process. When using IE on Windows, an ActiveX component allows simple drag-and-drop uploading of large numbers of images, as opposed to the laborious HTML file upload-based process that was limited to 5 images.

Update (2002-09-16):

For people who live in San Francisco (and probably other locations as well), Costco is a cheaper option. They use a Frontier 370 digital minilab in their SoMa location and they charge 20 cents for a 4×6, and $2 for a 8×10. Unfortunately, their on-line service uses the inferior Kodak process. When I went there last Saturday, they took my originals on CD and gave me back my prints in about 2 hours (although they printed my 8×10 as 4×6 by mistake, which added another 30 minutes, but the lady at the counter was very helpful). Sam’s club apparently matches Costco pricing and is upgrading to Frontiers as well (including on-line).

Other Frontier locations I know of in San Francisco (much more expensive, unfortunately): F-1 Photo at 690 Market (@ Post), Ritz Camera (2185 Chestnut). Two good resources for Frontier enthusiasts: this Digital minilabs list is a directory of (among others) Frontier-equipped minilabs, and Dry Creek Photo offers a color profiling service for your local minilab to obtain optimum color accuracy (they will profile your minilab for free if it isn’t already listed in their database).

Update (2002-10-24):

There is an article on laser digital minilabs in the New York Times (free registration required). One interesting tidbit is that Fuji’s initial implementation of the Frontier was so sharp it revealed every skin blemish, and they had to add code to detect and smooth out curved areas of skin-tone color.

Update (2003-07-02):

Other good reviews:

Update (2003-07-28):

I visited the San Francisco Costco yesterday, and they have replaced their Fuji Frontier 370 with a Noritsu QSS-3101 (PDF). This generation of Noritsu digital minilab uses a laser rather than the MLVA (LED) technology used in earlier Noritsu minilabs, and it should have equivalent quality (I will know for sure this coming Thursday when I get my prints back – it seems the word is out and Costco now has quite a backlog).

The nice thing is they now have a self-service Noritsu CT-1 kiosk where you can upload your photos from flash cards or CD, albeit with a slightly clunky interface. They also support 8×12 rather than 8×10 now, and more interestingly larger sizes as well, up to 12×18.

Fortunately, the paper used is still Fuji Crystal Archive rather than the inferior Kodak alternatives Noritsu is usually associated with (Kodak resells Noritsu minilabs, and allegedly some Agfa minilab components as well).

Update (2003-09-07):

Another Fuji Frontier location in San Francisco. Walgreens’ Fisherman’s Wharf store (Jones between Jefferson and Beach) has a Frontier 370 with an Aladdin self-service kiosk front-end. To their credit, they resisted the temptation to gouge the tourists that will probably make the bulk of their custom. They advertise a package of $6.99 for 24 4×6 digital prints, which isn’t that much more than what you would get from Costco. They also promise 1 hour delivery, as long as the machine is operating below capacity. The operator was not able to gve me ansers on the price of 8×10 enlargements (he was from the night shift, as it was past 9PM), but he thinks it is in the vicinity of $4-$5.