Originally created 02/22/99

Producing a digital photo finish



One of the little white lies people tell about digital photography is that you don't have the hassle of getting your film developed.

While this is true in the strict sense, you still can't get a print from a digital camera by osmosis. You have to hook your camera to a PC, download the image to your computer, call it up with a photo editing program and send it to your printer. A lot of work for a simple snapshot of Aunt Rhoda and the kids.

This makes the Lexmark Photo JetPrinter 5770 an intriguing option. While it looks and works like any other inkjet attached to your computer, the 5770 can also print directly from the memory cards that most digital cameras use to store their images. You don't have to go through your PC, or even have the printer hooked up to a computer at all.

As a result, you can use the 5770 with a variety of cameras without installing separate software for each one, make prints in the office while you're using the computer for something else, or carry the printer to a conference or party and turn out snapshots on the spot.

Of course, none of this flexibility would be worth anything if the 5770 wasn't a good printer to start with -- which it is. With glossy, photo-quality paper, the Lexmark produces superb images with a resolution of 1,200 dots per inch. In fact, it's hard to tell that you aren't looking at a print from a photo finisher. And as a day-to-day printer, the Lexmark produces rich, black text and sharp graphics in color or black and white.

The JetPrinter 5770, which lists for $350, is actually a modified version of Lexmark's 5700 model, with the addition of two slots on the left side of the barrel-shaped body and a five-button control panel topped by a liquid crystal display.

The slots are designed to hold CompactFlash and SmartMedia memory cards -- most cameras use one or the other.

To set up the printer without a computer, all you have to do is plug it into a power outlet and install two ink cartridges -- one for normal color and another for photo work that contains black ink and lighter shades of the standard cyan and magenta pigments.

It's probably a good idea to hook the printer to your computer at the same time. This requires a bidirectional cable that connects to your PC's parallel port (don't try to use an old printer cable -- it probably won't work). You'll also have to install Lexmark's printer driver software, which comes on two floppy disks. The process takes less than 10 minutes.

One complaint right here: For normal, nonphotographic printing with your computer, you'll have to buy a $25 all-black ink cartridge. When you're not printing photos -- which is likely to be most of the time -- the black cartridge substitutes for the photo cartridge. Given the $150 premium this printer commands over its otherwise identical sibling, Lexmark should have included all three cartridges.

Before you try to print directly from a camera's memory card, read the instruction manual. Like most control panels with small readouts (on printers, videocassette recorders, microwave ovens and other gadgets), the Lexmark's menu system is not self-explanatory. Once you've gone through the process a couple of times, it makes sense, but a few minutes spent reading the clear, well-illustrated instructions will save a lot of fumbling.

It's also a good idea to preview your photos on your camera's LCD screen and jot down the numbers of the shots you want to print. The printer's LCD panel is for control only -- it doesn't display images. You can, of course, print out thumbnail images of all your photos, but that can take 15 minutes if your camera is full.

I tested the 5770 with a CompactFlash memory card from my Canon PowerShot A5 digital camera, which snapped securely into the slot on the printer. Then I began working my way through the control panel menu.

First, the basics. You can choose paper size and quality, select print resolution and decide whether you want to print one, two or four pictures on a page. You can print all the photos on the memory card or select the shots you want. If you want to get fancy, you can crop your photos (which takes a lot of guesswork) or put a border around them. Once you're through fiddling, it's time to load your paper and push the print button.

For my first test, I used Lexmark's glossy, 4-by-6-inch photo stock, which costs $5 for a 20-sheet pack, or 25 cents a print. At the highest quality setting, it took about three minutes to produce each photo, but the results were outstanding -- the images were sharp and lifelike, the colors accurate and well-saturated.

For most users, the quality of the print will depend largely on the quality of the camera and the images inside. You'll get better results with a camera that has a resolution of 1,024-by-728 pixels than you will from a camera with lower resolution. And a well-exposed picture taken under even lighting conditions will reproduce better than a badly exposed photo with too much contrast.

This is the Achilles' heel of stand-alone printing -- you give up the opportunity to adjust your photo's brightness, contrast and color balance, eliminate red eye, deal with other imperfections and create special effects. With photo editing software running on your computer, you can sharpen up a slightly blurred image and brighten a dull one.

Luckily, the Lexmark 5770 gives you the opportunity to have it both ways. Used as a standard printer with my PC, it was a solid performer, turning out laser-quality text at three to four pages per minute, along with sharp, brilliant graphics. Even with the standard black and color cartridges installed, it produced lifelike photographs.

I do have one complaint, however. If you decide to produce a photograph directly from a camera's memory card but have the standard ink cartridges installed, the front panel won't warn you. Instead, you'll just get a muddy, unrecognizable print. So be careful and check your cartridges before printing.

If you like the idea of quick, no-hassle printing when you need it, the 5770 is worth the extra money. If you don't need this capability, the standard Lexmark 5700, on sale now for less than $200 after rebates, is a good bet, too.

For information, call (800) LEXMARK or surf to www.lexmark.com.

Send e-mail to mike.himowitz@baltsun.com.