Great digital photos deserve to see the light of day, not just to be hidden away in the dark recesses of your hard drive. So why is it that digital photo printing services are still very much overlooked?

Coupled with a decent broadband speed, the products and services offered by some of the best online printing companies are quick, inexpensive and pretty dazzling.

Pretty much any of the latest Canon, Epson or HP inkjet printers are capable of producing borderless photo prints at sizes of up to A4, with excellent quality. Once you’ve bought the printer itself, usually for less than £100, typical photo printing costs are about 30p for a standard 6 x 4in print, and around £1 for a full A4 photo.

But while print prices from online companies tend to be comparable for A4 enlargements, you can get standard 6 x 4 inch prints for about 10p each, and for as little as 4p each if you buy in large quantities, making them much cheaper.

Easy digital photo uploads

Complexity is financial suicide for online printing companies, so it’s no surprise that those who have gone from strength to strength have made a point of keeping their ordering systems simple.

Snapfish is a good case in point – its point-and-click upload tools have always fitted so seamlessly into Internet Explorer that it couldn’t be any easier to create online photo albums.

The whole approach impressed Hewlett-Packard so much that it bought Snapfish a couple of years ago and the company has now gone on to become the driving force behind another stalwart of mail order photo prints, Truprint.

Another way that good online photo companies aim to please is by offering a variety of upload options. For example, Photobox defaults to its standard drag and drop image uploader, which is quick and easy to use, but also offers a new, improved and faster Aurigma Image Uploader, as well as options for upload via FTP, email or standard web browser or ActiveX interfaces.

Images on CD-ROM or DVD

As a complete departure from uploading, almost all online printing companies also accept images on CD-ROM or DVD. This is generally only necessary if you have many hundreds of photos you want to print though.

Bear in mind that most online photo labs work on a resolution of about 250dpi so, even for a full A4 photo print, you’d only need a 6Mp image.

While there’s not much to choose between the quality of top inkjet prints and online printing on paper, online outfits come into their own for more unconventional ‘photo gifts’. Once your image files are uploaded, many companies offer a huge variety of options, ranging from mouse mats, mugs and t-shirts, to jigsaw puzzles and customisable calendars.

Prices are good and the quality is usually polished and professional. Hardback photo books are increasingly popular, although some companies are now offering softback options as well.

Quality is typically excellent

In all cases, online design tools allow you to choose from a variety of page layouts for each consecutive page, with single or multi-photo designs and optional captions. The pages of the books are printed on real photo paper, so the quality of the finished books is typically excellent.

Prices start at around £20 for a 20-page A4 book, and you can usually add extra pages as required, up to 50 or, in some cases 70 pages per book, with an additional cost of about £1.20 per pair of pages.

The ability to go large is another killer feature of online printing, and most companies can produce large-format panoramic prints or 30 x 20-inch poster prints for less than £20 each.