Luckily, however, one perk of the digital age is the opportunity to use printing techniques and materials once reserved for professionals.
Some of these can take favorite photos and turn them into works of art that go beyond oversize prints, like custom wallpaper, murals and decals. The services cost more than the one-hour photo hut, but the results can be stunning.
GOING BIG Home printers tend to top out at 8-by-10-inch formats, but Shutterfly (shutterfly.com) offers 11-by-14, 16-by-20 and 20-by-30-inch prints starting at $8. Images are professionally printed on high-grade paper.
And Shutterfly is relatively foolproof — upload an image, crop it as desired and select a size. The order is delivered within a few business days. One caveat is that the service is limited in terms of professional help. If an image has imperfections, find someone to help or go with a service that offers more help. Shutterfly’s paper sizes also have limits, so photos with an unorthodox crop may come with a white border to be snipped off at home.
STRETCHING ONTO CANVAS Some companies offer the option to print onto a stretched canvas. The effect is instant art, ready to be hung. Canvas Pop (canvaspop.com) specializes in taking everyday photos, including candids snapped with a camera phone, and blowing them up without losing detail. Company technicians work on each image to ensure that an iPhone photo looks as good stretched across four feet as it does on a 4.5-inch screen. When comparing two shots, one from an iPhone and the other by a professional with a digital single-lens reflex camera, the difference in quality had more to do with each camera’s (and photographer’s) abilities than the printing technique. Canvas tends to work well with images that have a little motion in them, since the material’s texture softens the movement rather than making it glaringly obvious as it would on a glossy print.
After the printing, the canvas is finished with a matte laminate, which guarantees against cracking, fading or bubbling for life. If the canvas ages over the years, the company will replace it free. Sizes start at 8-by-10 inches ($30-$70 depending on finishing options) and go to 24-by-72 inches ($219-$419). Diptychs, triptychs or quads may be made out of a single image. Wood frames are available for a more polished look.
THE EVER-POPULAR COLLAGE Oddly, it takes a lot of planning to achieve that haphazard scattering of hanging photos. CollageWall, a Web service, can help streamline the process. The service, at collagewall.com, offers templates for dragging and dropping digital images, but custom collages are possible, too. The photos themselves are printed on professional paper with a luster finish, for the color benefits of glossy stock with the fingerprint resistance of matte.
Then the photos are attached to a black Styrene mounting board. I chose to scan old family photos to enlarge them with the service and was pleased with the results, though the unusual sizes — CollageWall says it is too difficult to create a uniform layout using traditional photo dimensions — made the process a bit lengthy. I struggled for hours to figure out which photos could be cropped into narrow rectangles and which would work better as squares, but the result was a unique composition that gave my black-and-white family heirlooms a modern touch. Prices range from $50 for 1.5-by-1-foot arrangements to $343 for a 6-x-3-foot collage.
TURNING TO VINYL Without the limitations of a home printer, the options for personalization are wide, even stretching to home décor. Wallhogs (wallhogs.com) specializes in turning digital photos into vinyl decals. And while the result can often seem like a novelty, it proves to be quite a crafty medium.
Instead of printing a square decal, Wallhogs creates a specific cutout. In my test, I used an image of my cat sprawled across the couch. I asked Wallhogs to include just the cat and couch, deleting the window behind her. The result allowed me to supersize the old photos on the refrigerator with a graphic that spreads from one side of the door to the other. It was so lifelike that my calico’s sibling stopped in her tracks when she saw it.
The vinyl is reusable (up to five times), and it can be peeled off without damaging a wall or a door. Wallhogs offers materials for indoor or outdoor decals. While other companies start at life-size and just go bigger, Wallhogs offers decals starting at 12 inches ($13) and the sizes can go up to seven feet for $90.
MAKE A MURAL If Wallhogs’ seven-foot decals aren’t large enough, there is always the option to go big. Crazy big. Wizard Prints (wizardprints.com) specializes in supersize images (it can accommodate almost any size and shape) onto a variety of materials including adhesives that can be stretched across a floor and trampled on, textured fabrics that easily affix to walls, as well as canvases and traditional prints on textured fine art paper and heavyweight photo paper.
The company’s wall mural fabric is made out of printable polyester that is lightweight enough to stay in place with a low tack adhesive. That sticky back is gentle on walls, too. Prices vary widely, depending on the image and size. I had the company produce a 42-by-56-inch mural, for $149.
Unlike more basic printing services, Wizard Print can work with images that have been cropped to an irregular size. It also provides postproduction help for people who are not skilled at Photoshop. Want that Hawaiian beach landscape to be a wee bit longer? Wizard Print can use so-called liquid expansion to stretch an image while keeping it proportional. It can even remove unwanted items, so the FedEx truck lurking in the background doesn’t ruin a portrait.
COVER THE WHOLE WALL The 1970s brought sunsets and woodland scenes to people’s walls. For a more contemporary spin, Design Your Wall (designyourwall.com) turns images into custom sheets of wallpaper. An array of materials is available, including Terralon, polyester and natural fiber that contains more than 30 percent recycled materials, plus heavyweight vinyl and more textured materials like grass cloth. Prices are by the square foot, from $7.95 for heavy artist canvas to $9.25 for Mylar or foil.
Getting an image to a wall is a longer process, with considerable back and forth between customer and company, which makes sense since your final product is far more permanent than, say, hanging a canvas on the wall. A company representative works with a customer to discuss the best material for the image, and scaled-down versions of an order are printed on the materials under consideration for $5 each.
Any of these options of decorating with photos is bound to be better than a stack of dusty photo-filled shoeboxes.