I've always wanted a grand piano. Not because I play but because I adore those decorating-magazine tableaus of beautifully framed photos sitting atop a piano. That would certainly solve a problem for me: I don't have a lot of space to display pictures around the house. So how can I show off my favorite photos of Grandma, the hubby and the dogs — other than posting them on Facebook? (Yawn.)
Apparently I'm not the only one looking for something fun and different to do with my digital photos.
"We're seeing a big increase in people wanting to know how to take better pictures and what to do with their pictures," says professional photographer Shari Hartbauer of Digital Labrador.
She recently taught a workshop on how to use digital photos to customize gifts such as snow globes, notepads, playing cards and board games. You can have a photo reproduced on virtually anything. (Photo-customized cupcake wrappers? They make them.) Or personalize blankets, serving trays, mouse pads, paperweights, candles, wall clocks, lamps and dog beds.
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Inspiration for photo gifts is hard to miss, with online resources such as www.snapfish.com, www.walmart.com and www.kodakgallery.com. In Pittsburg, Mpix, a division of Miller's Professional Imaging, will print photos on puzzles, calendars and statuettes. One home decor item that caught my eye at www.mpix.com: Gallery wraps, or photos printed on canvas and wrapped around wooden stretcher frames. Prices range from $55 for the smallest, 8 inches by 10 inches, to $170 for the largest, 24 inches by 36 inches.
One of Hartbauer's favorite resources is www.photojojo.com, which has a free newsletter with do-it-yourself photo projects.
At www.walgreens.com, get photo customization on more than 100 items, the most popular of which is a computer mouse pad.
"If you go to the website, you can shop by product and you'll see ... pillowcases, collages, fleece blankets, a clock, a keepsake box, pillow shams, placemats, throw blankets, posters. There is a lot of stuff for the home," says Mona Furlott Kelly in Chicago, general merchandise manager for photo and front-end services for Walgreens.
When Kelly started working in the photo business in the early '70s, making a print was the most exciting thing anyone could do with a photograph. Now? "It's the digital age," says Kelly, who put a photo of her Cavalier King Charles spaniel on a set of coasters for her mother.
"The ability to transfer an image from a jpeg to an apron ... it's really doing more with your photos."
It's not expensive, she says, noting that Walgreens can customize an apron with a photo for $14.99, and those coasters were $24.99. But the memories such items preserve, she says, are priceless. When her nephew died at age 22, "I got my sister a blanket with his picture on it," she says. "How can you beat something like that?
"You can't just show a picture of my nephew on a media card. And that's what I'm afraid of, that people are going to leave their images on a media card or cell phone."
Hartbauer led her students to Light Affection (www.lightaffection.com). The company makes custom night-lights and lamps by carving images from photographs onto translucent material and illuminating them from behind. Prices start at $44.95. "These are amazing and so beautiful," she says.
She was also excited to discover Mykea, which develops artistic "skins" that adhere to plain Ikea furniture and make it more personal. You can upload your own photo or choose from artists' creations.
"We love the well-designed furniture. But we don't like the fact that we see the same Ikea interior everywhere around us," it says on www.thisismykea.com.
The removable decals fit a handful of Ikea pieces, including the Billy bookcase, Pax wardrobe and Expedit coffee table. Prices range from $30 to $100.
Matt Keith's North Kansas City, Mo., company, Custom Color, prints photographs on bedspreads, pillow shams, comforters, pillows and wall murals for a home decor company called Vision Bedding (www.visionbedding.com).Photos of grandparents and soldiers on blankets were especially popular during the holiday season.
Among Vision Bedding's personalized products: posters starting at $20, dog beds from $99 to $149 and baby blankets for $99. I've got my eye on the $149 custom photo shower curtain that can be personalized with a message. How about "Got soap?"
Keith notes the growing number of websites that will turn photographs into wall art, like the 15-foot-wide mural of an F-16 fighter jet that he made for his son's bedroom.
At www.designyourwall.com, for example, you can upload your own image for custom sheets of wallpaper on a variety of materials, including polyester and grass cloth. Prices range from $6.50 per foot for paper, $9.25 for Mylar or foil.
Go to www.personalthrows.com to turn a photo into a wall mural made of hand-painted canvas panels that can either resemble an actual photo or an oil painting.
They come in four sizes, starting at $400 for a 32-inch-by-48-inch mural up to $1,300 for a 96-inch-by-96-inch mural.
Stephen Fraser started his North Carolina company, Spoonflower, in October 2008 when his wife, who sews, wondered why she couldn't design her own fabric.
Fraser, a marketing consultant, knew that "you can print on anything under the sun." But, like his wife, he'd never heard of customized fabric.
Consulting with textile experts at North Carolina State University, he learned that digitally designed custom fabrics were available to the fashion industry but not the general public. They are now, through www.spoonflower.com.
"There are a lot of sites where you can get finished products," says Fraser, who lives in Durham, N.C. "But we're kind of in a different category because we're not providing finished goods. But people are creating all kinds of things just because these fabrics are really unique.
"The people who use our site, a lot of them sell their stuff on Etsy."
Placemats, napkins and tablecloths are easy-to-sew projects people can make with these customized fabrics, he says. "One of the other things I see people do most often is take a collection of photos, print it on fabric and make a pillow," he says.
Now that I know what to do with all the pictures languishing on my phone, I'm resolved to turning my photos into functional and decorative home accessories this year.
That's right. I'm putting the shih tzu on a cookie jar and Grandma on a night-light.
So what digital photos work best on customized items? According to the experts at www.photoworks.com, images should be at least 200 pixels per inch (ppi) relative to the size of the product being ordered.
For example, an image that is 800 by 1,200 pixels can be reproduced to a 4-inch-by-6-inch size. Whether your project requires an even higher resolution depends on the subject matter. Some items demand more detail than others. For instance, on pillowcases, woven throws, cutting boards or anything 8 inches by 12 inches or larger, you will probably need a high-resolution file of at least 1,500 by 1,000 pixels.
If you're not sure your photo will work, contact customer service through the website before placing your order.