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The Epson PhotoPC

Epson's PhotoPC and Kodak's DC20 Digital Cameras

A Pixel's Worth a Thousand Words

by Jim Bray

Photographers riding the information wave have some new allies in the latest generation of affordable digital cameras.

These things are probably causing film manufacturers to "shutter:" they don't use any film. Instead, pictures are stored on chips and, once you've snapped your shots, you download them straight into your computer. From there you can print them out, distribute them via floppy disk, use them in brochures or on a Web site, or even have them saved as digital photo CD albums.

Digital cameras aren't new, but they've never been particularly affordable to - or practical for - the ordinary consumer or small businessperson. But now that the technology is cheap enough (relatively speaking), it shouldn't be long before they take off in a big way.

Taking "pixels" has advantages over taking "pictures:" the results are immediate and the cameras eliminate film development and/or scanning costs. And there's a lot you can do to improve a digital image after it's shot, thanks to software that lets you enhance the color, contrast, and brightness to correct lighting problems you may have had while shooting. You can even add jazzy special effects.

Of course digital cameras also have drawbacks. Printing out the pictures works better if they're of a reasonably high resolution, and if the output size is reasonably small - say, about three inches wide. You also need a color printer to do it justice.

Not only that, but if the people to whom you'll be showing your pictures don't have computers, printing out your shots - either yourself or via some lab - is mandatory. The latter method costs money, so you might as well stick with film.

And, while getting pictures into your computer is merely a matter of downloading them via your serial port, that assumes you have an extra serial port sitting patiently on the rear panel of your computer. If you don't, downloading becomes a REAL CHORE.

I don't, so I had to unplug my mouse to make room for the camera's cable. Then I had to reboot and work "mouseless" (a fate worse than death), save the photos to a file or gallery, plug the mouse back in, reboot, reload the software, and go back to work.

Needless to say, that made downloading more of a challenge. To put it mildly.

Still, there's a lot to like about digital photography. Kodak's DC20 digital camera

Pick of the Litter

I've been playing with - er, testing - Epson's PhotoPC and Kodak's DC20 and, while they're quite different in price and execution, they both point toward a digital future that could relegate traditional photographs to a museum.

Both of these units, available for Windows and Macintosh, are extremely easy to use and offer good value in different ways.

Epson's PhotoPC looks and feels just like a conventional 35mm "point and shoot" consumer camera, though slightly bigger, so there's virtually no learning curve. And, like a plain vanilla conventional 35mm camera, it's mostly lacking in extra features. It doesn't even zoom.

That said, however, Epson says the unit will accept 37mm camcorder lenses and filters, which would definitely increase its flexibility. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to try any.

Typically for "snapshot" cameras, the Epson's standard lens (and the Kodak's, too) seems to move your subject away from you, so if you're taking portraits you have to get up close and personal - right in your subject's face. Otherwise, you'll have to blow up the picture once it's inside your computer, which can cause it to lose detail and increase in file size.

Still, once you've figured this out you can get quite acceptable results, even with the basic configuration. You won't be the next Karsh, but you'll probably be happy with your work.

PhotoPC comes with 1 megabyte of memory (expandable to five), which lets you shoot up to 32 shots on standard (320 x 240 pixels) or 16 shots on high (640 x 480) resolution. Images are in 24 bit (16.7 million shades) color. Color accuracy, saturation, and the like are about what you'd expect from the nineties version of an Instamatic. That's not a putdown; these things have gotten good!

A little LCD panel on the unit's top tells you what resolution you're using, how many shots you've taken (and how many remain), and the control panel next to it lets you change settings or erase the last image shot if your subject sneezes at the last second. There's also an automatic flash that can be used on dull days or for "fill" light.

The "EasyPhoto" software included with the unit loads a quick "thumbnail" of the images stored in the camera. You then choose which ones you want to download for real, then sit back and watch as the camera spills its guts into your hard drive.

You may want to pick up the optional AC adapter, 'cause this process is a bit of a battery hog: PhotoPC uses four "AA" batteries and in four shooting sessions I went through two and a half sets of 'em. I think things would have been better if I'd had the use of my mouse, though; while fumbling around I had to repeat actions that, by pointing and clicking, would've been straightforward.

Anyway, your photos are dumped into a "gallery," and you can either edit them there or, even better if your needs dictate, with something a little more hefty, like PhotoPaint, Picture Publisher, or PhotoShop. "EasyPhoto" only gives you basic image manipulation (masking, cropping, rotating, and some enhancement) so if you want to paint a digital moustache onto a photo of your boss, you'll have to shell out for something better.

While your photos are in the gallery, you can add a caption to the shots, or click on a button below the "thumbnail" and a little "tooltip" balloon appears telling you where the file is located on your hard drive. Getting them out of the gallery is done by dragging and dropping.

Kodak's DC20 camera is very similar in most ways, but it really knocked my socks off when I unpacked it: it's barely one quarter the size of the Epson, a camera I had thought was awfully compact to begin with!

The DC20 is so small you can easily carry it in a shirt pocket - which means if you bend down your $500 digital camera will quickly hit the ground with a wallet-wrenching thud.

Unfortunately, the size of the Kodak exacts a hefty price: you can only shoot 16 pictures on low resolution and a miserly eight on high resolution. The camera defaults to high res, too, and when I took it into the mountains to do some shooting I was annoyed to find I'd scarcely begun when I was out of memory.

I guess that shows you should read the manual…

Fortunately, the thing warns you when it's about fed up: a little light near the viewfinder flashes three times when there are three shots left, twice when you're down to two shots, and once when your digital goose is cooked.

You could get around this by downloading the pictures into your computer, erasing them from the camera, and starting again, but what if your computer's at home and you aren't?

Can you imagine being limited to eight shots at a wedding or graduation? Better to stick with low resolution whenever you can get away with the lesser quality shots. And to be fair, the quality's good at both resolutions.

The Kodak takes a single, three volt lithium cell, which should cost about ten dollars to replace. Battery life is supposed to be much better than "AA" alkalines. Good thing, too, because there's no AC adapter available for the Kodak. Still, I was satisfied with how the battery lasted through my experiments, though they were all too brief.

The DC20 is even easier to use than the Epson. There are only three buttons (Power, Shoot, and Erase), and they all fall easily under your right index finger. The "Shoot" button is much larger than the other two, so there's little danger of erasing your last shot when you're trying to take your next one.

Kodak includes "PhotoEnhancer" software with the camera and it lets you manipulate the image somewhat. It works well for a basic package and, like EasyPhoto, is probably all a consumer will need.

You also get two "bonus" applications: "Slides and Sounds" and "Kai's Power Goo." The former is a "slide show" program for displaying your handiwork. "Kai's Power Goo" is a cutesy program that lets you add a few special effects, like smears and blurs. Fortunately, it's included with the price of the camera, because I wouldn't pay for it.

Who's Better, Who's Best?

Which camera's best for you depends on which features best suit your needs.

But remember to have that extra serial port, or you'll be cussin' a-plenty!

Digital cameras are definitely the future of photography, and should become very popular, very quickly.

Pity poor, old tech Snow White, waiting patiently for her "prints" to come.


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May 14, 2006