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Monday, January 05, 2015

Merrie Olde Cameras

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s my most glorious editorial disaster, when a cover-story assignment reviewing a new crop of digital cameras turned into a total cock-up. At first I wrote it as a straightforward comparison piece, but that wasn’t good enough. It needed a snazzier tone. But I was headed for a vacation in England . . . so I schlepped a bunch of cameras with me and wrote about the process of photographing my travels. The piece came back to me completely rewritten as if I’d been in San Francisco (near Computer Life’s home city) instead. And that’s what ran. Here’s the original, minus the photographs. As with so many of my earliest digital photos, they never got stored in such a way that I could find them again. But the piece does give you a look at what was top-of-the-line in the digital camera world twenty years ago!


THEY ALL SEEMED TO KNOW I was a tourist. Was it my American accent? My goofy vacation wardrobe? Or was it the six cameras slung around my neck? Digital cameras, in fact, touring England with me for two weeks last fall.

My face; not my caption.
My mission: to discover just how well this new generation of under-$1,000 cameras performs. To see if direct-to-computer vacation pictures can adequately take the place of the traditional photo album or slide show.

A couple of years ago you couldn't get much more than a muddy black-and-white image for that price; now we're talking about full color, full-screen pictures. I don’t go nuts for every new technology that comes along, and I refused for years even to buy a Polaroid camera.

Then I broke down and got one and went crazy accumulating the one-of-a-kind prints it produced. The photos don’t have the color quality and detail of a shot from a good 35-millimeter camera, but that’s like comparing lemons and limes. Despite the similarities, each has a different purpose. Instant pictures can be informal, abstract – even artistic. They’ve made their way into art galleries.

That’s important to keep in mind when you’re dealing with digital cameras. Frankly, I was shocked at how bad some of those images are. I took some pictures in my backyard before I took off on vacation and saw washed-out red where a barn should be, blurry speckles instead of autumn leaves. What gives?

We take color photos for granted, but there’s a lot of information on that snapshot. Get out your easel and try to paint a photo-realistic picture and you’ll see what I mean. Transfer that image to a computer and you’ve got hardware limitations to deal with. Each pixel on the screen needs to be a particular color. Even worse, each color has to be part of a predefined palette. You can squeeze dabs of paint onto your old-fashioned artist’s palette and mix shades to your eye’s content, but a computer thinks only in terms of bits and bytes. To have millions of colors to choose from means you need millions of bytes’ worth of storage space to save a full-screen image.

Digital cameras don’t have that much storage space. The point is to take a bunch of pictures, store them in memory, then download them to your computer. The kind of memory that hangs onto information even after you’ve shut off its host machine is expensive. But I had two factors in my favor as I traveled around the England’s south coast. First, the cameras use software compression to mash lots of info into little space. Second, I had six cameras to fill. You probably won’t have to haul that many around with you, so in the tour that follows I’ll give you the highlights of each.

Bad news first. The results were all mediocre by color print standards. Even the highest digital resolution isn’t as crisp as what film gives you, and software compression muddies it up even more. You'll see this complaint repeated in any other article that tackles the subject. But what they're not telling you, and what I think is most important, is that these cameras aren't trying to replace your SLR. Might as well ask a moped to outrace a Maserati. There are trips, however, totally appropriate for a moped. Likewise these cameras.

Think of the Polaroid I mentioned above. Even as its detractors scorned the quality of its little prints, some visionary visual artists found ways of turning those prints into museum-worthy exhibitions. It's a matter of understanding the boundaries of the medium and honing your skills to make the most of what you've got. Certainly you'll find that these cameras are great for onscreen viewing – perfect for enhancing, say, a Web site. The image compression used by Apple's QuickTake 150 turned the coast of Torquay into a cheerful Monet. And the camera with the crummiest-looking output – Casio's QV-10 – has the coolest-looking body, with a tiny LCD display on which the pictures look perfect, and which I'm willing to bet is going to be the look of future cameras.

Plug these pictures into a good image editing program and a whole world of manipulation opens up. I made a montage of some of my holiday shots and brightened the color in others to give me back the bright green lawns of Cornwall. But there’s a lot more creative possibility. You can cut and paste faces, change colors, blur backgrounds – whatever you imagination tells you.

Five of the six cameras I worked with have a slightly incestuous relationship. Kodak helped design the Logitech and Apple cameras; Dycam put its name on the Chinon model, and Chinon made all the camera bodies. Only the Casio is completely unique, and it’s got the coolest design of the bunch. Too bad it has the crummiest photos.

All of the cameras have auto-focus. All but the Casio have a built-in flash, and let you turn it on or off or leave it automatic by way of an LCD screen and adjacent command buttons. Stored images can be sent to computer disk, copied from the camera's memory to a flash memory PC Card, or simply erased, although no selectable erasing is possible except with the Casio.

Logitech entered the digital field with the grayscale FotoMan, but the Pixtura, a twin of the Kodak DC-40, blows its predecessor off the map. Even if all this product overlap makes for a confusing shopping trip, it's reassuring to see the companies work together to develop the technology.

I was hard-pressed to pick a favorite. The Dycam DC-10, with its zoom lens and three levels of resolution – and, especially, a way of saving photos to a removable card – finally emerged the winner, but its near-twin by Chinon was close behind. The Kodak/Logitech twins are winners in terms of picture quality, and the Apple has good quality and ease of use in its favor. But I kept going back to that odd little Casio. Fuzzy though its pictures are, it’s by far the most fun to use. And it certainly drew a lot of stares from curious villagers as I stood in one of the oldest towns in Devon and took snapshots with this most newfangled gadget.

Dycam DC-10
* * * *
My lifelong fascination with the old BBC “Goon Shows” radio series sent me to Bournemouth late last October, where I met and took some pictures of fans and a few Goon Show alumni. Here you see Sir Harry Secombe, whose colorful past and personality comes through in the colors captured by the Dycam DC-10.

I needed to take this shot quickly; good thing the camera calculates the light level to decide if the flash is needed and figures out the focus for me. It also has a zoom lens capable of 3X magnification, rare among this breed of camera, and part of the reason for its higher score.

Mix and match resolutions in the camera’s megabyte of memory. Superfine and fine are both 640 by 480 pixels with different degrees of compression; normal, at 320 by 240, isn’t worth the trouble. Add up to 16 Mb of memory through the PC Card slot, which should be standard equipment on any digital camera. An add-on lens kit gives it slightly more versatility than its identical sibling by Chinon (see below).

A real-life knight captured by computer camera! Mixing new technology with old tradition would be characteristic of the stops we had yet to make.

Chinon ES-3000
* * *
How better to capture a pedigreed edifice like St. Michael’s Mount than with a camera as pedigreed as a Chinon? They built the bodies for almost all of the camera in this review, and produced their own camera good enough to inspire Dycam (see above) to sell the same model.

The contrast between blue sky and grey stone as we look at the castle atop the mount was caught using the Chinon’s high-res setting. Before the castle was bought by one of England’s titled families, it was home to a group of mystical monks, and still inspires pilgrimages by the faithful. So I snapped a view that accentuates the majesty of the place.

To withstand centuries of coastal inclemency, a castle needs to be built simply. To get the desired photo when conditions of light are just right, a camera needs the same. This one qualifies. Slide the lens cover to one side to turn the camera on and start shooting. If the unit is idle for a minute, it automatically falls into sleep mode to preserve its four AA batteries.

Like the Dycam, it has a PC Card slot to let you store your pictures on removable memory cards. Like most of the digital cameras, it uses software from PictureWorks Technology for basic color correction, and a Windows TWAIN driver to let you edit those pictures with other paint programs. A major drawback is the amount of time needed to transfer images from camera to disk; if you've spent an afternoon collecting a bunch of high-resolution shots, be prepared to spend a healthy chunk of the evening doing your downloads.

Casio QV-10
* * *
What are the colors of Cockington? This turn-of-the-century seaside resort is five hours southwest of London, in the heart of picturesque Cornwall. Under the unexpectedly warm October skies, we see the dark thatched roofs of the buildings, the yellow of the carriage wheels, the sun on the dappled horses. But we don’t see it very well because this wee camera only produces tiny, poorly-defined shots. Yet in all other respects it’s the coolest camera of the bunch.

Most striking are the camera's small size and color LCD display. Take a picture and you can view it immediately. In fact, the screen works like a camcorder display to let you line up your shot before saving it. The lens sits on one side of the camera body, on a swiveling arm that can be turned nearly 360 degrees.

QV-10 images look great on a standard TV set, and an adapter is provided for you to make that connection. Trouble is, that's more of an acknowledgement of the lousy quality of our TV sets than a commendation of those pictures. Images are a tiny 24 Kb in size, and the camera can store 96 of them.

A selective delete feature lets you cycle through what's been taken and get rid of the dogs, and how many cliffside views can you look at? All right, I’m a sentimentalist. I saved them all.

Kodak DC-40
* * *
Here’s a portrait of the cliffs at Land’s End, the westernmost point of England. Thanks to the Kodak DC-40’s high resolution, you can almost feel the sharp edges of the cliffs that inspired many a Daphne DuMaurier story.

Characteristic of the decompression scheme, which kicks in when you download to the computer, is a watercolor look to large areas of the same color and bits of unexpected color appearing where there are high-contrast transitions. But of all the cameras I used, the Kodak/Logitech design showed the least interference.

Four megabytes of memory lets you take up 48 images between downloads, although a PC Card slot and some flash memory cards would be welcome if you ever need to take the camera on the road. A sliding lens cover is the camera's power switch, which shuts the camera off automatically after 60 seconds of inactivity. All of the other controls are at the back of the camera, next to an LCD display shows you flash and self-timer settings and the number of pictures left.

Aiming for simplicity, Kodak came up with a camera in the venerable Brownie tradition: a good-looking box camera that demands little of the photographer except the ability to keep the camera still.

Logitech FotoMan Pixtura
* * *
As I was going to St. Ives, I met . . . a bunch of artists, because this harborside village has become a mecca of landscape and sea-related painters, with galleries dotting the narrow streets and a branch of the Tate Gallery newly landed in town. So I got a little artistic and snapped this still life of houses and harbor, low tide leaving the boats tilted in the sand and all of it looking like a miniature village. Nice resolution, although the colors look a little artificially enhanced. That’s partly because of the light cloud cover, which does funny things to daylight, and the compression decoding, which does funny things to pixels.

The Pixtura is essentially the same camera as the Kodak DC-40, and has a single, high resolution setting, memory space to save 48 shots, and a good long battery life if you use the lithium cells and remember to switch off the flash when you don’t need – as was the case with this photo.

PhotoEnhancer software from PictureWorks Technology gives you an easy-to-use interface for viewing and color-correcting your images; even better, the TWAIN driver lets you work from within your favorite Windows-based image editing program, which is where anyone with a good graphical sense will spend digital darkroom time.

Apple QuickTake 150
* * *
Torquay (pronounced “Tor-kee”) is best known as the setting of “Fawlty Towers,” but service at the hotel I chose was anything but antic. Perhaps it was the warm weather – unexpected for late October – and a sense of relief as the season ended. Here’s a view of the seaside promenade with hotels on the bakground hillside, showing the somewhat Impressionist color definition you get from this second-generation Apple camera.

It was co-designed with Kodak and aims for the same degree of user friendliness. In fact, the two seem to be in an all-out war to offer the most accessible manual, a battle that Apple wins by a hair.

Where the QuickTake 150 surpasses the Kodak/Logitech model is in providing two levels of resolution, although the single megabyte of flash memory limits it to 16 high-resolution (620 x 480 pixels) images. A single button beside the LCD display toggles the camera to its lower-res setting, which ups the capacity to 32. Can't decide which to use? You can switch back and forth freely.

Instead of using one button to choose a particular feature and another button to change its status as most of the other cameras do, the QuickTake 150 places four buttons at the corners of the LCD display, each positioned next to the appropriate icon – much easier to deal with than the two-button system.

None of the cameras reviewed here are especially hard to use, but this one surges ahead as the easiest. If you're a confirmed user manual avoider, you'll want to snap this up.


A late-autumn view of my barns lit by the setting sun was the image I used to test these cameras. The six cameras make slightly different choices about processing colors, which range from the barns deep red to the orange of the trees and the green and blue of the grass and sky. Look at the trees in the background for detail. The barn presents a particular challenge because red is a difficult color for compression software to deal with. These cameras tend to be pretty similar in other respects, so this comparison points out the subtle differences between them.


The only good part about getting home from a vacation is that you can brag about it to all your friends for the next few weeks. And nothing like a good album of photos to back up your claims of a really great time. During the couple of weeks I spent with these cameras before taking off, I figured out some ways to make the most of their limitations, so I’m putting together a pretty good album. I’ll show it to you if you stop by; meanwhile, here are some techniques to try when taking digital pictures.

Looking to capture a good portrait? Get as close as you can to your subject, but try to do without the white face-inducing flash – it can be disabled on most of these cameras. Daylight is best, and the warm tones of late afternoon look particularly good, but avoid direct sunlight. If you're working with artificial light, keep the background slightly darker than the subject's face, but not so dark that the automatic exposure setting in the camera tries to brighten it too much. You can use image editing software later to adjust lighting and color, but start with the best shot you can get.

These cameras don't click the shutter as soon as you push the button. There's a lag as they calculate lighting and focus requirements, so hold the thing rock steady or, better still, use a tripod. Instruct your subjects, if you're dealing with direction-following humans, to hold their poses after you push the button. They should keep still until the flash flashes or you give them some other signal.

Enhancing the images to look as much like a 35mm print as possible is a natural inclination. We grew up on print photography and see its evidence everywhere. But even the finest color printer will show you the limitations of these images – 640 by 480 pixels fills a VGA screen but occupies only a few square inches on a page; enlarge it and you're looking at a blotchy missing persons-type photo.

Which doesn't mean you should never do it. Experiment with these images! Stop thinking in terms of conventional prints. Ask yourself why you're using a digital camera. If you have a business application, like photo-enhanced real estate listings or a product catalog, okay, stay traditional. If you're sending GIF files to family and friends, or dressing up a World Wide Web page, indulge yourself.

Hence the final tip: get to know your software well. Learn its tricks. Better still, get a full-blown image editing package like Corel Photo Paint or Micrografx Picture Publisher or Adobe Photoshop. You'll be able to combine parts of different images, change colors, draw in objects or text – you're limited only by your imagination, and it's place no ordinary darkroom has been before.


Want the best shots you can get out of these cameras? Knowing the technology behind them can help. Think of cameras and you probably visualize an SLR, which stands for single-lens reflex. Look through the eyepiece and you see right through the lens, so you get a good idea about focus and lighting.

To duplicate the features and quality of a good SLR drives the price of a digital camera into the tens of thousands of dollars. Ironically, those cameras are the least versatile, requiring up to a few minutes to build the finished picture as the thing laboriously reads the subject. You can't use a flash, and the subject has to remain absolutely still.

The one-shot color cameras described here use a charge-coupled device (CCD), just like a camcorder. It’s a light-sensitive device with built-in red, green, and blue filters. Digital cameras, lacking all that videotape to save image information, rely on software to calculate colors based on raw camera data. Compression techniques speed that processing but sacrifice resolution clarity.

All of the cameras reviewed here save images in 24-bit color, which means that every dot has the potential of being one of over 16 million colors. (Eight-bit color, by comparison, can only draw from a palette of 256 colors.) Trouble is, the richer the color, the more storage space you need for all that info.

That’s where compression comes in. The Joint Photographic Experts Group came up with a scheme that they named after themselves. A JPEG compression scheme reasons that some areas of color are going to be pretty similar, and not every dot needs to be so richly defined. Different degrees of compression can be applied, but the more you use, the more of a washed-out, blurry effect you get. This is evident in varying degrees with all of the digital cameras I worked with.

How many dots you use per picture also affects picture clarity. In computer lingo, those dots are called pixels, and you’ll see them defining screen resolutions – for example, you can run Windows on a 640 by 480 screen, or get a more detailed desktop at 800 by 600. All of the cameras except the Casio give you at least 640 by 480 resolution, so the images look good on a monitor. But the resolution doesn’t change when you resize the image. Enlarge a 320 by 240 pixel picture and those little pixels are turned into slightly larger squares, giving the image a blocky effect.

When you save these photos to your hard disk, you take advantage of the fact that hard disks offer lots of storage space fairly cheaply. In the camera, however, photos are saved in an area of non-volatile memory. Turn the computer off and it forgets everything in memory; turn the camera off and it remembers your pictures. That kind of memory is much more expensive than the amnesiac variety, so storage space in these cameras is limited.

That’s why the Chinon/Dycam cameras have a PC Card slot (also called a PCMCIA slot) that accepts credit card-sized gadgets that contain more non-volatile memory. They’re also not cheap, but they’re vital if you’ll be traveling away from a computer for a while and plan to accumulate images.

All of the cameras come with a TWAIN driver, which is a software program that Windows-based graphics programs use to communicate with things like scanners and, no big surprise, cameras. A TWAIN-compliant image editing program lets you load photos right from the camera in case the camera’s own software doesn’t give you all the editing tools you need.

Speed and convenience are the selling points for these cameras right now, but look for price drops and improvements in the technology in the coming months. Contenders are maturing in this immature field, so I’m planning to keep an eye on digital cameras and wait to see, if you'll pardon the phrase, what develops.

– Computer Life, more or less, February 1996

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