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Monday, April 22, 2019

The Digital Decision

From the Tech Vault Dept.: There’s a rain barrel outside my house that has spawned a large sunfish, swimming within. I was going to blast it with my .22, but decided it would be easier to regurgitate the column below. I believe that everything referenced in it is completely obsolete. Even me – I certainly no longer resemble that photo!


ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, I tested a then-representative pile of digital cameras for Computer Life magazine, concluding that they all were pretty good in delivering images of mediocre resolution – good enough for Web pages, say, but not what you’d use to archive vacation memories.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A few hundred dollars would buy you an entry-level camera; for professional applications, such as magazine photography, you’d have to spend well up in the thousands.

As is inevitable, the technology has improved – and it’s improved pretty amazingly. I looked at a few current models that are priced in the hundreds and found cameras that are easier to use, more versatile and capable of producing very high-resolution output. Let’s look at the best of those, as well as what you can do with those photos you take.

Olympus, well known for its traditional cameras, got into the digital biz early and evolved a series of cameras that have been in the forefront where features, price and ease of use are concerned (but keep in mind that pricing in this realm is well above that of the film-camera cousins).

Where the earlier cameras struggled to achieve an image resolution of 640 by 480 pixels – the minimum configuration of a VGA monitor – the Olympus cameras give you at least 960 by 1280, and model C-2020, which I think is your best value, translates its 2.11 megapixel resolution into images of a crisp 1200 by 1600 pixels. It lists at $900, but you can save a couple hundred by judicious Internet shopping.

It’s small, and therefore very portable. It’s got point-and-shoot features so you don’t have to fuss with focus and aperture, but there’s also manual access to such things if you were raised, as I was, on feature-free SLR cameras. Change settings using the tiny buttons on the camera’s back, one of which takes you to a menu from which you can make most selections.

You’re reading those selections on the camera’s 1.8-inch LCD screen, a display that also gives a surprisingly good representation of the photo you’re about to take. You also can review (and selectively delete) what you’ve taken. Which brings us to storage.

How to save the image? How to get it to your computer? Two vexing questions that have seen more attempted solutions than any other aspect of this technology. Solutions to the former have ranged from floppy disks to PC Cards to proprietary storage modules. The SmartMedia cards used by the C-2020 are quickly moving out of that proprietary category as cameras make more use of them – and they’re aimed at other gadgets like personal digital assistants and voice recorders.

SmartMedia cards are wafer-thin, about 1.75 by 1.5 inches, and hold from 8 to 64 Mb of info. The 8 Mb card that ships with the C-2020 stores 16 images at the default (high quality) setting, although you can jam in more if you want to take lower-resolution pictures. Storage space is gained by data compression – the popular JPEG format, used on most Web sites, employed by this camera with enough restraint to give a good-looking finished product. You also have the option of saving in an uncompressed TIF format, but that plummets your storage down to one image per 8 Mb of media.

Activate the C-2020 by rolling its power/mode dial a notch, and the zoomable lens scurries out of its collar, assuming you’ve remembered to remove the lens cap (which I too easily forget – this is the only thing I don’t like about the camera). By default, the LCD screen doesn’t activate, and there’s an old-fashioned range-finder viewer if you’re saving battery life or simply are really, really good at this. Push the screen button, check out the lighting and composition (it’s focused for you) and shoot. Check the shot immediately by pressing the screen button twice.

A zoom toggle by the shutter button (or whatever the digital equivalent is called) gives you the equivalent of a 35 to 105mm lens – and that’s true optical zoom. Up to 2.5x digital magnification is available on top of that, although you’re sacrificing quality here.

Getting the shots from camera to computer can be a torturous route. The least expensive method is to use the accompanying cable, plugged into your PC’s serial port, and the camera’s software to suck the images off the camera’s SmartMedia. It takes a while and drains the hell out of the camera’s batteries. If you’re feeling lavish, adapters are available that let you read SmartMedia cards in a floppy drive or PC Card slot.

The camera comes with four rechargeable batteries and a charger. Bonus features in this model include the ability to take brief QuickTime movies (we’re talking 30 seconds here), and settings for black-and-white and sepia photography.

No need for the latter, however, if you’re editing these pictures on your computer. There are many powerful programs that give you a startling array of tools with which to mess with your photos, and, even though the shots I’ve taken for Metroland end up in black-and-white, it’s often more useful to touch them up while they’re still in color because of the broader array of tools.

I used Corel’s PhotoPaint version 9, part of its current CorelDraw suite of graphics tools, to correct the accompanying photo. I didn’t use a flash, and the natural lighting of my gloomy bathroom (the only room with a sizeable mirror) gave a too-red effect, so I increased the blue level a touch to compensate.

I’ll never be a hand model because my fingers are mottled with psoriasis. So as not to gross you out, I ran a color mask to select only those bright foreground fingers and blurred them out of focus. I also airbrushed out the mark of an old contusion.

As you see, I turned the camera on its side to take the picture, and so had to rotate the image 90 degrees clockwise. And, it being a mirror image, I flipped it. You should be able to read the writing on the camera, but I part my hair on the other side.

Nothing will replace old-fashioned still photography as an art form. Digital cameras are carving out a territory all their own, and journalists, realtors, Web designers, eBay nuts and even family memory archivists are discovering this uniqueness. I may not give up my darkroom just yet, but I’m certainly sold on this technology.

Metroland Magazine, 6 April 2000

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