Digital cameras bring a computer-photo synthesis to light

Along with Internet and intranet fever is the bug for digital cameras that's going
around. These easy-to-use devices eliminate the drudgery of shooting 35-millimeter film,
waiting for processing, laboriously running prints through your optical scanner, then
working for hours in Adobe Systems' Photoshop or other image-editing software.


For a computer hobbyist like me, whose other hobby is conventional 35mm photography,
it's exciting to see a blend of computing and photographic technologies.


Epson America Inc.'s PhotoPC is a shining 35mm jewel for less than $500. At 6 1/2 by 3
1/2 by 1.9 inches front to back, it's a little larger than some other low-cost digital
cameras, though I like its traditional 35mm sizing.


One really nice feature is that after a minute of inactivity, the PhotoPC enters a
power-saving sleep mode.


It has two resolutions, 640-by-480 high res or 320-by-240 low res, and a 10-second
timer. The fixed-focus lens is roughly equivalent to a standard 40mm lens at ASA 130 film
speed. There's a built-in flash and an optional, 37mm-camcorder lens for shooting closer
than 2 feet.


The PhotoPC needs about 5 seconds to cycle between shots. Its 1M of flash memory holds
up to 16 hi-res or 32 low-res images. Epson offers optional 2M and 4M flash-memory
modules; with 4M, you can scale up to 80 hi-res or 160 low-res images.


All images are compressed as Joint Photographic Experts Group files in 24-bit color. A
typical JPEG at such resolution and color depth occupies about 900K.


The PhotoPC comes with a DB9 serial cable to attach to your PC, four AA batteries,
Storm Software Inc.'s EasyPhoto image editing software and Twain driver software.


EasyPhoto software works under Microsoft Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 but not Windows NT.
It won't support long filenames. There's no zoom lens, nor can the PhotoPC accept standard
PC Cards. But the mix of good image quality and low price make this digital camera a
winner in my book. For more information on it, visit Epson's Web site at http://www.epson.com


Higher up on the price scale, the $9,995 RD-175 from Minolta Corp. sets a new standard
for super-quality digital camera work. It's based on Minolta's Maxxim 500si camera body
and is capable of up to 1,528-by-1,146 resolution with its beam-splitter and three linear
charge-coupled device (CCD) targets.


There are two green CCDs and one combination red-and-blue CCD. This three-way approach
lets the RD-175 eliminate color aliasing and misaligned colors. There's a Type III PC Card
131M hard drive in standard ATA format and an alternate SCSI-2 interface, too.


The SCSI-2 interface may require a special adapter or cable for some notebook
computers. My notebook's port replicator has a built-in SCSI-2 interface, so I had no
problems. With built-in flash, the RD-175 is roughly equivalent to ASA 800 film speed. It
needs about 4 1/2 seconds to recycle for the next shot, quite a bit longer than some of
the more expensive digital competitors such as the Nikon E2 and the Eastman Kodak
Professional EOS-DCS 5. Both of them sell for around $12,000. A Minolta image file
typically runs about 5M, again larger than the competition's.


A bonus: The RD-175 automatically stamps each frame with shutter speed, f-stop, flash,
time and date. Because it uses a viewfinder condenser to display a full frame, the maximum
aperture is only f-6.7. Camera buffs will immediately recall that this allows relatively
little light into the camera.


The Minolta's Twain driver works with any 16-bit Twain-compliant graphics or
image-editing program, but it won't work with 32-bit Windows 95 software. Also be aware
that images are in proprietary format and take considerable time to acquire and
decompress.


This is a state-of-the-art digital camera. It has a few limitations that will irritate
35mm aficionados, but strikes an excellent balance between price and image quality. For
more on the RD-175, see Minolta's Web site at http://www.minolta.com.


Charles S. Kelly is a computer systems analyst at the National Science Foundation.
You can e-mail him on the Internet at ckelly@cpcug.org.
  This column expresses his personal views, not the official views of NSF.



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