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"Real Portability": Epson PhotoPC 550/Relisys Dimera 3500/Kodak EZ200....Megapixel not required

The Promise of DIgital Photography
Remember all those neat Poloroid commercials about practical uses of "instant pictures": Insurance claims for lost items, pictures for invited tots to take home from Johnny's birthday party, etc. The promise of instant gratification took a quantum jump with Camcorders enabling people to capture, share and replay life's magic moments.

1 What to Look and what not to look for
What I like to put down here are a few thoughts of what I think are the real world practical needs/requirements of people looking for a low cost/high quality/well designed digital camera. Here is my list for a first camera. I'll be a little biased at this point and say that the Epson 550 passes with flying colours.

  1. Muli-element Glass Lens: At the end of the day, the sharpness of the lens counts. The standard of what can be achieved is the EPSON PhotoPC 550 for VGA stills. The Kodak EZ200 is an updated version of this camera but with a much worse lens. Take a look at these sample pictures on a PhotoPC 550 and on the EZ200.
  2. Very reasonable battery life. This means lithium and rechargable Lithium-ion batteries are not required. My old mechanical cameras could take me into the woods for two weeks to a year on a single set of hearing aid batteries. I like to see at least 250 exposures (10 rolls of film) on a set of akaline batteries. That works out to about 2 cents a click just for batteries. That means giving up the LCD display, TV-out and flash. The Epson PhotoPC 550 can take up to 1,000 picutures on 3AA batteries. This does not include transferring photos to the computer which can take extra power but this is what an external ACadaptor if for.
  3. Good Picture Quality: The sharpness has to be reasonable with accurate colours and good saturation. Fixed focus seems to be adequate with this unit as the depth of field extends from about 4 feet to infinity. The 550 can double as a scanner by use of the "macro" range allowing it to ffocus down to 4""
  4. 320x240 Mode: This is great for the kids and encourages experimentation/learning and ultimately better photography. The people plugging Megapixel cameras have got it all wrong. It means longer download times, bloated hard drives and extra battery consumption. The Epson 550 can take 147 low resolution picturres on a single 4MB smartmedia card. Kudos.
  5. Optional Add on Flash: The Epson has pretty good low light capabilities that allow it to take passible photos at dusk. The equialent ASA rating is a 100. The shutter speeds range from a 1/4 second to 1/1000 second. The aperture is F3.5 or F8. With post processing, I expect that underexposed photos can be easily lightened using Graphics manipulation packages. It is your computer darkroom.
  6. No LCD: If one is included, there must be a optical finder to allow one to conserve power. If I wanted an LCD screen I would lug around a camcorder.
  7. Mutiple Operatiing System Support: BeOS, MacOS, Linux and Win95.
  8. Cost: Fully competive with conventional 35mm film cameras in terms of price This means $200 is already getting on the expensive side. Remember we are not talking professional quality/wedding quality units but units that can can be used to create artwork and create new paradigms due to the ease of use and manipulability of pictures. The manufacturers need to focus on how to make for more convenient downloading.

2 Boning up on Digital Cameras
There are a few exceptional web pages out there that cover just about every facet of digital photography due to its long infancy. The manufacturing base has enlarged so that computer peripheral makers, such as Epson and HP, are now marketing cameras. I have found three very good feature comparison tables from Digital Camera Net Resources and a number of direct links on the Epson cameras on the main page:

2.1 General Specifications and Comparison shopping

2.2 Epson Photo PC 550 and 0.3 Megapixel Reviews/Images...just what the doctor order...

I started doing a fair amount of darkroom work by developing black and white film and enlarging prints when I was about 12 years old. I attempted to do colour work for a while but I found it to be expensive, stinky, and demanding in terms of temperature/process control. I did limited amounts of colour enlarging work as a result. Flash ahead to a year ago when I manipulated the team hockey picture so that the person on the far left, who forgot his hockey sweater,so that his white T-shirt took on the Team logo and colour of the person standing 5 players away from him. Knocked my socks off!....I was converted.

As you might have guessed, I have narrowed down by Digital camera down to the Epson PhotoPC 550. It is an economical ($199) with good image quality unit with standard 1MB memory configuration that can be upgraded to 4MB for 146 pictures. The three akaline batteries are engineered to operate up for up to 1,000 pics by taking away unecessary features such as flash and LCD panel. See the following review.

The image quality of the Epson PhotoPC is spectacular based upon what I have read, rivalling those of cameras costing twice the price in a review by CNET...this review for the 550 is no longer available. I have a list of sub-megapixel cameras that are ordered in terms of user satisfaction. Look for cameras with a good average ratings and at least 5-10 independent reviews.

3 Summary

I applaud Epson for making good tradeoffs such as omitting flash, LCD display, and TV-out. I think I'll throw one in my backpack and go hike around Euroupe for a few months. Fuji? Kodak ? Minolta ? Casio ? Nikon ? Canon?...are you guys listening ?

Today my manual camera has shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 of second. I can take pictures inside a church without a flash. The bride still looks beautiful and the lack of shadows makes up for the lack of "glam" common in the typical holywood "flashbulbs" everywhere shots. From what I have seen of CCD camcorders, the behaviour of CCD cameras at low light is quite different from conventional film at low light levels. It is a bit like night vision where details in the shadows seem to come through better. The only thing missing on the Epson would a small zoom and through the lens viewing coupled with a larger aperture.

The manufacturers have to beware of the "me too" syndrome that is very pronounced in the computer laptop arena where increase features are add odds with power consumption. I can justify a large/expensive battery in a $3000 laptop but not in a $200 portable camera. Picture quality good enough for 4"x6" prints and for web publishing have already been demonstrated coupled with real portability. The need for a low cost grphical input device into a computer is very much like the need for 3.5" floppy disks. I hope this thing has as long a life as my Fujica ST-701 camera that I still use today....It would be a sad lost if these units were not available in the next year and superseded by battery draining LCD units without the 320x240 mode. Less is more.

4 The "Electronic" Photo Darkroom
Once you have selected your camera, the truly neat part of photography is the hobbyist side that crafts the final image. Ansel Adams is reknown for his Black and Whiite stills of the Southern Rockies. He expertly dodged (selective lightening) and burned (selective darkening) prints to bring out shadow detail. GIMP stands for Graphics Image Manipulation Program and it provides per pixel control that Adams would be envious of. Scratches on prints, dust spots, Johnny sporting a T-shirt at the wedding can all be precisely manipulated in "Forest Gimp...sorry Gump" fashion.

I will be adding information on this page on the following:

  1. GIMP can I use it today and what can it do for me
  2. My own experiences with the GIMP'er
  3. XV by John amazingly comprehensive GIMP like program
    complimenting GIMP's weaknesses
  4. GIMP links

4.1 GIMP
The best way to see what GIMP can do for you is to look at the works fo people who have been using it. The following link has an oil painting of a very majestic looking wolf followed by a picture of the same wolf. The first picture was generated from the second one...quite an amazing feat 5 years ago.

Let me take you back about 10 years ago. Anyone who has ever known a "darkroom" type knows that they spend hours and hours in a darken room illumiated by a single "red" bulb hovered over a enlarger projecting a reverse negative image projected onto photosensitive paper creating and manipulating images. The process of making pictures is a photo-chemical chain of events that begins with the above events and that is then followed by chemical developemt of an exposed print, neutralzing the chemicals from this step and then removing the unexposed photo-sensitive parts of the print. I used to click on to 99.9 and listen to a swanky jazz music well into 2AM in the morning at the tneder age of thirteen.

GIMP takes advantage of the versatile appliance called the computer and allows us to go beyond the the boudaries of a "photo-chemical" process and allows us to created new processes/procedures based upon the value and proximity of pixel information making up an image.

4.2 My Example
The hockey team had one of the wive's take a picture of the team after the final playoff game. The flash caused a lot of red-eye in some of the eyes of a few players, reflections from the flash for those wearing glasses, and our coach forgot to bring his sweater for the team picture. Here is the original picture:

Original Picture Corrected Picture Team in Blue of Nov 97