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Point, click and print: A guide to digital cameras and photo printers

June 17, 1998
Web posted at: 12:15 PM EDT

by Pete Scisco

(IDG) -- Boy. You goof up one time and you hear about it forever. In my case, it was the day my wife went into labor with our first child 11 years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't have any film for the camera, so we had to stop at a 7-Eleven on our way to the hospital.
Ricoh camera
Ricoh RDC-300Z   

I haven't forgotten that little stop. My wife won't let me. Three kids and thousands of pictures later, I'm thinking there has to be a better way to capture life's important moments. After all, a computer replaced my Royal typewriter. My CD player replaced my phonograph. Maybe I should do away with the whole film developing process. Maybe I should go digital.

With that in mind, I looked at a range of digital cameras as well as software that lets me enhance my photos and then put an ink jet and a photo printer to work.

Film At Eleven... Not

The lure of a digital camera is hard to resist. No film to forget. No rolls to develop. No shots of my youngest son's gymnastics meet that come out so dark they look like stills from a third-rate ninja flick. Plus, with the right printer you get instant gratification--and there's no detour to the drugstore picture counter.

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Several fine digital cameras are on the market, but Ricoh's RDC-300Z will appeal to any part-time paparazzo. It's light-years ahead of my trusty Pentax K-1000, a 35mm camera that's about as automatic as a 1953 Renault.

The Ricoh's zoom features, for example, let me easily zero in for action shots of my oldest son's tae kwon do bouts. I sat safely in the stands, watching through the flip-up 1.8-inch color LCD. When I zoomed in, the screen put me right on top of the action. And when I accidentally shot the back of some guy's head instead of my son landing a kick, I didn't have to wait for the photo lab to show me the potential Rogaine commercial. I just hit the delete button and snapped another shot.

A big drawback is that sunlight renders the LCD useless. But indoors, at its highest-quality setting, the RDC-300Z produces great images, with a good balance of color and contrast and plenty of detail.

Here's the best part: While my roll of Kodak Gold sat in the drugstore developer's bin, I hooked up the Ricoh's video output to the TV and presented an instant martial arts slide show to the rest of the family. From hookup to viewing, the process took about half a minute, versus the couple of days it takes to get prints developed without a rush fee.

At a list price of $599, the Ricoh is priced competitively with similarly equipped digital cameras from other manufacturers, but it's still a little out of my price range. So I put my hands around the Epson PhotoPC 550. Could this $299 snapper, only a little thicker than a deck of cards, get me started without breaking the bank? Yes--if I made some sacrifices.

Unlike the RDC-300Z, the PhotoPC 550 has no built-in flash--a shortcoming I regretted when my youngest son (the future gold medal gymnast) climbed up one of our magnolia trees. I rushed out with both my Pentax and the PhotoPC 550 in hand, and discovered that the only clear shot put the sun at his back. I used a flash with my Pentax to compensate for the backlight, but the Epson unit didn't give me that option.
Epson camera
Epson PhotoPC 600   

Indoors, it didn't fare well either. Since the PhotoPC 550 lacks any way to control the shutter speed or to add light (both of which my Pentax can do), the interior images often came out too dark or too light or too red or too something.

The high-end Epson PhotoPC 600 doesn't mand the same sacrifices that the 550 does; but for $699, it shouldn't. The unit comes with an LCD viewer, a zoom feature (not a true zoom lens, but digital amplification that decreases the picture's resolution as it magnifies), a flash, and a panorama mode. Still, I could buy a lot of lenses and film for that price.

Step Into My (Photo) Lab

I knew switching from film to digital would mean becoming my own film lab. After shooting the pictures, I wanted to turn them into something totally original--or at the very least, fix any mistakes.

Like its instant cameras, Polaroid's $59.95 PhotoMax Image Maker software is straightforward, but its simplicity comes with limitations. The package offers six picture-centric programs from one interface, but unlike with Adobe's PhotoDeluxe or Microsoft's Picture It, they aren't very well integrated. Photo-Max's best tool is an automatic photo fixer: With just a few clicks I could adjust contrast, brightness, and hue to give my admittedly less-than-perfect photos a second chance.

In less than 30 minutes I was using PhotoMax's simple editing tools to crop and resize a picture of my wife and me at a holiday party. It took me a little bit longer to figure out how to use some of the advanced features, however, such as the digital airbrush for eliminating flaws.

Compare that process with fixing and editing the pictures I shoot on film using my regular, old-fashioned camera. Unless I scan them into my computer, I'm out of luck.

If I were a professional photojournalist, maybe I would have my own developing room. But I'm not. If I want to crop a film photo, I pull the scissors out of the kitchen drawer. If a picture is too dark or the people in it have red eyes, I either live with it or throw it away.

The Call of the Wide

My photo album is filled with scenic views taken during hikes and road trips. But capturing the sweep of the Blue Ridge mountains in a 4-by-6-inch print is like sticking a hippo in a Jacuzzi. It can be done, but it's not pretty.

So I tried out a digital solution: Enroute Imaging's QuickStitch. As its name implies, this program lets you "stitch" photographs together to create one larger image, either tall or wide. I got mixed results with it, mostly because I didn't plan ahead. It's not that the QuickStitch software is difficult to use. In fact, it's devilishly simple.

For this experiment, I shot several scenes overlooking a tree line from my backyard. Once the images were in my PC, I opened the folder of photos in QuickStitch's Explorer-like pane on the left, chose the images I wanted, and dragged them to the editing grid on the right. I then selected the settings for stitching the photos together. But to reproduce the landscape as I'd seen it, I should have mounted the camera on a tripod to capture images with just the right amount of overlap.

To its credit, QuickStitch provides plenty of picture-taking hints. And my experiment shows one advantage of using a digital camera: I didn't have to throw away several rolls of film when I found I hadn't taken the pictures properly.

Formerly Known As Prints

By this time I had stuffed a boatload of JPEG images into my PC, and I'd done more cropping and cutting than a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. Now, to be my own photo lab, I needed a printer. Buying a printer just for photos sounds extravagant, and it is. So if I'm going to drop a chunk of change on a gadget that does only one thing, it had better be darn good.

I unpacked Ricoh's RXP-10 Digital Color Printer with high hopes. And while this $599 device did yield impressive output with rich colors, it didn't quite match the clarity of developed film prints. I could see some subtle differences in the slightly pixelated edges between foreground and background objects.

The RXP-10 has one feature that almost makes it worth the money: A connection between the printer and the RDC-300Z digital camera let me bypass the PC. And though it couldn't produce film-quality prints, the RXP-10 gave me shots that I was proud to mail to relatives. I could even make photo labels with adhesive paper.

When it comes down to it, if I were really spending this kind of money I'd get a good color ink jet. Canon's $349 BJC-7000 (see Top 10 Printers, April) is a better choice than the photo printer. Not only does it print photos that look great, but I can also use it for home-office printing.

My experiment over, I faced a decision: Go digital and kiss the film world good-bye? I'm not puckering up yet. The lure of a digital photo lab is all about instant gratification. Unfortunately, right now it's not worth the money. I can shoot as many pictures with my Pentax as I want. Flash batteries and 35mm film are a lot cheaper than photo ink cartridges, digital camera batteries, and glossy paper. Supermarkets offer enlargements and reprints at low prices. So I'm hanging on to my Pentax. Okay, I won't be as cool as my neighbor with the digital camera. Just richer.

Pete Scisco is a freelance writer living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


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