The IMAGING RESOURCE DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
NEWSLETTER


Volume 1, Number 3 22 October 1999

Copyright 1999, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the third edition of the Imaging Resource Newsletter! We delayed this issue by a week, due to a massive overload in the review department of our web site. A couple of those reviews have made it onto the web site, as noted below, and a lot more will be showing up over the next few weeks. Apologies for the delay this time, we should be back on our every-other-week schedule again with the next issue.

TOPICS

SPONSORS
This issue of The Imaging Resource News is sponsored in part by:

Amazon.com for digital cameras (and LOTS of other consumer elec- tronics items.) Our latest newsletter sponsor Amazon.com is a company that literally needs no introduction: They became famous not only for their huge selection of products, but for their legendary customer service, helped by their "safe shopping guarantee." Their Electronics store offers a wide selection, and Amazon's famous hands- on product reviews help you make the right decision. This month, They feature a great entry-level camera, the HP C-200, at only $299, and the Nikon Coolpix 950 at $849. They also have a great selection of photo printers and paper. Check them out, at: http://www.amazon.com/electronics for electronics, http://www.amazon.com/digital-cameras for digicams, or http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00001X5AL for the C-200

Cameraworld.com -- 800/226-3721 -- Cameraworld is one of the premier suppliers of cameras and other photography equipment in the US. They have an unparalleled reputation for quality and customer: If you're in the market for anything photographic, you owe it to yourself to pay them a visit! They currently have the Nikon CoolPix 950 in stock at $899, with free shipping in the "lower 48" states. http://www.cameraworld.com/adtemplmap.asp?invky=95585&affky=700557


Advertisers: Are you in the digital photo business? This newsletter is going out to nearly 40,000 US readers, all with an interest in digital photography! For information on how you can participate, contact us at editor@imaging-resource.com

Correction!

Oops! Several readers emailed to tell us that the URL we gave in our last issue for trial downloads of the (excellent) PhotoGenetics image- adjustment program was broken. It turns out the URL (and a few others in that issue) were spread across two lines of the email. The carriage return in the middle of the URL left the browser not knowing what to do with it. Here's the correct URL, in its entirety!

http://www.q-res.com/php3/downloads.php3?refid=imgresource

If you decide to purchase PhotoGenetics, be sure to come back through this URL, to receive the special $5-off deal for Imaging Resource readers!

Return to Topics.

New on the Site

We're starting to get caught up on our review work! We have two new reviews up this time, and expect quite a few more by the time the next newsletter issue comes out:

Nikon Coolpix 800: 2 Megapixel camera, lots of features, lower price ("First Look" review up last time, FULL review now!) http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/C800/C800A.HTM

Olympus D-450 Zoom: Update of the highly popular D-400 Zoom 1.3 megapixels, great color, super low-light performance http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/D450/D450A.HTM

Return to Topics.

Megapixels vs. Useful Pixels

We Americans tend to want to reduce everything to a few numbers, to tell us how "good" something is. Of course, the real world is too complicated to represent with just a number or two, but we keep looking for magical "goodness ratings".

In the digicam world, this tendency has led to an over-emphasis on the number of pixels in a camera's CCD as being the most important "goodness number". While it's certainly true that more pixels generally mean more resolution, the resulting numbers can be misleading and may have little to do with your eventual use of the camera.

The number of pixels in a CCD tells you little about a camera's useful resolution, unless you also consider something called "aspect ratio." Aspect ratio is simply the ratio between the width and height of an image, and is usually expressed in the form of two numbers representing width and height respectively, separated by a colon. 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 3:2, matching the dimensions of the standard 4x6 inch photo prints. Here's a crude ASCII-art illustration of aspect ratio - The inner box has an (approximate) ratio of 4:3, the full rectangle has a ratio of 3:2.

      --------------------------------------------
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |              4:3                |        | 3:2
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      |                                 |        |
      --------------------------------------------

So what's the big deal with aspect ratio? More pixels are always a good thing, aren't they? Well yes, unless you're paying a lot more for pixels that you really don't need, or are letting a few more pixels lure you away from the camera that's really best for your needs.

Aspect ratio comes into play when you print your pictures, or if you want to display them full-screen on a computer monitor. While 35mm film processors (and the sleeves in most photo albums) are set up 4x6 prints, things are a little different in the digital world. Most computer CRT displays use a more boxy 4:3 ratio, and standard letter- size paper is closer to this ratio as well. If a picture is significantly wider than it is tall, its height on paper is going to be limited by the paper's width, not by the number of pixels the camera has. Think about it: Suppose we had a hypothetical camera with a CCD array measuring 11000 x 500 pixels. (An exaggerated example, to make a point.) While this would technically constitute a "5.5 megapixel" CCD, if you printed an image from it on standard 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper, you'd end up with a picture that was only a half inch high! You could actually see more detail in pictures taken with a smaller CCD, but whose pixels were arranged in an array matching the aspect ratio of the paper more closely.

The example just given is an extreme one, but it illustrates the basic point. If your camera's aspect ratio is significantly different than the paper you commonly print on, you're going to end up "wasting" some of the pixels in the CCD. If you shrink the image to fit in the largest dimension, you'll end up with a smaller overall print area than you would otherwise. On the other hand, if you crop off the edges of the image to make it fit, you're throwing away pixels directly.

To make talking about aspect ratios easier, let's just use a single decimal number to express them. To get this number, we'll divide the larger dimension by the smaller. Thus, a standard 4x6 photo print would have an aspect ratio of 1.50, a 640x480 computer screen a ratio of 1.33, etc.

Let's see how well various digicam image sizes match standard print sizes: In the computer world, paper sizes are determined by the standard "letter" sizes of 8.5 x 11 inches in the US, and A4 (210 x 297 mm). For the sake of simplicity, we'll just look at US paper sizes. To be accurate, we'll assume that our hypothetical printer can only print to within a half an inch of the edge of a sheet of paper. In cases where we're printing multiple images on a single sheet, we'll further assume that the software will leave a 1/2 inch gap between images to facilitate cutting them apart. (Your own printer and software may give different numbers, but these values will give a reasonable approximation.) We thus end up with two "standard" print sizes of 7.5 x 10 inches, corresponding to a full-page print, and 3.5 x 4.5 inches, for the case of images printed 4-up on a page. According to our definition above, these dimensions give an aspect ratio of 1.33 for the larger sheet, and 1.29 for the smaller.

Now, what are the aspect ratios for some standard digicam file sizes? Here's a brief table:

Pixel Dimensions Aspect Ratio

       640x480  1.33
       800x600  1.33
      1024x768  1.33
      1280x960  1.33
     1280x1024  1.25
     1536x1024  1.50
     1600x1200  1.33
     1800x1200  1.50

Hmm -- very interesting! As it turns out, the most-standard digicam image sizes are actually a pretty exact match for typical (US) paper letter-size paper!

So what happens if we try to fill a page with an image from a wider- ratio camera? Another way of looking at the numbers above is to ask how many pixels we get across the long dimension of the paper if we expand the image to completely fill the narrow dimension. Suppose we print an image from the 1800x1200 camera on our printer, cropping and enlarging it so the 1200 pixels just fill the 7.5 inch height of our active print area. In that case, we'll end up with only 1600 of the long-dimension pixels being visible, the same as if we'd taken a picture from the 1600x1200 camera in the first place! In this particular case, the extra pixels from the 1800x1200 camera actually didn't contribute anything to our final picture!

Of course, we need to make an important side note here, which is that there's MUCH more to photography than just filling a piece of paper with the largest image possible! Pros and serious amateurs will spend the time to crop each image to exactly the size that the subject demands, rather than being slaves to the precut paper sizes. Of course, you can always trim your prints differently, but at some cost in wasted paper. For most of us, convenience rules, meaning we'll usually just print to the sizes that our printers and software make convenient.

So what's the bottom line of all this? Simply this: As with all aspects of a digicam purchase, think about how you're going to use the camera first. If most of your prints are going to be output on standard "office size" paper, the extra pixels in a wider-format camera may buy you little. On the other hand, if you want to custom- cut (or use special photo paper) to have your images fit tightly in standard 4x6 album sleeves, look for a camera with the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio.

Return to Topics.

Picture CD, Round III

In the last two issues, we've looked at an overview of Kodak's new PictureCD offering, and discussed its image quality a bit. In this, our final round of PictureCD coverage (for now), we'll look at the software package that's distributed on the Picture CD disks.

To bring new readers up to speed, PictureCD is a new digital photofinishing product available from Kodak. (Others are offering similar products, but Kodak has by far the largest market presence, meaning it's far easier to find the PictureCD product than most competing ones.) PictureCD basically gives you reasonably high- resolution scans of your pictures on a CD disk that's packaged with the negatives and prints as you receive them back from the processing lab. Although the image resolution is 1536 x 1024 pixels ("1.6 megapixels"), the differences between "scanner pixels" and "camera pixels" means that the image quality compares very favorably with the current crop of two-megapixel digicams. Cost varies with location somewhat, but is generally on the order of $7-10 per roll. We're excited by PictureCD because we think it provides a wonderful "entry point" for people not yet ready to take the plunge and spend several hundred dollars on a digicam. For anyone shooting on film, even if they own a scanner, PictureCD is an exceptionally painless way to get pictures into the computer. (We're big scanner fans ourselves, but have to admit that it takes a significant time commitment to scan any reasonable number of images!)

PictureCD is intended to be as "complete" a product as possible: The idea is to give users everything they need to use their digital pictures on the disk that the scans are delivered on. After playing with the product a bit, we decided that this goal has been pretty completely met. Certainly, the provided software doesn't rise to professional or even "prosumer" levels, but it clearly will allow a novice with no existing imaging software to perform simple image manipulation, print, export, and email their images. In short, if you've never before experimented with digital imaging, PictureCD appears to be a perfect, very low-cost way to get started.

As is often the case these days, the user experience of PictureCD is rather different for Mac and PC users, with all of the differences favoring the PC platform. That said, the added programs the Windows users get clearly aren't essential to your use of the pictures: Most of the pieces missing from the Mac portion of the disk are "demo" versions of programs, plus some marketing-oriented material for Kodak and Intel. (Important note: We just referred to the "Mac version" of PictureCD, as if it were a separate product. This isn't the case, but we didn't know how else to refer to a user's experience on the Mac. The same disk is usable on both Mac and Windows platforms, you just double-click on the "STARTMAC" icon if you're on a Mac, while on the PC, the disk should automatically launch the installer application as soon as you insert it.)

The Basic PictureCD Application The core PictureCD application software is essentially identical on the Mac and Windows platforms. It provides for basic image adjustment and enhancement, printing, emailing of images, slide shows, "wallpaper" creation, and exporting of the image files for use in other applications. We'll take a brief look at each of these functions in turn.

The image-manipulation capabilities of the PictureCD application are fairly basic, but are likely to meet the needs of most first-time digital photography users. You can adjust brightness and contrast, sharpen the image for printing, crop it, and remove red-eye from people-pictures. There are also several options for "stylizing" your photos, including "painting with a picture" (commonly called "cloning"). For neophytes, the "instant fix" button seems to work pretty well in most situations, rapidly adjusting brightness, contrast, and (we think) saturation to produce an appealing image with minimal fuss. You can also use this as a starting point for your own.

The printing capabilities of the program are also fairly basic, but do address the common need to print multiple smaller images on a single sheet of printer paper, to avoid waste. You can choose from 7 different standard print sizes, ranging from "full page" to 3.5 x 2 inches. Two overall options let you choose between printing entire sheets of each picture, at the size chosen, or specifying the number of copies of each print you want printed, regardless of how the image size fits the printer pages. (For instance, four 3.5 x 5 prints fit on a single 8.5 x 11 letter-sized sheet of paper, but you could choose to print five copies of each picture, and the program would distribute them across multiple pages as required.) You can't mix different sizes of prints on a single "print run": To print the same photo at different sizes, you'll need to run separate print jobs, one for each size print. Still, while not terribly flexible, the application lets you print your pictures efficiently, without a lot of hassle.

The basic "email a picture" function is the same in both the Mac and PC software versions, offering "from", "to", "subject", and "message" fields. In our tests sending email back to our own account, the images appeared in-line with the message itself. We didn't test it with AOL (in our experience, AOL is frequently a problem when dealing with images coming from outside sources), but would hope that Kodak made sure this worked, particularly in light of their "You've got pictures" promotion with that service. On the PC side, there's also an "email postcard" application from Intel (see below).

The slideshow and "wallpaper" functions do what you'd expect them to, the first stepping through your photos full-screen, one at a time, the second letting you turn the images into "wallpaper" (on-screen background images) for both Mac and Windows. The "save as" function is equally straightforward, allowing you to save images into a variety of formats on either computer platform.

Other Software In addition to Kodak's own software, several other programs are offered on the PictureCD disk. For the most part, these are trial versions of commercial software packages, offering an introduction to the product, but only a limited number of features, templates, etc. Different editions of PictureCD are planned, released on a quarterly schedule. The included third-party programs are what will distinguish between different "editions," as new offers are included, and old ones dropped. (We'll give brief updates of changes in the PictureCD software, as new editions come out in the future.)

The extra software included in the current edition of PictureCD is all Windows-only. There's a picture-postcard application from Intel that lets you create email postcards including multiple images, that all get sent as a single file to the recipient. You can choose to have the postcard delivered either as a single JPEG image, or as an application program sent as an attachment to the email letter. The program version allows the recipient to both view the postcard and extract the images to print or otherwise use locally. Another Intel offering is Photocube software, that lets you create a javascript-based rotating photo cube for use on websites. (Six user-selected images are displayed on the faces of a randomly spinning cube. Clicking on a cube face as it rotates turns it right site up and holds it stationary, so you can see the picture.)

Another included program is Arcsoft's PhotoFantasy. This application lets you easily merge people's faces into humorous template-pictures. We suspect this may have little long-term appeal for adults, but can imagine kids having a barrel of laughs pasting Mom & Dad's (or brother and sister's) faces onto pictures of wrestling hulks, surfer guys/gals, etc. The process is surprisingly easy to do, to the point that an intelligent 5 year old could probably navigate the controls themselves once shown how. The demo version on the PictureCD disk contains only a few of the hundreds of templates the commercial version offers. (You're of course invited to purchase the full version for $39.95.)

A third piece of software is IXLA Software's WebEasy, an application for creating very basic web pages using prefabricated templates. With WebEasy, building a web page is a matter of choosing a template, selecting images to fit into the pre-programmed spaces, and then typing your own text into the provided text boxes. It really couldn't be much easier, but of course you're limited to the style and design provided by the included templates. Again, you're invited to purchase the full version, which includes thousands (30,000) photos and clip art images and hundreds of additional templates, for $49.95.

The final piece of demo software is a limited edition of Kodak's own Inkjet Picture Kit, another template-based application for creating photo-based party invitations, announcements, thank you notes, greeting cards, etc. Again, the version on the disk offers 5 out of the total of 21 project collections available in the commercial edition. Strangely though, we could find no reference on-line for the price of the full product, nor any indication of how to purchase it, other than through a Kodak "dealer locator" link.

Bottom Line Overall, we'd have to say the Picture CD software does everything it's intended to, although we see the greatest utility in Kodak's core application. The added demo-version software for the Windows platform is nice, easy to use, capable enough, and a nice bonus. None of it could be classed as essential to the enjoyment and use of your pictures though. - This is probably just as well, as the mix of third- party programs will change over time, and it's important that the core capability remain on the disk regardless of outside marketing deals.

To our minds, the basic PictureCD software meets two key needs, both related to ease-of-use: First, the basic functions are all well thought-out, approachable, and easy to obtain the desired results with. The second key factor is the paramount one though: Everything that the user most frequently needs to do happens within a single environment, meaning there's no issue with saving images to disk and then later having to find and import them to a separate application for printing or emailing. It turns out that this issue of users losing track of images on their hard disks is the single biggest hindrance to consumers making better use of their photos. We think Kodak has solved this problem quite nicely with the PictureCD software, and predict great success for PictureCD in the marketplace.

If you're looking for an easy and cheap way to try out digital photography, PictureCD could be just your ticket!

Here are some 'web links for PictureCD and some of the applications included on the current edition:

Kodak: http://www.kodak.com/go/picturecd Arcsoft: http://www.arcsoft.com/photofantasy.htm IXLA: http://www.ixla.com/products/webeasy.htm Intel: http://www.intel.com/imaging

We have a winner!

Jon Hill wins the first $100 cameraworld.com gift certificate! We've been running a "Tip of the Month" contest on our site, sponsored by cameraworld.com. If you send in a tip by mailing it to hotnews@imaging-resource.com we'll post it to the "tips" page on the site, at http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM At the end of each month, our readers vote for their favorite tip, and the winner receives a $100 gift certificate for their entry! Second and third-place runners-up receive crisp $50 and $20 bills from Imaging Resource. Here's Jon's winning tip from last month:

"My Nikon 950 sometimes gives uneven illumination when doing extreme close-up macro shooting with flash. The side of the photo close to the flash is way too bright and the side away is way too dark. I don't have the money for an off-camera flash so I decided to try using a diffuser of some kind. I have found that a simple piece of white paper works quite well! I cut a strip of paper 1 cm wide and 5 cm long. I use masking tape on each end to attach it to the camera and simply cover the flash with the paper. I am getting much more even illumination and my extreme close-ups are not as washed out as before. I'm sure this will work with many digital cameras. Using different weights of paper (and perhaps different colors?) could provide interesting results."

Runner-up winners (a crisp $50 and $20 bill, respectively) were Red Varnum and Dean Blankenburg. Red suggested a "Chain Pod" for greatly- improved handheld shooting those times when a tripod isn't feasible. Dean described a simple fix for the problem of wayward lens caps on the Olympus C-2000 Zoom. See all of last month's entries (and new ones coming in for this month's contest) at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM

That could be you next time! As you can see, it doesn't take a complex, tricky solution to win! Something that seems commonplace to you may save another reader hours of frustration. - Submit your tips by emailing them to: hotnews@imaging-resource.com

Return to Topics.

Next Issue

Over the past several weeks, we've been laboring under an onslaught of new camera models for review, the likes of which we've never seen before! We've made some internal changes in how we create our reviews, which in the short term held up the review process, but that will now begin to bear fruit in the form of much quicker turnaround times for new reviews.

In the next issue, we'll take an overview-level look at several of the new cameras we've been testing this last month or so. The good news is that there are going to be a lot of excellent choices for digital cameras this holiday season, with incredible capabilities and fantastic prices relative to the models of just a year ago. In particular, the image quality in sub-$500 cameras is clearly good enough for standard "point and shoot" picture taking, and competition in the 2 megapixel end of the market is driving down prices rapidly. There are going to be a LOT of digicams sold this season, and users will have many reasons to rejoice!

If you're reading this, you almost certainly know that there are great deals to be found on all manner of electronic gadgetry on the Internet. Unfortunately, there are an equally great number of scams and shady operators more eager to take your money than to see that you have a good purchase experience. In the next issue, we'll dispense some sage advice on how to be a "smart shopper" for digital cameras: How to find good prices, check out the reseller, and generally protect yourself. (Fair warning, we'll also deliver a brief diatribe on the long-term danger of always buying at the lowest price you can find, regardless of the vendor.)

Return to Topics.

Signoff

That's it for now, stay tuned for the next issue in about two weeks. Meanwhile, visit our site for the latest news, reviews, or to have your questions answered in our free Q&A discussion forum. Here are the links:

Daily News: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS.HTM
New on Site: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEW1.HTM
Digicam index: http://www.imaging-resource.com/DIGCAM01.HTM
Q&A Forum: http://www.imaging-resource.com/FORUM.HTM
Newsletter Forum: http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a.tcl?topic=irnews
Tips: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM

Happy snapping!

Dave Etchells, Publisher
web@imaging-resource.com

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