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Agfa ePhoto 1680 Digital Camera
Megapixel-plus, 3X Zoom, Flexible exposure options, and PhotoGenie(TM) technology for great image quality.
Initial Review Date: 2 January, 1999
||1,600 x 1,200 pixels, w/PhotoGenie(tm)|
||3X optical zoom (38-114mm equiv) + 2x digital|
||Aperture- and Shutter-priority exposure modes|
||Provisions for external slave-flash|
||46mm threads for lenses and filters|
||Excellent resolution and color!
Agfa is a long-time player in the graphic-arts marketplace, with well-developed
technology and expertise in the arcane realm of color management. Within the
last 18 months, they've moved into the digital camera arena, and applied their
considerable digital imaging expertise to good advantage. The latest fruit of
their labors is the ePhoto 1680, a 1.3 megapixel camera, employing Agfa's unique
"PhotoGenie" interpolation to produce surprisingly sharp 1600x1200
ePhoto 1680 "High Points" overview
Several readers have requested quick, up-front feature summaries of the cameras we review, which we'll be doing from this point onward. Herewith are the key characteristics of the ePhoto 1680, ranked in a completely arbitrary order reflecting our own personal biases and dispositions ;-)
- Megapixel Zoom Digital Camera provides three resolution settings up to 1600x1200 pixels (interpolated). Base image for 1600x1200 super res is a low-compression 1280x960 JPEG.
- 3x digital zoom with 38mm to 114mm equivalent focal lengths
- Flexible exposure system, with full auto, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority metering modes.
- +/- 1.5EV exposure compensation, in 0.5 EV steps
- Supplied with NiMH battery set and charger (Kudos to Agfa!)
- LCD Viewfinder for easy capturing and viewing of images
- Built-in flash, with four settings: automatic, fill-in, red-eye, and off, or works with supplemental external flash
- Supports external, slave-triggered flash, with 6 special shutter speed/aperture settings
- Unique EasyPilotTM button for user interface to the menu system
- Very fast and easy-to-navigate menu system
- FlashTrackTM swivel zoom lens moves independently of the camera body to capture images at any angle
- 4MB removable memory card (SmartMedia, supports up to 16MB) for in-camera storage
- Good ergonomics, light-weight design makes for easy-to-use picture taking experience
- Agfa PhotoWise software included for quick and easy downloading and editing of images, does surprisingly good job of interpolating images to higher resolution.
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In the ePhoto 1680, Agfa has built upon their earlier experience with the ePhoto 1280, and boosted raw sensor resolution to create a 1.3 megapixel camera with higher apparent resolution than the pixel count would normally indicate. At the same time, they've addressed a number of issues of interest to serious photographers, including both aperture- and shutter-priority metering, and a unique approach to external-flash support. Its combination of high resolution, excellent image quality, and flexible exposure modes should interest photographers who may have dismissed digital cameras previously due to a lack of flexibility or control. At the same time, its ease of use and strong ergonomics will appeal to first-time picture-snappers.
The 1680 is a swivel-lens camera, closely resembling the earlier ePhoto 1280, with the lens/flash unit on the left-hand side, and the 2" LCD viewfinder panel on the right-hand "body" portion of the camera, which also houses the batteries and major electronic components. The "FlashTrack" swivel zoom lens can rotate through 280 degrees, allowing even self-portraits while viewing the LCD monitor. As the name suggests, the flash bar rotates along with the lens, to illuminate the subject regardless of where the lens happens to be pointing. Its design encourages a two-fisted grip, which increases picture-taking stability. (A single-handed (right-handed) grip is possible, but only if you have rather large hands.) A decided plus is the inclusion of 46mm filter threads on the lens, for attaching close-up lenses and other accessories.
The 1680's body is generally rectangular and flat, with a bulge around the lens body. Overall dimensions are 2 x 6.13 x 3.75 inches (51 x 156 x 92 mm), and it tips the scales at 13.8 ounces (380g) without batteries. At this size, it's probably not a "shirt pocket" camera, but is certainly a coat-pocket one.
Once we became accustomed to it, we really liked the "EasyPilot" menu-navigation system, relying on the combination of a small finger-wheel on the camera's right-hand side and an extensive LCD menu system. Many cameras use the LCD screen for menu items, but we have found few as easy to use as the ePhoto 1680's. The zoom lens and shutter release controls were also well-located, making for an easy-to-use and predictable user experience.
The ePhoto1680 eschews an optical viewfinder, relying solely upon the sharp 2" LCD screen for this function. Agfa doesn't specify the number of pixels in the LCD screen, but the screen is quite sharp, suggesting a fairly high resolution. We also observed the 1680's LCD screen to have a particularly high refresh rate, showing little or no blurring or ghosting even for fairly rapidly-moving subjects. No adjustment is provided for backlight illumination, but we've often found such controls to be of limited usefulness anyway, and the 1680's screen seems somewhat more resistant to washout in sunlight than most. The LCD viewfinder is also more accurate than most, showing fully 90% of the final image area. The LCD Viewfinder is on all the time when you're actively using the camera. However, after one minute of inactivity in REC mode, or five minutes in PLAY mode, the LCD powers-down to conserve the batteries. A simple push of the Info button on the left-side of the LCD display returns the camera to normal operation. (In REC mode, half-pressing the shutter button will also reawaken the camera.) As with other swivel-lensed cameras, we found the tilting capability of the viewfinder and lens to be a big plus for capturing images from odd angles.
The viewfinder LCD on the ePhoto 1680 also has a useful "low light" mode, in which the screen refresh is slowed to allow the CCD to gather more light, creating a brighter viewfinder image. This is a pretty useful feature, as some cameras' LCD viewfinders become almost useless in low-light conditions, because the CCD can't gather enough light in the short interval between LCD refreshes. The 1680's viewfinder image becomes noticeably more jerky when operating in low-light mode, but that's a tradeoff we'll gladly make. (Actually, in "low light" mode, the 1680's LCD refresh is still faster than some competing cameras in "normal" mode.)
As mentioned earlier, the viewfinder screen also doubles as a control interface, displaying icons and menu items for the EasyPilot system. The icons displayed on the LCD when navigating through the camera options with the EasyPilotTM button are clear and easily recognized.
The lens focal length ranges between 35mm-equivalents of 38mm and 114mm, a
moderate wide-angle to a moderate telephoto. With a maximum aperture opening
of f2.8 in wide-angle mode and f3.5 in telephoto, it is also a moderately "fast"
design. We were impressed by the total lack of geometric distortion across the
full range of focal lengths, as evidenced by our "viewfinder accuracy"
and "resolution" targets, both of which contain straight lines near
the frame edges. (Most cameras we've tested display at least some barrel distortion,
particularly at the wide-angle end of their lenses' range.)
The lens system appears to operate at one of three fixed apertures, f2.8/3.5, f5.6/6.4, and f8.0/9.1. These are either automatically selected, in the case of full automatic or shutter-priority exposure, or manually selected in aperture-priority and flash-assist modes. (When automatically selected, the chosen aperture value is not reported back to the user.)
The 1680's autofocus range specification is a little confusing: The manual states nearly the same minimum focus distance for both normal and macro modes. Focus range for normal mode is given as 4 inches (10cm) to infinity at the wide angle end of the lens' range, and 32 inches (80cm) to infinity at the telephoto end of the range. In macro mode, the range is from 4 to 39 inches (10cm to 1m) at the wide-angle end, and from 20 to 39 inches (50 cm to 1m) at the telephoto end.
The autofocus on the 1680 is much more "permissive" than that on most cameras we've tested, in that it won't prevent you from taking a picture, just because the image is out of focus. On the other hand, we'd like some positive indication of the camera's success or lack thereof in achieving focus. Overall, we prefer the "permissive" approach, as we've had occasion before to wish that a digital camera would just go ahead and take the picture, whether it could focus optimally or not. Still, it would be nice to know whether the shot was properly focused, without relying on the playback mode for confirmation.
All that said, a particularly welcome touch on the 1680 is the option it provides for manual focus control, allowing you to preset the focus to distances of 1, 2, and 5 meters (about 3, 6, 16 feet), and infinity. We'd like to see finer manual adjustments, but having a manual function at all is a plus relative to most competing cameras.
Digital Telephoto Mode
So-called "digital telephoto" modes are increasingly common on digital cameras these days, and Agfa opted to include the feature on the ePhoto 1680. "Digital telephoto" works by simply cropping-down to the central 640x480 pixel area of the sensor array, and saving the resulting picture as a "307 mode" (640x480) image file. Interestingly, the LCD image in digital tele mode is every bit as sharp as when displaying full-size 1280x960 images: In our experience, this is unusual, with the LCD display of most digital tele-equipped cameras becoming much more pixelated when displaying a cropped image.
We've vacillated a bit as to how useful digital zoom is, as compared to true optical zoom lenses. Our current feeling is that it is a real benefit, as long as you aren't expecting to enlarge the resulting images up to full-page size. For web work, or small printed pieces, it can be quite handy, as a way to crop images at the point of capture, rather than later in an imaging program. It also permits more precise framing of far-away subjects, and saves in-camera storage for images that would otherwise be cropped anyway. Overall, we view it as a useful capability when combined with a true optical zoom, but in no way as a substitute for optical zoom in the first place.
The ePhoto 1680 carries an official ISO rating of 60, somewhat lower than many current cameras. We found that its low-light capability belied the official ISO value, though. Shutter speeds can be set to anywhere between second and 1/500 of a second. Aperture values can be set to correspond to large (f/2.8 to 3.5), medium (f/5.6 to 6.4), or small (f/8.0 to 9.1) aperture sizes. The combination of these lens apertures, shutter speeds, and the official ISO rating would predict a usable illumination range of EV10 to EV21. In actual practice though, we felt the camera produced perfectly usable images in lighting as dim as EV7. We'd thus say that the official ISO rating of 60 is quite conservative, and a practical value of 120 or even 200 would be more in line with our own experience.
As mentioned earlier, the 1680 can operate in either full automatic, aperture priority, or shutter priority exposure modes. While we didn't test this directly, we heard from at least one reader who discovered that the exposure modes will sometimes "cheat" a bit, using a larger aperture than that selected, or a longer shutter speed, if the camera thinks it needs more light than the settings you chose would allow. We're not sure how we feel about this: On the one hand, it's good to have a camera that does its best to get a usable shot whatever the circumstances or settings. On the other hand, there are times when you'd accept a dark picture, if it meant being able to freeze the subject motion, or being able to get the depth of field you need. Ideally, we'd like to see a choice of options, to either force the camera to use your settings, or to allow it to override your settings if it needs to. (Don't get us wrong though: The aperture- and shutter-priority capabilities of the 1680 go quite a bit beyond the offerings of most other digicams currently (December, 1998) on the market!)
Interestingly, the 1680 digitizes the image internally at 30 bits (10 bits per color channel), then picks the best 24 bits (8 bits per channel) to store the image. As of this writing, there are only a few other digicams that do this, and the expanded dynamic range provided by the 10-bit digitization may account for the "better than rated" low-light performance.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The 1/2 second lower limit on shutter speed can be a great help in getting shots that would otherwise be too dark. This is a long exposure though, well beyond most people's ability to hold the camera steady enough to render a sharp image. Use a tripod when it's that dark! Some camera manufacturers have unfairly taken knocks for "poor autofocus" in dim lighting, when the fault in many cases may lie with the photographer for not stabilizing the camera sufficiently. A few pros may venture to hand-hold a 1/2 second exposure, but it's just about guaranteed that most amateurs will have a hard time below 1/30 or even 1/60. (It's also true that a really great camera would have an ISO of 800 or better, so you don't have to worry about camera shake as much: Rest assured we'll make appropriate note of and give due credit to any such devices when they appear!)
Although we found the ePhoto 1680's exposure system to be unusually sure-footed, it is still subject to being "fooled" by unusual subjects, whether a light object against a dark background, a backlit subject, or one that's unusually uniform in overall brightness (such as a snow scene). To accommodate these situations, Agfa includes an exposure adjustment control with an apparent range of +/- 1.5 f-stops, in half-stop increments to accommodate these situations. (The range and step size isn't specified in the manual, but the difference in exposure appears to be about a half an f-stop, and there are three steps available on either side of the default.) Thus, if you think the situation calls for it, you can easily request lower or higher exposure through the LCD menu system, accessed via the EasyPilot control. One minor quibble here though: Regardless of how good an autoexposure system is, we frequently find ourselves wanting to tweak the exposure settings of digital cameras. Thus, we prefer the exposure-compensation setting to be directly accessible, without having to resort to a menu system. On the 1680, you have to journey to the far end of the menu structure and back again to set or remove an exposure compensation setting. While the EasyPilot wheel makes this a fairly quick operation, we'd still prefer to have it more accessible.
We liked the focus/exposure lock function of the ePhoto 1680, which allows you to pre-set the exposure prior to the shot itself: Pressing the shutter button halfway actuates the autofocus and autoexposure systems, without firing the shutter. Once the exposure and focus is set in this fashion, they will stay "locked" at the selected settings as long as you continue to hold down the shutter button. With this feature, you can easily accommodate off-center subjects by turning to center them, locking the focus and exposure, then turning back to frame the shot to your liking before firing the shutter.
The built-in automatic flash has a stated working range of 8 inches to 8.5 feet (20 cm to about 2.6 meters) in normal mode, or 16 to 30 inches (40 to 75 cm) in macro mode. The flash provides four operating modes, including "red-eye" reduction, force fill, auto, and of course "off" for those situations in which you want the camera to just do its best with the light available. Agfa's minimum-distance rating for the flash seemed about right, but we obtained excellent results all the way in to the 10 cm minimum focusing distance when we taped a small slice of neutral-density gel over the flash head. The close proximity of the flash head to the lens produced surprisingly even illumination at closest approach, much better than most digicams we've tested.
The 1680 has an ingenious arrangement for connecting to an external flash unit. Although it doesn't have a flash-sync terminal, it can trigger an external flash unit via "slave trigger" devices, which trip attached strobe units in response to a sudden flash of light. (Strobe triggers are widely available in a variety of configurations, many for less than $20.) In its "external flash" mode, the 1680 throttles-back its on-camera flash, to the point that it will trigger a slave device, but contribute very little light to the final picture.
To accommodate a range of different external flash units, the 1680 provides a choice of three different lens apertures (f2.8/3.5, f5.6/6.4, and f8.0/9.1, the range of numbers for each aperture size corresponding to the variation in effective aperture size as the lens travels from its wide-angle to telephoto settings), and shutter speeds of 1/100th or 1/200th of a second. The range of control thus provided should be sufficient to permit use with most variable-output professional strobe units, an intriguing prospect for those interested in low-cost product photography, portraiture, etc.
We regrettably did not have an opportunity to test this feature, because our studio lighting equipment is all special low-IR, daylight-balanced incandescent, for the sake of compatibility with non flash-capable cameras.
The ePhoto 1680 showed fairly good automatic white-balance compensation in our (rather severe) indoor portrait test, under household incandescent lighting. The 1680's manual white-balance adjustment is somewhat more effective, and overall offers more precise matching between lighting conditions and white balance settings than the more conventional "incandescent," "fluorescent," and similar settings on competing units. In the 1680, setting the manual white balance involves making a menu selection, pointing the camera at a white surface illuminated by the light source in question, and then triggering the camera to adjust its white balance to that specific target. Regardless of the exact color temperature of your light source, the camera will adjust its balance to make the white target truly white. The result is a more accurate white balance than one based on a preset, fixed approximation of typical values for fluorescent lighting, etc. The downside of course, is that you need to have a white reference surface available to set the white balance. You also need enough light for the camera to be able to bring the weakest color channel all the way to its maximum value in "white" areas, though: Our indoor portrait test shot is taken with a modest illumination level of EV12, apparently not enough to produce a completely neutral tone, even using the manual white-balance mode. By contrast, in our studio shots, we felt that the manual white balance did an excellent job at avoiding the minor color casts that frequently creep into shots taken with automatic white balance enabled, due to variations in the overall target coloration. (We've found the "Musicians" test shot particularly prone to this sort of effect.) A manual white-point setting will remain in effect until explicitly changed back to "auto", or until the camera's batteries are removed. (We'd like to see an option that lets you set and lock-in a manual white point setting, and then switch between that setting and "auto," without having to re-set the manual white point again.)
Agfa is fairly unique among digital camera manufacturers, in the amount of information they provide on the timing of routine camera operations. The 1680's manual provides timing measurements for not only average image processing and display times in both record and playback modes, but camera-startup and shutter lag times as well! (This level of forthrightness is quite unusual, in our experience.) Image processing times in REC mode for 1680, 1280, and 307-mode images are given as 8.5, 6.7, and 4.0 seconds, respectively. The corresponding times for image playback are 7.3, 5.9, and 3.5 seconds. These are stated as average times, and agreed well with our own measurements. Startup time is given as "less than 2 seconds", but this is a little misleading, as it represents only the time required to wake from "sleep" mode, not from a power-off condition. We measured the power-on delay time at about 8 seconds in REC mode. Likewise, the 1680 took about 8 seconds to switch from REC to PLAY or PLAY to REC modes.
We particularly like the 1680's feature that allows you to interrupt image playback: When viewing images, you can move on to the next one in the camera's memory, without waiting for the current one to finish displaying. This is very convenient when you want to quickly move through the images in the camera, without resulting to the multi-thumbnail display.
Shutter Lag Time
We've recently begun measuring shutter-release delay times on digital cameras, since this is an often-overlooked parameter that significantly affects camera usage. We do the timing with a little utility program developed by Digital Eyes, running under Windows. By shutter-release delay, we refer to the lag time between when you press the shutter-release button, and when the camera actually takes a picture. This can include autofocus, autoexposure, and other camera functions before the shutter is actually tripped, and can be as long as a couple of seconds for some cameras.
Agfa states shutter lag for the 1680 as 1000 msec (1 second), inclusive of the time required for autofocus. We were surprised to find Agfa's own shutter-lag rating rather conservative, since our measurements consistently found the shutter lag under this condition to be only 0.8 seconds (800 msec). What's more, when the focus and exposure were locked (by half-pressing the shutter button) prior to triggering the shutter, the lag time dropped to only ~0.13 seconds. (The shutter-lag testing utility's resolution is only 0.1 seconds: The 0.13 second value represents an average of 15 trials with the camera, in which more of our measurements came out as 0.1 seconds, rather than 0.2 seconds.) Relative to other cameras, the full-autofocus shutter lag is slightly better than average, while the lag with prefocus is among the best we've measured.
Image Storage and Interface
Like most digicams these days, the ePhoto 1680 has no memory internal to the camera for storing images. It uses the tiny "SmartMedia" removable-memory cards, and comes equipped with a 4 MB unit. It also accepts SmartMedia in 2 MB, 8 MB, and 16 MB(!) sizes. Note though, that only 3.3 V ATA-compatible memory cards are supported. (No 5-volt cards, please!) Swiveling the lens to a completely vertical position exposes the memory card slot on the side of the main camera body. Open the spring-loaded door, insert the memory card as illustrated on the inside of the door, and you're all set to capture images. All images are captured and stored in JPEG format.
As one would expect, the storage capacity of the card is dependent on the resolution level at which you capture images. At a maximum 1680 setting, a 4 MB card can store 6 images; at the 1280 setting, 12 images; and at the 307 setting, 48 images. When using the camera in Black & white text mode, up to 48 images can be stored. Of course, the number of images stored on each card will vary, as individual images can be captured at varying resolution levels and saved on the same memory card.
As a minor aside, we liked the fact that we could change the SmartMedia card (and change the batteries!) while the camera was mounted on a tripod. A small thing, to be sure, but some cameras use a bottom-mounted arrangement for memory cards, meaning you have to unmount them from a tripod in order to pull the card.
Connecting the ePhoto 1680 to a computer is equally simple: Plug the jack on one end of the serial cable provided to the serial port on the camera, and the other end into the serial port on the computer. If using a Macintosh computer, use the special Mac adapter cable provided. Transfer rates appear about typical, although we noted that the 1680 could successfully connect to our old, finicky 120-MHz Pentium notebook at the full 115 Kbaud. (We've found that some cameras will only connect to this older CPU at 57.6K.) For speed comparison purposes, we timed the transfer of a 292K sample image at about 40 seconds, with no post-processing to remove JPEG artifacts. On the slow 120 MHz Pentium, post-processing actually took longer than the transfer itself, as much as 53 seconds additional on this 1280-mode image.
When testing cameras, we normally just pull the images off the camera's removable media by whatever means are most convenient: PC Card adapter, FlashPath adapter, whatever. We examine the captured images to be sure we've gotten the framing right, but don't run them through the cameras' software unless necessary to exercise a particular feature, and then never until after the shooting session is over. In the case of the 1680 though, this proved to be an inappropriate workflow, because we missed the benefit of the PhotoGenie technology, and had to re-process all of our images after the fact in order to show the camera's true capabilities: You can tell the software to automatically apply the PhotoGenie processing during download, but once the images are in your computer, you can only enhance one image at a time, a tedious process. (See the separate section below, for more information on the PhotoGenie technology.) While we normally bypass the step of running digicam images through the provided software, the effect of the PhotoGenie technology is significant enough that you'll want to use the provided PhotoWise software for all of your file imports. Fortunately, routine use of PhotoWise is made easier by the fact that it directly supports almost any possible form of connectivity to the 1680, including PC Card adapters for the SmartMedia cards, or the FlashPath floppy-disk adapter: You can take apply the PhotoGenie processing to acquired images using any of these modalities.
As to user interface, the import process is much like that of any other camera we've tested: You can view thumbnails of all the images in the camera (or PC Card adapter or FlashPath floppy-disk adapter), and then select either the specific ones you're interested in, or choose to download all of them. As noted above, you can also choose to apply the PhotoGenie processing to the images as they are downloaded, or leave them untouched. In the case of the 1680-mode images, the software always expands them to the 1600x1200 final size, even if the PhotoGenie option is not selected. (As far as we can tell, it also automatically applies the PhotoGenie processing in these situations as well.)
Video Out Capability
The video out capability of the ePhoto 1680 lets you view captured images on a television through the use of the supplied video cable. Simply plug one end of the video cable into the "video out" port in the rear of the main camera body (under the port cover), and the other end into the video input jack on your television. The television now acts as the camera's LCD, letting you provide a slide show of your captured images to family and friends.
NOTE: Like most digicams, the 1680 can only interpret its own JPEG files - If the files have been altered in any way (even just opened and re-saved in an imaging program), the camera won't be able to read them. Normally, this would prevent the camera from being used to present slide shows including captions on images, or images which have otherwise been manipulated outside of the camera. In a nice touch though, the Agfa PhotoWise application allows you to upload images from your hard drive back to the camera in a format that the camera can recognize. This turns the 1680 into an effective presentation tool, although the minimum picture-to-picture delay of 3-4 seconds (in 307 resolution-mode) might make for a somewhat leisurely pace in a corporate environment.
Agfa PhotoWise software is included with the ePhoto 1680 to allow for downloading and editing of digital images, as described above. It also supports basic manipulation of the captured images. The PhotoWise software is compatible with systems equipped with Windows '95/98 or NT(!), as well as Macintosh System 7.5.3 or higher, and a 68040 or PowerPC processor.
The PhotoWise software allows you to:
- Automatically remove JPEG artifacts from images as they download, through special preference settings. (The "PhotoGenie" technology.)
- Organize your images into albums for easy reference and "quick access." You can copy or move pictures between different albums quickly and easily using standard drag and drop techniques
- Sort your images in albums by name or date
- Create slide shows of all images in an album, or select only the images you want
- View the images in the camera and copy them into documents in OLE-compliant applications, such as MicroSoft Word, using the QuickLink application.
- Insert the V 3.3 memory card in to a PC Card Adapter and place the card into the PC Card reader on a laptop to view and edit images using the PhotoWise QuickLink application
- Adjust the brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and sharpness of an image
- Adjust the color and equalization of the image to bring out finer details
in darker parts of the image
The image-manipulation tools of PhotoWise are rudimentary, but quite adequate
for the purposes of adjusting tone & color, and cropping for use in other
applications. As noted above, all the basic image adjustments are provided,
as well as a fairly nice album-oriented organizing utility. Also included (on
both Mac and PC platforms) is a utility called "QuickLink", that lets
you quickly transfer images from the camera to other applications by dragging
& dropping thumbnails. On both platforms, QuickLink always applies the PhotoGenie
technology, regardless of the original capture mode. On the Mac though, QuickLink
supports the Mac's maximum asynchronous serial-port speed of 230 Kbaud, while
the main PhotoWise app itself is restricted to the 115 Kbaud rate that's a common
denominator between Mac and PC serial speeds. The result was that a 300K 1280-mode
file transferred to the Mac via the QuickLink application in about 28 seconds,
including the PhotoGenie processing, vs about 40 seconds for a similar image
in PhotoWise, without the PhotoGenie enhancement. (This was on a 300 MHz G3
PowerMac.) While still not as fast as a FlashPath adapter (which took 12 seconds
for the same file on the Mac, and about 10 seconds on a PC), this isn't bad
at all for serial-port data transfer.
Agfa's PhotoGenie technology is a key feature the ePhoto 1680 (and most likely Agfa's other cameras, as well): It not only does a noticeably better job of iterpolating images to a larger size, but it smooths edges and removes JPEG and sensor artifacts at the same time. In the past, we've been philosophically opposed to image interpolation as a way to get to higher image resolutions, but with PhotoGenie, we feel that the results are almost always superior to the original image, particularly if you plan to print the final result to hardcopy. On low-res "307-mode" images, it was particularly effective at removing the JPEG artifacts that accompany the higher image compression applied by the camera in that mode: You can still see JPEG artifacts, but they are greatly reduced relative to those in the unmodified camera image. Our one quibble with PhotoGenie is that we feel it somewhat over-sharpened the images we fed it, producing a noticeable "halo" around high-contrast edges. On the other hand, we observed this when viewing the images on the screen: When output on our inkjet printer, the results looked just fine. Inveterate image-tweakers that we are, one aspect of the PhotoGenie approach that we particularly appreciated is that NO sharpening appears to be done in the camera itself. Thus, if you want an "untouched" camera image, you can easily obtain one by either turning PhotoGenie off for 1280-mode images, or by using some alternative import means such as a PC Card or FlashPath Floppy-Disk adapter to download the files directly.
Live Picture's PhotoVista and LivePix SE
In addition to the PhotoWise software, Agfa also includes the PhotoVista panorama-stitching and LivePix SE image-manipulation programs from Live Picture. PhotoVista allows you to "stitch" multiple images together to make huge, panoramic photo murals. The LivePix application is a general-purpose image editor, with a number of included "projects" for making various photo-novelty items.
The ePhoto 1680 ships with a set of 4 alkaline, non-rechargeable batteries so that you can start using the camera as soon as you take it out of the box. For longer-term use, the camera also comes with a standard NiMH battery pack consisting of 4 NiMH AA batteries and a charger. (Big kudos to Agfa on this item!) Lithium batteries are also supported, with Energizer Hi Energy Lithium batteries recommended. As with essentially all digital cameras, our strong recommendation is to use NiMH rechargeables: Don't bother wasting your time with alkalines, except in cases of dire emergency. Our sample unit of the 1680 included a set of "CleanCell" NiMH cells and a GP charger capable of bringing them to full charge in 4-5 hours. Once the batteries are charged, it automatically drops to a trickle-charge level, allowing cells to be left in it indefinitely, to maintain a topped-off condition. We strongly recommend purchasing at least one additional set of batteries so you can have one set charging while using the other. (Murphy's law definitely applies to rechargeable batteries: You'll always need them the most when they have the least charge in them!)
Operation and User Interface
We mentioned the 1680's unique "EasyPilot" user-interface control earlier: We confess to a few moments of confusion when we first encountered the camera, because the control interface was so different from the bulk of digicams we've tested to date. ("Real men don't read manuals!") Once we realized we had to press the little EasyPilot button to activate the menus and select menu items though, we immediately appreciated the simple elegance of this arrangement. The side-mounted EasyPilot wheel lets you very quickly bring up the menu system, navigate to the item you want, and make your selection, all with one finger and one control! Overall, the 1680 has one of the "fastest" control setups we've seen.
Other than the EasyPilot button, there are remarkably few controls on the ePhoto 1680: A mode dial with three positions (REC, OFF, and PLAY), an "information" button, and the lens zoom controls round out the control complement.
As has become our custom, we'll list the various controls, menus, and options in outline format below, with brief explanations of each item:
- Multi-function LCD screen
Serves as a viewfinder, and then displays captured images for playback. Also displays the camera's built in menu system which provides different options dependent on the camera's mode of operation.
- Two-position Shutter Button
- Push halfway to lock the focus and determine exposure
- Push all the way to capture the image
- 3-Position Function Wheel
Select between three operating modes with a quick turn of this rotary dial. Available modes include:
- OFF - to turn off the camera
- PLAY - to view images in playback mode, delete stored images, or reformat the memory card
- RECORD - to capture images
- "EasyPilotTM Button
Push this button to activate the menu system, then scroll through the available camera menu options by turning from front to back. Select a menu or option by pushing again.
- +/- Zoom buttons
Zooms the lens in (+) or out (-) and also scrolls through images in PLAY mode
- Info Button
Displays information about the camera, battery capacity, and captured images. Also wakes the camera from sleep in REC or PLAY mode. Available information varies depending on camera mode:
- PLAY mode: Displays data, time and resolution for the picture with a single press, and image number and total number of images with two presses
- REC mode: Displays battery status, images taken and remaining with a single press, and date, time, and camera setting with two presses
Modes and Available Menu Options
Play Mode LCD Menu Structure
With the function wheel in PLAY mode, the EasyPilotTM button provides the following options:
- Full-screen or 9 multi-up display of captured images
- Delete individual images, multiple images, all images, or simply reformat the memory card
- Lock or unlock individual images, multiple images, or all images to prevent accidental deletion
- Activate a 2x digital zoom playback mode, to provide full-screen review of the center of an image at twice normal size.
Record Mode LCD Menu Structure
With the function wheel in REC mode, the EasyPilotTM button provides the following options:
- Resolution levels:
- 1600 x 1200 pixels (1680 setting): with very low compression, this setting is ideal for downloading and printing high-quality photo images. The image stored on the card is actually 1280x960 pixels, but the PhotoWise software takes advantage of the low compression ratio and detailed knowledge of the camera's JPEG parameters to interpolate the image to 1600x1200 with surprisingly few artifacts.
- 1280 x 960 pixels (1280 setting): CCD resolution with low compression
- 640 x 480 pixels (307 setting): with normal compression, these images are ideal for posting to the web, or for sharing via e-mail
- Black and White text mode: with minimal compression, but monochrome recording, this setting is ideal for saving images with fine black & white detail.
- Flash settings:
- Automatic: Camera determines light need
- Fill-in: Always on, to provide "fill" lighting, regardless of ambient light levels.
- "Red-eye": Pre-flash helps to minimize the "red-eye" flash effect
- Off: No flash used
- Digital zoom
- Digital zoom off: No effect
- Digital zoom on: Camera crops to center of CCD image area (automatically switches to 307 resolution, creating a 640 x 480 pixel image). Digital zoom effect is in addition to any optical zoom or macro settings
- Preview settings:
- Normal-light preview: Shows the image on the LCD as viewed through the lens
- Low-light preview: Lightens preview display of darker scenes to make viewing frame details easier (For easier viewing only, captured image will look different. LCD refresh rate will also slow considerably.)
Advanced Settings in REC mode
Besides the basic settings previously outlined, you can customize the ePhoto 1680 to better align with your own picture-taking habits. These advanced settings-available in REC mode-include the following:
- Self-timer: Provides either a 5-second or 10-second delay after you press the shutter button, applying only to the picture being taken at that time. Set the self-timer for each picture individually (defaults to no delay after each shot is taken).
- Focus: Allows you to set the focal distance manually for better control,
or to select auto focus for either normal or macro photography. Provides for
six different focal settings:
- Automatic focus
- Infinity: to capture subjects more than 16 feet away
- 5 m: to capture subjects about 16 feet away
- 2 m: to capture subjects about 7 feet away
- 1 m: to capture subjects about 3 feet away
- Macro: to capture subjects between 8 inches and 3 feet away
- Exposure: Provides unusual flexibility in controlling the camera
exposure settings. The following four settings are available:
- Automatic: Camera determines the exposure setting
- Time value (Shutter Priority): Lets you select the shutter speed and allow the camera to determine the appropriate aperture setting for the optimal exposure. Settings range from second to 1/500 second.
- Aperture value (Aperture Priority): Provides manual control
of the aperture size. Available options include:
- Automatic: camera determines the aperture setting
- Large for aperture settings of f/2.8 - f/3.5, wide to telephoto
- Medium for aperture settings of f/5.6 - f/6.4, wide to telephoto
- Small for aperture settings of f/8.0 - f/9.1, wide to telephoto
- Manual: Autoexposure override, using a sliding bar controlled by the EasyPilotTM button. Adjustment steps appear to be 0.5 f-stop (EV-unit), with 3 steps available on either side of the default auto exposure. (Note that this isn't "manual" in the sense that you can choose both aperture and shutter speed independently. Rather, you can adjust the overall exposure relative to that which the camera would normally select.)
- White point: Manually set the "neutral" value by which
all other colors in your images will be evaluated:
- Automatic: Camera determines white point
- Set white bal: Set a new white point by aiming the camera at a desired white area and capturing the "neutral" color data.
- External flash: Allows for use of external flash equipment to supplement
lighting conditions. The ePhoto 1680 can use any external flash with a white
light slave sensor. In this mode, the on-camera flash adjusts for a very weak
output, only enough to trigger the external unit. Six external flash settings
available, combining three possible lens apertures with two possible shutter
speeds. (See our earlier discussion of this feature in the "Exposure"
section of this review.)
- Small 1/200
- Medium 1/200
- Large 1/200
- Small 1/100
- Medium 1/100
- Large 1/100
- Small/Medium/Large refers to the aperture setting based on the following
- Small: f/8.0 - f/9.1, wide - telephoto
- Medium: f/5.6 - f/6.4, wide - telephoto
- Large: f/2.8 - f/3.5, wide - telephoto
- 1/100 and 1/200 refers to the shutter speed:
- Use 1/100 with a high-energy flash of over 1500 watts
- Use 1/20 with a low-energy flash of under 1500 watts
- Preferences: Normally, the "advanced" settings are reset when the camera is powered off. The "preferences" option provides a way to save all the advanced settings until the next time the camera is used.
- Date & time: Set the camera's internal clock/calendar, affecting date and time variables tagged to each captured image.
- Automatic: Return all camera settings to their default values (a handy option, if you have several adjustments made on multiple menus, and want to return to normal operation quickly).
- Supported languages: One of six different languages can be set by pressing the zoom in/out buttons when the Advanced Settings menu is displayed on the LCD. (One of the slickest ways of changing menu languages we've seen.)
In keeping with recent policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the ePhoto 1680's "pictures" page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the ePhoto 1680 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
We were very impressed with the image quality of the ePhoto 1680: Exposure was consistently accurate, subject only to the typical limitations of backlighting, high-key subjects, etc. Tonal range was excellent, with good detail in both the highlights and shadows. Despite the 1680's welcome conservatism in its use of the available tonal range, its colors were quite bright and clean. This more-conservative approach to tonal range is one we're seeing more and more often in higher-end cameras: Rather than pushing the image contrast to its absolute limit, a little range is left on either end of the tonal scale. The result is a slight loss in brightness and saturation, but the preservation of more detail in both highlights and shadows. The user is thus left with a little less "snap" in the raw images, but also with more of the original scene information to work with later, should the exposure need minor tweaking.
Resolution was very good, and Agfa's "PhotoGenie" interpolation and artifact-removal technology worked surprisingly well. We have a long-standing bias against interpolation as a means to increase apparent camera resolution, but we found ourselves agreeing that the 1600x1200 images produced in the highest-resolution mode of the 1680 (in conjunction with the PhotoWise software) did indeed look sharper when output on our inkjet printer. At higher image-compression levels, PhotoGenie did a great job of removing JPEG artifacts, making the 1680's 640x480 "307 mode" much more useful than many megapixel cameras' low-res modes.
Color accuracy in the 1680 is very good, and overall color rendition is excellent. The sole weakness we observed was a tendency toward under-saturation in greens and yellows. Delicate pastels and Caucasian skin tones are handled very well, often difficult tests for digital cameras.
We missed the convenience of pre-programmed manual white balance settings to quickly adjust to different lighting conditions, but the manual white-point setting option produced excellent results: Even under "normal" daylight illumination, we found that a manual white point setting produced subtle but definite improvements in color rendition. Overall, a very nice capability!
Although none of our standard tests are set up to evaluate exposure options, we feel that the availability of both aperture- and shutter-priority metering is a big plus, deserving of separate mention here. Photo buffs looking for greater control over their picture-taking will find these to be very welcome additions.
Detail and resolution were very good, with a visual resolution of approximately 600-650 line pairs/picture height horizontally, and about 600 lp/ph vertically, clearly at the top of the field. Performance in the outdoor far-field shot was very good as well. What's more, the 1680 produced almost no color aliasing in the resolution test, and showed resolution along diagonal axes approaching 800lp/ph, an extremely impressive performance. (Despite its excellent performance with "natural" images though, the PhotoGenie technology actually hurt the camera's performance in the official resolution test: The results reported here are those observed on an unprocessed 1680-mode image.) The 1680's optical system also shows no trace of the barrel distortion we've come to expect in digital camera lenses, particularly at wide-angle focal lengths. Overall, the 1680's lens is one of the most distortion-free we've yet encountered in a sub-$2,000 digicam. (December, 1998.)
The LCD viewfinder on the ePhoto 1680 is more accurate than most, showing about 90% of the field of view captured by the CCD. As you'd expect, the view through the LCD is perfectly centered at all focal lengths.
The ePhoto 1680 did fairly well in macro mode, with a minimum capture area of 3.2 x 4.2 inches (8.0 x 10.7 cm), at the 4 inch (10cm) closest working distance. (As mentioned earlier, the 1680 was a little unusual in that the macro mode produced the greatest magnification with the lens at the wide-angle end of its range.) The flash worked surprisingly well up close, although it required a neutral density/diffuser gel taped over it to produce good results at the minimum working distance.
The Agfa ePhoto 1680 is a well-designed and flexible digital camera, with image quality and resolution at the top of the field as of this writing (December, 1998). Features such as aperture- and shutter-priority metering, and a provision for working with external slave-flash units should attract many users with a photographic background, and a desire for more control over their digital picture-taking than most digicams currently allow. The Agfa PhotoGenie image-enhancement technology appears to offer a genuine benefit, in the form of improved image quality at all resolution levels.
Reader Sample Images!
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