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On August 25, 1998, Dave Etchells of the Imaging Resource interviewed members of the Kodak DC260 product team, to pose some of the frequently-asked questions from the internet community, and hopefully to shed some light on them. This is Dave's account of that conversation. (All material (c) 1998, The Imaging Resource.)
I at first had thought to present this in a Q&A - type "interview" format, but soon realized that the breadth of the conversation, and the fact that I didn't tape-record the discussion would leave me putting words in people's mouths most of the time. Also, the conversation wasn't that question/answer focused, so a direct transcript would have been too fragmented to read well.
Instead, what I've done here is to summarize and paraphrase Kodak's answers in various areas. I think the result is much more coherent, while still (hopefully) being true to the original conversation. (In some cases, I'll attribute material to one individual or another, and more closely paraphrase the text, to reflect their specific comments.)
On Kodak's end of the phone call were Joe Runde, PR manager for the entire Digital and Applied Imaging division, Joe Kurzweil, Product Manager for the DC260, and Tom Napoli, Project Manager for the DC260's development.
Compression and Image Quality
If there's been a single area that's prompted the most comment on rec.photo.digital, it's been the compression settings available in the DC260: Many people have been asking for an option to allow either uncompressed images or significantly less compression than that provided by the "best" quality setting. Kodak's responses to questions around image compression revolved around several key points, which I'll summarize here.
Compression changes aren't the whole story
Joe Kurzweil pointed out that there's a lot more involved in optimizing the image quality equation than just a single-number "compression ratio." There are many tradeoffs to be made in arriving at a final image-handling algorithm, incorporating multiple variables, such as noise filtering, post-processing for "sharpness", sensor filter patterns, etc., etc. Even the JPEG algorithm itself isn't just a matter of moving a slider control as we're accustomed to doing in Photoshop(tm), but involves a variety of parameters such as chroma sub-sampling ratios, encoding algorithms, etc. The bottom line from Kodak's viewpoint seems to be that a) you can't just "dial down" the compression ratio in a device like a digital camera, and b) even if you did, you wouldn't necessarily see the expected benefits without tweaking other parts of the signal-processing chain as well.
Kodak has to find the best fit for multiple audiences
While Kodak has heard loud and clear the interest (demands?) from rec.photo.digital denizens for lower compression settings, they have to keep in mind other groups that will be buying the camera. The DC260 design tradeoffs were the result of many focus group studies, and the analysis of literally thousands of sample images with different image-processing settings. Joe Runde pointed out (and Joe Kurzweil seconded) that, while the DC260 is a "high end" product right now, it will very end up as a "consumer" product in a year or less. (A case cited was the DC120, which Kodak had to work hard to bring in under $1,000 for the initial production, but which now is closely approaching $500.) Thus, while there's high demand from the "enthusiast" market for lower compression, (Dave here, reading between the lines) Kodak is reluctant to move too far away from what their extensive market testing had told them.
Kodak is listening
All that said, it was clear from the conversation that Kodak is taking in all the input from the internet, and is seriously considering it in any planned actions. Their comment was that they want to make sure that, when they deliver something meeting the needs of the high-end users, they don't confuse the consumer-level market.
The great news I got from the conversation was that, unlike some manufacturers (a pointed remark by one of the Kodak guys), most of Kodak's image-processing code is contained in the firmware, rather than being hard-coded into the camera's brain. Thus, the "compression" issue is subject being addressed via firmware updates, one of which is due out very soon, although it won't include any adjustments to image storage (see below).
There's been a fair bit of comment lately on rec.photo about "focus problems" on the DC260. (Search DejaNews for all the messages if you want the history.) The gist of it is that some folks believe they've been seeing their DC260s focusing about 30% closer than where the actual subject was. Kodak's response here is that no, there's not a generic focus problem that they're aware of. (I wondered out loud to them if this was an easy way to do optical antialiasing. - It might be, but certainly isn't something Kodak has done.)
Kodak is a little perplexed over what the discussion is about: They've had several cameras returned to them with reports of focusing problems (for which they apparently exchanged new units with the cameras' owners), but found absolutely no problems with the cameras in question when they tested them in the lab. At this point, their best guess is that any apparent problem is stemming from people not being aware of the active area of the autofocus sensor. (In order to achieve it's dramatic low/no-light autofocus capability, the DC260's autofocus sensor is external to the lens, in one of the windows to the left of the lens.) Like any non-TTL (through the lens) optical element, the active region of the autofocus system is subject to parallax error as the subject gets closer to the lens. Beyond about 2-3 meters, the active area is exactly centered in the inner viewfinder rectangle, but as you move closer to the subject, the active area moves down and to the left. By the time you're at the minimum focusing distance, in telephoto mode, the autofocus sensor is just barely picking up the lower left-hand corner of what the CCD is seeing. The result of all this is that subjects low and to the left of center can affect the autofocus system when you might not expect them to, particularly if they're close to the camera. David Johnston has posted some autofocus test samples on his site, at http://www.syntrillium.com/davej/index-focus.htm which I looked at: Sure enough, the camera looks like it was essentially sitting on the ground, which definitely could have affected the autofocus system, based on what Kodak said. (We haven't had a chance to do any focus tests ourselves, and may not before we jet off to Seybold next week in San Francisco, but we'll try to run some simple tests in our studio to check out what we've seen and heard.)
Bottom line, as far as Kodak has been able to tell from any returned units, and from discussing reported problems with users over the phone, there's no generic focus problem on the DC260. (That said, individual units could always have a problem, so if you're clearly experiencing problems that don't fit the above description, you should probably contact Kodak.)
A number of questions we fielded from the internet community had to do with exposure control, be it the ability to set shutter and aperture independently, or the possibility of a spot-metering capability. Unfortunately, on both these fronts, the answers we received probably aren't what the high-end community was wanting to hear:
As to independent shutter speed/aperture control, it ain't going to happen: Like most point & shoot cameras, the shutter design on the 260 actually merges shutter speed and aperture control together. That is, the shutter system actually acts as an integrated "exposure control", rather than as a separate iris & shutter that most of us think of. (We weren't surprised by this, since we'd encountered the issue before on other cameras.) The net of this is that the shutter/aperture produces (for instance) f5.6 at 1/125 of a second, and f8 at 1/250th, but there's no way to get f8 at 1/125th. (These aren't actual values from the 260, just arbitrary number chosen to illustrate the point.) Bottom line here is that if you really need independent shutter/aperture control, look to a higher-end solution (like Kodak's 315), rather than the DC260.
On the exposure front, the exposure reading isn't made through the lens, which means no spot metering is possible. (The exposure reading is apparently made through another of those little front-panel windows as well.) Thus, regardless of any script or firmware changes, the 260 won't have spot metering in the future.
Some readers asked about the possibility of controlling exposure independently via Digita scripts: One note made by Tom Napoli was to caution folks from making too many assumptions about what was possible with the camera, based on what the Digita language allows. Digita is just a platform, and the things the platform supports may or may not be present on any given camera. As an analogy, consider Windows: The Windows platform supports CD-ROM drives, but if your computer doesn't have a CD-ROM drive, you're not going to be able to read CDs. In the case of the DC260, while you can control exposure adjustment via the scripting language (e.g., +/- EV adjustments for bracketing), you can't set exposure directly, in terms of separate shutter and aperture values.
Scripting & Script Development
Which logically brings us to the arena of scripting on the DC260. Thus far, people have only been able to obtain Digita information from FlashPoint (the Digita developer), and not from Kodak. Apparently, this situation is about to be remedied "very soon," with the release of Kodak's own SDK (software development kit) for scripts, which among other things will address what specifically is possible via scripts on the DC260, and what is not. Kodak didn't give me a specific date on this, but did go so far as to say "less than a month." (It sounded like it would be a lot less.)
We also asked about the ability to extend the scripting language via firmware updates in the future. Kodak's comment on this was that it certainly was possible, but any decisions about extending Digita were in the domain of FlashPoint, not Kodak. They did comment though, that they expected feedback from users to guide FlashPoint and its partners (including Kodak) to enhance the language as time goes on, and that Kodak's cameras' ability to accept firmware updates certainly provides a means to incorporate changes down the line.
Here's a thought for a script possibility (From Dave E): It appears that the hardware focus adjustment on the DC260 is fairly fine-grained. How about a script that provides a finer-grained manual adjustment than that of the standard manual-focus menu options?
Where are the filter threads??
Given the "prosumer" focus of the DC260, a number of parties have asked why Kodak didn't include filter threads to allow the attachment of auxiliary lenses, filters, macro attachments, etc., etc. Kodak's answer to this was very interesting, and bespeaks a concern for reliability I found admirable (if not also self-preserving).
In their early product definition, many prospective users expressed a strong desire for a camera that would fit easily into a briefcase. For Kodak, this implied a retracting-lens design. Once they were set on a retracting lens, the issue of filter threads posed problems: Aside from the relatively minor increase in bulk, filter threads would allow people to attach virtually *anything* to the front of the lens. Given that some accessory lenses (a certain competing camera manufacturer comes to mind) involve massive hunks of glass weighing on the order of a pound or more, Kodak was concerned for the reliability of the lens-extension mechanism. Tom Napoli said that if there were some industry standard that would have allowed them to restrict the mass of attached auxiliary lenses, they probably would have included filter threads on the design. Barring that, they didn't want the exposure to device damage that threads would have brought. (The discussion on the newsgroups would have been "Kodak's lens mechanism is no good" instead of "there's no filter threads here," driven by people hanging kilogram hunks of optical glass off the front element.) Another obvious problem with lens threads would be someone exerting too much torque either attaching or removing a filter accessory, wrenching the guts out of the lens assembly in the process.
Personally, given the resourcefulness of various third parties in developing clip-on adapters for the most bizarre camera configurations, and the strong sales of the 260, I doubt it will be long before we see the first adapter units for the DC260...
CF Card Formatting
One request on the "top 10" feature-request list (see below) was for some sort of "absolute" reformatting command for CompactFlash cards. (At least one reader reported difficulty getting the DC260 work properly with a CF card, and couldn't force it to reformat the card and start over.) Tom expressed a little surprise at this one, since the camera should reformat any card it can't successfully read. He did mention though, that there's a misconception over the extent to which the CF standard permits manufacturer-to-manufacturer variations: It turns out that all the CF standard does with regard to formatting is to lay down some very broad parameters, leaving the specifics up to the card makers. Each card carries a microcontroller responsible for making the card act like a disk drive. The initial format of that "drive" is set by the manufacturer, but beyond that, the range of possible formats and behavior that can be applied to the "drive" subsequently is also governed by the microcontroller's programming. Given the extremely broad range of applications CF cards are used for (everything from internet routers to digital cameras to PDAs to cell phones!), there's lots of opportunity for bizarre formats to support specific uses. Thus, even though CF cards are a "standard", there's no ultimate guarantee that every card will work in every device. If you're having problems with a specific CF card in your Kodak camera, it would be a good idea to contact Kodak and see if there are any known problems with that brand/model.
Some readers asked where to find the "pro" versions of the DC260, which include special panorama-assist scripts and a Kaidan tripod head for panorama shooting. This was an easy one: Look on the *professional* section of Kodak's web site, and you'll find a dealer locator. Any professional Kodak dealer will either have or can order the "pro" versions of the 260. The reason they seem scarce is just that the typical consumer retail outlets and catalog shops won't be handling them at all.
UK and other Foreign distribution
One reader wrote in to inquire about shipments to the UK - His distributor said they weren't expecting any more units for another 4 weeks: Are UK (and by extension, other international shipments) on hold, or otherwise delayed?
Joe Kurzweil answered this one: The short of it is that no, there's no holdup other than the fact that Kodak is shipping every unit they can build, as fast as they can build them. Shipments are going out internationally literally every week. If a particular distributor is 4 weeks from their next shipment, chances are that another distributor in that country has either just received or is just about to receive their shipment.
I'm sure that Kodak has some overall allocation plan for their production, but it didn't sound like there was any restriction on shipments to the UK or anywhere else.
Top Feature Requests
There's been a "wish list" floating around the internet (maintained by Steve Haehnichen) , with a range of features people would like to see in the unit. I tried to address as many of these as I could, in the limited time we had. Many of the issues (shutter speed/aperture control, image sharpness, etc.) were covered above. Here are at least a few additional answers:
This refers to the ability to lock the camera's exposure based on the first shot of a panorama or other sequence. Kodak acknowledged hearing the request & understanding the need, but had no comment beyond that.
The DC260 takes a while to "boot up," much like a computer. A forthcoming firmware release will reduce startup by 2-3 seconds. How much further can we go? Tom's answer: Unknown, but they're continuing to investigate the issue. Some of this involves back & forth with FlashPoint, so the end solution isn't entirely up to Kodak. While they had no specific answers, this is clearly an area they're looking at for future firmware work.
The LCD on the 260 has a rather slow refresh, and shows a good bit of color "tearing" on moving subjects. It turns out the issue here is simply a matter of how quickly they can clock data out of the particular CCD they're using. This is a system issue, and therefore not subject to firmware adjustment. (FWIW, they seemed pretty aware of this one, meaning that I expect they'll work hard on future units to provide a faster refresh.)
Shutter-Controlled Burst Mode
The 260 has a neat "burst" mode, in which you can capture up to 8 low-res images very quickly (about 3 frames per second). Steve H. has suggested that it would be nice if this were controllable via the shutter button for each frame, rather than hold-down-the-button-until-you're-done. Tom Napoli was a little puzzled by this request, as he felt that the camera would indeed allow very rapid image capture in low-res mode, even when not "bursting." He said the key was to turn off the "quickview" feature that shows each image on the LCD briefly. With that off, you should be able to capture 8 low-res images pretty much as fast as you can press the button.
In practice, I still see what Steve is asking for - Burst mode doesn't pause to re-focus the lens and compute the exposure for each shot - pressing the button rapidly in standard res mode still makes you wait for the lens, etc. A possibility for scripts? Don't know...
1280x1024 resolution mode
The request here is basically for a format that would fit 4x3 aspect-ratio computer screens without additional cropping. The only problem with doing this would be how to accurately show the actual "live" area in the viewfinder and on the LCD. One of the strong points of the DC260 is it's viewfinder accuracy, especially through the LCD. Very doubtful Kodak would consider any change in picture aspect ratio...
We've mentioned a forthcoming firmware update for the DC260 that's due out soon. This will improve several camera functions, including boot time (especially boot time in "review" mode, since it won't wait to rack the lens out), quicker shut down, etc. The very good news is that this update is apparently just about to go out the door. Apparently, the code is all done, and all that's left is to package it into two installer programs, one for Mac, one for Windows. Look for this to appear very soon on the Kodak web site.
While I'm sure this interview won't have answered everyone's questions (and will doubtless raise as many new ones as it answered), I'm pleased with the extent of information we were able to obtain, and the generosity of the Kodak team with their time. Given the extreme length of this report, we're just going to post it on the Imaging Resource web site (eventually linked into the DC260 review itself), and simply post a link on rec.photo.digital for people to find it.
For more info:
For answers to MANY other questions about the DC260, check out Steve Haehnichen's excellent DC260 FAQ (http://www.trix.com/dc260/) Of course, you can check out the other Imaging Resource links below. The Imaging Resource Q&A Forum is a good place to carry on a discussion of this material, preserved for posterity - Each new question there will be saved as a separate discussion thread. Alternatively, comments left on this link will be associated with this article, and maintained separately from the main Q&A forum area.
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