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Kodak Picture CD
A digital alternative for film-camera users - Let someone else do your scanning!
(Try out digital without investing in a digicam!)

(Full review 10 November, 1999)

 
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1536 x 1024 resolution
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Resolution & sharpenss beat most 2 megapixel digicams
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Get prints and scans back at the same time
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Use your film camera & all its accessories
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Excellent color, flexible ISO options
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All necessary software included on the disk.

Preface
Kodak has long been the dominant player in the US photofinishing market, and recently has staked out significant territory in the digital camera arena as well. Many industry observers though, have wondered how this photo industry giant will make the transition as more and more consumer photography goes digital. One answer appears to be to meld conventional and digital photography together, providing customers with digital output from standard print film.

In late 1998 and early 1999, Kodak began market testing a concept called "Picture CD", which provides moderately high-resolution scans of images on a cross-platform (Mac and PC) CD disk created at the same time the film is processed into prints and negatives. The market tests were an enormous success, far exceeding Kodak's expectations, and they proceeded to roll out the service nationwide beginning in mid-1999 As this article is written in November, 1999, the service is available everywhere in the US that Kodak-branded film processing is offered.

As we explain below, we see Picture CD as an incredibly significant advance in consumer digital photography, providing a wonderful avenue for first-time users to get into digital photography, and for experienced users to avoid the time-consuming process of scanning their film or prints. We think the bottom line of Picture CD is that many, many thousands of people will begin using pictures digitally for the first time, and millions of new digital images will flood the consumer market space. This is good news all around, since the more people get involved with digital photography, the more services and options suppliers will offer, and the easier "going digital" will become for everyone. Here's our take on Kodak's Picture CD, as of November, 1999:
High Points

  • 1536 x 1024 pixel image size (decent 8x10 print quality)
  • (Surprisingly) beats most 2 megapixel digicams for resolution & sharpness!
  • Very inexpensive way to try out digital photography
  • Attractive even if you already own a scanner (someone else does the scanning!)
  • Use all your film equipment (cameras, lenses, flash, etc.)
  • Wide range of (film) ISO speeds available (100-3200)

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Overview

At the Imaging Resource, our mission is first and foremost to make it as easy as possible to get people involved in digital photography, and have the best possible experience once they get there. While this means that much of our product coverage focuses on digital cameras and personal scanners, we'll support any technology that makes it easier for people to get into digital photography! To this end, we're very excited by the promise we see in Kodak's new Picture CD product: It offers the opportunity to experience digital photography for under $10 (above and beyond the usual photofinishing charges), and literally provides everything a beginner would need right on the Picture CD disk. This makes it a great way for people to try out digital photography, without plunking down hundreds of dollars on a digital camera first.
Kodak's newly-introduced Picture CD is now available through most outlets offering Kodak's film processing services. (This article is being written in November, 1999.) A number of other companies have announced similar services, but Kodak's tremendous "reach" in the US market makes their product by far the most widely available. Picture CD basically provides reasonably high-resolution digital scans of all the images on a roll of film, at an affordable price. You order the Picture CD when you drop off your film at the photofinishing outlet, and pick up the finished CD when you get your prints and negatives a few days later. The image quality is good enough to print images as large as 8x10, and the CD itself comes with useful (and free) software applications in addition to the image files themselves.
For less than $10 in most parts of the US, you can get 24 (or 36) fairly high-resolution scans (1536x1024 pixels) of your photos, and enough software to begin playing with (er... "using") your photo files immediately.
We think this is an exceptionally important development in consumer imaging, because it "lowers the bar" for digital photography, so that literally anyone with a computer made in the last three years or so can experience digital photography for less than $10! To check out Picture CD, we shot a few rolls of film using many of the same standard test subjects we use for our digital camera testing. We dropped them off at a couple of different Kodak-serviced photofinishing outlets. (Here in Atlanta, GA, we used a Target store and an Eckerd drugstore.) Adding Picture CD processing to a film order should add about a day onto the turnaround time (second day, rather than overnight), although we confess to not having tracked this too closely: It was more than 2 days in all cases before we went back to the store to pick up the film, prints, and CDs. One set of shots we sent in took a week to come back, but the rest were all waiting when we went back a few days later to pick them up.

What you get back in the package on a picture CD order is the standard envelope of negatives and prints, plus the Picture CD envelope. (Picture CD processing is only available for print-film orders, not for slides film.) The Picture CD envelope holds the Picture CD itself, plus an "index print" with tiny thumbnails showing every image that's on the disk. This index print is very handy for locating images, without going to the computer: A very nice adjunct to the standard shoebox for picture storage. Each CD has is marked with the processing date, and a unique roll ID number. The roll ID number also appears on the index print, making it easy to keep track of the pictures.
Turnaround Time
We actually sent a total of four separate sets of film through the process, with somewhat different experiences each time. The first set went through very quickly, with the finished prints and CD back in under 2 days. The second time took closer to a week, and the store personnel seemed much less knowledgeable about the product and process. - This brings up a point to beware of: Picture CD is a relatively new product, and staff turnover at photofinishing outlets tends to be very high. As a result, it's entirely possible you may be greeted with blank stares when you walk up to the counter and ask about Picture CD. There are two other Kodak products that store clerks may think you want, as both have been around longer than Picture CD. Photos on floppy are cheaper, but give *much* lower-resolution images. The original "PhotoCD" has been around for years and gives *very* high-resolution scans, but is generally more expensive, and uses a less-standard file format

Image Quality
So, the big question is: How's it look? We shot several of the standard test subjects we use for evaluating digital cameras, using fine-grained film and a known-sharp lens on a 35mm camera (Kodak Gold 100 film, a Nikon 50mm, f/1.4 manual-focus lens). The results were very encouraging: The scanned images showed resolution somewhere between that of a 1.5 and a 2 megapixel digital camera, but sharpness and detail were markedly superior, even to 2 megapixel digicams(!) Not to mention of course, that the lens-related characteristics (corner sharpness, distortion, and contrast) were dramatically better than most digicams. At a reader's suggestion, we also processed a roll of film from a low-end point & shoot camera (a $89 Pentax IQ Zoom), to see how images from a more ordinary camera would fare. We're happy to say that the results were also very good. At least in the case of these two cameras, the differences between the pro-quality lens and the inexpensive point & shoot weren't that evident in the Picture CD scans, and both were close to the results obtained with current 2 megapixel cameras.
Color accuracy and tonal balance were exceptional, by digicam standards. (Both of these characteristics will obviously vary depending on the film you use to capture the initial shots with.) Back on the subject of detail and resolution, we found that the Picture CD images take subsequent "sharpening" in image-manipulation programs like Adobe Photoshop(tm) exceptionally well. - The level of detail is really extraordinary!
For a full analysis of the results on our standard test shots, check out the Picture CD Pictures Page. Or, compare for yourself by checking out the sample images in the Comparometer(tm).
Resolution: Not all pixels are created equal

Wait a minute, you say - I can count (or multiply), and 1536 x 1024 pixels is about 1.6 megapixels, the same as many "1.5 megapixel" digicams out there, and nowhere near 2 megapixels. So how could the resolution be better than a 1.5 megapixel digicam? A large part of the answer lies in the difference between digicam pixels and scanner pixels. In a digital camera, the "megapixel" rating generally refers to the number of raw sensor elements in the CCD, but that's only part of the story. In order for the camera to "see" color, red, green, and blue color filters must be applied to the surface of the sensor array. The computer chip inside the digital camera interprets the information from the red, green, and blue-filtered pixels, and combines it into an array of image pixels that each have all three colors of data present in them. Usually, the final image size (in terms of pixels) is about the same as the total array of sensor elements in the CCD. If you think about it though, you'll realize that at least some of this data is "made up" or interpolated by the camera electronics. If it takes a red, green, and blue sensor element to produce one pixel in the final image, there are at best only 1/3 as many "true" (full color) pixels in the sensor as the camera's megapixel rating would suggest.
In practice, the digicam resolution picture isn't as bad as we've just painted it: There are a lot of image-processing tricks that can be applied to extract luminance (brightness) information separately from the color information, and end up with a lot more resolution than you'd first imagine. Still, the fact remains that you don't really get the full benefit of all the sensor pixels in your final image resolution.
Scanners are quite a different story however: With their CCD sensors not subject to the same cost and size constraints as digital cameras, scanners can sample the image with separate red, green, and blue measurements at *every* pixel. Thus, a 1.5 megapixel image from a scanner potentially contains *three times* as much information as that from a 1.5 megapixel digital camera!
In the case of Picture CD, we found that, while our resolution test target showed about the same absolute resolution as the best of the 1.5 megapixel cameras we've tested, the sharpness and detail with "natural" subjects was significantly better.
Sharpness and "detail" vs. Resolution
When thinking about image quality, it's useful to consider the difference between resolution (an absolute measurement), and sharpness or "detail" (two very subjective image characteristics). Our point here is that there's more than one measure of what makes an image good from the standpoint of "sharpness." On the resolution target we use to test cameras, sets of alternating black and white lines grow progressively closer together. The point at which you can just barely distinguish the lines from each other is considered to be the "resolution" of the camera.
Note though, that this "resolution" number is only measuring one aspect of the image quality. Another characteristic is how sharply the image values change from light to dark and back again. A third measure is what level of detail is apparent to the eye with ordinary subjects. Two cameras could produce identical "resolution" numbers, yet the output from one might look soft and mushy (gradual light/dark transitions), while the other one could look crisp and sharp (abrupt light/dark transitions). Likewise, it's possible there could be significant differences in the amount of detail your eye would see in two pictures having essentially the same resolution
It's in the area of sharpness and detail (especially "detail") that we think the Picture CD images really shine over those from digital cameras: We've put several sample pictures from a Picture CD into our Comparometer(tm), so you can compare them with images from various digital cameras.
To see them, visit the Comparometer(tm), and check the links at the top of the file list for each image type: In the Comparometer, click on one of the images in the left-hand navigation bar, and you'll see two lists of cameras in the top frame of the browser window. (Sorry, frames-capable browsers only!) Click a link in each list to view the image from that camera in the window below. Note that the very first entry in each list says "Comparison: Kodak Picture CD". (We have samples of all the If you click on this, you'll see a sample "house" image scanned by Picture CD. You can thus compare Picture CD with the whole range of digital cameras we've reviewed. (There are also preliminary shots of the resolution and "Davebox" targets there as well.

To save you the download times, we've cropped bits of detail from a Picture CD test image, as well as from a current top-of-the-line 2.3 megapixel digicam, so you can see the differences first-hand. Click on the image above to see the full-sized versions of these cropped images. The two shots were taken on different days, with slightly different sun angles, but we think you'll be surprised at how well the 1.5 megapixel Picture CD image does, compared to the 2.3 megapixel digicam one!
What's this mean? - Picture CD vs. digital cameras
Obviously, there are a LOT of reasons why you'd still want to use a digital camera rather than simply shooting on film and having Picture CDs made of everything: For starters, there's the immediate feedback you get with a digital camera. With film, you don't know what you've shot until you have it processed. Another obvious factor is cost. With a digital camera, you can snap pictures all day long without it costing a dime. (Provided you use rechargeable batteries, that is!) With Picture CD, you have the cost of the basic film processing, plus the cost of Picture CD itself. No question, Picture CD won't substitute for a digital camera for all occasions
Let's look at the flip side though: What are the advantages of Picture CD? First and foremost, it's a great way to experiment with digital photography, before you plunk down $300-1,000 on a digital camera. For the sake of $10 or less, you can have great digital images with remarkably little fuss or hassle. Another huge benefit has to do with the flexibility of all the myriad types of color film available. Do you have an extreme low-light situation? Just buy a roll of ultra-speed film, stick it in your film camera, and voila, you've just bested any digicam selling for less than about $3,000! How about lenses? If you're an SLR enthusiast (like us), you probably have at least one or two nifty auxiliary lenses that simply aren't available in the digicam market. With Picture CD, I can drop a roll of ISO 800 film in my film camera, shoot pictures of my son's evening soccer game with my 210mm f/4 tele, and get sharp shots that'd never be possible with my digital arsenal! For the sake of $8-10 per roll, it's a great adjunct to my more purely digital undertakings.
What's this mean? - Picture CD vs. Film + Scanner
Although digital cameras provide immediate feedback on your pictures, many people prefer to "go digital" by using a scanner to digitize their film-based pictures. This lets you have your cake and eat it too, in that you have the advantage of multiple film types, your full assortment of film-based photo gear, the long-term archive offered by the film negatives, and maximum resolution. Finally, there's the obvious benefit of being able to go back and digitize all your prior photographic output. The downside of this approach of course, is that someone needs to do the scanning, which can be time-consuming. This is where Picture CD again may look attractive: Let that "someone" who does the scanning be someone else. The limitations are that you're limited to the roughly 1.5-2 megapixel resolution Picture CD offers, and it only works for new rolls of film. Still, after a stint of scanning dozens of vacation pictures, we can personally testify to the appeal of having someone else do the scanning for us! - We're ardent digicam users, and have a high-end film scanner at our disposal. Even with all of that, we anticipate fairly routinely ordering Picture CDs with our film processing, simply for the convenience factor.
Heading off the flames: We do think digicams are worthwhile!
We've been so positive here about the wonders of Picture CD that we're concerned people will draw the mistaken impression that we're recommending PictureCD instead of digital cameras. Nothing could be further from the truth! Digicams have numerous features to recommend them beyond absolute image quality. - Because it requires film processing, Picture CD lacks the immediacy of images from a digital camera, involves per-picture processing costs, and is arguably less convenient in many respects. There's no question in our minds that for most users, film eventually will leave photography. Until that happens though, Picture CD provides a very effective hybrid, bridging the film and filmless worlds. For those not yet enjoying digital photography, it provides a great way to get involved without a large dollar investment. We suspect that there are also a lot of people like ourselves who, despite owning (multiple) digital cameras, still shoot a lot of film. For us, Picture CD offers a great extension of the film-based part of our hobby. So: Don't flame us, thinking we're holding Picture CD up as the ultimate "answer" for digital photography! It clearly has a place though (and in our opinion a prominent one) for large numbers of amateur photographers over the next several years.
Included Software
Picture CD 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 thoroughly 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, Picture CD indeed appears to be a perfect, very low-cost entry point!
As is often the case these days, the user experience of Picture CD is rather different for Mac and PC users, with all of the differences favoring the PC platform. That said, the material missing from the Mac version is really more to the detriment of Kodak and their marketing partners than to the end user. 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 Picture CD, 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 "Mac Start" icon if you're on a Mac. On the PC, the disk should automatically launch the installer application as soon as you insert it.)
The Basic Picture CD Application

The core Picture CD 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 Picture CD 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 manipulations, dialing-down the contrast after the fact, if you think the automatic function went too far

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 pages 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 3 copies of each picture, and the program would distribute them across the pages as required.) You can't mix different sizes of prints on a single "print run": To get different sizes of prints of the same photo, you'll need to run separate print jobs, one for each size print. Still, while it's not terribly flexible, it's enough to print your pictures reasonably 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, 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.

Slide Show
(Click to see full-size screen shot)
Wallpaper
(Click to see full-size screen shot)

The slideshow and "wallpaper" functions do what you'd expect them to, the first stepping through your slides 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 Picture CD 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 Picture CD 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.
Here's a list of the main third-party offerings from the current Version 2, Issue 4 release (November, 1999), as presented on Kodak's PictureCD web page:

Look at the Valuable Software--
Included Free--
on KODAK Picture CD Volume 2, Issue 4.

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Disney's Magic Art Studio
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Disney Magic Artist Studio
Hours of creative fun making art with your favorite Disney characters.
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Photo Parade
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Photo Parade
Create fun photo albums from your KODAK Picture CD's and email them anywhere in an instant!
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Presto Photo Album
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NewSoft Presto! Photo Album
Get a 90-day free trial of this fun, easy software that's loaded with features.

The extra software included in the current edition of Picture CD is all Windows-only. While it adds useful capabilities and features, most of it is in the "free trial" mode, where you need to purchase the commercial version after a certain period of time, or to be able to access the program's full capabilities. In no case are any of the programs essential to your use of your pictures. (Mac owners can take heart in that, at least.)
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 its important that the core capability remain on the disk regardless of outside marketing deals.
To our minds, the core Picture CD 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 needs done 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 Picture CD software, and predict great success for Picture CD in the marketplace.
Bottom Line
If you're looking for an easy and cheap way to try out digital photography, Picture CD could be just the ticket! Initially expecting the image quality to be more or less equivalent to that of a 1.5 megapixel digicam, we were consistently impressed with just how good the images were. Even if you already own a scanner, the convenience of having someone else do the basic scanning for you could make Picture CD a strong option.

For More Info:

View the Picture CD Sample Pictures Page

Visit the Comparometer(tm) to compare with digital cameras.

Visit the Kodak home page for PictureCD

Back to the Imaging Resource Digital Cameras Page

Back to the Imaging Resource Scanners Page

Or, Return to the Imaging Resource home page.

 

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