BOOT CAMP 168 (29/03/01)


Scanners & Cameras Part 2


For most of the past twenty years -- since Sony first demonstrated its Mavica electronic still camera -- pundits have been forecasting the imminent demise of photographic film. It hasn't happened yet but digital still cameras (DSCs) are taking off in a big way and if the current pace of development continues photographic film's days may indeed be numbered.


Digital still cameras have come a long way in a remarkably short time and image quality is improving in leaps and bounds but that is missing the point because a DSC is not simply a high-tech way of filling the family photo album, their real talent is getting high quality images into PCs quickly and efficiently.


Of course pictures shot on a digital still camera can be printed out on glossy photo grade paper, but that's tantamount to re-inventing the wheel. If all you want is a set of prints then there's no real advantage to electronic photography when you consider the costs involved, the poor stability of most inkjet printer inks (images can fade in a matter of months) and the fact that you can get a roll of 35mm or APS film processed in an hour in most high-streets for less than £10, (or a great deal less if you're not in a hurry). It's also worth point out that in terms of picture quality and resolution a typical mid-range DSC costing £300 to £400, used with a high-end PC and colour printer worth the thick end £1000, say, is still no match for a £8.99 disposable film camera…


However, digital still cameras can do a great many things that are quite impossible with conventional film cameras, and that's what we're most interested in. One of the most useful facilities is on the spot preview – on models with LCD viewing screens – so you can check the shot and retake it if necessary. They are generally very easy to use, there's no messing around with film loading and there's a wide choice of styles, shapes and sizes available.


Downloading pictures from a camera to a PC – the equivalent of having a film processed – is also incredibly fast. Once inside the computer images can be sent by email to the other side of the world in a matter of seconds, displayed on a web site or pasted into a document. This kind of immediacy can be very handy, if you are an estate agent, for example, selling products or services over the Internet, or just want friends and family abroad to share in a recent birth, marriage or celebration. Of course stored images can also be manipulated using a wide range of 'paint box' and graphics programs, but that's not exclusive to DSC pictures, and there are plenty of other ways of getting images into PC, including scanners, which we looked at in detail last week.


Buying a digital still camera can be quite an adventure… It is pointless trying to keep up with the technology. Whatever model you buy will be effectively obsolete and probably selling for a fraction of what you paid for it in six months time. As a very general rule of thumb you should shortlist models with image sensors that have 2-million or more pixels (2 'megapixel'), which is more than adequate for the majority of PC based applications and capable of giving good results on paper (though a lot also depends on the performance of the printer).


Most DSCs store images on removable memory modules, there are four different types in widespread use, they are: MultiMedia Card or MMC, CompactFlash, Memory Stick and SmartMedia. There are no significant technical differences between the various types, but prices, and capacities vary a lot, so bear than in mind as the cards supplied with a lot of cameras often only hold 8 to 10 images at the highest quality settings. There are several ways of connecting cameras to PCs. Older and cheaper models tend to use standard PC serial and parallel connection ports, which ensures the greatest compatibility but is a good deal slower than the alternative USB type connection. It can take several minutes to download a dozen pictures via a serial link, but only a few seconds using a USB connection. Memory cards can be read directly via an interface module, PC-Card or floppy disc adaptor, these are usually optional extras though; most recent Sony laptops have Memory Stick slots.


First-timers and even experienced photographers frequently comment that a lot of DSCs appear to have very basic or rudimentary lenses. This is particularly galling to owners of SLR type cameras, who may have built up a collection of expensive lenses. The reason DSC lenses are so small has to do with the fact that the microchip image sensors used in these cameras are typically one quarter or one third of an inch across -- significantly smaller than a frame of 35mm or APS film -- consequently the lenses require a much shorter focal length and can be made a lot smaller, without necessarily compromising image quality.


For those who want to try their hands at digital photography but cannot bear to be parted from their lens collections or cherished 35mm cameras there may be a solution. Several camera manufacturers produce 'digital backs' for their models, which contains an image sensor and processing microchips and fits in place of the camera's normal film back. Another interesting development is 'e-film'. The idea first surfaced almost four years ago and is now poised to go into production. Basically it is a small device, shaped like a 35mm film cartridge; inside there's a battery processor and memory chips and attached to the side is a flat plate with an image sensor, that sits in place of the film. The unit fits into the film compartment of an SLR camera, turning it instantly into a digital still camera. There has been a number of teething problems along the way and the current specification is not terribly exciting (1.3 million pixel sensor), but it all sounds quite promising and is worth keeping an eye on. There's more information in the web at:


Next week – Domain names and the Internet





Credit card sized modules (but a little thicker) used in laptops for modems, memory expansion and other peripherals. Adaptor modules have slots for memory cards



Picture-Element, a single dot in a digitally generated image or display, the greater the number of pixels the greater the amount of detail



Universal Serial Bus, industry standard connection system for peripherals that does away with confusing technicalities and allows 'hot swaps', allowing connection and disconnection with the PC switched on



This quick and simple tip will let you start your ten favourite applications with a single key press, and it gives the numeric keypad on the right side of your keyboard something to do. First press the Num Lock key on your keyboard then right-click your mouse on any desktop shortcut and select Properties. Click the cursor into the 'Shortcut Key' field and press the number key on the numeric keypad that you want to start the program with. Click OK and repeat for up to nine other programs. Unless you have a good memory it's a good idea to make a list. If you do use the keypad then you can assign some other infrequently used key or key combination to your shortcuts, though make sure it's not used by something else…

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