Finish Photos Like The Pros

New technology lets you edit images without gobbling up hard-disk space

Most of the photographs in this magazine begin life as ordinary film in conventional cameras. A computer scans the image to convert it to a digital file, which can then be edited to resize or enhance the image. It's a process that has becoming increasingly familiar at home, too. So why are the pros' results vastly better than anything you can achieve?

The big reason, other than the skill of the photographers, is the expensive, high-resolution scanners used. Even if you could borrow a professional scanner, the resulting files would be so big that they would choke your computer unless it had many megabytes of memory and gigabytes of disk storage.

FAST WORK. A new technology available this fall should give consumers a chance to turn their photos into high-resolution digital images without a heavy investment in hardware. The key is a new way of storing images as digital files called FlashPix. The developers are Eastman Kodak, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and startup Live Picture. FlashPix economically loads only as much of the file as you need, but any changes you make, including cropping, correcting color, and getting rid of red-eye, will be applied to the full high-resolution image stored on your hard drive. Two Windows 95 programs due in late October, PictureIt! ($69) from Microsoft and LivePix ($99) from Live Picture (test version downloadable from use FlashPix to allow lightning-fast editing.

First you need a way to get the high-quality pictures into your computer. Consumer digital cameras don't provide sharp images, and scanning in a conventional photo means a loss of quality. But starting on Nov. 1, a new Kodak service will make top-notch copies of a 24-shot roll of color film on a FlashPix CD for about $20. Fortunately, you can leave all the pictures but the ones you are actively editing on the CD; a FlashPix version of a 35mm shot takes up about 1.5 megabytes and grows as changes are made.

PictureIt! and LivePix are both aimed at snap shooters rather than serious photographers. Both focus heavily on ease of use, offering a very limited range of special effects and editing techniques. You can't, for example, change contrast and brightness in just part of a picture. But you can easily simulate a fancy mounting or put your picture into a custom calendar.

PictureIt! uses lots of step-by-step instructions, which are helpful at first but ultimately a bit stifling. For example, both programs offer a "magic wand" that lets you cut out any section of a picture. Initially, I found the hand-holding offered by PictureIt! to be helpful, but before long, LivePix' free-form wand seemed both easier and more accurate.

POSTER PRINTS. Once you've finished a picture you can, of course, print it out with a color inkjet printer (BW--Sept. 23). But good as such printers are, they can't do justice to a LivePix image. Another Kodak service available in November will let you E-mail a LivePix file and get back a photograph-quality print, probably for about $10 for an 8-inch-by-10-inch image. FlashPix pictures can be blown up much bigger than most digital images. Kinko's, in a deal with HP, will print out poster-size FlashPix images for $15 or so a square foot on HP DesignJet printers. FlashPix also are ideal for the World Wide Web. A low-resolution version would pop up quickly in your browser, but if you wanted to print the picture, you could download the high-res file.

Additional software, new services, and digital cameras using FlashPix are on the way, and I suspect it will quickly become the dominant format in amateur digital photography. A hot market is about to get even hotter.

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