Digital Pics Finally Click

As prices fall and quality improves, serious photo bugs should take note

Digital photography is finally coming of age. For some time now, it has been practical to use a digital camera to grab a quick snapshot to post to a Web site or send off in an e-mail. But the quality of the pictures was inevitably disappointing if you tried to print them.

Two developments have promoted digital cameras from snapshots to more serious hobbyist photography. First are high-resolution cameras, with 1.5 million to 2 million pixels, costing less than $1,000 each. Lower-resolution pictures were fine for undemanding PC displays but lacked detail or broke up into blocky pixels when printed, especially in enlargements. Megapixel images can be enlarged to 8 x 10 or bigger.

"DIGITAL SHOEBOX." The second breakthrough is the use of computer ports that use the universal serial bus (USB) to connect with cameras. The serial or parallel links that were used with earlier cameras were slow and flaky and often required you to disconnect something else before you could hook up the camera. USB makes the downloads both easier and faster. Non-USB cameras are only a bit less convenient: You can remove the memory card from the camera and insert it in a USB reader attached to your computer.

While the hardware has improved only recently, the software used to process digital pictures has long been quite good. For the truly serious, Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop remains the program of choice for Windows and Macintosh. But it comes with a steep learning curve and a stiff $600 price tag. A limited version, Photoshop LE, is a good buy at $99. Almost all cameras, scanners, and printers come bundled with editing software, including Adobe PhotoDeluxe, MGI PhotoSuite, ArcSoft PhotoStudio, or Microsoft Picture It!

My favorite is PhotoDeluxe, $50 at retail for either Windows or Mac. It retains much of the power of Photoshop behind a friendly face. The Windows version comes with Adobe ActiveShare, a nice system for managing a "digital shoebox" full of pictures. ActiveShare is also available as a free download through Jan. 10.

Printing your photos has also become a lot simpler. Until recently, getting decent results required a special photo printer that uses six colors of ink rather than the usual four. Today a $150 inkjet printer from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, or Lexmark will do a respectable job printing photos on special coated paper. In general, paying more buys speed rather than quality.

You can enjoy digital photography even if you prefer to take your pictures with conventional film cameras. One way is to have your film made into a Kodak Picture CD for about $10 a roll. The high-resolution scanned images are then handled just like digital photos. If you prefer to do it yourself, you can use a quality scanner with a film-scanning attachment. Low-resolution scanners that are fine at grabbing pictures for the Web won't do for serious photo work, and scanning film gives much better results than scanning prints.

My digital photography setup started with a Kodak DC280 ($750) and an Epson PhotoPC 800 ($699). My big complaint with the cameras, especially the Epson, is battery life barely long enough to shoot the equivalent of a roll of film. To capture conventional images, I used a $349 Epson Perfection 1200U Photo scanner, which can scan negatives or transparencies up to 4 x 5 inches.

PC EDITING. To print the pictures, I used a $499 HP PhotoSmart P1100, which lets you print directly from your camera memory cards by inserting them into the printer. But most of the time, you'll probably want to use a PC to do some editing. The HP DeskJet 970Cse is essentially the same printer without the memory-card slots, costs $100 less, and works with Macs as well as Windows.

One word of warning about photo-quality printing: The results may look like photographs, but the inks are not as stable as the dyes used in conventional photography, and pictures will fade faster than photo prints. Fortunately, as long as you have the digital original, you can create a new print.

For the most serious photographers, conventional film and prints remain the highest-quality medium. But for many hobbyists, digital photography is now a worthy alternative.

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