A Photo Lab In Your Pc?

New scanners and printers will make it easier to produce high-quality images

Recently, I flunked an interesting test. Antonio Perez, general manager of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Inkjet Products Group, showed me several prints of a snapshot. One was a conventional photographic print. The others had been produced on various computer printers, including some experimental models designed for home use. I couldn't figure out which one was the conventional print.

True, the test was a bit rigged because all of the pictures were covered with plastic, making it hard to examine the surfaces closely. But the demonstration left me convinced that PCs are the future of amateur photography.

Although digital cameras are carving out a healthy niche for themselves, the overwhelming majority of pictures will continue to be taken on film, which offers a so-far unbeatable combination of price and quality. The trick is getting digital versions of your conventional photographs into your computer and getting the "prints" back out.

This is getting a lot easier. Some models of HP's Pavilion home computers have built-in scanners that can handle a snapshot. For $400 to $600, you can get color scanners such as the HP ScanJet 4P, the Umax Vista-S6E, and the Apple OneTouch--and prices are dropping fast. Some offer accessories that will scan a 35mm transparency. And HP is developing a scanner that will even create a digital image directly from a color negative.

If you have a video camera, there's another low-cost way to get professional-quality images. The $200 Snappy from Play Inc. will transfer a frame from any source--including a camcorder, tape, or broadcast--into a Windows computer through a printer port.

Of course, once pictures are inside your computer, you can look at them on your screen, but most folks prefer their photos in albums or frames. Today, a $300 inkjet printer can produce decent color images. The secret to getting the best quality is to use specially coated papers that prevent the ink dots from spreading out and blurring as they do on ordinary paper. You can get more vivid colors and sharper output by using glossy paper specifically designed for high-quality inkjet printers. You'll want to use these papers only for the final "keeper" print because they can cost $1 or more per 8 1/2-by-11-in. sheet, but the result is a print that looks and feels like a lab-developed photograph. For snapshot-size pictures, Eastman Kodak Co. sells 4-by-6-in. photo-inkjet paper for $10 for a pack of 36 sheets. Like all color prints, light exposure will cause fading over time, but manufacturers say they should be as stable as conventional photographs.

TIGHTER FOCUS. Over the next year or so, printers may get dramatically better at turning out photos. It will be years before color laser printers become cheap enough for most people, so inkjets will be the main attraction. Today's inkjets are currently designed by industry leaders HP and Canon Inc. for the best quality text, since that's what people care most about. But now, manufacturers are turning to the difficult job of accurately generating the millions of colors needed for faithful photographic reproduction.

HP, for example, is considering a line of photographic printers. With prices plunging, the company thinks consumers may be willing to buy one printer mainly for text and shell out an additional $250 or $300 for a separate machine just for photo-quality prints. The initial market would probably be amateur photographers, who are legendary for spending freely on new gadgets.

As professionals have known for years, computers are marvelous tools for manipulating photo images. What amateurs have lacked is a way to get the pictures into and out of a PC. That problem, it appears, will soon be solved.

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