Smile! You're On My Computer

Ease of use and falling prices are making digital photography a boon for small business

Homeowners looking to sell their property tend to prefer experienced, older real estate agents, and that put 26-year-old Drew Armstrong at a disadvantage. So the Provo (Utah) agent turned to an age-appropriate solution--technology. While competitors pasted photos on hand-lettered black-and-white flyers, Armstrong last year purchased a digital camera, a color laser printer, and a couple of Macintosh computers.

It proved a winning combination. The lineup lets him produce what he calls "slick, magazine-quality" house-for-sale flyers within 30 minutes of visiting prospective clients' homes. How? He simply takes pictures of the house, downloads them to his laptop computer, and lets the seller select which ones to use. Then, he E-mails the photos to the office, where an assistant puts them in a template in the computer and prints them out. Customers are so impressed with the speedy, aggressive service that they lose sight of Armstrong's callow appearance. "I'll probably sell $9 million worth of homes this year," he says proudly. "I've tripled my business."

Digital imaging--once the esoteric tool kit of ad agencies and graphic designers--is now within easy reach of small businesses such as Armstrong's. The equipment and software, which convert printed documents and pictures into a versatile electronic medium, are getting cheaper and easier to use. Imaging products are becoming the rage among architects, engineers, artists, retailers, and others who rely on high-quality visual material.

SOUP TO NUTS. That's changing the face of small-business marketing--and not just in print. On the World Wide Web, Joe's Gizmo catalog can, graphically speaking, go head-to-head with, say, The Sharper Image.

Digital imaging is not a single technology but rather a felicitous blend of electronic processes, systems, and components. Many people start with a versatile scanner, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s $300 HP ScanJet 5p. This device, which resembles a small copy machine, connects to a computer and sends photos or documents to the screen. Standard scanners won't work for negatives or slides, but HP is expanding the horizons of imaging for most people with a just-released line of PhotoSmart products. These include a $499 scanner that will handle negatives and slides, a $499 printer that produces near-photo-quality output on glossy paper, and a $399 digital camera: Together, the three products can be used for soup-to-nuts imaging jobs (BW--Apr. 28).

Many scanners come with photo-editing software such as Microsoft Corp.'s Picture It! or Adobe Systems Inc.'s PhotoDeluxe which lets the user heighten contrast, trim unwanted sections, eliminate red-eye, and more. With the additional aid of a desktop publishing product such as Microsoft Publisher, the images can be laid out with text, then printed.

For many business applications, there's no need to splurge on a pricey laser printer. The latest crop of $300 to $500 color ink-jet printers--the Lexmark 7000, the Hewlett-Packard 690c DeskJet series, the Canon BJC-620, or the new Epson Stylus Photo--delivers high quality. Leif Rideout, an architect in Santa Cruz, Calif., is about to buy a Stylus Photo to print computer-generated renderings. In the past, he paid $20 a pop at the service bureau. "Photographic-looking prints will only cost me a couple of dollars," he says.

Digital cameras, which start at about $300, are the mainstay of the digital-imaging boom, mostly because they make capturing, developing, and transmitting images virtually instantaneous. Engineers at the 18-employee energy engineering firm of EME Group in New York use a Kodak DC40 camera to help clients troubleshoot problems with boilers, pumps, and cooling systems. A field engineer shoots the problem equipment from every angle, then ships the photos to colleagues. "We can look at the images on our computer in the office, while the client looks on theirs, and we can say, `move this lever here or this hose there,"' explains partner Michael McNamara. The savings in time and travel have been enormous, he says.

The cameras look and feel like small point-and-shooters. Most let you immediately view what you've taken on a tiny, pop-up liquid-crystal display. Many come with easy-to-use image-editing software and a serial cable to move the pictures onto the computer. Some newer models save the photos on a removable card that plugs into a laptop.

PIXEL POWER. Don't expect these low-end devices to generate photographic quality on paper. Images tend to be grainy, lacking the visual depth of 35mm film. Image resolution is measured by picture elements, or "pixels"--the more dots per inch, the higher the resolution. For $300, you typically get about 80 dots per inch. That works out to 640 pixels across the computer screen and 480 down. The result looks O.K. on your screen. But it's not nearly good enough to produce a flyer displaying the fine latticework on a house. The solution could be to take pictures with your conventional camera and scan them. Or, for $1,000, you can get a sophisticated digital model such as the Kodak DC120, which delivers a resolution of 1,280 by 960 pixels--photographic-quality output that starts to approach that of a $10,000 professional digital camera.

Digital imaging has become the very basis for some small businesses. Take Auto Town Inc., a "virtual" car lot on the Web. Dealers at 200 dealerships in 20 states use Epson Photo PC digital cameras to take pictures of their cars, then send photos to Auto Town, which posts them for prospective buyers to view. "Without the digital technology, we couldn't be in business," says President and CEO Jerry Daniels.

MEMORY MAW. Despite ease of use and falling prices, digital imaging isn't always simple. Getting mixed and matched software and hardware to work together can be a time-consuming problem. Some printers may not be able to handle low-resolution images from the cheaper cameras for instance. So if a business feels the need to join the digital craze it's best to experiment with one technology at a time, suggests David McCoy, a research director in the Atlanta offices of Gartner Group, an industry research firm. "Find out what works best for your business--the camera, a printer, or a scanner--and build around that," he says.

Even the technologically savvy can run into problems. Beverly Hills Software in California hosts a Web site popular with technical folks that focuses on Microsoft's Windows NT. But David Baker, managing director of the 12-person firm, says the PictureWorks PhotoEnhancer software he uses to download pictures "doesn't always work well on Windows NT." Another problem: High-resolution pictures use a lot of memory and disk space. "If you're using a serial cable to download pictures from the camera, it can take hours," he adds. So much for speed.

Digital imaging for small business is still in its infancy, but it's maturing fast. By summer's end an interior designer will be able to stitch together a dozen pictures of a living room using a program called RealSpace and then post the composite on a Web site. Clients will "walk through" the room, navigating with a keyboard or mouse as if playing a PC game. For Drew Armstrong, that sounds like a great way to show a lot of homes all over Provo in a hurry.

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