Year-End Wrap-Up
Digital Photography

As the century closes we have learned that technological advances make each year distinctly different from the last. Digital photography has been advancing rapidly in most recent years, but until this last year it was still not something the serious photo enthusiast could look to and find anything comparable to their traditional silver-based film experience unless a very large investment was made or expectations were kept low. However, 1999 has changed that picture dramatically, filling in the gap between digital point-and-shoot snapshot cameras and five figure, high-end professional solutions. In addition to two plus megapixel digital cameras now with both manual control of aperture and shutter speed, plus the ability to synch with external electronic flash, including multiple light studio setups, higher resolution scanners at even lower prices and even better performing photo-realistic ink jet printers, complete a digital setup to satisfy many experienced photo enthusiasts.

As 1999 rolled on I have received increasing numbers of inquiries from established, serious amateurs interested in setting up their own digital darkroom. This possibility for many people, a lot of whom may not have enjoyed the use of the traditional darkroom, has been encouraged by the continuing fall in computer prices and the affordability of high-performance models needed to do digital photography. In fact I just received news of Hewlett-Packard offering a new series of their Kayak model workstations that are ideally suited to professional-level digital photography processing, now starting at just $1300, and under $2000 for a dual-processor model workstation. Now anyone with room for a desk can have a darkroom.

Digital Cameras For Serious Amateurs. The Olympus Ca-media C-2000 Zoom camera is the first two plus meg-apixel camera I have used that sells for less than $1000. This camera is quite capable of making image files which print full image on the popular letter-size paper and with a consistent level of quality which most enthusiasts to whom I've shown results agree are as good or better than what they get from a photo lab and their 35mm color negatives. In addition, the 3x zoom lens provides a wide range of shooting capabilities, extended by a built-in macro mode.

More recently I have been working with the Fuji MX-2900, a 2.3Mp digital camera with 3x zoom lens. This Fuji model is deliberately designed to fill the needs of the experienced photo enthusiast with very easy to access and comprehensive manual control, as well as a traditional body design for comfortable handling. The Fuji MX-2900 also has a hot shoe for external flash, and I found it works quite effectively with a three light studio flash setup. In fact I even did an in-home family portrait with this setup (something I rarely do even on film), and obtained great results. In fact I pushed the limit a bit and re-sampled the Fuji's 1800x1200 pixel image, enlarging it to make a 10.5x15" print on fine art paper with an Epson Stylus Photo 1200 printer.

Now with Olympus' new C-2500 L 2.5Mp digital SLR announced at Seybold and Nikon's D-1 expected to be available by the time this report is published, the range of digital imaging choices are being fully filled in. Affordable solutions for everyone from snapshooter to professional should involve a wide range of product brands and models available in the first year of the new century.

Getting Film Images Into The Digital Darkroom. One of the attractions of the digital darkroom is its ability to deal with input from a digital camera, or scanner's digitized film, equally well. To use a computer to edit, manipulate, and re-create a photographic image involves exactly the same tools and processing whether the original was made with a digital camera, 35mm scanner from a slide or color negative, or a larger piece of film with a flat-bed scanner and TPU, as well as a print. So the digital darkroom can be as much an adjunct to a photo enthusiast who has a library of existing photographs, as well as film cameras which are a long way from being retired, in addition to the completion of a digital camera system.

Like computers, scanners continue to be developed to provide ever more performance at a greatly reduced selling price. The current trend with some flat-bed scanner models is to use two 600dpi linear CCD arrays in conjunction to achieve a true optical 1200dpi at a fraction of the cost of scanners which have a single 1200dpi linear CCD array. The first of these new models I have had the opportunity to use is a Canon CanoScan FB1200S with a transparency adapter. The tests I did revealed a level of film scanning performance quite comparable to 1200dpi scanner models I worked with last year costing many times as much. That this is an important capability which addresses a valued market segment is indicated by the fact both UMAX and Epson also have new 1200 optical resolution units coming out with film scanning an important feature.

That there are more images taken in the past on 35mm film, and a lot of 35mm cameras still in use, is also not forgotten by scanner manufacturers. In 1999 the lowest priced, entry-level HP PhotoSmart S-20 scanner was introduced to replace the original S-10 with many new features including highly improved software, greater film handing flexibility, and higher quality output. In the middle price bracket of 35mm scanners, Canon's new and improved CanoScan FS 2710 now features a quantum improvement in both hardware and software performance over the previous year's model. At the high end of desktop 35mm film scanners the maximum resolution was jumped from 2700/ 2800dpi to 4000dpi, first with Polaroid's new SprintScan 4000, and just announced in the ArtixScan 4000t from Microtek.

There is more to what has occurred in the scanner industry than the new, better, and cheaper models available. There has been a greater recognition by most manufacturers that the special demands of scanning photographs effectively is a necessary factor in any but the least expensive SOHO document scanners, resulting in many of the new scanners having specific "Photo" model designations. This has also caused an almost across the board, major improvement in the software scanning tools provided even with existing scanner models and not just new models. In addition, nearly every major scanner brand now provides at least some support for color management, and in some instances a bundled color management solution that supports integrating the scanner with the entire system. To some extent competition of course has spurred continued development, but that has also been aided by the fact many users have added to the cost of their scanner by adding the Lasersoft SilverFast software to obtain a truly comprehensive, professional image access and corrections control for their scanner. And, then not to be ignored, the Internet has played its part with chat rooms and forums on graphics and digital photography buzzing with minor gripes to tales of woe this or that user tells with their experience with this or that scanner and software package.

Photo-Realistic Ink Jet Printing. In addition to bringing to market two further enhanced and improved Epson Stylus Photo printers, the 750 and 1200, Epson extended their reach into wide format ink jet printing with the Stylus Pro 9000 model offering full 1440dpi six color printing on full width roll stock media. As well, the very well received Epson 5000 professional proof printer is now unbundled from the Fiery RIP that had been sold with the 5000, making this professional production ink jet affordable to the individual user at under $3000. In addition the biggest player in computer printers, Hewlett-Packard completed their upgrade of new PhotoSmart products with two PhotoSmart printers and two new digital camera models. Also, the new Version 3 of the HP photo-realistic printer technology will also be available in a business class HP DeskJet 970 offering their new photo-like printing capability in a model which supports networks, as well as all Windows and Macintosh computer platforms. Although Canon's ink jet printer products are not so targeted to photographers, Canon has continued to expand and develop their Bubblejet technology offering several models with photo-realistic capacities including some with large format capabilities, and most recently their own line of wide format professional ink jet printers.

From a photographic perspective the hardware is only a part of the story of photo-realistic ink jet printing. Today you can go into an office supply discount center and find a wide variety of special ink jet papers and media, including all kinds of labels from Avery, as well as glossy photo paper in half a dozen different brands, not to mention T-shirt transfers and special papers for folded greeting cards, etc., etc., etc. For the more serious digital darkroom printer there are now several brands of extremely high quality watercolor type 100 percent rag papers with coating specially formulated for ink jet printing, including Liege, Concorde Rag, and Somerset, and intended for archival fine arts applications. The web site at: www.missupply.com offers direct purchase of many of these papers in addition to both the Lyson/ Luminos archival inks from the UK, and their own MIS pigmented archival inks for the Epson ink jet printers.

The Contrary Image-Editing Software Dilemma. A few years ago when there were very few digital photographers, almost no affordable digital cameras a photographer would be caught dead using, and scanners costing almost as much as a car, there was a wide selection of very professional and powerful image-editing software applications. There was of course Photoshop from Adobe, and Photo-Styler was offered by Aldus before being acquired by Adobe, PhotoPaint soon to become a part of the Corel family, and Micrografx picture publisher to name the mainstays. Of those only two remain, Adobe Photoshop and Corel PhotoPaint, which is too much like Photoshop to be a real choice except it is less costly.

At the other end of the spectrum almost every company capable of programming image-editing applications has gotten into the market with their salvation to the snapshooters' needs to download, size, crop, remove redeye, and of course print their snaps with their new digital camera and ink jet printer. Like the point-and-shoot cameras they are related to, these under $100 photo applications, often bundled with equipment, are highly automated and offer little image-editing manual control. In addition, many use the sRGB colorspace "standard" that essentially reduces photographic image quality to the level of what can be displayed by a typical consumer monitor. This can have the effect of clipping the image information from a scan or digital camera input loosing as much as 30 percent of the color information when the image is saved as a file. This is not something I would recommend that should satisfy a serious, experienced photo enthusiast.

Even though there are image-editing applications such as picture-Window, Satori Paint, and PaintShop Pro, so far none of these provide color management support, and the advantages of input and output with assured color matching throughout the system. I cannot imagine the lack of an up-to-date digital darkroom application will go unfulfilled for long. Especially in light of the major efforts of the Digital Imaging Group (DIG), an association of a lot of the most influential computer and software companies, toward making digital imaging without problems of variation, accessible and an assured quality experience through the development of standards. Possibly with the release of Windows 2000, and a new version of PhotoDraw, Micro-soft may become the unlikely new leader in graphics solutions for those of us between rank amateur and working professional, the serious enthusiast.

For more information to keep up-to-date on developments affecting the digital photographer and digital darkroom, here are a few web sites to watch:
www.usa.canon.com
www.digitalimaging.com
www.epson.com
www.fujifilm.com
www.hp.com
www.olympus.com
www.microsoft.com
www.umax.com

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