Two sides of the digital camera story

In digital photography, as in many other things, the end result often is a compromise. The trade-off in digital photography involves the quality of the photograph, the size and ease of use of the equipment, and the cost. Fortunately for consumers, the natural evolution in the digital camera market makes those choices less difficult.

We looked at two new entrants from opposite ends of the market: Epson America Inc.'s PhotoPC line targets the entry level to the middle range of the digital camera market, while Eastman Kodak Co. aims at the professional community with its DCS series.

Epson's PhotoPC 800

Epson's PhotoPC 800 digital camera has quite an arsenal of high-end features packed in its compact, portable physique. Don't let its size fool you.

The PhotoPC 800 we tested is a photo enthusiast's dream. While marketed as a midrange digital camera, the PhotoPC 800 is easy to use right out of the box, with clearly labeled buttons and precise instructions. It would be useful for agencies that need to take pictures for display on World Wide Web sites or in presentations.

The camera is equipped with a 2.14 megapixel CCD sensor, and users can select among four resolutions - a feature that determines the number of pictures the 8M Universal Serial Bus CompactFlash card will store. Our test showed an exceptional storage capacity at each resolution: It holds 143 standard-resolution shots (640 by 480 dots per inch), 29 fine-resolution shots (1,600 by 1,200 dpi with medium compression), 16 superfine-resolution shots (1,600 by 1,200 dpi with low compression) and 13 shots at Epson's new image-enhancement technology resolution, dubbed HyPict (1,984 by 1,488 dpi).

The PhotoPC 800 uses an active-matrix TFT color LCD that supports instant preview and playback. Using the LCD does have its disadvantages: The screen has a tendency to deplete the two Epson AA nickel metal hydride batteries much faster than when using the viewfinder. But Epson recognized this minor problem and corrected it with the Power Save Mode. To conserve battery power, this power-saving mechanism automatically shuts down the camera and LCD after every picture. The shutdown time can be adjusted to 10 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute and three minutes, but the Power Save Mode cannot be turned off. The LCD screen is easily viewable in artificial light as well as in the sun. Another benefit of the 1.8-inch LCD screen is playback. With a turn of the dial, images can be reviewed effortlessly.

The camera provides several picture modes including macro, 2x digital zoom, panorama, quick-shot mode, and interval and continuous shooting. Interval shooting enables users to capture scenes in periods lasting 10 seconds to 24 hours. Continuous shooting helps capture a complex motion, such as throwing a baseball, in a series of shots. These continuous shots also are helpful in creating animation sequences for presentations or for use on the Internet. When set for continuous shooting, the camera takes three consecutive shots to capture the full motion. All functions are accessed easily through the LCD display or the information menu and are a cinch to understand and configure.

One unfortunate drawback to the PhotoPC 800's LCD is a delay that makes it almost impossible to take a decent action shot. For action shots you need to use the quick-shot mode, in which the camera puts up to 10 images in temporary storage while you continue taking pictures. Once you've taken 10 shots, the device saves all the images to the memory card.

The PhotoPC 800 provides many alternatives for downloading images. The camera is shipped with serial and USB cables for transferring photos to your Macintosh or PC. And for viewing images on your system, Epson provides a CD containing the PhotoPC 800 software suite, which includes Sierra Imaging Inc.'s Expert, Epson Photo!3, Epson Photo File Uploader and Epson Photo Program Uploader for installing the Direct Print program, which allows direct printing from the camera to any Epson ink jet printer.

Epson Photo!3 enables users to download images quickly and easily from the PhotoPC 800 to their computer. After downloading the images, Sierra's Image Expert makes it easy to enhance and modify images. Under the image correction menu, Image Expert provides options to adjust contrast/brightness, color, hue/saturation, sharpness and equalization of your PhotoPC 800 images. All the software applications were installed at once with the Epson Photo!3 CD, so installation was a cinch.

The PhotoPC 800 comes equipped with a built-in microphone, which can record voice messages of up to 10 seconds. This feature comes in handy when you want to document a special picture.

Although it only needs two batteries, the PhotoPC 800, priced at $699, comes standard with four Epson AA nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries and a portable charger. It also accepts lithium ion or nickel cadmium batteries, and an AC adapter is available.

While many of the camera's features are self-explanatory, Epson does go to great lengths to provide excellent documentation for the PhotoPC 800.

This Epson unit's ease of use and the good quality of the images it produces make it a strong choice for beginners and photo enthusiasts.

Kodak's Professional DCS 660

On the higher end of the spectrum, Kodak's Professional DCS 660 - priced at a staggering $29,995 - is out of the range of most photographers. The DCS 660 is a high-performance, expensive and specialized camera for the expert photographer.

In cooperation with Nikon Inc., Kodak developed the DCS 660 with its high-level imaging system dressed up with the durable metal-frame Nikon F5 camera body. Indeed, at first glance, the DCS 660 looks like a traditional camera.

According to Karen Sweet, Kodak's Defense Department manager, federal government interest in the DCS 660 has come mainly from the military and NASA. Many agencies are testing the camera, including the Air Force, which recently took it to Macedonia, where users took pictures of refugees. "Images are very crisp and clear. We see it used more in portrait photography and when [customers] want more detailed images," Sweet said.

The DCS 660 uses a Nikon F lens mount, which enables users to change lenses. Bear in mind, however, that the camera only can use certain types of AF Nikkor lenses. The camera we tested ships standard with a 35mm AF Nikkor lens, an AC adapter, a battery charger, a set of universal power cords, a 12-volt auto adapter, a FireWire cable, hand and neck straps, a user manual and the Kodak Professional DCS TWAIN Module 5.6.5 and Kodak Professional DCS Acquire Module 5.6.5.

The TWAIN and Acquire Modules are the only software applications that ship with the Kodak camera. Unlike the Photo-PC 800, the DCS 660 does not provide special software for viewing or correcting images; users must have purchased and installed Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop 4.0 or higher. While a battery charger ships standard, batteries are sold separately as accessories. Other additional accessories include the Nikkor SB-28D Speedlight Flash and the MPL PC Card Reader.

The camera provides outstanding performance, capturing images in seconds, which was a welcome change from the power-saving delays of the Epson. Using Kodak's new 6 megapixel indium tin oxide CCD sensor, the DCS 660 has an improved spectral response and increased light sensitivity. (The ITO CCD sensor is the reason for this camera's extremely high price. Each sensor must be made by hand.)

It captures images at resolutions up to 3,040 by 2,008 dpi. The DCS 660 accepts Type I, Type II or Type III PC Cards, which are PCMCIA-ATA compatible. The camera we tested used a 520M PCMCIA

Type III ATA Card to store images. With this generous storage capacity, the camera is capable of capturing several hundred images.

The DCS 660 offers standard functions including autofocus, automatic exposure, metering modes, flash and self-timing. Buttons for these functions are clearly marked on the camera.

Unlike many entry-level or midrange digital cameras, the DCS 660 does not use an active LCD display as a viewfinder. Instead, its 1.8-inch LCD display provides instant review of images, and two informational LCDs display information about the settings on the camera.

With no accompanying flash, the ability to set the type of lighting is essential. The DCS 660 is equipped with an automatic white-balance sensor that automatically provides adjustments to match the type of lighting used to capture images. Besides using the white-balance sensor, the photographer can manually customize settings or choose among four preset settings (daylight, tungsten, fluorescent and flash). White-balance settings can be chosen through the main menu. Other digital cameras also have white-balance capabilities, but the DCS 660 provides the user with more control.

One exceptional feature is Kodak's patented histogram, which is used verify exposure accuracy. The histogram screen on the LCD display shows a visual scale and other information about the image, enabling photographers to assess an image's brightness and contrast levels. Like the PhotoPC 800, the DCS 660 has a built-in microphone for recording or tagging images.

We did run into some difficulties downloading images from the DCS 660. That's because the unit employs the high-speed IEEE 1394 serial interface connector. Unfortunately, many computers are not equipped with the IEEE 1394 PCI connector. While a PC Card reader is helpful, you must be sure your PC or Macintosh system has the minimum requirements, including at least 64M of RAM.

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PhotoPC 800

Epson America Inc.(800) 463-7766www.epson.com

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $699.

Remarks: Photo enthusiasts and novices will enjoy the slim, pocket-size PhotoPC 800 and its many features. While the delay between images is noticeable, the photo quality and ease of use make up for it.

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Professional DCS 660

Eastman Kodak Co.(716) 724-4000www.kodak.com

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $29,995. For more information, please call (800) 242-2424.

Remarks: The Professional DCS 660 has a distinct market focus. But when considering purchasing this camera, users should really ask themselves, "Is it worth the money?" The high price point mainly comes from the cost making of the camera's indium tin oxide CCD sensor, which must be manufactured by hand.

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