Digital Cameras - The Digital Picture

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Digital Cameras come of age

Tom Arah runs a jaundiced eye over digital cameras but is finally won over.

Downloading images 

My first experience of digital cameras almost put me off for life. With fixed lens, poor focus, dodgy colour and limited memory the first cameras didn't even offer the basic functionality of a disposable point-and-shoot. Of course such failings were meant to be redeemed by the convenience of the all-digital medium. However, with the time taken for the camera to charge up, the wait while it wrote each image to disk and then the age it took to download the images to the computer, convenience was not the term that came to mind.

The fundamental problem though was the appalling image quality. With maximum resolution of 640 x 480 - a grand total of just 307,200 pixels - there simply wasn't enough detail to produce unpixelated printed output. By rights this should have killed the medium stone dead, and the only reason it didn't seemed to be the onscreen quality - this was so poor that the last thing anyone wanted was a printout.

The attempt to build an industry on a product that aspired to the functionality of a screen-only polaroid but without the quality, convenience or value was frankly puzzling. This was even more the case as a far superior technology was already in place. With the unbeatable reproduction offered by the professional 35mm print - usually equated to a resolution of around 15 million pixels - and a century of development of advanced photographic features, such as zoom lenses and auto-focusing, the traditional camera's quality and functionality are taken as benchmarks. In other words the standards that the first digital cameras aspired to already existed in a higher quality, more adaptable, better value product that everyone already owned!

My objection to digital cameras wasn't just in practice then but in principle as it was difficult to see what benefits reinventing the camera in an all-digital format could offer. Certainly the potential of immediate computer access to images was attractive, but in that case the development effort should logically have been put into digitizing high-quality film-based images. Rather than replacing traditional cameras I therefore expected a boom in dedicated film scanners, or the arrival of one-hour PhotoCD processing, to sound the death-knell for digital cameras.

In fact, rather than disappearing entirely, I expected digital cameras to become subsumed into another product entirely: digital videocams. After all the basic 640 x 480 VGA resolution is actually very close to the TV screen standard so that a digital videocam can offer reasonable stills for onscreen use together with the extra unbeatable benefits of lossless recording and editing of sound and moving action.

As things have turned out of course I have been proved completely wrong. Although the price of digital videocams is already entering sub-800 consumer levels, the refusal of manufacturers to allow Intel to include Firewire support directly on motherboards has temporarily restricted interest in digital video to professional users and dedicated hobbyists. In the meantime the digital camera manufacturers have grabbed the opportunity to produce their second-generation products.

What sets these latest cameras apart is their megapixel resolution. With typical resolutions of 1280 x 960 and above these cameras offer over four times as many pixels as their predecessors and leave the videocam lagging. Crucially the increased resolution offers the possibility of serious print. Working on the basis of 200dpi for high quality output, these cameras are capable of producing unpixelated images of over 6" by 4". In other words megapixel cameras can finally produce the sort of prints we automatically associate with photography.

The move to megapixel resolution marks a Rubicon as it's no longer just estate agents with web sites that are being attracted to digital cameras but average users. As such I decided I ought to put aside my prejudices and take the digital plunge - especially as Christmas also happens to coincide with the end of my tax year. Based on the PC Pro round-up (issue 51) I was drawn to the Fuji MX-700 but, aware that models and specifications are changing all the time, I checked all relevant sites. This was an eye-opening experience. The Casio in the round-up, for example, had put in an embarrassing performance with basic 640 x 480 resolution fixed lens and fixed 4Mb memory card. On the Casio site though was information on the latest QV-7000SX model featuring megapixel resolution, 2x zoom, 8Mb removable memory together with a whole host of advanced features such as web-browsable access - and all for around the same price.

I was sorely tempted but sensible enough to realize that, while other features are welcome in a camera, picture quality is non-negotiable. What I really wanted was a way to compare image quality from different cameras. I found exactly what I was looking for at the only digital camera site you will ever need - As well as latest news and in-depth practical reviews this offers downloadable image samples of the same indoor and outdoor scenes taken with every digital camera that is released. For those with T1 access or considerable patience it even offers the Comparometer, which enables you to compare the same picture taken with different cameras side by side.

After a little investigation, two lessons became very obvious. The first is that digital camera image quality has improved beyond all recognition. The second is that the manufacturers leading the way in terms of quality are the traditional camera makers Olympus, Fuji and Nikon. The images I was most impressed by were those produced by the Nikon Coolpix 900 and, with the recent release of a minor 900s upgrade offering more base memory, the option for external flash and a new price around the 500 mark, I took the plunge.

My own impressions on quality were equally positive. Although based on a central CCD, digital cameras are very different to scanners in that they must produce their images under very different conditions. It is the knowledge that the traditional camera manufacturers have gained over the last 50 years in terms of controlling aperture, exposure and focus that make their cameras stand out from the crowd. The Nikon 900 in particular benefits from its unique 9-element Nikkor lens, a matrix metering mode based on 64 segments for determining exposure and the ability to discriminate between no less than 945 separate focus steps.

The result is that images taken with the Coolpix tend to be very sharp and clear in both foreground and background, much more so for example than with my existing Olympus 35mm. With longer use, however, quality niggles do crop up. The first is due to the length of exposure. While the camera is claimed to be able to pick up low light levels down to EV4.5, Nikon rates the Coolpix at an ISO film-speed equivalent of only 64. This seems overly harsh but there is clearly a tendency to longer exposures, often up to the maximum length of second in dim conditions. Hand-shake is more or less inevitable at these exposures resulting in blurred images unless you use a tripod and your object is static.

The second problem arises from the JPG compression used to store images on the card. The Nikon offers three compression modes equating to different JPG quality settings. The default Normal setting produces images of around 250k each, roughly two times smaller than the Fine and two times larger than the Basic setting. Certainly these defaults make sense in that the number of visible artifacts in Normal mode are much fewer than in Basic mode while hardly worse than at Fine. Even so the presence of any artifacts at all is clearly less than desirable.

Saving to a lossless format such as PNG would immediately solve the problem, but wouldn't look good on the camera spec-sheet with only four images storable on each 8Mb card. However, with 48Mb and larger cards now appearing this will soon be less of a problem. In any case, for high-quality studio work a Perfect option would already be desirable. In addition, when using the JPG format for default storage, an option to automatically convert to TIF or PNG when transferring images would at least help prevent further loss of detail when editing and re-saving.

Despite these two limitations the image quality is generally striking onscreen and equally impressive when output onto glossy photographic paper from a printer like the Epson 700 or Photo Ex - though the 1280 x 960 pixel limit results in slightly soft images when blown up to A4. In fact, the Nikon has convinced me that digital imaging can indeed offer an increase in image quality over film. This is partly due to the direct, first-generation nature of digital images which bypasses both the limitations of traditional film's colour gamut and the inaccuracies inherent in scanning to provide greater range, accuracy and sharpness. Just as important is the image's digital nature that enables near instant colour-correcting on the computer. Perhaps most important of all is the ultimate quality control where, by viewing the image you have just taken on the LCD, you can delete it if it isn't up to scratch.

This ability to easily see, show and, where necessary, delete images directly they are taken is a huge advantage and the main selling point of all recent digital cameras. Eventually though for storage, editing and output the images have to be transferred to the computer. Amazingly, like most current digital cameras, the Nikon doesn't offer USB, SCSI or Infra-red capabilities, but still relies on a completely inadequate serial connection. With each preview thumbnail taking around 4 seconds to download it takes well over two minutes just for the 30 images on an 8Mb card to appear. As copying each file takes over 20 seconds, you are left spending around quarter of an hour twiddling your thumbs. When 48Mb cards become common, camera and computer will be tied up for over an hour.

When you also factor in the drain on battery life which is poor enough anyway, the time and expense of producing prints and the need to be able to access your computer every time you want to clear your card, the claimed convenience benefit of digital cameras is still debatable. In the end, though, I was won over thanks to the purchase of a PCMCIA FlashCard adapter. Using this effectively converts the memory card into a hard disk - only much faster. The result is near instant thumbnail preview and the ability to archive a full set of images and clear the card in under a minute and with no battery drain. Even better, with the Nikon it was possible to upload images onto the card which allows presentations to be prepared for TV playback. If you have a notebook, an adapter is undoubtedly the best 10 you can spend on your camera and finally delivers the speed and convenience that digital cameras have always claimed.

After quality and convenience the final factor that has previously held digital cameras back has been their poor photographic capabilities. In particular I was always horrified at the idea of spending over 300 on a camera that didn't even offer a zoom. The ability to frame a shot has always been essential but within the digital framework, where every pixel is precious, a zoom should be an absolute pre-requisite. Thankfully the Coolpix offers a decent 38-115mm, 3x optical zoom.

It also offers one of the increasingly common 2x digital zooms enabling magnification of up to 6x when used in combination. However don't be fooled. The digital zoom works simply by blowing up the central area of the image and interpolating the extra pixels which immediately softens the image. I would have preferred the image simply to be saved as a 640 x 480 VGA shot which would save card space and allow the user to control enlargement themselves.

Having said this, the digital zoom option isn't just a gimmick as it is useful for the crucial job of accurate image framing. Framing with the digital zoom is only possible with the LCD viewfinder, but in most other cases it is usually much easier to use the optical viewfinder - especially in dim conditions. Sadly this is an area in which the Coolpix 900 seriously lets itself down. For some bizarre reason the optical viewfinder only shows around 80% of the final image. This is irritating enough in compositional terms, but for a digital image it is a criminal waste of image real estate. In many ways, by reducing the useful resolution to nearer 1024 x 768 pixels, the wasteful optical viewfinder should strip the Coolpix of its the megapixel status.

Apart from its zooms, the Coolpix also offers a number of advanced photographic features that simply didn't make sense with the image quality of the first digital cameras. In particular it offers a manual mode in which it is possible to change features such as the exposure in .5EV units, to swap between three metering and five white balance modes, to produce grayscale images and so on. In fact the automatic mode results were so impressive that there's usually little need to turn to manual mode. This is especially true as many of the on-camera features such as the grayscale mode and brightness and contrast controls can't compete with the similar functionality available on the computer in a program like Photoshop.

There is one manual setting however which is already very interesting and promises much more for the future. The 900's Continuous mode offers three options: the default Single image mode and Continuous and VGA. Both additional modes work by switching off the flash, locking exposure and focus when you first depress the shutter and then writing images as fast as possible to disk. The full megapixel resolution in Continuous mode takes around two seconds to write each image, while in VGA mode this drops to around half a second for a burst of up to ten images.

The two modes might sound like variations on a single theme, but in practice they are useful for two very different projects. The exposure and focus lock and two-second interval of Continuous mode comes into its own for the creation of panoramas. This is especially the case when used with the 270-degree rotatable lens unit though other features, such as the edge of the previous image appearing in the viewfinder and automatic on-board image stitching - both offered by the Casio SX-7000 - would be even more useful. The Continuous VGA mode, on the other hand is useful for catching an action sequence. Or rather it nearly is. Unfortunately, an image every half-second isn't quick enough to really give a realistic idea of movement. By dropping image size to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 it would have been possible to save eight or more images a second - again a feature that the Casio offers.

These missed opportunities are disappointing - and highlight how the Nikon is held back as well as strengthened by its traditional film-based background - but they are more than made up for by the potential that they show for the future. In particular the panorama and action sequence capabilities reveal the directions in which digital cameras are moving. By storing a single image over multiple frames as a panorama, the digital image can effectively offer infinite resolution and so quality. By storing multiple frames per single image, meanwhile, the digital camera can also offer the ability to take short video clips. As such the apparent divisions between digital cameras and high-resolution film-based cameras and low-resolution videocams simply melts away.

Moreover as the size of CCD, speed of data handling and memory buffering increase, the digital camera's capabilities will move into completely new territory. One feature already boasted by the Casio QV-7000SX, for example, is potentially revolutionary once it has been scaled up to larger resolutions. By automatically storing data in movie mode while you half depress the shutter, the camera allows you to save the series of images before you fully click the shutter. By reviewing these images and choosing the best you will effectively be able to recapture the picture "that got away."

With no more shut eyes or lost smiles the third-generation of digital camera will finally enable you to take exactly the pictures you want whether high quality, moving or even in the past! It's an enticing prospect and has certainly won me around to the potential of digital cameras. Back in the present and with feet firmly back on the ground, it's clear that despite their recent huge advances there are still areas in which current digital cameras have serious drawbacks. Battery life is poor and always seems to fail when you most need it, printed output is restricted by image resolution, JPG compression is intrinsically lossy, you have to lug a notebook on holiday and so on. All in all I'm not yet ready to throw away my film-based camera - but I can't see myself buying a new one.

Tom Arah

January 1999

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