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    Tech Test Drive

    Posted at 9:38 a.m. PDT Saturday, June 3, 2000

    Digital cameras' quality getting closer to film's

    BY MIKE LANGBERG
    Mercury News Personal Technology Editor

    DIGITAL still cameras have broken through the Bryan Barrier, my personal test of whether they can match the image quality of traditional 35mm film cameras.

    I've been testing digital cameras for several years, and one of my methods is to print a camera's best possible image on an inkjet printer, using glossy photographic paper. I then show the print to Bryan Monroe, head of graphics at the Mercury News and a world-class expert in the photographic arts.

    Bryan has always been able to quickly distinguish my digital camera prints from film photographs, even when the differences were too subtle for my untrained eyes.

    But the new generation of three-megapixel digital cameras, priced at $800 to $1,000, may win Bryan's respect.

    I've just shown him a print taken with a Fuji FinePix 4700, introduced in May at $799, and Bryan got a surprised look on his face.

    ``It is as close (to 35mm) as I've ever seen it,'' he declared. Nothing in my 8-by-10 print -- not the color fidelity, not the sharpness, not the transition from light to shadow -- gave him an immediate clue that he was looking at a filmless image.

    Not that Bryan is completely won over. Any experienced photographer will tell you there are still many circumstances in which film far outshines even professional digital cameras costing $5,000 or more.

    But for most shots taken by amateurs, a three-megapixel digital camera should deliver results comparable to 35mm. This represents stunning progress, considering the first widely available crop of consumer digital cameras -- introduced just five years ago -- had one-tenth the resolution at most.

    One reason the technology is improving so fast is relentless competition. At least 10 companies will be offering three-megapixel models by the end of summer: Canon, Casio, Fuji, JVC, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, Ricoh, Sony and Toshiba.

    Of course, not everyone wants to spend $800 or more for a camera. There's good news here, too. Only a year ago, the first two-megapixel digital cameras -- delivering pictures I regard as ``near 35mm'' in quality -- were launched at just under $1,000. Now, numerous two-megapixel models are available at $500 to $700.

    Entry-level one-megapixel models, suitable for sharing pictures by e-mail or through Web pages and even for making 4-by-6 prints, are all the way down to the $300 to $500 range.

    More and more people are getting the picture. Digital camera sales reached nearly 2 million units in the United States last year, according to the Photo Marketing Association International, up slightly from 1998 and up sharply from 1997. Some industry optimists are projecting 4 million units will be sold this year.

    The interest in digital photography appears to be a tide raising all boats. Sales of 35mm cameras, film and processing services are booming, perhaps in part because people are digitizing their snapshots -- either through services such as Kodak Photo CD or with inexpensive home scanners -- to share online.

    If you've put off learning anything about digital cameras until now, here's a quick introduction:

    Consumer digital cameras look and function much like point-and-shoot 35mm cameras.

    The difference is that digital cameras capture images on an electronic sensor called a Charge-Coupled Device, or CCD, instead of film. The surface of the CCD is covered by thousands and thousands of tiny electronic eyeballs called ``pixels.'' The more pixels on the CCD, the more detailed the picture. A million pixels is commonly referred to as one megapixel, so a three-megapixel digital camera has 3 million pixels on its CCD.

    The pictures created by these CCDs are stored on postage-stamp-size memory cards. To get pictures out of the camera, you either hook the camera to a computer with a connecting cable or remove the card and stick it in a card-reader device.

    Just about all digital cameras, other than children's toy models costing under $100, have a small LCD display screen on the back. The LCD screen lets you view a picture immediately after you've taken it and erase images that aren't worthy of saving.

    For me, the LCD screen is the best part of a digital camera because it inspires experimentation. You can take a dozen shots of your sourpuss 3-year-old until you finally capture a happy moment, then delete the unwanted images -- all without spending a dime.

    When you do capture that perfect moment, a three-megapixel camera will provide an image fully suitable for framing. You can create the photograph yourself with a color inkjet printer or send it to one of the many newly founded Web sites offering low-cost photo printing. (See story, Page 1D.) Within a year or two, many one-hour photo labs will also be equipped to take the memory card from your camera, quickly download your selected image and deliver a professional print in minutes.

    The Fuji 4700 (800-800-3854; www.fujifilm.com) I tested actually straddles the three-megapixel line. The camera has an innovative new 2.4-megapixel CCD design that generates more data from each pixel, with Fuji claiming performance comparable to conventional 3.3-megapixel CCDs. And the camera's processor employs further software tricks to create image files that measure 2,400 by 1,800 pixels, for a total of 4.3 million pixels.

    I can't verify Fuji's claims, but I can testify to what I saw: razor-sharp pictures that could be significantly enlarged before turning fuzzy.

    The 4700 is also a marvel of engineering. Fuji has packed a 3X optical zoom lens, a pop-up flash, a 2-inch LCD screen and all the other components into a stylish aluminum case not much bigger than the average mobile phone and weighing a mere 11 ounces. There's even a built-in microphone and speaker, for recording and playing short video clips as long as 80 seconds; most three-megapixel cameras and some three-megapixel models possess this extra talent.

    Not that the 4700 is perfect. Bigger CCDs create bigger files, which rapidly fill up memory cards -- Fuji ships the 4700 with a 16-megabyte Smart Media card that holds only 9 pictures at the highest resolution, because those pictures are 1.7-megabyte files. A 32-megabyte card would have been a more customer-friendly choice.

    Also, the buttons for controlling the zoom lens are on the back of the camera. So you have to take the viewfinder away from your eye to shift from a wide angle view to a close-up.

    More important, I found a mild blurriness in my pictures that seems most likely due to a slightly imperfect lens than any problem with the camera's electronics. Colors, too, weren't as vibrant as I'd prefer -- probably because of the camera's compression software, rather than a lack of resolution.

    These complaints, however, are modest compared with the level of detail in the four-megapixel files. Unless your friends are digital imaging professionals such as my colleague Bryan, they'll never know you're showing them digital images.


    Contact Mike Langberg at mike@langberg.com or call (408) 920-5084

       

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