You can eliminate scanner hassles with the gadget of the year

Personal computers

December 30, 1991|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

If you've ever tried to put a photograph into a newsletter or flier using a desktop publishing program, you know the meaning of the word hassle.

Until recently, your only option was to use a scanner, a device that digitizes images from paper and converts them into computer graphic files that you can import into your publishing software.

Full-page scanners that can handle the complex gray scales of ** photographs are expensive -- $1,500 to $2,000. Small, hand-held scanners are much cheaper, but unless you have the steady hands of a brain surgeon, you're as likely to wind up with a mess as a decent picture of the boss.

Enter the gadget of the year -- the Logitech Fotoman, an electronic camera that eliminates the middleman. It takes 32 black-and-white pictures, stores the images internally and feeds them directly to your computer.

While high-end digital cameras have been used by news organizations for several years, they're outrageously expensive and require tens of thousands of dollars' worth of support equipment.

Fotoman, which lists for $799, requires nothing more than an IBM-compatible computer with an 80386 processor and Microsoft Windows. It connects directly to the computer's serial port, with no add-on circuit boards or other equipment.

Once you've transferred a photo to your PC, Logitech's image manipulation software puts a photographer's darkroom tools at your fingertips -- and then some. You can crop the image, lighten it, darken it, change the brightness, contrast and sharpness, dodge and burn specific areas, and edit the photo, dot by dot.

Like all ground-breakers, Fotoman is a mixture of good news and bad news. The good news is that the camera is simple to use and getting photos into your PC is a no-brainer.

The bad news is that you'll spenda lot of time tinkering with the images to get decent results when you import them into your word processor, graphics software or desktop publishing program.

Fotoman itself is the digital equivalent of a fancy Kodak Instamatic, with a built-in automatic flash. Its fixed, f4.5 lens will focus from three feet to infinity, although flash pictures won't be good beyond 10 feet.

The camera's 6 1/2 -by-3 1/4 -by-1-inch dimensions make it compact enough to fit in a jacket pocket. The only moving part is the button on the front. Just aim and shoot.

Fotoman's electronic imaging circuits provide the equivalent of ASA 200 film. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to override the camera's automatic exposure. There's no provision for backlit images, and the only adjustment is a neutral density filter that screws onto the lens for sunny outdoor pictures or close-up flash photos.

While the retouching software can salvage many problem photos, experienced photographers will tell you there's no substitute for good exposure.

Fotoman attaches to your computer through a small docking station with a cable that plugs into the serial port. The docking station also charges the camera's internal nickel-cadmium battery.

Fotoman arrives with two programs that run under Microsoft Windows. The first transfers images from the camera to the computer. It's a snap to use. It establishes communication with the camera, then displays contact sheets -- small thumbnail images -- of the all pictures stored inside.

You can choose the pictures you want and jot down a quick caption or a note about the photographer for each. You can also decide which of five common graphic file formats to use (Microsoft bitmap, PCX or three flavors of TIF). Then click the mouse on the "Save" button and the software does the rest.

When you've captured the images you want, the software will clear out the camera's memory and you can start over.

Depending on the transfer speed, it takes 30 to 75 seconds to download each photo. Once the pictures are stored on your disk (each occupies about 100K of space) you can call them up for editing with Logitech's FotoTouch software.

Each 5-by-3 1/2 -inch photo is the equivalent of an image scanned at 75 dots per inch, with up to 256 levels of gray. That's certainly adequate for laser printer reproduction.

The FotoTouch software, formerly known as Ansel, may lack some features of high-end digital darkroom programs, yet it has enough bells and whistles for all but the most demanding professional.

The manual warned that it would take some experimenting to produce good images. That turned out to be the understatement of the year. I spent hours playing with contrast, brightness, equalization, sharpness and other adjustments, trying to translate what looked good on the screen into what would look good in print.

That meant dealing with a bewildering variety of image enhancements and decisions about file formats, resolution and gray scale settings. This is the most frustrating part of using Fotoman -- or any other imaging software.

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