WHEN I WAS eight, my parents gave me a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, the simplest camera you could buy in 1955. All I had to do was look down through the prism viewfinder, find what I wanted to shoot, push the button and wind the film for the next shot.
I was a great button-pusher, but that film-winding thing always gave me trouble. As a result, I could expect some amusing double, triple and even quadruple exposures on every roll. Mom and Dad thought they were a waste of film. I thought they were great art.
With today's digital cameras, you don't have to worry about wasting film, because you can delete the shots that don't turn out before they see the light of day. Double exposures, of course, are a relic of the past. This would make digital photography ideal for beginners if cameras were simple enough to operate and connect to computers. All too often, however, they fail on both counts.
Kodak, which brought photography to the masses a century ago with cheap cameras that were easy to use and made decent photos, has figured out that the best way to reach its traditional market in the 21st century is with inexpensive digital cameras that are easy to operate and make decent photos.
The result is Kodak's new DX3500, the high-tech equivalent of that old Brownie Hawkeye. It's a snap to use and takes surprisingly sharp digital photos. Kodak's bundled software makes it just as easy to transfer pictures to your computer, e-mail them to friends and print them, either at home on your ink jet or by sending them to Kodak's Web site for photofinisher-quality prints.
At $300, the DX3500 isn't the cheapest digital camera on the market, but unlike less-expensive models, it makes 2.2 megapixel digital photos that will stand up to printing at 5 x 7 inches (or larger, depending on your aesthetics). While other manufacturers with hyperactive design teams are turning out bizarre-looking products that only vaguely resemble the cameras we know and love, Kodak has made the DX3500 look and feel like what it is - a traditional, point-and-shoot picture-taker.
With 8 megabytes of on-board memory, the camera has enough storage capacity for 12 shots at its high-quality setting (1,800 by 1,200 pixels) and 49 photos recorded at 900 x 600 pixels. The lower-resolution shots are fine for Web use but won't do for anything larger than wallet-size prints.
Kodak provides room for expansion with a slot for an industry-standard compact flash (CF) card. I plugged in a 32-megabyte card (available for about $50) that increased total capacity to 68 high-quality images. This is plenty for most occasions, since you can kill off bad shots immediately to free up memory. Unfortunately, the camera won't switch automatically from CF to internal storage. When you fill up the flash card, you have to manually change the camera's storage setting to access the extra memory. It only takes a few seconds, but it's a feature that could have been built in.
This is one of the simplest digital cameras I've tried. There's a shutter button on top, along with a three-position knob that selects the mode of operation - picture- taking, display and setup. A 1.8-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) on the back flashes the picture you've just taken for a few seconds when you're in recording mode. In display mode, it lets you browse through your photos or set up a slide show using a four-button control panel.
Kodak has always known how to explain things to the average bonehead (I count myself among that group), and the DX3500's setup screens are clear and easy to navigate. If you have trouble, the printed instruction manual meets Kodak's impeccable standards for clarity and organization.
The DX3500 connects to your PC's Universal Serial Bus Port, which detects the camera automatically and launches Kodak's file-transfer software. With a single mouse click, you can transfer all the photos to your hard drive at once or pick the shots you want. Once the photos are on your drive, Kodak's picture software allows you to browse through them and do some limited editing (cropping, brightness, contrast). If you get serious about digital photography, you'll want to buy a more sophisticated, third-party photo-editing program.
On the other hand, Kodak's software makes it easy to select a picture and send it without launching your e-mail program - a boon to beginners who often have trouble locating the photos they want to send and turning them into attachments.
The company also is pushing its "Easy Share" docking station, a $79 add-on cradle that allows you to plunk down the camera and transfer its entire contents to your PC by pushing one button. The docking station does double-duty as battery recharger (the battery comes with the station).