Digital photography can be a snap with new products

April 08, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

DIGITAL CAMERAS are no harder to use than traditional film models, but turning a digital image into a print can be a chore - particularly for people who have never gotten the hang of that file-and-folder thing on their hard drives.

Making prints from film is certainly easy - just drop a roll at the drugstore or photo finisher and pick the shots up when they're ready. It can take as little as an hour, which is less time, frankly, than it takes to organize and print the same number of digital photos at home.

There's no question that digital printing is more complex. Until recently, it was a four-step process - hook the camera to the computer, start the software that transfers the photos to your hard drive, work on them with a photo-editing program and make prints.

I've always thought this was one of the great benefits of digital photography, and well worth the effort. Perfect images are few and far between, but even the simplest photo-editing software allows you to adjust cropping, brightness, contrast and color balance. You can also get rid of "red eye" in flash photos and, with a bit more effort, make unsightly blemishes and wrinkles disappear. The result is likely to be a good print the first time around.

Still, that's a lot more work than many casual photographers want to do. So the makers of cameras and printers have developed alternatives that can take the PC out of the equation and turn printing into a matter of pushing a few buttons.

They have an ulterior motive: Printer manufacturers (who often make cameras, too) get a huge chunk of their profits from ink cartridges and paper. They're happy to market an excellent printer for $150 or less, even at a loss, because they'll make it back in spades selling ink cartridges at $50 to $80 a set. If you use only two cartridge sets a year, you'll spend at least $300 on ink alone over a three-year period.

King Camp Gillette developed this business model a century ago when he produced his first safety razor. Gillette virtually gave the razor away so he could sell his customers disposable blades and shaving cream the rest of their lives.

Today, the Gillettes of digital photography are expanding their market for ink or paper by designing printers for the computer-challenged. They're built to accept the flash memory cards that cameras use to store their images and make prints directly, without a PC hookup.

The Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart 245 that I've been testing is a good example. The compact, $200 photo printer, which turns out snappy, borderless 4-by-6-inch prints, has slots for the most popular types of memory cards: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SD and Sony Memory Stick. When you take the card out of a camera and put it in the slot, the images appear on a small LCD screen atop the printer.

With a simple set of controls, you can scroll back and forth through the photos and make a print by pressing a single button. If you're not satisfied with the original image, you can zoom in, make limited crops and adjust the exposure.

It's hard to find a printer that's easier to use, but the PhotoSmart has definite limitations. One is that there's no way to adjust contrast, which often needs tweaking when you lighten or darken an image. Nor is there any way to adjust color balance or eliminate red-eye. For that, you'll have to transfer the image to your PC, edit the photo and print it from your computer.

If your PC is running Windows XP, it's easy - the printer will appear as a disk drive when a memory card is inserted, so you can transfer photos by dragging and dropping them into a folder on your hard drive.

You can also be the life of the party by dropping the 245 in your gadget bag and making prints on the spot - you'll be a lot poorer, but your friends and relatives will go home happy.

Even cheaper and easier are systems that enable photographers to hook their cameras directly to a printer's USB port, review pictures on the camera's LCD screen and print from the camera's utility menu.

The problem with most of these systems is they're proprietary, requiring a camera and printer from the same manufacturer. But if you have a reasonably new printer and plan to buy a digital camera this summer - or vice versa - it might be worth buying the new piece of equipment from the maker of the old one. Likewise, if you're buying a camera and printer simultaneously, make sure that both are compatible.

In the future, those concerns might not be as important as they are today. Over the past 14 months, HP, Canon, Fuji, Olympus, Konica/Minolta, Epson, Nikon and Sony - which account for most of the of the world's digital cameras and printers - have announced support for a new internal software standard called PictBridge. It enables photographers to hook up any camera with PictBridge technology directly to a compatible printer, regardless of the brand.

Manufacturers have concentrated PictBridge marketing in Asia. Canon has been the most aggressive in bringing PictBridge products to market here, and you're likely to see more equipment with the PictBridge label from the other manufacturers as time goes by.

Some existing cameras can be upgraded with PictBridge technology by downloading software from their makers' Web sites.

Unfortunately, the PictBridge standard does not support advanced photo-editing features. And that's the Achilles heel of all direct printing systems. Most of the pictures we take can use some touching up.

Still, direct printing might get more people involved in digital photography, and they'll want to make their pictures look better - enough to dig into the not-so-deep mysteries of using their computers as digital darkrooms.

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