Agfa's digital camera gives you direct-to-NT images

In everybody's house, you can find a shoe box, carton, or drawer filled with clippings of memories we call photographs. Aunt Edna with her Salmon-colored 1958 Edsel, Uncle Walt standing in front of his Oklahoma grocery store, the twins getting into trouble--they're all there and probably somewhat less than organized. Today the shoe box is giving way to digital media, such as Agfa's ePhoto 307 digital color camera.

But people are using cameras for a lot more than family photos. For example, a prospective client or partner's first impression of many companies will be through their virtual presence on the Internet. The struggle to keep this presence interesting and attention-getting--one that people will want to revisit--is helping to usher in the new era of digital photography. Similarly, digital presentations are fast becoming the way to convey your idea, whether in the conference room or convention hall. Adding photographs to the charts and graphs in a presentation helps companies differentiate their products and corporate identity from those of competitors.

One of those modern digital memory makers landed in the Windows NT Magazine Lab recently. We put it through the paces to see just how the technology fits in today's workplace. Agfa's ePhoto 307 is similar to many digital cameras in its class. It stores up to 72 standard- or 36 high-resolution, 24-bit color images (any combination of the two resolutions is possible), easily transfers information to any desktop workstation, and includes a flash with red-eye reduction. This camera has an optional AC adapter and a 43mm glass lens.

Other niceties include a self-timer, the ability to immediately erase the last image in a series, the ability to switch between standard- and high-resolution images with the press of a button, a place to attach a tripod, and an automatic flash that knows when you need it and, more important, when you don't. Desirable options available on similar digital cameras (but not on the ePhoto 307) include removable memory, an LCD display, zoom, SCSI-2 interface, wireless connectivity, and even the ability to include handwritten notes with images.

To get images from the camera and into your Windows NT computer, you need to install Agfa's PhotoWise software. Fortunately, this effort is painless. An especially nice feature is that the software recognizes the camera once you connect it to a serial port, and you don't need to identify or configure the port. After rebooting the computer, you can run PhotoWise by clicking on a camera icon in the system tray or by opening the program through the Start button. Either way, with one end of an adapter cable fitted to the camera and the other end connected to a serial port on your machine, one click lets you display a series of thumbnail images that appear in filmstrip fashion. You can download any or all of these images to the desktop.

The camera uses 2MB of internal flash memory for storage and transfers the images at 115.2Kbps. A camera filled to capacity takes roughly 4 minutes to transfer its image information; the camera requires no minimum number of images before you can download them.

From the minute the 32-bit PhotoWise software opens, you know it isn't a skimpy program designed to do little more than get the information out of the camera and into your machine. Complete with a Tip of the Day window, which I found to be a great introduction to the software's features, the PhotoWise software quickly worked its way to my good side. Some bells and whistles include the ability to output images in .jpg, .tif, .bmp, .tga and .pcx formats; four different flavors of .jpg compression; zoom; resizing; rotation; conversion to grayscale; color; hue/saturation; sharpness and contrast/brightness controls; the ability to select groups of images using the shift and control keys with the mouse; the option to send images via email; the ability to make an album into your screen saver or an image as the background (wallpaper) of your desktop; pop-up descriptions of toolbar button functions; and a TWAIN-compliant driver. The software even installs as a plug-in for Adobe's Photoshop. As if this functionality weren't enough, Adobe's PhotoDeluxe software is included.

If you're not used to digital photography, viewing images in PhotoWise can be a pleasant surprise. The nature of digital images is that they're infinitely reproducible and endlessly malleable. But there's more: The software tracks the camera settings for each image you take. By right-clicking on an image displayed in PhotoWise, you can track its properties, including resolution, shutter speed (ranging from 1/8 second to 1/4000 second), flash setting, file size (standard resolution images are roughly 22K, and high-resolution images are roughly 45K), and the date and time you snapped the photo. I've taken hundreds of photographs for publication, and I recall the often awkward task of tracking camera settings on paper while juggling a bulky and rather heavy 35mm monster. The much lighter and more compact ePhoto 307 even takes pictures in low light without a flash relatively well. Perhaps more important, I discovered that using the flash manually when the camera's automatic setting determined a flash wasn't necessary produced images with a decidedly green hue.

Something you need to be aware of when using the ePhoto 307 is a little quirk it develops when the power from the four AA batteries gets painfully low. After I took about 400 pictures (using the flash on at least 200), the battery meter indicated the batteries needed replacing. I ignored the warning and shot an additional 20 or so pictures; everything seemed to work fine until I tried to download the images from the camera. The PhotoWise program didn't see the images in the camera, and it detected and downloaded them only after I replaced the batteries. Fortunately, I didn't lose any images.

The real advantage to digital cameras such as the ePhoto 307 isn't so much the money you save by not purchasing film or paying for developing, but the time you save not developing film and then scanning the images into a digital format. You can display images you have taken with the ePhoto 307 five minutes after taking them, faster if you are working with a few images. By comparison, the scanning time alone for an entire role of film can easily take hours, to say nothing of time spent processing.

For Web developers and those who find themselves building PowerPoint presentations with any degree of frequency, I can't think of a more valuable tool than a digital camera, especially as the price of these devices continues to drop. Agfa introduced the ePhoto 307 in September 1996 at a list price of $549. At press time, that price had been slashed nearly in half, to $299, batteries included.

An impetus to the recent discount price could very well be the emergence of the next wave of digital cameras that have LCD viewing screens for less than $400. And who wouldn't want a view screen? If you know immediately what the image you just captured looks like, you can save time and memory: You don't need to take several pictures of the same view just to be sure you get a usable shot framed the way you want it, with everybody's eyes open and smiles on their faces. Fortunately, the ePhoto 307's 36 high-resolution or 72 standard-resolution images offers more than enough opportunity for even novice silicon shutterbugs to get the pictures they want.

Although the ePhoto 307 lacks an LCD viewing screen, many models that have a screen and are in a comparable price range don't support 640*480 resolution or don't have a flash. I'd rather not make the tradeoff. I want my flash, my 640*480 resolution, and my pictures--and I want them now. And let's not forget that wonderful PhotoWise software that any art department could install and run.

After I took all my pictures and manipulated and messed with them, one thing became apparent: I want one. All of us here at Windows NT Magazine want one. The camera went everywhere I went, and everywhere I went, someone wanted to borrow it. For business in the 90s, digital cameras have moved beyond the realm of curiosity and into the realm of necessity; we're simply beyond the point where we're waiting for the technology to develop.

ePhoto 307 Digital Color Camera
Contact: Agfa-Gevaert Group * 508-658-5600
Web: http://www.agfahome.com
Price: $299
System Requirements: Windows NT or Windows 95, 486 or Pentium with 16MB of RAM, 50MB hard disk space