It?s easy to dismiss them as a consumer fad, but digital cameras are rapidly becoming vital pieces of business equipment. These versatile devices are finding all manner of uses, from taking pictures for on-screen presentations to assisting with site surveys and insurance loss assessment. In fact, they are ideal for any application which calls for photos to be produced quickly and easily.
The overriding advantage of digital photography is its convenience. There is no film to buy, no delay while it is being processed, and no wasted shots. Although the cameras themselves are more expensive than film-based equivalents, running costs are much lower. In fact, if you ignore the small amount of battery power needed, the cost per photo is nil.
The best use for these cameras is in applications where the end product needs to be in digital form: a product shot to add to a database, for example, or an illustration to enhance a Web site. Digital photography not only saves the cost and effort of film processing, it eliminates the need to scan the finished prints.
But the technology is also an attractive option in situations where the printed image is itself the end product ? that is, where the digital representation is not retained once the picture has been printed.
The main drawback with digital photography is quality. Despite recent improvements, the charged-couple device (CCD) in a digital camera still cannot compete with the resolution of silver halide film. This is especially noticeable when you enlarge the image to more than about twice its original size, at which point, you can spot jagged lines and blotchy solids.
But for most ordinary business uses, the results are perfectly acceptable. You can usually view an image at about half-screen size on a 14in monitor, or print it in colour at its original size, without any obvious loss of quality. Of course, the quality depends a great deal on the camera. There are lots of models available, from simple point-and-shoot compacts to professional SLRs with interchangeable lenses and external strobes.
Around a dozen manufacturers are active in the market, including Agfa, Epson, Kodak, Sony and Canon. Prices start at around #300 for a no-frills camera like the Agfa ePhoto 307A. For between #700 and #800 you get a more sophisticated compact, such as the Canon Powershot 600, which has a macro lens, a voice recorder and an optional hard disk. Further up the sophistication scale, SLR models like the Agfa Actioncam or the Kodak DCS410 will set you back around #4,000.
Digital cameras are not about to put conventional film out of business. But if you want a quick and economical way of taking a large number of pictures, the technology is hard to beat.
Subject: Bairstow Eves
Activities: estate agents
Installation: Epson PhotoPC
For estate agents Bairstow Eves, the economics of digital photography were irresistible. Even before the company had completed its three-month trial of an Epson PhotoPC, it had started saving money. By the time all 46 branches have their own cameras, the savings will be considerable.
?Eventually, every branch will use a digital camera to photograph its properties,? says IT consultant David French. ?They will transfer the photos to their PCs, from where they will be transmitted to head office overnight. Next day, we will import the pictures into Corel Draw and Word, which we use to create the final property particulars.?
In the present trial, the property particulars, including the digital images, are printed on a Ricoh colour copier/printer. This produces acceptable quality, provided the images are not enlarged above 5x3in size. In the longer term, French is considering printing the photos on self-adhesive labels, which will be stuck to the appropriate details by hand.
The economics are simple: nine photos on a sheet of labels cost 18 pence to print, whereas each conventional photo costs 32 pence. That means a saving of around 95 per cent. This will allow the company to move completely to colour. At present, vendors are charged extra for colour photos, but in future colour will be free.
With 46 branches to equip, the camera?s purchase price is a significant factor. French originally considered buying the #500 Kodak DC40, but he found the Epson produced the same quality for about #100 less. ?In fact, the quality is the same as some cameras costing #2,000 or more,? he says.
The PhotoPC holds 30 images in its 2Mb flash memory at the default 640x480 resolution. You can double the capacity by halving the resolution, but that means a drop in quality. Alternatively, you can add memory chips, to a maximum of 6Mb, but French has not found this to be necessary.
Ease of use was another reason for opting for the PhotoPC. ?It really is just a matter of point and shoot,? he says. ?You certainly don?t need any photographic knowledge, other than the ability to frame a picture. The computer side is easy too.?
Not surprisingly, French is very enthusiastic about the technology. ?I?d have no hesitation in recommending these cameras to anyone who takes a lot of pictures,? he says. ?They are convenient and easy to operate. If you can use a PC, you?ll have no trouble learning to use a digital camera.?
Bracknell-based BSRIA was an early adopter of digital photography. When the Subject: Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) Activities: condition-based maintenance for building services
Installation: Canon Ion 260
Association bought its Canon Ion 260 in
1995, the camera was one of the few available for under #500, and the only one to offer a resolution as high as 560x400. By today?s standards it looks old, but it has earned its keep many times over.
BSRIA provides technical services, research and consultancy to its members in the building services industry. One of its activities is condition-based maintenance (CBM) for building services. This involves the use of thermal imaging to spot poor electrical connections and overloads before they cause any harm. Along with each thermal image, a conventional image is needed to visually identify the faulty equipment. And that?s where the digital camera comes in.
?A typical survey involves around 40 images of electrical equipment. On large electrical panels, several images are needed to cover the whole area,? according to principal research engineer Colin Pearson. ?The photographs have to be generated quickly because hot connections quickly turn into failed connections. We also need to produce good-quality reports that will have an impact on hard-pressed managers.?
Pearson says the digital camera has proved the ideal solution. As well as the rapid turnaround of pictures, he is impressed with the ease with which the images can be incorporated into reports.
However, the quality is not as good as he would like. To read text on labels, the camera has to be less than a metre from the subject, which limits the area that can be included.
?If we were buying a new camera now, we would go for a higher resolution ? at least 800x600,? he says. ?We will probably buy a new model next year. The way things are developing, we should get even better quality for the same price in a year?s time.?
Although cost was not an overriding factor in opting for this technology, it is clear that the Association has quickly recouped the camera?s purchase price. The saving on conventional film processing is around #500 per year, with a similar saving on staff time. And since the camera was bought, other uses have been found for it, including making records of laboratory research and installation procedures for new equipment.
One drawback of the Ion 260 is that it needs a special interface card installed in the PC. This means that the camera can be used only with a particular computer, which BSRIA has found to be a nuisance. Most other cameras use serial or parallel cables rather than interface cards to link with the PC.
?I would definitely recommend digital photography to other people doing thermal imaging work,? says Pearson. ?In fact, any kind of site survey work would benefit from the technology. But I would offer the following advice to anyone choosing a camera: go for the best resolution you can afford, and make sure the camera can be used without a special card.?
Subject: Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee
Activities: conserving and recording the Georgian New Town
Installation: Epson PhotoPC
When James Craig drew up his plans for Edinburgh?s New Town in 1776, he was faced with over 800 acres of semi-wild countryside. Today, the area contains the finest example of Georgian town planning in the country, boasting outstanding buildings, squares and streets. From its headquarters in Dundas Street, the New Town Conservation Committee oversees the repair, rehabilitation and conservation of this important architectural legacy.
The committee recently started a major photographic survey of the New Town?s street lighting. Photographing lamp-posts might sound pretty mundane but, like all street furniture, the items can have a significant impact on the surrounding streets and buildings.
The project will involve taking well over 1,000 photographs, but it?s a job which the Committee?s digital camera is handling with ease. ?The virtue of this camera is that you can go out and take one or two pictures, then come back to the office and use them immediately,? says Richard Griffiths, director of the committee. ?And if you take a picture you don?t like, you dump it. It costs nothing to make mistakes,? he adds.
One of the reasons Griffiths chose an Epson PhotoPC for this work was that its LCD screen is optional rather than standard. Other cameras in the same price range use a built-in 1.8in LCD to preview the next picture and to review the shots already in the camera. But the screen adds to the weight of the camera, drains the batteries, and is rather clumsy to use.
?I felt that, by eliminating the screen, Epson had been able to put more money into the camera itself,? says Griffiths. ?That said, the lens system is fairly primitive, although you can partly compensate for that through software. You can pick out a detail and enlarge it, for example.?
The Epson PhotoPC has a 6mm lens, which is equivalent to 43mm in a conventional camera. The user has no control over aperture or shutter speed, the latter being determined automatically by the firmware.
Griffiths considers the electronic image to be an end in itself ? it?s simply a convenient way of obtaining a print. At present, all the photos print in black and white on a 600dpi HP Laserjet. The committee might move to colour in the future, but the high cost of consumables is a deterrent.
?I feel that this technology is still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I am very happy with the camera. I am not surprised they are proving so popular,? says Griffiths.
Digital Camera lessons:
1 When comparing cameras, consider only the highest resolution. The lower resolutions do not generally produce acceptable quality.
2 Be cautious about choosing a camera with a built-in LCD. These screens are useful, but they add to the weight and are sometimes awkward to use.
3 Don?t give a complex SLR to users with no photographic skills. Inexperienced users will get better results with point-and-shoot models.
4 Always carry spare batteries with you.
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