The Digital Darkroom

Sometimes, the best way to help people get the picture is to take one. Now that digital photography is finally ready for the world of work, we've assembled pixel-perfect tools for outfitting your digital darkroom.

Not so long ago — in fact, just a couple of years back — digital cameras were clunky, expensive, and worked more like computer hardware than actual cameras. Sure, you could snap a digital picture with one of those first-generation cameras, slap the photo onto your PC, and email it to a friend. But prints tended to look like those grainy, MTV-style shots, with washed-out colors and ragged edges — definitely not ready for prime time.

But digital photography has come a long way. Today, for less than $1,000, you can buy a slick digital camera with first-class resolution, capable of producing bright, crisp images. This new generation of digital dazzlers offers all the features of top-of-the-line 35mm cameras, such as zoom lenses and manual controls. Plus, a digital camera can do some things that are beyond the scope of any film-based camera, such as delivering the instant gratification of viewing your photographs on a color LCD — and now you can email those (nearly) pixel-perfect prints to a coworker.

The big advantage for the fast-forward world of work is that digital photography is nearly instantaneous. There's no waiting for film to develop and no need to order extra prints. Just preview the photo through the camera's built-in color screen, take the shot, and download the image onto your computer.

Once you've got a digital sharpshooter, you can quickly drop photos into a PowerPoint presentation, beef up a Web site, or update a company brochure. And with the right digital add-ons, you can fix flaws like demonic red-eye, crop your images, and pop the photos into a Web page within minutes. Try doing that with your old 35mm Canon SLR.

Are digital images as sharp and clear as those produced by top-notch 35mm film cameras? Not quite. But everyone except for Ansel Adams wanna-bes should be happy with the results. That's why we've assembled an up-to-the-minute digital darkroom, from cameras and scanners and photo-editing software to camera-ready computers and printers — to give you a clear picture of today's options.

Step 1: See and Shoot

Today's digital cameras are "megapixel," meaning that they come packed with more than 1 million pixels versus the 500,000 pixels of previous models. Using memory cards instead of film, scores of so-called filmless models are priced anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand. At minimum, expect to pay about $400 for an economy-class camera with 1,024-by-768-pixel images and both optical and color LCD viewfinders.

Digital cameras in the $400 price range will add some dazzle to a PowerPoint presentation or email-bound marketing collateral. Typical models at this price are fully automatic, point-and-click cameras. Just don't expect to find features like a through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinder or manual shutter adjustment.

If you're looking for a camera that will help you juice up your sales or marketing pitch, check out the Toshiba PDR-M3. An exceptional value, the pdr-m3 comes with a 3x optical (versus fuzzy digital) zoom lens and delivers sharp, 1,280-by-1,024-pixel shots. This model is an upgrade from the popular m1, and it now uses rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. One drawback: You'll have to wait nearly five seconds between shots for the camera to store each image.

Coordinates: $399. Toshiba America Inc., www.toshiba.com

A digital camera in the $700-to-$1,000 range comes equipped to help you build a Web site or to show off a prototype you're designing. These cameras deliver sharper images (with resolutions of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels or greater); they also include such features as improved contrast and white balance (to keep colors accurate under different lighting conditions), 3x optical zoom, and greater manual control over exposure and focus settings.

A good pick for all-purpose business use is the Olympus d-620l. The d-620l is one of the more flexible and accurate filmless cameras in its price range. Its top resolution of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels (or 1.4 megapixels) is below that of many of the similarly priced 2-megapixel cameras. But image quality depends on more than just pixels, and this model's high-quality, 3x zoom lens and TTL optical viewfinder actually deliver sharper photos. And the Olympus is a quick shooter: It can fire off as many as five frames at one-third-of-a-second intervals. If you want higher-resolution images and don't need a TTL viewfinder, consider Olympus's 1,600- by-1,200-pixel c-2000 Zoom model.

Coordinates: $999. Olympus America Inc., www.olympus.com/digital

If you want to tinker with aperture and shutter speed, and you need uncompromising photo quality, only a digital camera that costs $1,200 or more will do. Most models in this price range are compatible with 35mm camera lenses, filters, and external flash equipment. They can produce 1,600-by-1,200-pixel images — sharp enough to print in this magazine.

The Kodak DCS 620 will enable you to compete with the pros. The DCS 620 is essentially a Nikon F5 35mm hard body with digital muscles. It works like the F5, letting you make multiple metering settings and take rapid-fire shots at a rate of 3.5 images per second. With an added hard drive, you can take hundreds of shots without reloading, and you can use nearly all the Nikon F-series accessories. This 2-megapixel camera's images are the best that digital technology has to offer, thanks in part to Nikon's optics. But this megapixel wonder is also megapriced.

Coordinates: $16,000. Kodak, www.kodak.com/go/professional

Need video too? Digital video camcorders are master multitaskers, because they can double as digital still cameras. And with video becoming more of a necessity for Web-site demos and Hollywood-quality presentations, why carry two gadgets when one will do?

The Canon Elura digital video camcorder records movies in the mini-DV format, which is sharp and clean enough for presentations and corporate-training videos. The camcorder also features all the latest bells and whistles, such as optical image stabilization, 12x optical zoom, and digital effects like fades and wipes. The best part: A progressive scan-image sensor produces full-resolution pictures at 30 frames per second, so you can grab a sharp still picture off the Canon's videotape.

Coordinates: $1,799. Canon U.S.A. Inc., www.usa.canon.com

Step 2: Digitize Old Images

Taking a shot of your company's latest widget and emailing it to the rest of the team is simple enough. But what if you need to email a 35mm print? For that, you need a scanner: Scanning creates a digitized image that you can send over the Internet. Flatbed scanners are a commodity these days, and you can get a low-end color model with a resolution of 300 by 300 dpi (dots per inch) for as little as $40.

But if you need to capture as much detail and color as possible, look for scanners capable of 600 by 600 dpi or greater. And if you've been working with an archive of slides, get a slide scanner.

The Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 6300C is a solid, professional scanner. The flatbed model handles 8.5-by-11-inch sheets, producing crisp images of up to 1,200 by 1,200 dpi. It comes with all the software for editing you could need, and it's set up for the plug-and-play USB port that's built into many computers.

Coordinates: $399. Hewlett-Packard, www.scanjet.com

If you're in the market for a slide scanner, consider the Polaroid SprintScan 4000. The 4000 will give you the cleanest, clearest images possible. Modestly priced compared with other slide scanners, the 4000 captures slides at a resolution of 4,000 by 4,000 dpi. A pop-out drawer handles 35mm filmstrips and slides, and the results are stunning. One (slight) drawback: Setting up the SprintScan involves opening your PC and installing an internal SCSI card.

Coordinates: $2,495. Polaroid, www.polaroid.com

Step 3: Process Your Shots

Think of your PC as the darkroom in which your digital photos are developed. Instead of chemicals and an enlarger, your digital darkroom needs plenty of storage capacity (a single high-resolution image can take several megabytes), a fast CPU, and lots of ram for quicker image editing. You can upgrade your own system to 128 MB of ram and install another 10-gb hard drive, or you can get a new computer that will double as a first-class darkroom.

The Sony VAIO Digital Studio PC is designed to handle still and video images. The pcv-r538ds model comes with a bundle of image- and video-editing software and a 500 MHz Pentium III processor, a rewritable CD-RW for storing thousands of images on CD-ROM, and a fat 17-gb hard drive to handle your snapshots. Also included in the system is a DVD-ROM drive for playing videodiscs, and two i.Link ports. The latter are also known as DV (digital video) ports on camcorders, or as ieee-1394 ports in the PC world. Basically, the i.Link is a small plug that lets you connect a video source directly to the PC, for hassle-free downloading of pictures and video. Just don't forget to get a good monitor, such as the 17-inch (measured diagonally) Sony cpd-200es-l ($349).

Coordinates: $1,799. Sony Electronics, www.sony.com/pc

Step 4: Touch Up Your Work

The bad news is, no one takes perfect pictures. But there is also good news: One of the big advantages of digital photography is that you can change just about any aspect of a shot, from fixing the contrast and brightness to changing backgrounds and totally eliminating unwanted elements. No more artful dodging and airbrushing — as long as you have the right software.

Microsoft Picture It! 2.0 is best for home users and small-business shutterbugs who don't want to spend a lot of time manipulating their photos. The program features dozens of one-click image-correction features (such as fixing brightness levels) and digital effects (such as 3-d captions).

Coordinates: $55. Microsoft, www.microsoft.com/catalog

Canon Photo Gold can do anything that Picture It! can do, plus it allows you to create panoramic views by stitching together several photos. More impressive still is a feature that allows you to capture a 3-d view of an object — perfect for salespeople and marketers who want to show off their breakthrough products.

Coordinates: $69.95. Canon Software Publishing, www.software.canon.com

To find the premier photo-editing package for publishers and art directors, look no further than Adobe Photoshop 5.5. If there's a way to digitally enhance or change a picture — whether it's eliminating flyaway hair, altering an object, or adjusting a color palette — Photoshop can do it. Web designers take note: The software now makes it easy to optimize images for Web publishing.

Coordinates: $610. Adobe Systems Inc., www.adobe.com

Step 5: It's a Print!

So you've tweaked, cropped, and transmogrified your digital images. Now what can you do with them? For starters, you can print them out on a color printer as part of a memo, a corporate report, or even as a simple snapshot.

The Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 812C is a bargain for small offices or single users. This ink-jet printer can produce bright and tight color prints. The downside: It's a slowpoke, with a rated color-print speed of just 3.1 pages per minute.

Coordinates: $149. Hewlett-Packard, www.hp.com

A good pick for deadline-driven offices that need to print quality color pages in double time is the QMS Magicolor 2 DeskLaser. It kicks out standard memos at a rate of 16 pages per minute and prints 600-by-600-dpi color images with aplomb. And when there's a paper jam, it's easy to just flip the printer open to remove the obstruction.

Coordinates: $1,299. QMS Inc., www.qms.com

The Olympus Digital Home Photo Printer P330 can give you the kind of standard-size snapshots that you get from a commercial developer. They won't be quite as slick, but this pint-size, dye-sublimation printer lets you give clients a quick picture. It can print directly from the SmartMedia cards used in many cameras; connect it to a camcorder, TV, or VCR to make prints right from the screen.

Coordinates: $449. Olympus America Inc., www.olympus.com

Now that you're outfitted with all this digital-imaging equipment, you can picture just about anything. But should you chuck your 35mm Canon? Not yet. The average film camera still produces sharper images than those from the average digital camera. And 35mm cameras don't require extra batteries or expensive memory cards. But the tide has turned. Digital photography is here to stay, and it sure makes the business of photography a lot easier.

John R. Quain (jquain@fastcompany.com), a contributing editor at Fast Company, appears regularly on CBS News and MSNBC.

Action Item: Get the Picture

You might not shoot like a pro, but if you go to the Web, you'll find that an increasing number of professional-quality photographs are available for license.

Corbis (www.corbisimages.com) offers 2.1 million images on its Web site, including a few hundred thousand digitized images from the Bettmann Archive. Prices start at $29 per image for commercial use.

Sygma (www.sygma.com) — now a division of Corbis called Corbis Sygma — is used by professional editors to get the latest international news photos. Its worldwide roster of photographers is unparalleled.

Sidebar: Quain's Top 10

#1 Carry extra batteries. Digital cameras devour batteries.

#2 Choose rechargeables. Make sure the camera you buy can use both rechargeable and disposable batteries.

#3 Kill the LCD. Use the optical viewfinder instead. You'll use less battery power.

#4 Use the optical zoom. The digital-zoom feature only expands the image and makes it look grainier.

#5 Buy extra storage cards. If you shoot high-resolution photos, you'll fill an eight-MB card with a couple of snapshots.

#6 Use CompactFlash cards. If you have a choice, get a camera that uses these sturdier memory cards.

#7 Check memory compatibility. Just because your camera uses CompactFlash or SmartMedia cards doesn't mean it will read all cards in those formats.

#8 Go for glass. Make sure the camera lens uses optical-quality glass. Look for Olympus or Zeiss lenses.

#9 Go for TTL. A through-the-lens optical viewfinder gives you the accuracy you need to properly frame a shot.

#10 Ask about file formats. Get a camera that can store images in jpeg format for online work and in tiff format for high-quality printing.

Sidebar: Digital Pics

At public-relations firm Porter Novelli, senior multimedia designer Brett Teper, 27, has an eye for detail. He designs everything from CD-ROMs to Web sites for clients like SmithKline Beecham. Teper offers this advice if you're posting pages on the Net.

Use a camera with good contrast. Online images have to be lower in resolution, so contrast is even more critical.

Opt for USB. Choose a camera that can connect to the USB port on your computer. It will save you hours in download time.

Favor small images. Post photographs that are smaller, so Web surfers don't have to wait forever to download the images. Typically, compressed pictures that are about 250 by 200 pixels work best.

Use the jpeg format. Photographs generally look better as JPEG files, and photos in that format will compress better than GIF files.

Weigh your page. Most Web-site software will tell you the "weight" of a page, meaning how big it is and how long it will take a visitor to download it. Keep the weight under 60 kb.

Coordinates: Brett Teper, bteper@porternovelli.com

Sidebar: Photo Finish

SanDisk's CompactFlash PC Card Adapter ($20) is perfect for downloading images to a laptop with a PC-card slot. For loading Compact-Flash shots onto your PC, a USB reader like Lexar Media's USB JumpShot Connection kit ($20) is the best solution. To copy your photos with Olympus's FlashPath Floppy Disk Adapter ($99), just slide the SmartMedia card into the adapter, and then put the adapter into your floppy-disk drive.

Coordinates: SanDisk Corp., www.sandisk.com; Olympus America Inc., www.olympus.com; Lexar Media, www.digitalfilm.com

Sidebar: Take Your Best Shot

Professional photographer Frank Micelotta, 41, who's covered mega-events like the Super Bowl and the Grammy awards, has been using digital cameras for the past six years. At the last Video Music Awards, he went totally digital for MTV. Here are his top-five tips for digital shutterbugs.

Watch the color balance. To make sure you can properly balance colors, begin by shooting a color chart or Kodak gray card under different lighting conditions.

Don't overexpose. You can't really fix an overexposed photo, but you can correct an underexposed shot in Photoshop.

Use digital equipment like a film camera. Don't take anything for granted just because it's a digital camera. Use the same tricks and techniques as you would with a film camera.

Use the right storage. Professional Type III PC cards with tiny built-in hard drives break down too often. So pros use flash-memory Type II PC cards. You'll never lose an image, even if you drop the card.

Experiment. Use the camera in manual mode to learn all of its features — then don't forget to use them.

Coordinates: Frank Micelotta, fmice@earthlink.com

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