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Digital Photographs as a Way of Life

Tonya and I recently acquired one of Apple’s QuickTake 150 digital cameras, and it’s probably the Apple device that’s most affected us since the PowerBook 100 (the machine I’m using to write this, by the way). The QuickTake 150 holds either 16 or 32 pictures, depending on whether you shoot in high or low resolution. You can switch between resolutions on a per picture basis, but we’ve settled on using only the high resolution setting. I’m not quite sure (and the manual is singularly unhelpful on this count, as it is on most technical issues) what the difference between high and low resolution is, since both claim to be 640 by 480 and 24-bit color. I suspect the difference is in the level of lossy compression performed within the camera.

What’s made the difference with the QuickTake over the previous cameras we’ve owned is that there’s little or no penalty to shooting a bad picture with the QuickTake. Perhaps the only thing to concern yourself with is the number of pictures left at any given time. When we went to a friend’s wedding several weeks ago, we solved the capacity issue by simply bringing a PowerBook and the serial cable necessary to download the pictures from the camera to the PowerBook’s hard disk. Downloading the pictures is, for a computer person, probably easier and faster than changing a roll of film, and it’s instant gratification.

From a cost standpoint, once you’ve bought the $700 QuickTake camera (which isn’t cheap, especially considering the low-quality optics), your only recurring expense will be batteries, and the lithium batteries that come with our QuickTake 150 have lasted for several hundred images with no indication of dying yet. You can buy a lot of film and developing for the difference in price between the QuickTake and a point-and-shoot camera, but if you take many pictures, the QuickTake will eventually win out. And, if you’re like us, it always takes so long to get a roll of film developed that you forget some of the details of what was going on when you took the picture. We never would have taken 200 pictures in the last eight weeks with our regular camera, and we would have felt awful about the 50 or so photos that came out badly. With a digital image, a simple drag to the Trash solves that problem entirely.

Although the physical dimensions of the camera make it a conversation piece (it looks a bit like high-tech binoculars and garnered numerous comments at our high school reunions this July), you can use it in some interesting and subtle ways because it’s digital. For instance, most cameras make noise when the film winds, but the QuickTake, apart from a low click, gives almost no indication that you’ve taken a picture (assuming it’s light enough that the flash doesn’t kick in). Add this to the fact that you can crop and manipulate images in PhotoFlash – the image-editing application that Apple ships with the QuickTake 150 – and you realize that you can more easily take pictures from the hip, or holding the camera in a strange position in which you cannot see through the viewfinder. Sure, you might center the subject in the frame badly, but if you get it at all, you can fix the image later. It makes for some interesting pictures of people who aren’t expecting to be photographed, although the quality on motion shots isn’t good.

Once you’ve become accustomed to the relative freedom of taking pictures whenever you want, you start to realize how much additional freedom you’re afforded by having the images in digital form. For instance, you can attach the images to email and send them to friends and family, you can put them up on a personal Web page, or you can easily edit them and send them in to the National Enquirer as evidence that communist space aliens have taken over the U.S. ketchup industry. Physical photos are a pain to duplicate, and you probably wouldn’t get more than two copies of any standard image. But, of course, you can make as many copies of digital images as you want, which makes it easier to share them more widely. And since PhotoFlash is highly scriptable, anyone who knows AppleScript or Frontier at all well could write scripts that let you select images in a PhotoFlash catalog file and save them in an appropriate format and either attach them en masse to an email message or create a simple Web page using the captions you can add to each image.

[It took me about 10 minutes to write Adam and Tonya an AppleScript which exports images selected in a PhotoFlash catalog to an HTML page. The only real problems were caused by Adam misplacing a hard drive. -Geoff]

So no, the quality you’ll see in the images from the QuickTake 150 won’t hold a candle to a camera even a quarter of the price. But you can make up for a fair number of the quality issues with the editing capabilities in PhotoFlash (or Photoshop, if you’re more serious), and in my opinion, the flexibility and freedom afforded you by having the images in digital format is well worth the trade-off. Of course, the quality only stands to improve over time, so even if you don’t feel the 150 is sufficient for your needs, how long can it be before Apple or another company melds the technology (which will improve with time as well) with higher quality optics?

There are of course accessories for the QuickTake 150 that improve some of its capabilities, and there are also several other digital cameras that are becoming readily available. Tune in next week for another article on those two topics.

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