When one of the world's largest photographic processing and developing companies declares its commitment to "digital science solutions", you know that the digital camera has arrived. Kodak has already developed a wide range of professional digital cameras. Now, with the introduction of the "vest-pocket" DC20 it has brought digital photography within reach of the mass market.
"Still" digital cameras are treading the well-worn price path of video recorders and compact disc players. Initially, their high price limited their use to professionals. In the past year, however, the Pounds 1,000 mark at the bottom end of the professional market has been broken. With entry level now Pounds 300 and falling, digital photography has become affordable for schools and colleges.
Until recently, the most popular camera for desktop publishing in schools was the Canon Ion which, although not strictly a digital camera, enabled users to download images and insert them in documents with a minimum of fuss. Canon no longer sells the Ion but, like most of the big camera manufacturers, it has domestic models set for release. Of the available cameras, a handful stand out as being suitable for the harsh and testing school environment.
The DC20 is the cheapest digital camera. It doesn't have a flash and, with only three operating buttons, On, Shutter, and Erase, is quite minimalist - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Children who are learning about photography want to enjoy the process of taking pictures and that's more difficult when they have to think about focusing and depth of field. Kodak intended the DC20 to be a digital Instamatic for the 1990s - and it very nearly is. Unfortunately, the storage capacity is a meagre eight pictures in high-resolution mode, which would be of little use on a week-long field trip.
If anything can lay claim to being the Sammy Davis Junior of the digital stage it's the Casio QV10A. This camera stores up to 96 images, which can be viewed on either a computer monitor or on the camera's own screen. It's also possible to replay the images directly to a television screen. The Casio does not have an optical viewfinder, using instead a colour LCD screen on the back of the camera to display the potential image. When the image has been recorded it can be viewed on the screen almost immediately. It is also possible to transfer images from a computer into the Casio, which makes it an ideal tool for presentations. Even at the higher resolution, the pictures are not brilliant but the immediacy of an LCD screen is difficult to beat. At present, the Casio is the only digital camera in this range to allow the operator to delete a specific image. Other models offer a "delete all" or "delete last picture" option.
Sanyo's Image PC is reassuringly solid, and looks and feels like a normal 35mm camera. Children familiar with cameras should feel comfortable with this model, which produces bright vibrant images. It can store up to 16 high-resolution images or 32 in normal mode and has built-in autoflash. Optional 2Mb and 4Mb memory expansion chips are available.
Apple was one of the pioneers of digital cameras in schools and its QuickTake 150 is a robust unit which has the same storage capacity as the Sanyo. The QuickTake has two active flash modes - fill and automatic - and comes with a clip-on lens for close-up photography. The quality of its high resolution images is very good.
At the top of this range are the Kodak DC50 and the Chinon ES300, which are remarkably similar - Chinon manufactures most of the parts for both cameras. These are highly sophisticated models and would probably be used only by teachers or older students. The ES300 has a shutter-speed range of 116th to 1500th of a second and an aperture range of f2.6 to f16. It is equipped with spot focus, focus lock and macro mode, and the zoom lens operates between 7mm and 21mm. (Equivalent to 35mm to 114mm on a 35mm camera.) Both these models have three resolution settings and at the highest, Superfine, the quality of the images is excellent.
Are there any real advantages in moving over to a digital platform? Cost is certainly one consideration. Any educational institution equipped with modern computers and printers (preferably colour inkjet) has most of the hardware it needs for digital photography. Proprietary software comes free with the camera, so the only additional expense is for paper, batteries for the camera and ink cartridges for the printer. Compare this to the expense of developing and printing conventional photographs or, if the school has a darkroom, the cost of chemicals, developers and photographic paper.
Equally, the lower cost of digital photography and the ability to delete unwanted or unsuccessful images before they are developed means that students can be encouraged to experiment. Bracketing, the technique where a photographer might take a number of shots in the hope in getting one powerful image, has been, until now, the preserve of the professional photographer. With a digital camera the only constraints are the teachers' patience, the students' interest and the short and rapidly depleted life of the batteries.
Another use for digital cameras is security. Bannerbridge, which supplies a range of digital cameras to the education market, has reported a growing demand for its digital photo ID system. A new student, teacher or member of support staff can be issued with an ID card within hours of starting at a school.
Nigel Biggs of The Digital Camera Company says his educational buyers are discovering lots of applications for digital photography. Pictures, once taken, can be transferred instantly from camera to computer and then incorporated into records of school projects, individual records of achievement, newsletters and wall displays. Even the perceived drawbacks of digital photography can, with a creative approach, be put to positive use. One teacher used a blown- up low-resolution image to illustrate the way we see the world. Viewed close up, the picture was a seemingly random arrangement of differently coloured pixels. As the children moved away they could see an image emerge. Art students might recall that the painter George Seurat first used a similar technique, called Pointillism, more than a century ago.
Schools which are committed to conventional photography but would like to take advantage of the flexibility of the digital medium in desktop publications - the school newsletter, illustrated project work - have the option of PhotoCD, which is a halfway house between conventional photography and the digital world. In this format, images obtained in the traditional way are transformed into digital pictures and stored on compact disc where, with the appropriate hardware and software, they can be displayed on a computer screen, manipulated and included in word processing or graphics programs.
Images stored on PhotoCD are of high quality but expensive. A compact disc will store 100 images after the negatives have been processed. Then, having selected the images you wish to keep, a photo lab will put them on disc. Storing the images on CD works out at between 40p and 65p per print so, with the cost of the compact disc, you could expect to pay somewhere between Pounds 50 and Pounds 70.
There are still those photography buffs who sniffily point to the inferior quality of digital images, but there's no reason why photography shouldn't embrace both traditional and digital realms. The digital revolution is with us and it isn't going to go away.
Kodak DC20 Pounds 316 or Pounds 269 plus VAT. Casio QV10A Pounds 468 or Pounds 399 plus VAT. Sanyo Image PC Pounds 468 or Pounds 399 Plus VAT. Apple QuickTake 150 Pounds 410 or Pounds 349 Plus VAT. Chinon ES3000 Pounds 809 or Pounds 689 Plus VAT. Kodak DC50 Pounds 875 orPounds 749 Plus VAT. * Note that prices are dropping all the time Digital Camera Company 01483 301 970 Nigel Biggs and Kevin Yeo. Bannerbridge 01268 419 101 David Holyfield and Rachael Henham. Exempler 01223 724 200 (salea); 01223 724 201 (Customer Support).