Manifest Technology
        Making Sense of Digital Media Technology
        By Douglas Dixon


 
  BLOG
  ARTICLES
 - PC Video
 - Web Media
 - DVD & CD
 - Portable Media
 - Digital
     Imaging
 - Wireless
     Media
 - Home Media
 - Technology
     & Society
  GALLERIES
 - Video - DVD
 - Portable
  TECHNICAL
     RESOURCES
  ABOUT
 - What's New
<< HOME 

 

  DIGITAL IMAGING ARTICLES

  Manifest Technology Blog -- Site: | Articles | Galleries | Resources | DVI Tech | About | Site Map |
    Articles: | PC Video | Web Media | DVD & CD | Portable Media | Digital Imaging | Wireless Media | Home Media | Tech & Society |
    Digital Imaging: | Digital Imaging Articles | Digital Cameras Gallery | Digital Camcorders Gallery |

Digital Photography on the Web
    (PhotosByNet, 8/1999)

    by Douglas Dixon

    (See also dotPhoto: The Bricks Behind the Click)

One of the companies most threatened by the growth of digital technology into consumer products is Kodak, with its roots in film cameras and processing. What could be more old-fashioned than strips of film rolled into plastic cases, and developed with icky chemicals? What could be more inconvenient on a summer vacation than keeping track of rolls of film, taking special care of them to make sure they don't melt in the sun, and worrying about them at the airport x-ray machine? And who hasn't been ripped off by high film prices when you needed to buy one more roll at a tourist trap?

And then what do you do with all that film? Drive to the mall to a one-hour photo shop, and then wait around until it is done? Or drop it off at a local drugstore and then wait until later in the week to go back before you can see your photos? And what if you want to share copies with your family and friends? You have to repeat the process again, and pay even higher prices for reprints and enlargements. What a pain!

Digital photography sounds like the solution to all these woes. With a digital camera there's no fuss and no muss: no film, no developing, just images captured in digital memory in the camera. No more wasted photos: you can be sure to get the right picture by reviewing your shots on the spot using the camera's built-in LCD screen. And there's no wait either: you can transfer the images directly into your computer. Now you have complete control of your photos; you can organize them in an on-line album, edit and manipulate them, print them out, e-mail them to friends, and even post them on your web site for the whole world to see.

In practice, digital photography has its own trade-offs. High-resolution digital photos make big files. You can quickly run out of space in your camera's memory, which means you have to stop and transfer them to your computer, or carry extra memory cards. Once you transfer them to your computer, you can quickly find yourself filling up your computer's hard disk with your photo collection, and how are you going to back up all those files? Suddenly, film doesn't look so bad, especially on trips; at least you can buy more film almost anywhere in the world, and you can save prints and negatives for generations, even in a shoebox in the closet.

Film cameras are also less expensive. You can get a single-use disposable camera almost anywhere these days for around $5, or a point-and-shoot camera with auto-focus, auto-exposure, and flash, for under $40. Digital cameras have more components, including a LCD screen to view the images, memory to store the images, a processor to control the camera, and connectors to communicate with a PC. Pricing for digital cameras has dropped below $300, but you'd probably want a $400 or $500 model for more memory and higher image resolution.

Even so, digital cameras are well worth the money if you want your images right away, or need them in digital form on your computer to edit into a presentation or e-mail to a colleague. But there's one more problem with digital cameras: people really like glossy photos, they're handy to pass around, and look good in a photo album or framed on the wall. A print-out of a digital print, even on glossy computer paper, is just not the same.

PhotosByNet

A brand-new Princeton venture, PhotosByNet, is focused on serving digital camera users over the Internet. PhotosByNet addresses these issues by providing Internet printing and archiving services for digital camera users. PhotosByNet was founded by entrepreneur Glenn Paul, a graduate of Princeton University and Princeton area entrepreneur.

Paul's new venture, PhotosByNet, provides a web site that lets digital camera owners "develop" photos online. At PhotosByNet, anyone with a digital camera can upload their photos to the web and organize them in an album of thumbnail images. Customers can choose their favorites and send them off to be printed by MotoPhoto, a collaborator in the project. The pictures arrive in the mail a few days later.

Paul sees PhotosByNet as an example of a "simple idea which works on the Internet." His likens it to Amazon.com, "great price and good service." He has been working on the concept for "a couple months," and just opened it up for users in the middle of July 1999 by announcing it on a few photo web sites. The key is to provide these services "for less than the cost of drug-store processing," including the shipping cost. PhotosByNet's current prices compare well to mail-order or local drugstore processing (see table). A 4 by 6 inch reprint, for example, costs just 21 cents through PhotoNet, compared to 43 cents at a neighborhood drug store (plus postage, of course, for the Internet customer).Customers can also store their photos with PhotosByNet for a fee of $1 a month, or for free if they do a minimum business of $5 a month.

Photos ByNet Seattle FilmWorks (Mail) Konica - Local Drugstore Reprints 3" reprint (3 1/2" x 5") $0.19 $0.35 $0.33 4" reprint (4" x 6") $0.21 $0.50 $0.43 Enlargements 5" x 7" $1.79 $1.95 $1.99 8" x 10" (8 x 12) $2.99 $3.95 Shipping (UPS) Domestic standard mail $1.99 $1.49 US Proiority mail $3.99 $3.49 Overnight Next Afternoon $9.99 Table: Prices for reprints and enlargements: PhotoByNet, film by mail, and local drug store

Using PhotosByNet

PhotosByNet solves the two big problems with collections of digital photos: how to store them, and how to get great prints. Digital photos are getting too big to organize conveniently, and printing photos yourself is a pain. It also takes advantage of the immediacy and flexibility of digital photos by providing a convenient way to share your photos with others over the Web.

While you can print out copies of your photos at home, it's expensive and somewhat of a hassle. You can print photos on regular inkjet or laser printer paper, but they look like printouts, and not photos, and they're not as durable as real prints. You can use a "bright white" paper for a slightly better look, or step up to a "premium glossy" paper for the photo look. But the cost of the paper jumps from a penny per sheet to 50 cents or more, so you'd better be careful to use it and store it properly, and you're still stuck trimming the results with a pair of scissors. "By the second time you try it," says Paul, "you don't feel like printing more photos and cutting them up. And it's expensive."

PhotosByNet wants to be the place where you store and organize and share your photos. You can upload your digital images, and then organize them in an album with your notes. You can share your albums with others in "browser" mode; they can view your photos over the Web, but not edit the album. Only you can access your photos in "author" mode, and add text annotations to the pictures.

Working with Digital Photos

However, there's still the problem of uploading your images over the Web. Older consumer digital cameras (from way long ago last year) typically saved photos at 640 x 480 resolution, or about 1/4 million picture elements per image (mega-pixels). Today's consumer digital cameras are increasing resolution quickly, from 1024 x 768 (3/4 megapixels), to 1280 x 960 (over 1 megapixel), to 1600 x 1200 (over 2 megapixels), and beyond. Lower resolutions are fine for photos on Web pages, but you need the higher resolutions to make sharp images when you make prints. However, these numbers are getting seriously big, and storing lots of them in a limited camera memory, or squeezing them down to transfer over the Internet, requires serious image compression. But too much compression can cause visible defects in your pictures.

As a result, digital cameras typically offer a range of resolutions and compression levels. Typically, you can store around 24 to 40 images at 640 resolution on a 1.4 MB floppy disk with aggressive compression, or up to 60 images at low resolution on a 4 MB memory card, or as few as 20 or even 10 images at high resolution and with less compression on a 8 MB memory card. As the size of just one high-resolution image with low compression gets larger than a megabyte, you're starting to take a significant chunk of your hard disk to store and edit them. And it can take over five minutes to transfer a single one-megabyte image over a good 50K modem connection.

PhotosByNet works around the image size problem by converting the images to a small thumbnail to view in the album, and a medium-resolution "internet image" size for viewing in more detail over the Web. The original full-size image also is saved, to be used when you order prints. Uploading a 2 to 6 MB file is still painful, but you only have to upload the photos you want to share and print. "The speed of upload will change," says Paul. "Every company is working on it, from cable modems to the regional Bell companies to AT&T and Microsoft."

The Future of Film

Paul argues that the future of photography is digital, and that the Internet will put an end to film. "When our children grow up, that stand of yellow boxes won't be there. Some of the photo companies are still fighting the last battle, but we said chuck all that and go straight to digital", he says. "We think it's a billion-dollar idea."

But Kodak has a "huge franchise to protect," Paul says, and would like to "preserve the roll of film" as a major part of the 20 billion photos taken each year in the United States. They also need to worry about maintaining their relationships with their retail dealers, including companies like Eckard Drug, Kmart, Target, and Best Buy.

So the film developers are trying to provide the best of both worlds by developing your film, and then also delivering it as digital photos. When you drop off your film to be developed, you can check off a box and get your photos on floppy disk for about $5, or on CD-ROM for $5 to $10, or posted on the Internet for around $5. What more can you want? You've got your prints to share and frame, you've got an archival digital copy on CD to play with on your computer, and you've got copies posted on the Web so you can share them with your distant friends.

For example, Seattle FilmWorks posts your photos on the Internet for free if you order digital copies on CD, and keeps them on-line for 45 days. Kodak consolidated their Picture Network on-line service with PictureVision's PhotoNet service in early 1998, and has filled its "Picture Playground" Web site with creative activities, including a cartoon maker and multimedia postcards. Kodak has also created the "PhotoQuilt 2000" project, a mosaic of photos on the Web contributed by people from around the world.

In June 1999 Kodak announced a joint effort with Intel to enhance its Picture CD product. You not only get your photos on CD, but the CD's come in quarterly "issues" with a "magazine-style" interface and additional software applications for editing and E-mailing your pictures. People who don't even own a PC can also use the CD's at the Kodak Picture Maker kiosks.

All of these on-line services also offer a variety of other ways for you to have fun with your photos (and for them to make more money), from photo T-shirts to mugs and mousepads, calendars and posters, and greeting cards. But Paul sees the key use of digital photos as "the future of personal web sites: pictures of yourself and your friends." A sculptor friend of Paul is already using PhotosByNet to post images of his work; not necessarily to sell them, but just to share them with others. Posting rolls of film is fun; you can share the vacation snapshots or graduation photos with friends soon after the event. But for more lasting memories, you need some way to organize and annotate your photos like in an album.

What's Next for PhotosByNet

Paul sees PhotosByNet as an idea whose time has come. It leverages the immediacy and control of digital photos, with the quality prints that you are used to having from film. Plus, you choose the prints and sizes, and get only the pictures you want, when you want them, "exactly what you want, and without leaving the house." Digital photography is also better for business: "you have no time to print and cut photos, you can have them sent to you the next day," he says.

The PhotosByNet Web site is up and running, with the infrastructure in place to archive collections of photos and order prints. "It's not easy to do," says Paul. "Other people's sites are still marked as under construction." While doing business on the Internet is not new to him, PhotosByNet has been a different experience. "Clancy-Paul does a lot of work on the Internet, with orders from all over the world. But PhotosByNet is totally based on the Internet: You have to have all the right tools. And your market is all over the country, even the world."

Now that PhotosByNet has the proof of concept up and running, Paul's next step is "to go flat out: begin on-line advertising and other promotions, and develop strategic agreements." The initial development of PhotosByNet was self-funded, and Paul will begin to explore options for going to the next level, to build a brand name. "We would love to be the image resource on the Web," he says.

References

PhotosByNet     www.photosbynet.com

Film Processing through Retail Dealers

Film Processing by Mail

Photo Chains