CALL IT DIGITAL imaging, electronic photography or just plain fooling around with pictures on your computer -- it's one of the hottest software and hardware trends in the industry.
Once confined to high-end workstations and souped-up Macintosh computers, imaging has literally turned into child's play, thanks to cheap, powerful home PCs, inexpensive scanners and digital cameras, and a new generation of software that makes working with pictures a family affair.
Microsoft's Picture It! is one of the most intriguing programs of the genre. It takes photos from any source and lets you slice them or dice them, add special effects and paste them into collages or projects that can become postcards, calendars, photo albums, slide shows or even World Wide Web pages.
In doing all this, Picture It! tries to hide some sophisticated programming behind a simple interface -- and it almost succeeds. It can occasionally be confusing, but it's basically so much fun to use that even if you don't quite get it the first time, you'll enjoy tinkering while you figure it out.
First things first. Picture It! requires a computer running Windows 95. The faster your computer and the more memory available, the better. Based on its performance with my home system, I wouldn't want to try it on anything less than a 90 mHz Pentium machine with 16 megabytes of RAM. You'll also need plenty of hard disk space.
Because Picture It! works with photos, you'll have to find some way to get those photos into your computer. You can use a scanner to digitize regular photographic prints or have a photofinisher digitize your pictures for you. Kodak, which joined with Microsoft in this effort, will put your snapshots on a CD-ROM or floppy disk. Some other photofinishers offer the same service.
You can also use a digital camera, which records pictures electronically and uploads them straight to your computer without using film.
Picture It! will control most industry-standard scanners and cameras directly, which means you don't have to use another program to acquire your pictures. It worked well with the Canon scanner and Kodak DC-25 digital camera I've been testing. But you can use photos or graphics from any source, including images downloaded from the World Wide Web.
To make all this palatable for beginners, Microsoft has abandoned its standard Windows interface with pull-down menus and a toolbar in favor of a screen that contains a picture frame, a row of simple menu choices on the left and a "film strip" along the bottom and right hand side.
As you select the photos you want to use, they appear on the film strips. There are a variety of tools for editing any photograph. You can crop it, resize it, rotate it, change the color balance, brightness, sharpness and contrast and even get rid of the "red eye" that appears in many flash portraits.
But the coolest tool of the bunch makes what Microsoft calls "cutouts." Let's say you have two photos of Aunt Thelma and Uncle Lou. If you have the kind of luck I do, Aunt Thelma looks good in one of the pictures but hates herself in the other. Uncle Lou likes himself in the second picture but hates the first.
The cutout tool, which is as close to a digital scissors as anything I've seen, lets you cut out Aunt Thelma from the picture she likes and combine it with the image of Uncle Lou that he likes. This can be a very tedious process, but if the image you're cutting out has a reasonably distinct edge, a "smart" trace feature will let you click at just a few points around the perimeter and automatically create the outline you want.
The cutout feature makes it easy to create collages, because each cutout remains a separate object on the page that can be rotated, moved and resized. This is an incredibly slick job of programming and one of the first applications of a new industry photographic format called FlashPix, which makes it easier to create images that can be manipulated and transmitted.
To finish off your creation, you can choose from scores of background photos (put all your friends at the beach, or in the woods), add captions or titles and surround the project with a variety of mattes and borders. Or you can pick from a collection of Kodak-inspired, predefined "templates," which are electronic versions of those picture frames with a half-dozen little cutouts for snapshots.
When you're through, you can print your project on your home printer, send it via modem to Kodak to have a high-quality photo print made, save it as a "slide show" that can be sent via e-mail to other Windows 95 users or use it to create a series of Web pages that will display your work.
While Picture It! is great fun to fool with, some features, such as color manipulation, are hard to figure out. I realize that the concepts of hue, saturation and luminance aren't the kind of thing most people deal with every day, but Microsoft's answer -- concentric rings of color wheels -- left me scratching my head. More significantly, the sequence of steps required to get a project under way isn't always clear. That means Mom and Dad will probably have to work with the program for a little while before they turn it over to the kids. Or maybe the kids will have to work with it first and then show Mom and Dad.
Despite its flaws, Picture It! is a cool tool for manipulating images. And with a street price of $45 to $50, it's a great entertainment buy. Check it out at http: //www.microsoft.com/ pictureit/.
Pub Date: 3/23/97