WHILE digital cameras aren't quite ready to replace the old-fashioned models that use film and photographic paper, they're getting better every day -- and they can be a lot more fun to use.
That's because digital cameras let you see the pictures you've taken right away and then edit them on your PC. With today's color ink-jet printers, you can make excellent copies in a few minutes, or you can post your photos on the World Wide Web or send them as e-mail to your friends and relatives.
For the last few weeks, I've tried out Canon's newest entry in the burgeoning market, the PowerShot 350. I had great fun with it, and while it won't replace my trusty little Sure Shot film camera, it's good enough to convince me that electronic photography is here to stay.
At $700 on the street, the PowerShot 350 isn't exactly cheap, but it records pictures at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels, which is good enough to produce acceptable 4-by-5-inch prints and superb Web photographs. Instead of using film, it records pictures on a two-megabyte Compact Flash memory card, which can store anywhere from 11 to 47 images, depending on the level of quality you choose.
The PowerShot is a compact unit (3 1/2 by 3 3/4 by 2 inches) that weighs less than 11 ounces and fits easily in your pocket. It also feels comfortable in the hand, thanks to a pistol grip built into the right side that puts the shutter button right under your forefinger.
On the downside, aiming the camera isn't easy. To save space and money, Canon omitted the standard optical viewfinder. Instead, a 1.8-inch color liquid crystal display (LCD) on the back of the unit shows you exactly what you're going to shoot. While this is admirable, to aim the camera you have to hold it about a foot in front of your face, which is awkward at best and downright unfriendly to bifocal wearers.
It takes four to five seconds to process each shot, so don't count on the camera for action work. When the shot has been stored, the LCD briefly displays it, then switches back to viewfinder mode. But a flick of a button turns the LCD into a display that lets you see all the photos you've made, one at a time or in four- or 12-shot thumbnails. While you're looking, you can erase pictures you don't like to free up memory.
Speaking of buttons, you get your money's worth. There are 10 buttons, three switches and a dial on the back of the unit. This array is a bit intimidating at first, but after a while you'll learn what they all do.
When you've finished taking pictures, you can display your shots on a TV set that has a video input jack -- but you're more likely to use your computer, because that's where the real fun is.
Before you try it the first time, you'll have to install so-called "TWAIN" driver software, which allows graphics programs to acquire pictures directly from the camera. Then it's a matter of connecting the PowerShot 350 to the serial port of your PC or Mac.
The PowerShot ships with a version of Ulead's PhotoImpact, a competent if not spectacular image-editing program. To get your photos from the camera into the computer, just tell the PhotoImpact to access the PowerShot. Up pops a camera on the screen, along with a digital "contact sheet" of thumbnail images. All you have to do is click on the photos you want and tell the computer to go to work. In a few minutes, the pictures pop up on your screen, ready to edit.
At last that's the way it's supposed to happen. While the PowerShot's twain driver worked with every graphics program I tried, only two of them -- PhotoImpact and Microsoft's Picture It -- would allow me to download more than one photo at a time. With the other programs, I had to go through the whole acquisition process separately for each picture, which is annoying and time-consuming.
My family gave the PowerShot a good workout, inside and outside, culminating with my elder son's senior prom night, when he and his friends were generous enough to give their parents a group photo opportunity. I brought along the PowerShot and a standard film camera for comparison.
Overall, the PowerShot's results were satisfying. Like most digital cameras, it performed best in even light, recording well-detailed images that reproduced well on paper and on the Web. Under contrast-filled conditions and in low light, the photos showed more grain and less detail, although it was relatively easy to correct minor problems with exposure and color balance using PhotoImpact and other image editing software.
Overall, I still got better images by scanning in the prints I shot on regular film -- not surprising, given the state of the art in low-end digital cameras today. But if you like to manipulate images and enjoy the speed and convenience of working with your photos right away, the PowerShot is a good choice.
For more information, point your Web browser to http: //www.powershot.com. To contact Mike Himowitz, send e-mail to mike.himowitaltsun.com.
Pub Date: 6/08/97