There is now a wide choice of digital cameras, with more appearing every
month. The technique seems to be to lob a new camera over the wall into
the market place and see who picks it up and finds an application for it.
After a while, working with digital cameras seems routine. You install the Adobe Photoshop plug-in or special stand-alone software and communicate with the camera, either by SCSI or serial cable. Some cameras force you to acquire one image at a time, saving it in your chosen file format with your own filename. Others acquire the images slowly over a serial cable, interpolating them on the way. It is slow, labour intensive and - consequently - expensive. You get used to nodding-off in front of the computer as you wait.
Business communicators have taken the developments in desktop publishing on-board in a big way over the past decade. They are used to a wide variety of scalable fonts and are now turning their attention to using colour - and images. But they are not interested in plug-ins, file formats, colour temperature, CMYK conversions and the like. They just want their images, in the right place, without any fuss. And they want them on demand.
John P Moon was a VP at Apple Computer for thirteen years. His department was responsible for the original LaserWriter 1 through to the Quicktake camera. After leaving Apple he set up EPix Imaging Systems to combine hardware and software into a seamless system of image workflow management, from capture through to output. An impressive list of employees includes a former camera designer from Leaf Systems and a colour scientist from Electronics For Imaging.
EPix Imaging Systems' target customers already have a workflow - they have PC, word processor and database. EPix's objective is to enable them to integrate images into their existing systems. Looking around, it struck them that there was no suitable digital camera, so they set out to design their own - the EPixPro - from the ground up, with all the right attributes to allow images to move quickly into the customers' system and to match his output requirements - there is no point in having image files which are so big that each one must be sampled down in size.
To keep costs down, EPix use off-the-shelf components as far as possible. A standard half-inch Sony CCD gives a 640 by 480 pixel 13 inch 'screenful' of image. The camera has a through the lens viewfinder and takes interchangeable lenses - unheard of on other low-res digital cameras. The type 'C' lens mount is standard for 16mm cine cameras and CCTV cameras. This ensures that a wide variety of lenses is readily available - including macro, fisheye, ultra-wide angles, zooms, night vision and microscope adaptors. Even Canon, Minolta and Nikon 35mm lenses may be used with a 'C' mount adaptor.
The viewfinder image is uninterrupted by the shutter, which - as in most television cameras - is purely electronic. Since the CCD is always sensing the light entering the lens, no exposure meter is necessary. The camera itself becomes the exposure meter, measuring only the light which forms the image. Correct exposure is as easy as ensuring that the green '+' and '-' symbols in the viewfinder are both lit. In practice, the range of automatic electronic shutter speeds is so wide that, in normal light, the shutter can cope. In these conditions, the aperture setting makes little difference to exposure. Photographers might find this a little unsettling but this is not a camera for photographers - it is a camera for users of images.
The highly intelligent built-in-flash exposure system first fires a 'ball park' flash before a second is used to calculate the exposure precisely. The third and fourth flashes make the exposure. The only thing lacking is a flash sync socket for triggering off-camera flash.
The camera is made to EPix design by NEC in Japan. This is the kind of alliance we are seeing more of, such as that between Kodak and Chinon for DC40 and DC50 cameras. NEC will market the EPixPro in Japan and the far east.
A standard camcorder-type lithium ion battery powers both camera and on-board 486 computer. This kind of battery is a new industry standard which can be bought economically in a local camera shop. It's a much better idea than using a battery designed specifically for the camera. These tend to be expensive and difficult to source in an emergency.
The EPixPro has two internal PCMCIA slots and can store 1600 images on a standard 131MB type 3 drive. The images are stored in standard JPEG format and can be opened directly in programs such as Word, Wordperfect, QuarkXPress, Netscape Navigator - and Photoshop - without needing special plug-ins or other software. Indeed, this is the first camera I have seen which does not need any of its own software to view the images. Software is important to the EPix system but it is integrated into workflow management, rather than being a series of stand-alone utilities.
In fact, the EPixPro is more like a computer with a lens on the corner, for it has an on-board 486 processor. The user can upload his own parameters to this, for example special image sizes and compression for identity passes, which tell the camera how to process the image immediately after it has been captured. Account setup in the camera also enables images can be assigned to user-selectable accounts at the time of exposure. Back at base, the images are read off the PCMCIA card and moved directly to their correct locations in the database. No manual work is involved - this is real productivity. The price of the EPixPro is expected to be around £1800 ($1950 in the USA). Applications include the capture and automatic placement of images for identity cards, insurance claims, estate agents and other vertical markets.
I have had a prototype EPixPro camera for a couple of months, evaluating it and other EPix plans for an independent 'due diligence' report for a north American securities commission. Pre-production consultancy such as this is a major part of my work - work which is, of course, highly confidential. I can however tell you that EPix Imaging Systems have some fascinating ideas up their sleeves for the future. In the meantime, the EPixPro is a welcome move towards integrated workflow management. It could soon make other cameras in its resolution class look like amateurs hankering after a bit of semi-professional work on the side.