AGFA ePhoto1280 DIGITAL CAMERA
by John Henshall
My mailbag shows that there is undoubtedly a lively professional interest in the lower-cost digital products such as cameras, scanners and printers. This may well be because higher-end products cost many thousands of pounds and are considered a risk or unjustifiable expense by many photographers - photographers who would otherwise be keen to dip their toes in the digital water. But lower cost digital products can now produce results which are very close to the much more expensive products which have been around for some years. The gap is narrowing.
Earlier this year, Fuji effectively bridged the gap between low- and high-end digital cameras, particularly its own DS-7 and DS-505/515, when it introduced the DS-300 at around £2,000. It uses the same chip as the high-end cameras but in a magnesium alloy body, reminiscent of Fuji's medium format film cameras. At the same time, Kodak's DC120 bridged the gap between their DC50 and DCS420. (See Chip Shop May 1997).
Last month I used the sub-£300 Agfa ePhoto307 for editorial shots but, although the results are astonishingly good at the small size used, this camera is too basic for regular professional use.
When considering the possible suitability of a digital camera for professional use, I judge whether it could be used to capture images good enough for either full page, half page or quarter page in a high-quality magazine. If you and I can't tell the difference between film and digital origination on these pages, then the quality is sufficient for the purpose. The Fuji DS-300 almost passes this test at half-page and certainly would pass at quarter page (see Chip Shop May 1997). But the DS-300 would be no good for close-up work because it is not an SLR. In fact, most of my product shots for Chip Shop (including this month's) are taken on my five year old Kodak DCS200, still going strong.
This month we are first to test a new camera, the Agfa ePhoto1280, 'biked out from darkest Brentford to sunny Oxfordshire soon after it arrived in the country.
The ePhoto1280 is the sequel to the ePhoto307, also a project of Agfa's American wing in Wilmington, Massachusetts. It uses a 810,000 pixel chip - almost three times the pixel count of the '307. It works with both Windows PCs and Macintosh - and also has a NTSC or PAL video output, enabling shots to be viewed on a television monitor. My wife gave the unsolicited verdict on this facility when she saw the images displayed on a 28-inch Bang & Olufsen television in the studio: "Are those pictures off that camera? Wow!"
The camera is unusual in design. It features a 3-to-1 optical zoom, said to be equivalent to 38-114mm on a 35mm film camera and to have a maximum aperture of f2.8 (at wideangle) to f3.5 (at telephoto). Auto focus is from 10cm at wideangle, or 80cm at telephoto, to infinity. A flash sticks out from the side of the lens mount. This part of the camera, on the photographer's left of the camera, can be rotated independently through 280 degrees - very useful for taking high and low shots and getting into awkward places.
In the low-angle picture, I am using a x0.5 supplementary lens, bought for my old camcorder, which halved the focal length of the lens and gave a very interesting full-frame fisheye effect at the widest zoom setting. This fitted perfectly, screwing into the lens' 46mm filter thread. When the two halves of the camera are rotated the flash, sticking out from the side of the lens mount, looks somewhat prone to damage.
The right section of the camera has a high definition 2-inch LCD panel. There is also a bright red exposure button. A rotating wheel on the right edge selects capture or playback modes. An 'EasyPilot' control - a clever combination of small selector wheel and push button - is used to select all the camera's functions: resolution, flash, low-light viewfinder, self-timer, focus, exposure, white balance, external flash, delete pictures and other modes. There is no optical viewfinder and unfortunately no hood or magnifier for the LCD panel, which would make viewing much easier in high ambient light. This could be a profitable area for far-eastern accessory manufacturers.
The camera is powered by four AA-size nickel metal hydride batteries. This pre-production camera came with two sets of batteries and a fast charger. Images are stored inside the camera on a removable 'SmartMedia' Toshiba SSFDC (Solid State Floppy Disk Card) like the ones used in the Fuji DS-7. Note 'like' but not 'the same as'. Agfa uses 3.3-volt while Fuji uses 5-volt cards. The two are not interchangeable. The camera comes with one 4MB card, neatly hidden away in a compartment revealed when the two parts of the camera are rotated. Further cards will be available, including an 8MB version, de-restricting the number of images which can be captured.
Before taking a picture, decide upon the resolution required and set it using the EasyPilot control. The CCD has 1024 x 768 pixels and five resolution settings are offered. First is 1280 mode (1280 x 960 pixels). Using this mode, images are first captured as 1024 x 768 pixel images but marked as requiring interpolation up to 1280 x 960 by 'PhotoGenie' in the PhotoWise acquisition software. PhotoGenie works on the images to minimise JPEG compression artifacts visible in the image. In the meantime, they are stored on the SSFDC with a low compression ratio, to minimise loss. Six of these images can be stored on the SSFDC. Next come 780Hi(gh) and 780S(tandard) modes. Both store the images at 1024 x 768 pixels but each using increased compression over the previous. The card will hold 12 images at 780H or 24 at 780S. Finally 370H and 370S modes, which store 30 or 60 on the card as 640 x 480 pixel images. Images of differing resolutions may be combined on the same card.
To evaluate the various resolution modes I photographed a video camera resolution chart. All the ePhoto1280's resolution modes have an aspect ratio of 4 to 3 (1.33 to 1) - the same as television - so the chart should fill the screen perfectly. I framed the chart accurately using the LCD panel and a tripod but the camera saw slightly more, shooting off the edges of the chart. The blow-ups of sections of the chart, near the centre, at each of the five resolutions. Note the increasing JPEG artifacts as we go down through the modes from 1280 to 307S, Note also that the amount of pseudo-sharpening also increases. These are brutal enlargements for images of this kind - equivalent to sections of a 20 x 16-inch print - but they do show the trade-offs necessary to cram more images onto the SSFDC media.
Above: blow-up of a section of the chart at 1280 mode.
Above left: at 780H(igh) mode. Above right: at 780(S)tandard mode.
Above left: at 307H(igh) mode. Above right: at 307(S)tandard mode.
I also took a shot of a Macbeth colour chart, reproduced here (above left) alongside a digitally generated version (above right) which has gone through the same reproduction process.
The flash has the usual Auto, Fill-in, Red-eye reduction and off settings. Additionally, tucked away in the Advanced Mode settings, are six further flash settings. These allow the shutter and lens aperture to be fixed at any combination of 1/100 or 1/200 second and f2.8-3.5 (depending on lens angle), or f5.6-6.4, or f8-9.1. The on-camera flash may then be used to trigger studio flash units. This is a well thought out facility, of particular interest to the professional.
Besides autofocus, the lens may be set to fixed focus at one, two or five metres, or at macro or infinity. Shutter speed is automatically set from 1/4 and 1/500 second, or manually from 1/8 to 1/500.
In playback mode, a series of nine consecutive images may be displayed, from which any one may be selected and brought up to full screen. Individual images - or the whole card - may be deleted. Date and time of exposure, number of images taken/remaining and battery state may all be displayed on the LCD.
The camera is just over six inches wide by two high by nearly four from front to back - approximately 15 x 5 x 10cm. It weighs about one pound - 450g.
Agfa work with Sierra Imaging Inc to produce PhotoWise, some of the best acquisition and processing software around.
The new version 1.5 supplied with ePhoto1280 incorporates PhotoGenie to clean-up the images so that they can be interpolated up in resolution without undesirable artifacts.
Now for the most important aspect of any digital camera: the images it produces. All the images were taken using the camera hand-held.
First an important note for the web version of this article: all these images have been reduced to one-ninth of their original size. So 1280 x 960 images have been reduced to 427 x 320, and 1024 x 768 images have been reduced to 256 x 341 pixels. In addition they have been JPEGed again (they were JPEGed in the camera, remember) at the "Quality 3 - Medium" setting in Adobe Photoshop 4 - a compromise between quality and size for the web. That's a lot of size and quality reduction for images designed to show what the camera is capable of. Please bear this in mind when you look at these pictures - and wait for them to download!
The Bear House nameplate was shot in the shade, mainly lit by a cloudless sky, at the top (1280) resolution mode. Automatic white balance has handled this lighting well. The white paint on the right of the shot was only partly visible in the viewfinder. Auto exposure places this at just the right level.
The other images were all taken at the 780H setting. The circus poster was chosen as a difficult one for the auto exposure: the poster is caught in the soft evening sun, the sky is bright and the house is in the shade.
The pillar box goes from black to white. It is also very saturated being painted in 'Post Office Red' paint. Compared with the colours of the ePhoto307, the ePhoto1280 has much better (lower) colour saturation, which gives much more subtle tonal gradation in the red. And it handles the dynamic range superbly.
This exterior portrait was taken in the shade of a tree, with the late sun kicking the cheek, testing the camera's fill-in flash capabilities.
This car is just the kind of image which this camera might be used for. Note the handling of chrome, car and surrounding colour.
The camera captures images at ten bits per RGB channel - in other words it samples the image into 1024 discrete levels. Only 256 levels are needed in the final image, so this gives quite a bit of latitude and accounts for the very appealing dynamic range.
So is the ePhoto1280 a professional camera? Or amateur? Or business? It is suitable for aspects of all three. Externally, it isn't built like a professional camera but the images it produces are certainly good enough for professional use. I would use it without hesitation for editorial shots, both in the studio and at trade shows and conferences. The camera would also be perfect for capturing images for the Internet - digital catalogues and so on. Picture quality is superb. My main criticisms are the time taken to store images - nearly fifteen seconds before you can take the next picture - and the time taken to download the images to the computer by serial cable link. Even at the fastest speed of 115,200 BPS it took 17minutes 42 seconds to download a card-full of images. A separate card reader (or PCMCIA slot adapter) would allow the SSFDC card to be taken out of the camera and read immediately into the computer. It would be in Agfa's best interests to supply one for users of laptops. How I hate serial interfaces! Roll on FireWire.
One of the main uses of a camera such as this will be business - high quality images for reports and documents. Some of this could take work away from professional photographers: it's too easy to get good pictures. Even if you don't get a good shot first time, you can keep on experimenting at no cost. As for amateur use, surely a camera such as this would be too expensive?
So how much does it cost? £2,000? £1,500? £1,000? Keep going down. It costs £552.34 or £649 including VAT (UK sales tax). That's only 0.07 of a penny per useable pixel. This must be the best digital camera bargain yet. What so often happens with digital cameras is that they come onto the market at a high price which immediately puts potential customers off, only to be cut drastically a few weeks or months later. Agfa haven't made that mistake this time.
The Agfa ePhoto1280 is a superb camera at an unbelievably low price for all its facilities and state-of-the-art technology. If you've been hesitant about dipping your toes into the digital water, this could be exactly the push you've been waiting for.
For further information see the ePhoto website or telephone Nick Mongston at Agfa UK on 0181 231 4342 (please tell him you saw it mentioned here.)