Photo Opportunities

When I started putting these pages together I knew that if I expected anybody to actually read them they would need more than my own deathless prose. Which led me to start investigating options for getting images onto the page. After all, you can only accomplish so much by stealing graphics from other people's pages.

One advantage of working for a computer company is that there's some pretty interesting hardware around. And if it's a graphics company, chances are good that somewhere there's the equipment you need.

Page Scanners

A quick search of SGI-internal web pages helped me find a couple of color scanners. Once I located a scanner I could use, I pulled together whatever interesting images I had on paper. I've been taking pictures since high school and have a couple of thousand images gathering dust in a closet, some of which I was sure would be worth digging out. Unfortunately, most of my photographs are in the form of slides. So I started with the few prints I had made and then augmented them with images from other sources (like the CD booklets and book covers I used on some of my other pages. I generally scan images at between 150 and 200 DPI to give me plenty of detail for editing.

It helps that my Indy includes a set of image processing tools. So it was relatively easy to scan the images and then crop them, adjust contrast and brightness, sharpen those that needed it and then shrink them so they wouldn't take too long to download. For each image I made a small (90 pixel high) GIF file for the page and then linked it to a larger compressed JPEG file. A compression factor of 60 seemed a good balance between file size and image quality.

Once I got the first few pages done I wanted to do more. (In case you haven't noticed, this stuff is addictive.) So I selected forty or so of my better slides and had prints made from them. I discovered very quickly that there were some problems with this approach:

Film to Video

Which led me to consider other options. I started investigating digital cameras like Apple's QuickTake 150 and Casio's QV-10, which someone was showing off at a party at SIGGRAPH 95 in L.A. I was leaning toward the Casio, which is a cute little device about the size of a small 35mm camera. But technical information was hard to come by (and a request to the email address on their ad garnered no response). During a trip to Tokyo I finally had a chance to try one out. In the end I was unimpressed. Resolution is low and it does heavy compression in the camera; I suspected the quality would be a lot lower than the QuickTake, whose major drawback was its limited capacity).

While I was prowling electronic stores in Akihabara I kept seeing displays for a device called the FV-10 made by FujiFilm. It looked like a copying stand but was apparently some kind of film-to-video converter. Finally I found a store that had one set up and I had a chance to play with it. It's a sort of video camera that's designed to capture images from slides and negatives. It has built-in lights and automatic color and brightness adjustments, focus and a power zoom. Since the Indy has video input connections, I could use the Indy's video capture software to scan images.

These images were captured at my desk using the FV-10 from slides I shot during the Animaniacs voice actor tour at Valley Fair Mall in Cupertino, CA. In order, that's Rob Paulsen, Tress MacNeille and Jess Harnell, the voices of Yakko, Dot and Wakko respectively and three of the nicest people you're ever likely to meet. (Actually, that's Rob, Rob, Tress, Tress, Tress & Jess and Jess. But there's no need to be anal about it.)

The cel that Rob and Tress are autographing is mine. Mine Mine Mine! All mine! Oh yeah, and Jess's eyes are much better now!

The FV-10 also makes an okay copy stand for small objects, like these little ceramic magnets of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner sister). It's really just a video camera with a special mounting arrangement for slide and negative holders. I suppose I could even use it in place of the IndyCam that came with my workstation. (You mean your workstation doesn't have a video camera or even direct video input? Gee, that's so sad...)

Slide Scanners

Capturing slides with a video camera, even one specialized to the task, is a compromise. Your results are going to be limited by the resolution and the quality of your video system. (Throw too strong a sharpen filter on an image and you can see the interlacing of the scan lines.) On the plus side are the speed of scanning (video is instantaneous) and the price; the FV-10 cost perhaps a third of what a reasonable slide scanner went for. But like most things in the computer market, scanner prices have taken a nosedive in the last couple of years. And with the prevalence of consumer level digital imaging products has come a new set of inexpensive slide scanners.

(I should point out that this section is out of chronological order. I spent the two years after purchasing the FV-10 on a range of digital cameras, which are discussed on the next couple of pages. If you're a stickler for historical context you might want to skip ahead to read about my camera experiences and then come back here.)

Olympus announced a new low priced slide scanner called the ES-10 about the same time as their D-500L and D-600L digital cameras. And my experience with the D-500L was sufficiently wonderful that I decided to investigate the ES-10. This would give me a chance to scan some slides of places I hadn't visited recently (like Boston, Nashville, St. Louis and Stockholm) and augment the travel content on my site.

So off I went to the Olympus web site to do a little research. Where I was disappointed to learn that the ES-10 was available only in a parallel port version for Windows. As a parallel-impaired Mac owner I would have to look elsewhere, specifically to more expensive scanners from Microtech and Polaroid.

Then a funny thing happened: a search of various web-based mail order houses found references to a Mac-capable SCSI version of the ES-10. I fired off an email to an address I found on Olympus's site to verify the existence of such a beast, got a confirmation and placed my order. A couple of days later I was up and scanning.

The ES-10 is a compact, clean and simple device. Software installation consists of copying a couple of files to the Mac. One is the standalone scanning program; the other is a plugin for PhotoShop, PhotoDeluxe and other compatible programs. My first scans were of a combination of slides and negatives from my trips. Although the scanner has a maximum resolution of 1770 DPI, I tried a range of lower resolutions to minimize scanning time while still giving me enough data for my web pages. Here you can see a slide scan from my ferry trip to Helsinki and a negative scan from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.

Working with slides and negatives is cumbersome. The scanning itself is fast; putting the slide into the carrier and getting it aligned correctly gets to be a drag. So I was intrigued with the description of the optional attachment for scanning APS film. APS is being offered as an alternative to 35mm for casual photographers; it uses a smaller film stock and automates much more of the process. Instead of getting your negatives back in plastic protective sheets, you get the original film canister. An APS scanner pulls the film out of the canister, scans it and then returns it to the canister. No fingerprints, no dust and no manual adjustments.

So (you can see where this is going, can't you?) I had to rush out and buy an APS camera and the scanner attachment for APS film. I settled on Minolta's Vectis 300, a tiny camera with a 3x zoom lens and enough features to keep the gadget freak in me happy. Then, camera in hand, I ran around Silicon Valley one weekend looking for interesting buildings so I'd have something to scan.

Here are a couple of images of the now-abandoned Agnews Developmental Center in Santa Clara. You'll notice right away that these images are more panoramic than my other scans. APS film uses a 7:4 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 4:3 of most digital cameras and computer screens. The wider aspect lends itself to landscape shots like these. In fact, I find it hard to crop these images down to the 4:3 I use everywhere else on this site. There's something right about all that extra detail.

It isn't fair to evaluate the performance of APS film based on one roll taken with one camera. But the convenience is certainly there; all things being equal, I would choose APS over 35mm any day. (They're not equal, of course. APS film is smaller, which means less detail to enlarge. And the choice of cameras and lenses is awfully limited compared to 35mm. But I think I'll enjoy carrying my tiny APS camera around; just the thing to guarantee that I'm prepared when that shot of a lifetime comes along.)

And what about the ES-10? I'm pleased. The price is reasonable, the software is simple and functional and the results are more than satisfactory. After all, it isn't Olympus's fault if I take a lousy picture. Garbage In/Garbage Out applies to a lot more than data processing.

A postscript to the ES-10 story: When I bought my scanner, I was running a G3-based Macintosh. In 2001 I upgraded to a G4 Cube. The Cube presented me with the problem of adapting my serial and SCSI devices to a computer that had neither. An email to Olympus tech support regarding USB or FireWire adapters to the ES-10 received a "sorry, you're out of luck" response. (In contrast, HP's website had everything I needed to know to adapt my ancient Laserwriter 4ML to a USB Mac.) I took a leap of faith and bought an Adaptec SCSI-to-USB converter, which magically fooled the scanner into working where its manufacturer said it wouldn't. Even more impressive, this combination works just fine in the Classic mode of MacOS X.

I'm told Windows people aren't so lucky. (Now there's a surprise.) Olympus's drivers for the ES-10 support Windows 95 and 98, but not the newer XP. And the answer from tech support? Yeah, you guessed it. Mac owner: 1; Windows owner: 0.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California