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Working on the image

Digital cameras can be fun, but are they a valuable tool in an architect's practice? An Olympus Camedia 3030 gets a trial

Pocketable and lightweight, but reassuringly solid and rugged looking, the Camedia 3030 digital camera has become an invaluable part of the practice's working life in the past month.

We have used it daily: for surveying, monitoring site progress, e-mail attachments, presentation images and to record our current architectural interests and inspiration.

Operating the camera is simplicity itself: just point, frame, shoot and inspect the results. The manual is straightforward and although the camera has a myriad of controls and features, most will find its automatic mode most useful. Complete manual override is available for experienced photographers but as a working tool the automatic settings seem ideal.

Recording the date of the image is a boon for archiving photographs.

We quickly established that the medium high quality (HQ) resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels was the best for day-to-day use. This allows you to store approximately 21 pictures on the standard 16MB Smart media. Various removable cards up to 64MB are available and, although they are relatively expensive, we would probably invest in a further or larger capacity card.

The ability to delete images quickly led us to take many more shots than we might normally. Some we deleted almost immediately after viewing the LCD screen, but more commonly we would download them to the computer in the office and then edit. The prints at HQ resolution are indistinguishable from conventional colour prints, with good contrast, excellent colour rendering and crisp focus. Even when it is not (due to human error), it can be improved by the software.

The LCD viewing screen is a good size and we used it almost without fail to set up and frame pictures. The only time the eyepiece became useful was in very bright sunlight and for landscapes where it was difficult to view distant objects. The LCD screen is also used for viewing the photograph once taken. Its multiple enlargement modes make it particularly useful for checking the focus. And even with very heavy use, the lithium batteries have a life of about 100 images.

Numerous software options are available for manipulation and improvement of the images but the original images have been of very high quality. Occasionally a print, particularly a landscape or distant panorama, can be improved by adjusting the sharpness of the image once it has been downloaded.

We have taken survey photographs of several new projects, including my own house in Hastings. One invaluable feature is the panorama mode, which allows panoramas to be joined with pinpoint accuracy. The camera could also take very satisfactory night shots without a tripod, which has allowed us to record dramatic views from the house. We originally used the lowest resolution for survey photographs but now do so rarely since the loss of clarity of image is significant - even when printing at small scale. Typically for us, an early survey shot may later be included in a planning application and overall the benefit of having all images at the same resolution outweighs the extra capacity of the SmartMedia card at low resolution. Similarly, we did not find the highest resolution, 3.3 mega pixels, useful since it exceeded the capacity of our Epson Photo 1200 A3 printer and only two or three images can be stored on the 16MB SmartMedia card.

Most of the photographs we took were for monitoring progress on site.

Photographs are dated and catalogued by the software supplied with the camera.We downloaded the digital images from the camera via a USB cable to our Macs and then viewed them as thumbnails and renamed them as necessary. Images can also be viewed at full screen size. But we found that the camera and our printer had a much higher resolution than our computer monitors, and one cannot tell how clear the printed image would be.We have therefore tended to edit the actual prints. The ability to print A4 size images immediately has been the greatest boon to the office.

On a weekly basis we have e-mailed progress photographs of refurbishment works on a house in Southwark to clients who are abroad. The images, stored by the camera as Jpegs or Tiffs at HQ resolution, are relatively large at approximately 600K and with several hundred images we soon began to fill up the computer hard disk. These files are also too large for attachment to e-mails so we have converted the Jpegs through Photoshop to much smaller 100K files before sending them.

The camera was supplied to us with a beautifully presented portable Camedia P200 digital color printer and carrying case that contains the printer and all necessary print media (price £399). It can print directly from the Smart media card which is removed from the camera and inserted into the printer. Unfortunately however, we long ago abandoned driving in London, and the printer is a little too bulky and heavy to carry regularly on public transport. It was only really useful when we were away from the office for a long period over the Christmas break. It produces high-quality Polaroid size 3' x 4' prints.

One of our projects is nearing completion and we hope to retain the camera long enough to take shots that might be used for publicity. The image quality is good enough and, with the LCD viewing screen, setting up shots is simple. The quality of image may well be the most useful asset of this camera for a small office which cannot afford professional photography for every project. Picture quality at HQ resolution is excellent, certainly as clear as with our film camera. One great advantage of digital photography is that you can manipulate the images. For instance, in Photoshop we have been able to complete unfinished areas on project shots, and improve on currently defective workmanship.

Most of our projects are relatively small scale and we work on many interiors. Consequently we were concerned whether the camera would be adequate for tight internal shots. The Camedia has a 32mm wide-angle lens capability extending to a 92mm optical zoom and, unlike a compact camera, several attachments are available, including a 28mm wideangle lens - although we understand that this is rather bulky. The downside of this is that the camera comes with a removable lens cap which is impractical on a building site and which we have frequently mislaid.

The Camedia 3030 digital camera is a fantastic working tool and has become almost essential to our existence.We will be sad to have to return it and it is perhaps second only in usefulness to the mobile phone. It is certainly top of our office purchase list as soon as we can afford it.

Neil Choudhury is a partner in Neil Choudhury Architects CAMEDIA 3030

SPECIFICATION

Dimensions 109.5 (W ) x 76.4 (H) x 68.4 (D) Weight 300g (without batteries/card) Power supply For batteries, use two CR-V3 lithium battery packs, or four AA(R6) NiMH batteries, NiCd batteries, alkaline batteries or lithium batteries.

Focusing range 0.2m- infinity No of pixels approx 114,000 Lens Olympus lens 6.5-19.5mm, F2.8, six elements in eight groups (equivalent to 32-96 mm lens on 35mm camera), aspherical glass Aperture Wide angle: F2.8-11.0 Telephoto: F2.8-11.0 Shutter speed, still 1-1/800 sec Flash working range Wide angle: approx 0.8m-3.8m Telephoto: approx 0.2m-3.8m

OTHER CAMERA SPECIFICATIONS

Kodak DC4800 3.1 megapixel 3 x optical zoom 749.95 Nikon CoolPix 990 2048 x 1536 3 x zoom 899.95

Olympus C-3030 Zoom 2048 x 1536 984.00 Canon Powershot 20 2140 x 1560 674.00

Agfa EPhoto 1680 1600 x 1200 6 x zoom 589.00 Fuji DS-260 3 x optical zoom 783.00

Fuji MX 2900 1800 x 1200 3 x optical and 2.5 x digital zoom 572.00

Sony DSC-F505V 2240 x 1680 10 x precision digital zoom 870.00

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