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Look at Me: Digital Photography in Windows Me

Windows Me makes it easy to work with scanners and digital cameras
Windows Me introduces a new technology, called Windows Image Acquisition (WIA), that simplifies the process of acquiring and manipulating digital photographs with scanners and digital cameras. Technologically, WIA largely replaces TWAIN, an older protocol used in previous versions of Windows to control the communications between imaging devices and the operating system. But TWAIN is still supported in Windows Me for older devices, and Windows Me even incorporates some WIA technology in its implementation of TWAIN, giving users at least some of the benefit of WIA.

Like any other device abstraction technology in Windows (printer and display drivers, for example), WIA is also designed to make it easier for hardware makers to create devices that will work with Windows. So as more and more WIA-compatible devices and software applications appear in the coming months, users will realize an even greater benefit. But what we've got today, right out of the box in Windows Me, is still pretty impressive. By simplifying the process of acquiring, working with, and sharing digital images, Windows Me lets uses spend more time having fun and being creative with their photographs, rather than forcing them to learn camera- or scanner-specific software. Let's take a look at how this works.

Web photography services
A number of companies are there to help if you're not yet ready to make the jump from print film to digital photography, providing services such as online scanning and posting of your film-based photographs, Web-based photo galleries and storage, and the like. I've used and recommend the following three services.

Previously known as Seattle Filmworks, PhotoWorks is the leading digital photography Web site, featuring a wide range of services. PhotoWorks offers digital albums like its competitors, but it also offers an "archive for life" feature that guarantees that your photographs will have a secure and long-lasting home on the Web. PhotoWorks realizes that 95% of all photographs taken today are not done with digital cameras, however, so it will also convert your film-based photographs to a digital format and post them online. New features that will be unveiled over the next few months include story-telling functionality, where members will be able to tell personal stories with their photographs.

Ofoto is a relative newcomer to the online photography business, but they've partnered with and are off to a good start. Ofoto offers high-quality prints, online photo galleries, and other photographic merchandise. The company also offers a nice promotion with free 4x6" prints when you sign up, and existing members get 10 free prints for each new member they get to join. I've gotten dozens of 4x6" prints from Ofoto and an 8x10"; all were surprisingly stunning. Highly recommended.

I think we've all heard of Kodak, of course, and though this company has relatively high prices, there's something to be said for Kodak quality. Kodak offers similar services to Ofoto and PictureWorks, albeit at a price, but the company's real strength is its predictably vast selection of services, products, and available publications.

Using USB scanners with Windows Me
If you're not ready to shell out big bucks for a digital camera, a USB scanner offers a nice middle ground: You can scan in only those photos you'd like to save digitally, share with friends, or manipulate in some way. Scanning is generally a slow and laborious process, however, so if you're going to be spending a lot of time scanning in photographs, it might be time to look into a scanning service (see sidebar) or move up to a digital camera.

But the good news is that Windows Me makes it easier than ever to work with a scanner. Simply plugging in a newer, USB-based scanner will cause the operating system to instantly detect the device (Figure) and then add that item to the default My Computer window for easy access (Figure). Double-clicking this icon or, in the case of my Microtek ScanMaker scanner, pushing the Go button on the device itself, launches the Scanner and Camera Wizard (Figure), which is Windows Me's new front-end for WIA devices, negating the need to install any other software for acquiring images. And the wizard is literally that good, as you'll see.

In the case of scanning, the second page of the wizard (Figure) allows you to choose the region on the scanner bed that you'd like to scan; but it automatically generates a preview (Figure) and then guesses at the best fit first (Figure). A choice titled "Adjust the quality of the scanned picture" allows you to modify the advanced properties of the image, such as the resolution, picture type, brightness and contrast (Figure).

In the next page of the wizard (Figure), you can choose various destination options for the image. This includes the name of the image, the folder to which it will be saved (My Pictures by default) and the file type. But the advanced settings option (Figure) includes some of the more interesting choices, such as the ability to create a subfolder under the My Pictures folder for the image(s) you're scanning. This subfolder can be named using today's date, if you'd like, or with the picture name of the image(s) you'll be scanning. This is wonderful feature, and I use the "today's date" option to store my own digital images in subfolders regularly.

Once you click Finish, the actual scanning occurs (Figure) and, upon completion, a My Computer window opens to display the image you just scanned (Figure), which is a nice touch. Using Web view's built-in preview functionality in Windows Me, you can zoom in, zoom out, preview, print, or rotate the image, without even opening an application. And a slideshow option lets you display all of the images in a folder, so that you could show all of the pictures from a trip, for example (Figure). Windows Me also includes an Image Preview program that is used to display photographs by default, again saving you from having to install any third-party applications for image viewing (Figure).

All in all, WIA removes the drudgery of using a scanner, while largely eliminating the need to install third party applications to obtain images.

Using digital cameras with Windows Me
If you've got a USB-based digital camera, Windows Me is even more impressive: As with a scanner, Windows Me doesn't require the installation of new software or drivers: Just plug in the camera, and it will be automatically recognized (Figure) and configured. And then the familiar Scanner and Camera Wizard will start, albeit with camera-specific options (Figure).

In the past, if you wanted to look at the pictures you took with a digital camera, you'd have to download them from the camera first, using third-party application software, and then view them once they're on your hard drive. But Windows Me simplifies this process dramatically: You can actually view thumbnails of the pictures, directly from the camera, without first downloading them, which is wonderful. To do this, simply click the "Explore camera (advanced)" option in the first page of the wizard (Figure). You can then preview each image, save it directly to the hard drive, view info about each picture (such as when it was taken and how big it is), and the like (Figure).

But the simpler approach is to step through the wizard. In page two of the wizard, Picture selection, you choose the images you'd like to download (Figure). You can choose all of the pictures--the default--or CTRL+click to select only the images you want. Then you are presented with the Picture destination page, which is identical to that used by the scanner, with one difference: With a camera, an option appears that allows you to delete all of the images from the camera once they are downloaded to the hard drive (Figure). This is a wonderful feature, especially since I can never seem to find that option easily on the camera itself.

At this point, the images are copied from the camera to the hard drive (Figure), and when it's complete, a My Computer window opens up to display the images in their new home (Figure). This is very similar to what happens when you use a scanner, except that you can potentially have numerous images downloaded simultaneously (Figure).

Digital camera tips

Regardless of the type of digital camera you're using, you are going to run into the classic problems of battery life and storage space. Here are a couple of tips that will help you get the most out of your camera:
  • Get at least a couple of sets of rechargeable nickel-metal hydride batteries if your camera supports them. They look just like AA batteries, but they last a lot longer. I bring three sets--and the charger--with me on trips.

  • Make sure you have enough removable storage (typically SmartCards or CompactFlash cards) for your camera. I bring two 32MB cards with me at all times, enough for 90 hi-res shots on the 2.1 Mega-pixel camera that I own.

  • Copying photos from the camera to your PC drains the batteries very quickly, so buy an AC adapter for your camera or a USB-based SmartCard/CompactFlash reader. I use a SanDisk Imagemate (CompactFlash version) that I highly recommend: It even works off the power of your PC so it doesn't require its own power cord, a nice touch.
  The SanDisk Imagemate appears as a drive in My Computer...

...allowing you to easily copy images from your digital camera's removable storage to the PC.

WIA integration with Microsoft Office
If you've got Office 2000, you can also import images directly from a digital camera into a Word document or Outlook email without saving it to your hard drive first, which is kind of interesting. To perform this action from Word, simply connect the camera and then choose "Picture," then "From scanner or camera" from the Insert menu (Figure). In the dialog that appears choose "Custom Insert" (Figure) and then select the image you want to insert from the next dialog (Figure). The image will transfer directly from the camera into your document without being saved separately to the hard drive first (Figure). The same thing can be done from an email message in Outlook 2000 as well.

Windows Me makes it very easy to work with digital photographs acquired from a scanner or digital camera. Indeed, this release of Windows Me finally makes the proposition of purchasing a digital camera a virtual no-brainer if you can get over the cost. Working with images digitally has always involved trade-offs in the past, but the combination of a 2.1 or 3 mega-pixel camera and Windows Me is unbeatable. Throw in a $300-400 Epson, Canon, or Hewlett Packard ink-jet printer and you've got a personal photography studio capable of printing out photographs that rival those at any film processor.

Critics have sometimes railed against the technology in Windows Me, but I find such arguments uninformed. By simply making it easier for users to do the things they want to do, Windows Me is a compelling upgrade for most users. And if you're interested in digital photography, Windows Me is a must-have.

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