Technology--Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

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Digital Cameras and Real Estate Practice

There are many electronic toys on the market to supplement one's computer system. This month we deal with one that might actually benefit lawyers in their practice--the digital camera. For this column, I tested two cameras, both on review loan from their manufacturers. The first was a Kodak DC260 (Kodak). The second was a Hewlett Packard C30 (HP). I will discuss the features of these two cameras as I cover the elements of digital photography.

Why Digital?

From the technical point of view, the differences between digital and traditional or film photography are plentiful. Some of these differences are to the advantage of digital imaging; others favor traditional photography. For example, many digital cameras have small LCD displays on the back of them, allowing you to see your photograph immediately after you take it. If you are at a site, take a bad picture and see that it is bad, you simply delete it and start again. In addition, after you either load the pictures into your computer or delete them, you can take new pictures. There is no need to buy film for these cameras.

Digital photographs have not yet matched the image quality of traditional photographs, however. In addition, there is some work involved in getting the pictures
out of the camera, into the computer and then into print (if you are printing them). The image storage medium, typically a "flash card," is expensive compared with film, but it does have the advantage of being reusable.

For user convenience, the ability to store pictures on the computer and have them ready to insert into documents or files is helpful. Al-though you could use a traditional camera, have the photographs developed and then use a scanner to digitize them for computer use, digital cameras take a number of steps out of that process. In addition, being able to view the pictures immediately allows the user to know whether the needed shot is there. For example, when taking pictures of damage to a structure, the user need not worry about whether the lighting is correct; a look at the LCD screen will verify the fact.

In addition, having photographs of items or structures in dispute can assist in discussions over the dispute. Both cameras reviewed for this column have the option to display pictures directly from the camera onto a television screen. Imagine being able to take a photograph on the way to a negotiating session, bring it with you and use it during the session to make a point. This could be a very effective use of digital photography.

Taking Pictures With a Digital Camera

Traditional photography uses film and chemicals that react in a certain manner when exposed to light. The film is then processed, requiring either film intended for "instant" development or a processing center for developing. Digital images replace the film and chemicals with a light sensitive photo pad inside the camera. The light hits the pad and is converted into pixels, or dots. These dots of light are then stored in the camera as digital information. The more pixels, the better the photo quality and, generally, the larger the resulting computer file. Different cameras have different levels of resolution, and this is one feature to consider. Remember, higher resolution not only means better images, but also larger files.

To use a digital camera, you generally point and shoot. The camera may have a traditional viewfinder, or it may use an LCD screen to line up and take the
picture. What you see is what you get. Some camera features may be available only when using the LCD. For example, the HP has a "digital zoom" feature; clicking on the menu button allows the user to choose "2x," which expands the picture by a factor of two. The image the camera will take is visible only through the LCD viewer (the viewfinder shows a much wider field of vision). The Kodak has a conventional 6:1 zoom.

After taking the picture, the user can generally see it on the LCD. At that point, the user can access a menu that allows deletion of a photo or "marking" it for transfer. The user may be able to modify the camera settings. Each of the cameras I reviewed also had an option to change the resolution for each picture, so the number of pictures one can take varies according to the resolution chosen. Once taken, the pictures are stored on a digital storage card. The cards are generally removable, allowing the user to take additional pictures without deleting any or having to transfer the photos to the computer.

Some cautionary words. Not all digital cameras come with LCD screens, which are so useful that I would not recommend buying a digital camera without the LCD. On the other hand, the LCD screen eats up many batteries. If you use it when you take a flash picture, the batteries may need a couple of seconds to recover. The HP recovered more quickly in these situations than the Kodak, which was unable to take more than two or three flash photographs with the LCD activated, even using lithium batteries.

Working with Digital Photographs

To "get" the pictures out of the camera, the user must connect the camera to a computer using a cable that comes with the camera, through either the serial port or the universal bus (UB) port. Only the Kodak offered the latter option; the HP is limited to using the serial port (also used by the printer). The UB port should be faster, but I did not notice any significant difference in download speed compared with the serial port connection.

Before you can move pictures from the camera to the computer, you have to install the software. The user can do this the first time he or she uses the camera. When
it is connected, Windows 95 will probably recognize the camera is hooked up and will help the user through the setup process. The software also can be installed from disk before hooking up the camera. Once the camera is connected, the camera's software will likely start (both the HP and Kodak installed software that would recognize when the camera was hooked up). If not, start the camera's software.

The user will then see small or "thumbnail" representations of the photos stored within the camera. At this point, a user can also access the camera and adjust settings such as resolution. Choose the photographs to move to the computer, select them, and then tell the software to move them to your computer. The software will essentially copy the pictures from the camera to the computer. This is an important point. Until the user deletes the photos in the camera, they stay there. To make room for more photos, make sure to delete the ones that you do not want to save or have downloaded to your computer.

Pluses and Minuses

One thing the user will notice right away about using a digital camera and downloading pictures to a computer is that it takes time. Downloading took up to 40 minutes or more at times, and the cameras did not differ much in terms of download speed The HP did seem to be a little faster on my "old" P166 MMX/16 meg RAM machine.

Another aspect of the time question involves image processing. In conventional photography, when one takes film to the developer and gets it back, the time involved is relatively limited. With a digital camera, getting the photos into the computer and then printing or preparing them for display involves much more user time.

Although buying a "card reader" allows the user to remove the storage card, place it in the reader and transfer the pictures stored on it, this option increases the cost of the entire package.

Real estate practitioners may find digital cameras useful, nonetheless, for their ability to seamlessly integrate images with other computer-generated files. In terms of archival permanence, the magnetic media of flash cards should be adequate for most purposes. Presumably, an image file transferred to a CD would offer even greater permanence and probably a more stable image than most color-film dyes.

Finally, there do not seem to be any evidentiary concerns in using these cameras, at least not at this time. As long as someone is willing to lay an appropriate
foundation (I took the photo, it accurately reflects the property as it was, and it has not been changed), digital photographs should be admitted in the same fashion as
traditional printed photographs.

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