Family Photos Become Works of Art On Home Computers

Shocking but true: Computer geeks are image-conscious. Or at least, they're about to become so.

New and cheaper technology is likely to tempt even the most dedicated number-crunchers to experiment with photographic images. Instead of black-and-white text, they'll play with computerized color photos. Instead of printing out spreadsheets, they'll turn out pictures, banners, and maybe even a personalized greeting card or two.

And if geeks like it, imagine what parents and children will do. Using and printing out color photos is likely to open up a whole new area of home computing. The biggest breakthrough has come in printers.

For years, professionals have used special printers costing thousands of dollars to turn out near-photo-quality images. Then color ink-jet printers began appearing that made color much more affordable to the consumer. Every year, ink-jet technology gets better and more photo-realistic.

Epson, for example, is getting good reviews for the near-photo-quality output of its $800 Stylus Pro. This month, Hewlett Packard introduced the idea in a basic model: the new $350 HP 693C. With an optional $50 photo kit and easy-to-use software, this Windows-based printer makes photo-quality printing available to just about anyone.

While the results can't match the output of even the cheapest camera, the technology is close enough and cheap enough to unleash a wave of image creativity in computer-using homes. Using the two software packages that come with the HP 693C and photo kit, I designed a photo-rich, personalized invitation to a party. I printed out a tiger photo on a transparency that, with the frame, string, and suction cup included, makes great window art.

To achieve this photo-realism, the HP 693C forces users to replace temporarily the usual black-ink cartridge with a special photo cartridge. The cartridge uses lighter versions of cyan and magenta and sprays its ink more finely onto the paper to make the color image more consistent and less grainy. Eventually, manufacturers will build this kind of technology right in.

"This is an evolving market," says Michelle Hamilton, manager of home-printer products for Hewlett Packard. "Photos are going to become more and more important to the home market."

Of course, computer images are more fun if they're your own. To capture those, you'll need either a color scanner or a color digital camera. Each costs about $400. With a color scanner, you can make digital copies of your snapshots and store them on your computer. A digital camera snaps pictures that can be downloaded directly to a computer.

Either device greatly expands the possibilities of computerized imagery. For example, it's relatively easy to scan snapshots into the machine. Or, using a $400 Epson PhotoPC camera, you can capture your children at play or print out an insurance record of all your major possessions. Today's digital cameras have their limitations. The Epson only takes 16 high-resolution photos, which must be downloaded to the computer before you can take more. Still, it's easier than buying, loading, and developing film.

Once you have the images, software such as Adobe Photo Deluxe and LivePix allow you to have fun with them. You can crop them, rotate them, merge them, eliminate red eyes from a family photo, change backgrounds, or create special effects. Want to stretch and distort the images? Try Kai's Power Goo, which works on either Windows-based or Macintosh machines.

The computer can't yet replace the traditional camera or photo album. (The cost of the computer storage is prohibitive.) But it can create cards, posters, and banners that even a geek can love.

*Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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