Digital Cameras Ready To Hit Mainstream Stores

They capture images on a computer chip, not film, and produce pictures immediately

No film to buy. No developing costs. Instant photos. That's the promise of digital photography. And it's coming to a store near you.

Until now, color digital cameras have been an expensive specialty item. But early next year, several manufacturers will market models for just under $500. Some industry officials expect the cameras will quickly become a mainstream consumer item. A spokesman for Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, N.Y., predicts the industry will see a $300 digital camera before long.

''This is a very, very large revolution ... and it's going to snowball,'' adds Mike Spataro, spokesman for Polaroid Electronic Imaging Systems, a business group of Polaroid Corporation, based in Cambridge, Mass. ''Digital photography is the most important thing that's happened to photography in decades.'' Polaroid says it will begin selling a digital camera soon.

Digital cameras are different from traditional models. They capture images on a computer chip rather than on film. Since there's no film, there's no developing time or cost. The pictures are available immediately, which has many advantages, but they require a computer to view them.

Earlier this month, photographer Karl Joyce used a professional digital camera at a Christmas party in Newark, N.Y. He would snap a few poses, then let customers look at the shots on a monitor. If they liked a particular pose, he printed it out. If they weren't satisfied, he'd take more shots.''This has just been so much fun,'' he says. Instead of having customers come in up to four times to get a finished portrait, he can now accomplish everything in a single visit.

''It works just great,'' adds Tim Schweizer, a management professor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, who has bought several low-end digital cameras from Apple Computer called QuickTakes. His students use them to create multimedia presentations. Since the photos have the same resolution as a standard computer screen, they look quite good on screen, he adds.

Because digital photos are computer images, they have other advantages. Computer-users writing a Christmas letter can now include a family photo just as they would any other piece of computer art. They can form the basis of a customized greeting card printed out on a color printer. Don't like that splotch of cranberry punch on an otherwise great photo of Uncle Ned? Computer photo-editing software can make it disappear.

Digital photos can also be sent electronically over, say, the global computer network called the Internet. That should appeal to students and network-savvy professionals who want to personalize their own space on the Internet - called a ''home page.'' Digital-camera manufacturers say they're getting repeated inquiries from businesspeople who rely on photos, such as real-estate agents and insurance adjusters.

For all the pluses of digital cameras, there are some drawbacks. For one, their picture quality doesn't measure up to film-based cameras. For every point of light captured by a low-end digital camera - some 300,000 points in all for a typical snapshot - a low-end film-based camera can capture nearly 100.

The technology ''is very respectable,'' says Terry Williams, director of continuing and corporate education at Maryville University in St. Louis. But ''it's not going to replace cameras.'' Mr. Williams uses an Apple QuickTake 150 to illustrate in-house brochures and flyers.

Digital cameras also have problems taking long-distance and wide-angle photos. Then there's the storage problem. Digital cameras can hold only about eight to 16 high-resolution shots. Some manufacturers plan to sell computer-memory modules that can boost the storage and, in some cases, be swapped in and out like film. The challenge is cost. To buy an add-on module that can store 128 high-resolution photos, consumers will have to shell out more than $1,000.

Prices are dropping, however. Today, digital cameras cost anywhere from $700 to $50,000 for professional models, which do approach the quality of film-based models. In January, Epson America plans to market the PhotoPC, which weighs less than a pound and will cost $499. It will be quickly matched by Chinon America's ES-1000, also at $499, and a slew of other manufacturers.

Computer companies, such as Epson, are competing right along with consumer-electronics companies, such as Casio, and camera manufacturers, such as Kodak. Although they expect digital cameras to become a mainstream computer item in the next few years, many manufacturers don't think they'll replace regular cameras.

''Don't think of this as a replacement for film,'' says Anna Jen, manager of market planning for Epson, based in Torrance, Calif. ''A digital camera offers you a whole new world.''

Consumers aren't about to throw away their film-based cameras, adds Mr. Spataro of Polaroid. But ''the digital area is certainly going to grow faster.... It is a huge race now.''

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