Kodak DC3400: Seeing Is Relieving

If my initial experience with the Kodak DC3400 — downloading pictures from it to my notebook PC with a serial cable — had been indicative of its overall performance, I would have paid someone to take this $500, 2X-zoom digital camera off my hands. Fortunately things improved markedly when I hooked it up with my desktop machine. Before I color your perceptions with an isolated tale of laptop woe, however, let’s talk about lasting impressions.

Click here for high resolution image.

Overall the camera’s ergonomics are a mixed bag, with some old problems left over from earlier models and some new improvements. Shooting is easy enough, even for a novice, but the camera’s slow performance can be irritating. File transfer via USB is serviceable, but forget serial downloads, which were slow during our testing even when compared to serial transfers with other digital cameras. The bundled software detracts from the experience and adds nothing to the camera’s value. If there’s an upside, it’s the quality of the captured images: pure Kodak color as we’ve come to expect it.

Facing the Ergonomics
The DC3400 is a 2-megapixel point-and-shoot camera. It uses — to its credit — CompactFlash (CF) Type 1 storage media (an 8MB Kodak Picture Card is included) and comes with both serial and USB cables for image transfer. Four AA alkaline batteries are provided, but no rechargeable batteries or AC power cable. (Both are available separately.)

In a welcome if minor touch, Kodak tethers the lens cap to the camera body, for those of us who tend to lose such things. The soft rubber cap even pops off unobtrusively when the camera is powered up in Capture mode, leaving you to remember only to put it back on.

The ergonomic flaw that immediately left an impression — or should I say imprint — is the placement of the LCD screen near the lower-left corner of the camera’s back panel. The very first time I looked at the LCD after putting the viewfinder to my eye, I was treated to a self-portrait of my nose — an oil painting, of course. This happened on every subsequent use of the viewfinder as well. This LCD positioning has plagued Kodak cameras for years.

The camera’s body is fairly compact and very sturdy, if a bit heavy (12 ounces, without batteries). In an effort to hold the camera comfortably without putting my left thumb on the LCD, I held the camera C-clamp style, top and bottom. The problem with this approach: My right hand accidentally popped the battery door open more than once, and the resulting power loss could damage the memory card if it were active at the same time.

You power the camera on using a simple toggle, rather than the multi-function dial used by many competitors. You can select the mode (Capture, Review, Connect, or Camera Setup) prior to powering up, using a separate dial on the camera’s back panel. When you power on in Capture mode, the lens extends in a matter of seconds. If you then switch the dial to Review mode for a quick check of your earlier photos, the lens remains extended. This is much nicer than with most digital cameras, which make you endure the yo-yoing of the lens as you switch among camera modes. The Kodak’s approach also preserves power.

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Buttoned-Down Behavior
The shutter button is in the usual topside location and provides good tactile feedback. A separate rocker button just behind the shutter button controls the 2x optical zoom. Unfortunately, this positioning forces you to move your finger back and forth to adjust the zoom while shooting. Kodak placed dedicated flash, macro, and self-timer buttons on the top of the camera.

One button on the camera’s back turns on the LCD display for preview (in Capture mode) or review, while another provides access to the onscreen control menus, which you navigate using four directional buttons. A handy dial on the camera’s underside controls the LCD’s brightness — meaning one less trip to the control menus. Other manufacturers, take note.

When you shoot pictures with the camera’s optional Quickview feature enabled, the shot appears briefly on the LCD just after capture. This is a handy feature, but it does consume batteries faster. The camera uses a standard 1.8-inch LCD, but the image doesn’t quite fill the screen. A bigger problem: The image is grainy and movement is choppy, making it difficult to capture action shots using the LCD viewfinder.

Click here for high resolution image.

Shot Clock Penalty
During our testing, even stationary subjects were often blurred when I shot without a flash. This turned out to be because I was moving the camera too soon, having no way of knowing when the camera was done capturing the image. With the LCD preview on, I wrongly assumed the camera was finished as soon as the LCD blanked. The DC3400 actually took about 2 seconds to complete its capture. I found myself lingering with my finger on the button for an annoying extra second or two after every shot, just to make sure I was giving the camera enough time

The camera’s buffer is big enough to hold three shots in a row, but write times are extremely long after you’ve filled the buffer. When using High resolution, I had to wait 15 seconds between successive shots beyond the third one. Not only was that way too slow to capture the antics of my cat (the cat literally got up and left the room before I could get off a shot), but it even proved too slow to catch roiling thunderheads in just the configurations I wanted. The camera has no burst mode.

Click here for high resolution image.

Controlling Interest
Like other cameras aimed at the midrange market, the DC3400 doesn’t offer a full array of manual controls. But even for its particular niche it has fewer user-adjustable settings than most cameras. Unlike other $500 models, the DC3400 has no ISO-equivalent settings (although you can set ISO to Automatic and the camera will attempt to compensate). There is no manual focus, but as with most cameras, you can freeze the autofocus by depressing the shutter button half way. You can also lock the focus on infinity for panoramas. The lens is capable of focusing from 9.8 inches to 1.6 feet in Macro mode, and from 1.6 feet to infinity in panorama (Infinity) mode. Shutter speed is automatic, ranging from one-half second to 1/755 of a second.

The DC3400 has no manual shutter and aperture controls, though it offers Exposure Compensation settings from +2 to -2 in half-step increments. There are two automatic metering modes — Center Weight and Multi-Pattern — but no spot metering. Built-in special effect settings include Black & White, Sepia, and Document (for text-friendly high contrast). A fourth effect — Borders — lets you permanently apply a decorative border to images as you shoot them. The DC3400 has a standard Video Out port (set to either NTSC or PAL) for downloading stills to a TV or VCR, but the camera does not have a movie mode.

Kodak has done well to provide dedicated buttons for some features to reduce menu fatigue. Unfortunately, the features you must access through the menus seem to be in the wrong order. Exposure compensation is first, as it should be, but the next two items are Borders and Effects. Some frequently needed settings such as resolution, quality, and white balance are buried further down. Kodak’s icon-style menus lack text labels, and some are cryptic, but they were easy enough to use after I got used to them.

In Review (playback) mode, the DC3400 lets you view, lock, and delete your photos. My only complaint is that you can choose to delete images only one by one — in a tedious multistep process — or all at once. There is no way to select and delete multiple images other than to lock each image you want to keep and then select Delete All, which is a clumsy solution.

Waiting Room
The image-download experience can vary greatly depending on the method you choose. USB is definitely faster than serial, but I found that the DC3400 refused to download when connected to my Compaq USB hub. Instead, I had to use one of my PC’s primary USB ports. And don’t expect much help from the slow and clumsy software bundled with the camera.

In addition to the DC3400 Camera Controls software (which, curiously, lets you take pictures but not view or download them), the camera comes with ArcSoft PhotoImpression 2000 and a TWAIN driver for downloading images. Using PhotoImpression it took longer than 2 minutes to download 16 images; simply dragging and dropping them in Windows Explorer took exactly 1 minute. What’s more, downloading the same 16 images required only 4 seconds when I used my Lexar JumpShot card reader with an 8x Lexar CompactFlash card.

Serial download times were a bigger problem. Downloading the 16 images took about 40 minutes (2 and a half minutes per picture) using the ArcSoft software, and about 13 minutes using drag and drop.

Therein lies the woeful tale to which I alluded earlier. The sorry combination of a serial port and poor software almost ruined my vacation! After my first day of shooting on a week-long trip, it took so long to download 75 images through my Micron Millennia Transport’s serial port that the batteries of both the camera and laptop ran out of juice in the process. Resuming after a night of recharging, I found that by the time the motel’s checkout deadline arrived I had downloaded fewer than half my photos. Subsequent nights and mornings were passed similarly, causing the camera to become an albatross — not around my neck, however, as the camera has only a wrist strap.

Take some advice: Forget serial downloads. Get USB if you don’t have it already. And while you’re at it, spring for a large-capacity high-speed Lexar CompactFlash card (8MB just won’t do for 2-megapixel images), which comes with the speedy USB JumpShot reader. And forget Kodak’s bundled software. If you don’t have a favorite TWAIN-compliant image-management application already, get Sierra Image Expert. It works seamlessly with the JumpShot, popping up on cue as soon as the CompactFlash card is inserted and displaying all your photos.

Click here for high resolution image.

Seeing is Relieving
Speaking of vacation, I was finally rewarded for all my suffering when I saw my photos on the big screen. The DC3400 showcased my vacation destinations in excellent color. Daylight shots were crisp and well balanced, for the most part. Only some of the low-light images were unsatisfactory, because they were a bit grainy.

As you would expect, the camera’s 2-megapixel shots (1,760 by 1,168 pixels) easily proved sufficient for 5-by-7-inch prints during our tests, and it’s possible to get decent 8-by-10-inch prints with this resolution. Interestingly, the camera uses a 2:3 (4-by-6 snapshot) aspect ratio, rather than the typical 3:4 monitor ratio. It’s surprising that the camera’s only other resolution (Standard) is 896 by 592 pixels, when 640 by 480 is generally sufficient for the Web. Those who buy the camera primarily for Web work would probably have appreciated a 640-by-480 mode, which would allow more pictures per CompactFlash card.

Click for high resolution of left image and right image.

Once I moved beyond my serial-download fiasco with this camera, I warmed a bit to the Kodak DC3400. There’s no doubt that the image quality is impressive. Overall, however, the dearth of manual controls, the slow performance, the poor software, and the ergonomic shortcomings would steer me away from this camera, though it might well suffice for the casual shooter.

Read more by Marty Beaudet.


Posted on: September 27, 2000

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