Kodak's shortsighted DC210

When you buy a digital camera, find out about focusing. In particular, watch out for the term focus free. In most situations, a camera that's "focus free" (or equipped with a lens that's "focus free") is incapable of taking photographs that are in focus. And a high score for what the makers of digital cameras term "resolution" won't counteract this.

Kodak DC210Under whatever name, the Kodak DC210 is one example. I was suckered into buying one. Don't make the same mistake -- learn what to look out for. Read on. . . .

How I was suckered

When I chose among digital cameras costing up to $600 or so, I assumed that the alternatives would be:

Sure enough, manual focus was rare and expensive. (The Kodak DC260 has it as an option, but was beyond the budget I'd set myself.) Most of the cameras seemed to have automatic focus -- anyway, their lenses didn't have focusing rings.

Even in the store, the Kodak DC210 didn't completely satisfy me -- for one thing, its lens isn't covered when not in use, and there's no provision for a protective lenscap or lens hood -- but on balance it seemed reasonable, and Kodak has a good reputation for digital cameras. So I bought it.

My mistake? I used common sense, which told me that no self-respecting company would have the nerve to market a fixed-focus camera for over $50. But that's just what Kodak is doing -- and it's not alone.


What's wrong with a "focus-free" camera

Most of the photos I'd taken were out of focus.

I then realized -- why had it taken me so long? -- that there was no sound of the lens focusing.

I looked more closely at some of the ads for this camera. One or two described it as focus-free. I quickly deduced that "focus-free" is a euphemism for fixed focus.

Fixed-focus means you can't focus the lens and it can't focus itself. Photos are only in focus when they're of things at or near a single distance decided by the manufacturer, a distance you have to deduce for yourself by trial and error. (For this Kodak, you also have the option of a second, closer distance: "macro".)

Just imagine that Sony or Sanyo made a stereo with no volume control. Instead, they decided the amplification level suitable for all situations, and then advertised the resulting product as "volume-free". . . .

It would have been simpler to call the camera unfocusable -- but then it would have been unsellable.

It's hard even to say that anything between distance X and distance Y will be in focus with this camera. Any experience of photography (or knowledge of optics) will tell you that X and Y will vary with the lens aperture. This camera has a zoom lens, and the depth of field varies with focal length, too.

As soon as I realized that this toy had a fixed focusing distance, I lost my taste for it. I didn't spend any time investigating what the fixed focusing distance is. But it's close. It's so close that it can fool the "experts" who test these things for magazines by snapping at what happens to be on their tables, and it's so close that what's ten meters or more away is invariably fuzzy, and what's three meters away is probably fuzzy too.

Here's some evidence. Click the thumbnails to see what I'm talking about.

These bigger pictures are exactly what the camera produced. The camera offers a choice of two "resolutions" (sizes, expressed in number of pixels) and three degrees of what Kodak calls "quality" ("good" is more compressed than "better", which is more compressed than "best"). As you'll see, neither "resolution" nor compression (or "quality" ) has anything to do with focus.

coiled sausage 280kB Resolution: 1152x864. Quality: "best".
English pub lunch, Stratford upon Avon. Commendably well focused. It would take a miracle of optics for a fixed-focus lens to get this right and long distances too. But Kodak's lens designers don't work miracles.
explosive drinks 89kB Resolution: 640x480. Quality: "better".
View from a bar-stool in Tábor (south of Prague). Again, what we see is so close that it's more or less in focus -- though it's not as sharp as it would be if anyone with reasonable eyesight had manually focused an average SLR.
Slavonice 97kB Resolution: 640x480. Quality: "better".
View down from the church tower in Slavonice (Czech Republic, close to the Austrian border). You can see from the clear and small shadows that this is in bright sunshine, yet the depth of field isn't sufficient: everything is out of focus. The tiles facing us on the house on the right aren't bad, because they're closest.
white horse 265kB Resolution: 1152x864. Quality: "best".
Uffington White Horse (southern England) seen close up. It's a cloudy day, meaning that the entire scene is out of focus.
white horse 248kB Resolution: 1152x864. Quality: "best".
Ditto. The grass at the bottom right-hand corner isn't too bad.
"Shakespeare's birthplace" 283kB Resolution: 1152x864. Quality: "best".
Tourists outside what's said to be Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford upon Avon. The paving-stones closest to us aren't bad; the rest of the picture is awful.
mosque 93kB Resolution: 1152x864. Quality: "best".
East London mosque. A view diagonally across Whitechapel Road in the middle of a cloudy summer day. I can't blame the camera for the lack of contrast, but nothing is in focus.


Kodak's line

There's all sorts of promotional material about this camera in various web pages whose URLs may change but which are easily found from Kodak's "gateway" page. For the most part, Kodak chooses not to mention focus, other than talking of the "macro" facility (which simply brings the fixed focus from an unspecified distance to 20 cm). Instead, its copywriters burble on about the wonderful resolution. By this they merely mean the number of pixels; the writers ignore the fact that a picture that would be out of focus at 800 x 600 pixels is just as out of focus at 1152 x 864 (indeed, the extra size makes it more obviously out of focus), while they perhaps hope you think of the meaning of resolution in optics.

Occasionally, Kodak does make oblique and euphemistic mention of the crude design. In "Meet the DC200 and DC210 Zoom" [previously http://www.kodak.com/US/en/digital/dc210/dc210How1.shtml, now maybe dead], we read:

Both cameras have a focus-free lens, optical viewfinder, self-timer and built-in flash with five settings (automatic, fill, red-eye, fill/red-eye, off) to handle any picture-taking situation with ease.

[Here and below, it's me who emphasizes
"focus-free" -- with or without the hyphen.]

I suppose that things that are over five meters away in cloudy weather don't constitute a "picture-taking situation".

Elsewhere, on the new and improved DC210 Plus:

Easy to use. A focus free lens and intuitive, award-winning user interface gives you point-and-shoot simplicity.

Eh? How is a fixed-focus camera simpler to use than one that autofocuses?

One thing Kodak seems not to provide anywhere is an explanation of what "focus free" means. Strange, as the meaning is not clear from a dictionary, and neither is it self-evident. Certainly it doesn't appear anywhere in Kodak's Digital Glossary, which the company claims is "a comprehensive list of digital imaging terminology". It doesn't even appear in Kodak's Glossary of Photographic Terms, which does define Fixed-Focus and Fixed-Focus Lens -- more obvious terms that Kodak seems not to use for digital cameras.

But then of course "focus free" is merely a euphemism used by embarrassed copywriters and salesmen. It's not the sort of term the company would enjoy explaining.

No. 3 Folding Pocket KodakBack in 1900, Kodak believed that "the highest achievement in pocket photography" was a camera complete with the ability to be focused. So the DC210 is mediocre by Kodak's own standard of a century earlier.


The experts speak

In order to see through euphemisms and to think of those points that copywriters discreetly omit to mention, what should we do? Look at specialist magazines?

Uh, no. In general, they've fallen over themselves to praise this camera, showering it with awards. The experts at PC Magazine, specifically Daniel Grotta and Sally Wiener Grotta, made it an "Editor's Choice" back in February '98, saying:

Images were sharp and detailed

(http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/digicam2/rev4.htm, now dead). My most charitable interpretation of this is: "Images of things close to the camera were sharp and detailed."


the DC120 is an excellent choice for users who want top-of-the-line image quality for business uses such as real estate and Web images. It can even satisfy the demands of photo hobbyists and semiprofessionals. Our recommendation, though, is to spend the extra money for the DC210. Kodak has a winner here for business users who want simplicity, style, and superior-looking pictures.

Real estate? Well, for pictures of interiors. (And note how, for "business users", "style" ranks up there with "superior-looking pictures".)


DS DC210
Family Good
Business Excellent
Semiprofessional Fair


In the rival PC World, Richard Jantz dwells on the "features" and doesn't mention focusing. He says

My preproduction unit performed without a hitch, producing strikingly handsome images on screen and in print.

and concludes:

Value: Pricey, but great quality for the most demanding jobs.

(Previously at http://www.pcworld.com/hardware/scanners/articles/dec97/1512p119a.html; page since removed.)

In Bootnet's review [link dead when last checked], Brad Dosland resists the lure of bells and whistles:

Still, image quality's the thing, and Kodak's DC210 doesn't disappoint. Pictures taken with this camera are sharp and detailed.

After page upon page of this kind of thing, I start to think that the world is mad, or that I am.

http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/insites/seymour/jsbio.htm (now dead) informed us that Jim Seymour was a man who "brings a real-world focus to computer-technology applications", says the publisher of PC Magazine. Just what we need! And two months after that magazine's award of "Editor's Choice", in an article promisingly titled "Digital Cameras: Reality vs. Hype" (http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/insites/seymour/js980406.htm, now dead) he gives a good example of the hype:

For more demanding uses, such as photos for PowerPoint shows and consulting reports, you really need the higher-quality images produced by the $650 to $1,000 digital cameras, such as Olympus America's exemplary D-320L and D-600L or Eastman Kodak's DS DC210.

Uh, hold on. That's not supposed to be hype. No, it's Seymour's "reality".

This man is paid money to write his column?

Yes, of course he is paid.


Straight talk

How you record, store, and reproduce a photograph has no effect on the quality of the image that you're attempting to record in the first place. There's nothing about digital photography that overrides the simple laws of optics.

Focus free means fixed focus, no more, no less. (And panfocus may mean the same.)

If you focus a lens -- or if an autofocus camera focuses its lens -- at a certain point, some of what's both in front of and behind that point may also be in focus. So it's true that you can do quite a bit with a fixed-focus camera. But even if all other factors are cooperating, there is no fixed-focus design that will get you photos of landscapes that are in focus and also photos of what's on the table in front of you that are in focus.

Kodak must understand this contradiction very well. OK, the company wants to avoid mystifying the inexperienced with talk of "aperture", "focal length" or "depth of field", let alone "hyperfocal distance". But it's dishonest when it fails to say in the publicity something like This camera is unsuitable for landscapes and vacation photography. And those who do take the trouble to look at the Spec Sheet are told

Lens: Focus-free 2X zoom with close-up mode

Focus Distance: 19.8" (0.5 m) to infinity; close-up 8" (0.2 m)

of which "focus-free" is obscure and the bit about "to infinity" is blatantly untrue.

High resolution is a major sales point of this and numerous other digital cameras, and an obsession of the hacks working for computer magazines. Although high resolution in the optical and [traditional] photographic sense of the word does imply that the image is in focus (as well as much else), "high resolution" as the term is bandied around by the computer industry and its fans says nothing about focus. A camera that combined a fixed-focus lens and one gigabyte [!] "resolution" would still deliver out-of-focus pictures.

There's no need to settle for shoddy designs and out-of-focus pictures. Reasonably-priced autofocusing digital cameras exist.

And read PC Magazine and the like with considerable skepticism. The expert writers may have an even feebler grasp of elementary physics than you or I.


Update: Though the search engines emphasize commercial and mediocre pages, there do exist well-informed and disinterested appraisals of digital cameras. For the DC210, I recommend Taylor G. Turing's review at e-imagers.com [now defunct?] and Bryan Costin's DC210 page [link now estivating; soon to be revived]. Both reviews are friendlier than mine, so you get balance. You'll also find intelligent talk about digital cameras in at least some of the message forums of Digital Camera Resource Page.

As for the way the photo companies -- notably Kodak but not only Kodak -- dumb down and short-change the customer, try Willis Boyce's "Why I'm sick of Kodak" and Philip Greenspun's Kodak APS (Advanced Photo System) . . . and don't leave either site without first making a tour of its other, less polemical pages.

Would you like to add something? Can you make any corrections? Don't just tell me; tell the whole world.


First created: 9 September 1998. Main content last fiddled with: 13 September 1998. "Update" added 22 September 1998 and revised 13 March 2003.

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