A year or two back, I asked a photographer friend if he owned a scanner or if he planned to integrate digital images into his work. 'Nope,' he replied. 'I believe in the old American business adage which goes 'never buy what you can rent'.' It is not a bad idea. If you do not need to scan pictures regularly, why bother buying a scanner? Let someone with more experience and better equipment do it for you. 'Ah,' you say, 'why would I pay a service centre HK$200 to do a scan when I can buy my own scanner for just a few thousand dollars?' Damn good question. At least Kodak thought so. The most obvious alternative to scanning is a Kodak Photo CD. Kodak Photo CDs are something that many people have heard of, but few have tried. After all, if they are so good, why are more people not using them? Another good question. The Photo CD was introduced in 1990. At the time, Kodak was trying to hitch its wagon to what was sure to be the wave of the future, CDi. Kodak's idea was to have users scan their photos on to CDs which could then be viewed on a television via a CDi player. Beyond the rather impractical idea of making people sit around a TV whenever they wanted to look at snapshots, the CDi players were prohibitively expensive. Photo CDs also were more expensive than normal film developing. Reading them by a computer required a US$20,000-plus Sun SPARCstation workstation. Then along came desktop publishing. Small magazines with no in-house scanning facilities found a saviour in the Photo CD. Photographers found an easy way to have their photos digitised and an inexpensive way to distribute examples of their work. Kodak reworked the Photo CD and, in 1992, released the present version which can be viewed on any desktop computer with a CD-Rom drive. The demand even prompted Kodak to add two new types of Photo CD, the Pro Photo CD and the Portfolio CD. The cost of having an image put on to a Photo CD is quite reasonable when compared with what a service bureau would charge. Users need only a PC with a CD-Rom drive and some image-editing software like Photoshop. The images on the CD come in two formats. There are files in Kodak's proprietary Photo CD format as well as PICT files. You do not need to have Photo CD-capable software to read the PICT files, but only the Photo CD files can take advantage of Kodak's colour management software. In order to test the Photo CD's abilities, I sent several batches of images to two different businesses making Photo CDs in Hong Kong and had both regular and Pro Photo CDs made. Photo CDs can be made only from a slide or original negative, not a print. However, I sent in more slides than negatives to be tested. Slides are much more difficult to scan than negatives. Additionally you cannot tell what an image should look like by looking at a negative. A print is a second-generation image: its colours are subjected to the whims and follies of the lab that printed it. 'All right,' you say, 'enough with the techie stuff. How did the damn things look?' I've got good news and bad news. Before viewing your images, you should check out Kodak's Web site for the latest Photo CD software as the company updates both the acquire module and the colour management files quite regularly. This is an important piece of information because in an effort to give Kodak's colour management software every advantage, I not only did this, but I also used a rather expensive monitor calibrator to colour balance my screen and to build custom files for the Kodak Photo CD software. I dropped the CD into my computer, checked the settings on the acquire module and imported the image. It stunk. It stunk on ice. The highlights turned robin's egg blue and the shadows were red. I tried another image scanned from a neg. This time, a light blue sky turned white and grey concrete turned slightly green. Furthermore, I found absolutely no difference where the colour management was concerned when comparing a normal CD with Pro CDs. After a fair amount of fiddling, I found the answer. Turn the colour management off. To do this, open the Photo CD acquire module and select an image. Once you have done this, a dialogue box should appear with a column of buttons at the right, one of which is marked 'source'. Click the source button and find the pull-down menu marked 'source device'. Change this to 'default conversion'. Problems are solved if you are using an original that is a negative. If you are trying to scan slides, results will be much more variable. Low-contrast slides were fantastic. Dark colours that would be extremely difficult to reproduce with anything but a drum scanner were rich and vivid. But slides with normal or high contrast did not fare so well. The scans could not hold any highlight details and dark slides appeared much lighter than the original. Provided the slide looks okay to begin with, you can improve things a bit by asking the scanner operator to turn the Scene Balance Algorithm (SBA) off. The Photo CD originally was targeted at snapshot photographers and consequently the scanning software is set up to correct mistakes in exposure and colour balance. Leaving this software on might cause the scanner to make corrections where none are needed. Even with the SBA off, do not expect miracles with slides. The scanners really were not made to handle them. All in all, I found the Pro Photo CD not to be worth it. Colour management was not better, as claimed. As for the greater care taken in scanning, I did not really see it. And it seems a bit over the top for Kodak to ask for more money for custom adjustments. Apparently vendors agree, as I had no trouble asking for simple adjustments when ordering regular CDs. The only advantages left are the ultra-resolution scans and the fact that they clean the original. If you need a 60-meg file, spring for a scan from a service bureau. If your negs are dirty, buy a can of Dustoff and some film cleaner. So the good news is if you have negatives you can expect to get near-drum-scanner-quality images from a Photo CD. Just keep in mind that the biggest barrier to getting a good scan will be the condition of your originals. Scratches and dust show up much more clearly on a scan than on a print. Slides are another story. Some slides will look great while others will look terrible. I found the results too variable to make Photo CDs anything but a gamble. Kodak needs to take a long, hard look at the Photo CD. There is a lot lacking in the product and in the training given to scanner operators. After all, why should one even have to ask for custom adjustments, especially when scanning a slide? If the scan looks three shades lighter than the original, something obviously has failed and the operator should have enough sense to make corrections. Further, I believe the worst of the scans could be beaten easily by a HK$15,000 desktop scanner, which is saying something when a Photo CD station costs close to HK$1 million. Having in the past used scanners which are based on similar technology I am certain the problem comes from the colour management software in the scanning station. Photo CD technology has been around for more than 10 years now. If Kodak had dealt with these problems sooner, when a poor-quality flat-bed scanner cost US$3,000, it would now be the Microsoft of the digital-imaging world. If it can work these kinks out, there is still a chance. After all, who in their right mind would spend even HK$3,000 if they could get 10 times the quality in one-tenth the time for only HK$35?