Techniques: Shop Talk

How two CEOs found the digital cameras of their dreams

The construction business is rife with photo opportunities, and Sandusky Bay Construction Co. takes advantage of most of them.

If, for example, the company is interested in a highway project located hundreds of miles from its Norwalk, Ohio, headquarters, one or two employees will travel to the site and take pictures there. Estimators and foremen will then use those images to bid intelligently on the job without having to check it out firsthand. When complaints surface before, during, or after a dig, Sandusky can produce visual documentation of its blamelessness (a photo, for example, showing that those power lines were not where the utility said they were).

Sandusky president Mason "Phil" Oglesby III and his partner, Greg Bleile, have been investing in ever-more-sophisticated imaging technology since they founded the business, eight years ago. Having shepherded their 150-employee construction company from 35-millimeter prints to scanned photographs to videotape, Oglesby has had his eye on digital cameras for some time. Until recently, however, their price proved prohibitive: as much as $10,000 for a model with all the capabilities Sandusky would need. But in the past year prices for decent-quality digicams have dropped below $1,000, driving Oglesby and businesspeople like him into the market.

Digital cameras operate in much the same way that ordinary cameras do, except that they don't use film. Instead, they save images digitally. The images can then be downloaded onto a computer hard drive from which they can be printed, E-mailed, manipulated, or uploaded to a Web site. Oglesby was particularly attracted to the technology's promise of speedy retrieval. Although he had mastered the art of transferring video files over phone lines, downloading one 30-second video clip could take as long as an hour. Ultimately, he had to restrict sending the video clips to only the most critical destinations, like temporary job-site offices, where foremen could use the images to plan a project.

Oglesby began his search by consulting several local photography stores. There, he first road tested the Casio QV-300, which retails for $425 to $700. But the images on this 640x480-resolution unit didn't live up to his expectations based on the indoor test shots he took. With the help of store personnel, he was able to enlarge the shots, print the images on a photo-quality printer, and examine them through a magnifying glass. On a low-resolution camera like this one, he realized, a foreman's shot of a bridge connection or a joint would quickly dissolve into a mass of colored dots when it was enlarged to show detail.

That experience taught Oglesby that resolution had to be his top priority. Sandusky relies on detail-heavy close-up and wide-angle shots, so he wanted a digicam that packed as many pixels as possible. Resolution for cameras outside the professional realm runs from about 640x480 (307,200 pixels) on the lowest-quality models worth buying to 1280x960 (1,228,800 pixels) on the higher-but-still-affordable end. Oglesby figured he'd have to budget about $1,000 for a model at the higher end of the spectrum.

He also auditioned the Olympus D-300L, which retails for $600 to $900. Its picture quality at 1024x768 (786,432 pixels) was much better than the Casio's, but the camera lacked an optical zoom feature, which Oglesby needed for close-ups. His next candidate, a Sony Mavica MVC-FD7, intrigued him because unlike other cameras, it saves images directly onto a floppy disk rather than using internal memory. But he ultimately had to nix that one as well. Although the camera had a zoom lens, the image quality--which he felt was superior to the Casio's, even though the two cameras had the same resolution--just wasn't sufficient for the complex images his company requires. Looking at the printouts, "it was pretty obvious which cameras were better," Oglesby says. "You can tell when you blow up a photo and look at the contrast--look at the color saturation." Even the convenience of the rechargeable batteries and battery charger packaged with the Mavica didn't sway him, although the camera would most often be used far from a power outlet.

The last camera Oglesby put through its paces was the Kodak DC120. The Kodak had a zoom, and with 1,228,800 pixels the images it produced were sharp. It also had an optical viewfinder--the lens you look through to set up shots on a regular point-and-shoot camera. Most of the other models Oglesby had tested used an LCD panel that, in sunlight, made images appear washed out no matter how much he adjusted the brightness or the contrast.

As he expected, quality came at a price--in this case $1,100 for the camera itself, plus an additional $200 for two extras: an AC adapter to conserve on batteries during image downloading, and a removable 10MB memory card to store more pictures on. But Sandusky uses the camera so much, Oglesby feels he's getting more than his money's worth.

"Before, at a job site, we used to take a few pictures, maybe a roll of film," Oglesby says. But since Ohio started requiring contractors to provide 5- or 10-year warranties on work they perform, he now tells his foremen to shoot pictures "like crazy." And they do. Oglesby is so happy with the Kodak's results that he just bought a second unit for his company, and he says he'll go for a third once the new models are unveiled.

For Love of a Floppy
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Rob West it was worth a lot more than that in cold, hard cash.

Last year, West's $1-million specialty machining company, West Manufacturing Technologies Inc., was hired by the aerospace division of AlliedSignal Inc. to make a ceramic prototype of a jet-engine turbine blade. The project involved precisely machining a ceramic "slab" into an engine part using blueprints provided by the manufacturer. Close collaboration between West Manufacturing Technologies and its customer was essential but not easy, since West is based in Ithaca, N.Y., and the AlliedSignal division is in Torrance, Calif.

At that distance, "if there's a problem with the part, I can't just get in the car and drive over there," West says, "and they can't come here to see what I'm talking about." So when questions arose, West had no choice but to send the part to California and then wait three to four days for its return. Those delays cost the company thousands of dollars in downtime. "While we're waiting for an answer, we can't continue to make this part or go on to another part," West says. Although he had no experience with digital cameras, West figured he could use such a tool to take up-to-the-minute photos of his part in progress and E-mail the images instantly to the other coast.

West chose to do his product research on the Internet. He started by visiting the camera manufacturers' sites and then conducted keyword searches for bulletin-board forums. While the latter shed some light on how the different models worked in the real world, "I took that information with a grain of salt," he says. "Anyone can post anything on the Internet, and people could easily blame the camera for a problem when they were really just doing something wrong." But the forums alerted him to the Sony Mavica, whose owners tended to be fiercely loyal.

West was practically sold on the spot by the camera's use of floppy disks. Its design bypasses the entire cable-connecting and downloading process, which West believed would save him precious minutes. "That's the way these cameras should be built," says West. "I don't want to be busy downloading when I'm trying to convey information rapidly." Once mastered, downloading a few pictures via cable can take less than five minutes, but transferring highly detailed images or a large number of shots can stretch the waiting period to half an hour.

And although its capacity may seem puny in comparison with that of Iomega's Zip drive, the lowly diskette holds its own in the world of digital cameras. A diskette's capacity is comparable with about 2MB of memory--the standard for cameras in the Mavica's price range. That translates into a storage capacity of 15 to 20 images in "normal" mode and about half that number in "fine" mode. The actual number of pictures any digital camera can store depends on the total available memory, the complexity of the image, and the compression level. By contrast, Oglesby's Kodak DC120 can hold only two images in its highest-quality "superfine" setting and 20 images in the unit's standard 2MB of memory.

West's next step was to get his hands on a Mavica. In two Staples stores he played with the unit and compared it with half a dozen other models. With his manufacturing background, he was particularly impressed by the product's fit and finish. "Kind of a stocky little thing," he remembers thinking the first time he handled the camera. "I thought it was solid, very well put together."

Image quality wasn't a big deal to West, who, unlike Oglesby, would be taking almost exclusively indoor, one-subject photos that wouldn't need enlarging. The Mavica's resolution suited him just fine compared with that of the other models he looked at, including cameras made by Casio, Olympus, and Kodak. What's more, he knew that the Mavica saved the images in JPEG format, the industry standard, as a default. That would make it easy for anybody to view the images with a standard graphic-design program or Internet browser. And when he compared the LCD panels used to display recorded pictures, West found that "Sony's colors were more accurate, more realistic" than others in its class. "There was no comparison," he says.

Unfortunately, by the time West was ready to buy, he "had a hard time finding the Mavica in stock," he says. He consulted several stores and catalogs and got the same story from each: Mavicas were hard to come by. Finally, on a business trip to Los Angeles, West made a pit stop at Fry's Electronics, a local computer store, and struck gold. He selected the Sony Mavica MVC-FD7, which unlike the similar Sony Mavica MVC-FD5 has a zoom lens. The camera set him back $650; before beginning his research he had expected to spend about $500.

The next day, while he was still in Los Angeles, West took photos of some complex tooling to bring home to his engineers. Although he didn't have an Internet connection for the 24-hour trip, he did have his laptop computer. That night in his hotel room he used Microsoft Publisher to prepare a trip report complete with embedded images of the products. He also experimented with the camera, shooting an ashtray, a pen, and a can of soda. "I was really amazed," he says. "You could read the ingredients on the label of the can."

Back at home, West says the Mavica is doing what it's supposed to do: helping him resolve questions with customers more quickly. "You can just pop that diskette out and put it in a regular PC and have your image traveling on the Internet in minutes," he says. Even when everything is going right, West still uses the camera to provide weekly updates to clients over the Net.

And both West and Oglesby are finding additional uses for their cameras. Oglesby is attaching images of his inventory to a Microsoft Access database to save for insurance purposes and to enable his office staff and field superintendents to easily track down equipment, such as field computers. And West Manufacturing now shoots each completed prototype as it goes out the door. The best of those images will be uploaded to the company's Web site, which was scheduled to be up and running this month. What better way to attract customers than to show them what you can do?

Mie-Yun Lee is editorial director and founder of BuyersZone, an Internet buying service that features expert purchasing advice and tools for small and midsize businesses. For a digital version of the decision-making process described here, check out