Letters from Somnolescent September 7, 2022

Cammy Revisits the PhotoCam

by mariteaux

A recreation of my old artsy photo of the PhotoCam...using a PhotoCam as the camera

Longtime blog readers will remember a post I did in July 2019 called “Cammy vs. the PhotoCam”. It was a cute little lark into trying to score some retro tech on eBay and failing miserably. I didn’t have a job or a lot of money to spend on impractical hobby stuff back then, and the entire thing left a sour enough taste in my mouth that I didn’t bother looking for a working unit.

We’re in September 2022 now, I have a job now, and I figured it was time to go hunting again. I got a lot more than I bargained for. On offer today: storytelling! Burning hot batteries! A showdown between three similarly-spec’ed cameras! But first, we start with…

Preludes

If you don’t want to read through the old post, or this is like 20 years in the future and only this post survives on the Wayback Machine, here’s the gist. I got into the retro digicam thing through LGR on YouTube, and wanting some of that sweet, sweet aesthetic for myself, I went looking around for my ideal retro digicam. I had three requirements:

  • It needed to take 640×480 photos. Any smaller and the pictures would be unusable, any larger and it wouldn’t fit the aesthetic I’m going for.
  • It needed to use CompactFlash cards for picture transfer off the camera. No serial hookups (no serial port machines outside of the eMachines Box, which I didn’t own back then), no USB hookups (likely too new).
  • It needed to be housed in a very classic camera body, so no Mavicas.

I settled on the AOL PhotoCam, which was an OEM camera AOL rebranded with the intention of selling the new world of digital photos to its userbase. I looked online, bought one, and it showed up nonfunctional. All I got out of it was a piece of plastic, an AC adapter, the manual, and an AOL branded carrying case.

Humbug.

Hunting again

I never stopped looking for a PhotoCam. This time, however, I was obsessed with making sure I got a working unit, and messaged every seller whose listing wasn’t clear asking about it. Invariably, they hadn’t tried it, and I simply never took the gamble.

The worst part of the search was that I was starting to see listings for the PhotoCam for some alarming prices, sometimes several hundreds of dollars. The eBay scalper market is kind of insane these days, and sorry–it’s just not worth that to me and hopefully to everyone else.

Yet another false start

I figured I’d found a safe bet this past August. It was an open-box unit going for $15, with shipping adding roughly another $15 to the price. I dutifully messaged the seller, got a response to the effect of “no, but also, nothing inside has been unwrapped”, and bought it. Assuming AOL didn’t originally ship these with batteries, that camera was almost guaranteed to work, or at least was like new, and it came with everything, including the box. You can’t say no.

eBay seller taking my PhotoCam money and running
Humbug.

And then it never got shipped. It’s not that I never got it–the seller never marked it as shipped, nor did I ever receive a tracking number. eBay makes you wait out the estimated delivery period before you can ask them to step in, and by August 20th, I was about ready to light someone up. I sent another message asking the camera’s whereabouts, and eBay themselves stepped in a week later with an automatic refund as the seller simply never responded.

Precious Pretec

I had now had two bad experiences and plenty of other duds trying to buy this camera, and I wasn’t about to drop hundreds on a still-sealed one. I took a second option: I decided to buy a Pretec DC-600.

Remember how I mentioned AOL rebranded an OEM camera? The original manufacturer of the PhotoCams was a company named Pretec, or the Premier Image Technology Corporation. They were apparently based out of Taiwan, and delivered their own version of the PhotoCam to market as the DC-600. (Pretec got acquired around 2006, and I don’t know who owns their assets these days.)

Without the AOL branding, I figured a Pretec original would be far cheaper and less prone to scalping, and for the most part, I was correct. $10 and some change for one marked as working later, and my almost-PhotoCam arrived.

AOL PhotoCam next to the Pretec DC-600
These cameras are identical, to be clear. AOL requested no changes to their internals, and it’s only the lighting that makes the cases look different colors. Thus, because it’s my working unit, all the PhotoCam shots in this post actually come from the Pretec.

Health check

The listing said the camera was tested and working, but had a glaring problem in the battery door not staying closed. (In fact, it’s fallen off numerous times since I’ve owned it.) The snap the battery door fed into has seemingly been eaten by battery acid! Weirdly, though, the inside was completely clean, and none of the contacts were corroded.

Velcro had been used to secure the battery door shut, but with batteries installed, the door doesn’t sit flush because of their weight and spring-loaded power pushing them slightly out of position. To even get the camera to turn on requires you to hold the door shut rather tight, to the detriment of my right hand. (As we’ll discuss though, I don’t hold it for very long anyway.)

Worse yet, the camera had gone sticky; the grip on the right-hand side was starting to wear, as a lot of late 90s electronics with this rubber coating have, and the velcro itself was starting to peel apart. I’ve yet to scrub this camera off, and I’m mildly regretting waiting so long.

All that said: it works! Yes, after all the hunting, missteps, and frustration, it powered up in my kitchen, and I proceeded to turn snap a shot of my back door and play with the menus, trying to locate where everything was in between battery issues.

There was a more sinister issue, however. My mom had attempted to help me secure the door shut with electrical tape, but found that the camera had started to get bizarrely hot with batteries inserted. Something also smelled oddly of burning plastic! We let the batteries fall out onto the counter, and sure enough, they were nearly hot enough to burn my skin off.

After letting it cool for a bit and hoping the camera hadn’t also decided to eat shit, I put in some proper Duracells (I was initially using generic batteries and thought that might’ve been the cause) and, thankfully, it powered back on. Still, at multiple points, even the new batteries have gotten pretty toasty, even with the camera turned off.

I’m thinking that, possibly because I have to hold the door shut, sometimes they misalign inside and make contact not with the contact pads, but with the metal battery chassis. All that electricity gets lost as heat instead, causing melty plastic smell and hot batteries. (This coincides with the camera not turning on sometimes, even with batteries installed.) I’ve since learned to keep the battery door open between photos and just deal with the power on time every time I want to take a shot.

One nice relief is that the AC adapter I got with the PhotoCam also works with the Pretec, and I don’t need batteries installed to turn it on if I’ve got it plugged into the mains. This saves me some pretty major wear on my arm, and possibly on the battery compartment, when I’m just trying to get photos off the camera.

Getting photos off the camera

The PhotoCam has 2MB of onboard storage, letting you take a whopping 16 photos! With a CompactFlash card (max size 32MB), this gets bumped to about 120 photos, which is really plenty for any trip.

There’s a menu option for copying photos to the CF card (and if one’s in there, it’ll save to that, not the internal memory), but no direct support for letting you take the card to a computer and browse the photos using a card reader. If you do that, Windows reports the card as being partially used, but with no files on it. I suspect there’s some kinda hidden database file, as the card is generic old FAT, no special file systems to my knowledge.

In any event, I’ve been using the excellent PhotoRec, from the man who brought you TestDisk (do you remember the “How a Fusion Drive Ate Our Gopher” post? I used these there too) to scan the “empty” space on the card and recover JPEGs. I don’t know if the camera saves EXIF data, but none of the recovered shots have it, so sorry, I can’t give you camera specs.

This too comes with anomalies, however! Sometimes, my shots don’t get recovered. They do exist, because I can see them in the camera’s photo browser, but PhotoRec doesn’t see them. Even stranger, every time I go to recover photos, some of not only the old owner’s shots, but also my test shots (like the one of my back door) are still there, despite me both having nuked the camera’s memory and formatted the card long after taking them. I cannot explain it.

This is everything PhotoRec sees on my CF card, currently. The text files are either garbage or, inexplicably, the license text for Bitstream Vera, an open source Verdana replacement that wouldn’t exist until three years after this camera was introduced. Was this somehow put on there by the previous owner? Is it from something I had on this CF card previously? The world may never, ever know.

According to the manual, you’re supposed to use a serial or USB lead (there’s two different ports on the camera for each one) and a program called MGI PhotoSuite to transfer photos, and I have none of that. For what it’s worth, keeping some photos on the card seems to massively increase the likelihood of my shots being salvageable, but only increases it. Nothing seems to be a sure bet. Hopefully, I can source out the leads and gather the missing photos someday.

Anyway, let’s get to some photos!

Initial testing: outdoors, both overcast and sunny

The path down behind my house, as snapped by the PhotoCam

The day I got the camera was pretty overcast, but I decided to wander out down a trail behind my house and snap some photos. Pretty immediately, I was struck by the PhotoCam’s very cramped field-of-view. Seriously, you have to be pretty far away to get everything you want in shot, but the weirdness of these old cameras is part of the fun. I kept playing with it into the next day, when it was a lot sunnier.

Some geraniums, as snapped by the PhotoCam

This camera has a pretty lovely way of handling colors. On the overcast day, the PhotoCam washed things out in a very analog way, and on the sunnier day, the highlights got bleached in a very warm, almost dreamy, manner. These shots look more like digitized polaroids than anything from a digital camera, old or new, and that’s just awesome.

Some tall sunflowers on our deck, as snapped by the PhotoCam

The PhotoCam’s low-light performance is…laughable, to say the least. I can’t even show you the shot I took in my bedroom with all the lights on, because even after I cranked the brightness in an image editor, it was still all black. This actually kind of works in the camera’s favor though; unlike, say, phone cameras, the PhotoCam doesn’t do any post-processing to your shot, so areas with good lighting have a less sterile, more contrasting look to them. You’ll see this a lot later.

Further testing: indoors under fluorescents

A few nights later, I took the camera to work. I work evenings at a grocery store selling beer and wine to your crotchety grandparents, and it clears out like crazy through the entire store after about 7PM, sometimes earlier. In between checking people out (like, once every half hour), I snuck the camera through the aisles and behind the counter to see how the PhotoCam would do under cold fluorescent lighting.

Fresh roduce, courtesy of the PhotoCam

It’s actually really nice! It’s definitely not as bright as it looks in person, and paired with the softness of the details and the warmth of the color temp, it’s pretty pleasing. Granted, stuff looks pretty dark away from direct light, but that also means when you do get a bright lamp in your shot, it shows up incredibly clear, no halo or anything.

Here’s a few more shots just because I took a bunch:

The register I work next to, snapped by the PhotoCam
Old tech always shows up so well on old cameras.
Alcoholic slushies, snapped by the PhotoCam
Yes, those are alcoholic. They’re not bad, and they sell pretty well too.
Oakie, snapped by the PhotoCam
From a darkened corner of the Hallmark aisle! This boy’s name is Oakie, and he is about to melt into tears at any moment, for any reason. I kinda wanna buy him.

Lo-fi camera showdown: PhotoCam vs. DSi vs. 3DS

Each of the cameras I tested (minus the broken one)

As it’s taken me so long to get a PhotoCam, I’ve actually been alternating between my Nintendo DSi and my 3DS XL when I need to take old-looking photos. When I was planning this post out, I realized all three shoot at 640×480, thus being suitable for direct comparisons. What exactly I’m comparing here, I never decided. I think I originally wanted to see which one took the best pictures, but the answer will always be my phone, so let’s just enjoy how they all look, yeah?

I returned to Pocono Creek, a little nature preserve around the corner from where I live, with my little sister and all three cameras. (If you remember cammy.somnol, which still needs a major redesign as of writing this, you might recall when I took a bunch of shots there with my phone camera and put them up in the vault.) It was a bright, sunshiney, fun little adventure (we did not find the TV or records again, sadly), and only one dog bothered us while we were there.

I’ll have the PhotoCam on the left, the DSi in the middle, and the 3DS on the right. Click the comparisons for full size. I stood in the same spot for all three shots. The differences in FOV and positioning are all from the cameras. I did not edit a single shot.

Tree tunnel

Photo comparison standing in the tree tunnel

I don’t think I was standing directly in the sunlight, but as you can see, the PhotoCam is the only camera to not exhibit a bright sun halo. This is really where the darkness of the sensor seems to come in handy. The DSi camera is noticeably redder, and the 3DS has more neutral color temps, but it’s still bright and I think shows off the JPEG compression more apparently.

Creek

Photo comparison staring at the creek

Again, the camera’s darker sensor comes into focus. In the highlights, the PhotoCam captures more detail than the other two, while in the shadows, it captures less detail.

I think in this shot, the branches look more natural and have better depth in the PhotoCam version than the other two, which are both very digital and very noisy. The PhotoCam likes to blur and soften things in a very almost instant camera sorta way, while the DS cameras feel like they have webcam image sensors. (In other words, if someone showed me the DS camera shots and said they were from a live webcam hanging over a creek, I might believe them.)

The DSi has the best FOV of any of the cameras, though the 3DS is very similar. Not sure you’d be able to tell the difference if you weren’t looking.

Tree roots

Photo comparison of a toppled tree

This is the best demonstration of the PhotoCam’s shortcomings on this entire page. If I didn’t put the other two cameras next to it, you wouldn’t be able to tell what you’re looking at. Comparing the DSi and 3DS, I think the 3DS is a pretty noticeable downgrade in image quality. Fine details in the dirt and tree roots (as fine as you get at 640×480) get turned into ugly green and red splotches, Our only guess is that this is because the 3DS had to pack two cameras onboard to let you take 3D photos, so Nintendo had to cheap out even harder.

Fungus under shade

Photo comparison of a weird mushroom

Admittedly, I think I was aiming differently across all three cameras, so my bad. But still! Neat mushrooms. Again, the PhotoCam is darker, but it’s easier on the eyes as a result. The DS cameras up the brightness in a way that was more accurate to the lighting conditions while we were there, but lose some of the vibe as a result.

All the water and fallen leaves are a pretty good stress test for each camera’s onboard JPEG compression, I must say. I imagine if I was walking around and taking photos of buildings, things probably wouldn’t look as digital.

Final thoughts

Further downstream, as snapped by the PhotoCam

The PhotoCam has put me through a lot of varying emotions both before I owned it and since I’ve owned a working one. It’s been a weirdly frustrating venture! It’s such a crapshoot retrieving the photos it takes. The battery door has to be held in just right through every single shot and during the very long photo save process. The batteries have given me quite the fright on multiple occasions.

But now that I’ve gotten used to the quirks of even my semi-functional model, I can honestly say it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s an instant vibe filter! Things are soft even when they’re bright, in a way other digicams simply don’t do. Obviously, these would fit right in on any old web page of your choosing. So would the DSi and 3DS ones, really, but those crunched where the PhotoCam blurs, and that’s unique. Never seen a digital camera quite like it.

Photo comparison standing in a forest clearing

I’d certainly still like to get a working PhotoCam proper, or at least a more functional Pretec model, though now that I’ve gotten used to using this one, I’m less inclined to try my hand yet again at the eBay game. Either way, this one needs a cleaning to get the velcro off it, and I’m keeping it on hand for my travels to Wales next April (yes! I have made it official).

Whichever model I end up taking, you can absolutely expect a big page of photos of old castles and shops and probably myself taken on this camera around then. It’s just too cool not to use.

The rainy Weis parking lot, as snapped by the PhotoCam
And speaking of cool, here’s a cool rainy shot to show us out!

About mariteaux

Top asshole at Somnolescent, cosmic hippie sperg badger boy, writer, musician, and obsessive about Cabys. I actually do like long walks on the beach, thank you.


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