If you've ever wanted to say goodbye to photo finishers who lose your film, print pictures with pale-green skin tones, or scratch your negatives, now is the time.
The age of imaging has arrived, with affordable digital cameras that give photographers unprecedented control over the how their pictures look.
Don't like the photograph you just snapped? Review your work immediately, delete it and take another one. Is a picture too dark or too light? You can make it better with an imaging program.
With digital cameras cheaper and easier to use than ever, it's not surprising that the industry sold 2.5 million of them last year and expects that to increase to 3.4 million this year.
All is not picture-perfect, however. Digital cameras eat batteries like Rottweilers snacking on Puppy Chow. They use ''digital film'' in incompatible formats, including floppy disks, IBM's tiny microdrive and several types of memory cards, including CompactFlash, SmartMedia, and Sony's Memory Stick. One storage medium won't work in a camera designed for another. Finally, many of the cameras we tested need an extra flash to keep photographs shot in larger rooms from going blue.
But the technology is getting simpler. Most cameras ship with software and connecting cables to make getting photos from the camera easy.
The newest cameras use Universal Serial Bus ports to transfer images to your personal computer, a fast and reliable method. A few require memory-card readers that start at $50, while Sony's popular Mavica line takes a retro approach, using 3.5-inch floppies. They don't store many photos, but they're cheap and don't require an external hookup.
To check the latest models, we tried eight popular digital cameras priced between $260 and $900, representing the middle of today's market.
Generally, more money gets you higher resolution, measured in the number of dots a camera can record, along with features such as zoom lenses, increased storage, and more control over your images. A higher-resolution camera records more detail and produces better prints than a cheaper model.
Low-resolution cameras such as the KB Gear Interactive's JamCm and the Ixla PhotoEasy Deluxe start in the $100 range and provide relatively small, 640-by 480-dot resolution images for decent online viewing but marginal printing.
Cameras good enough for 4- by 6-inch prints start around $300. At the top end, in the $1,000 to $1,800 range, you'll find cameras that produce excellent images suitable for 8-by-10s.
The average mid-range camera ($600 to $700) is a 2-megapixel shooter that provides brilliant color, good contrast and sharp detail. Buy one that includes a USB connection and uses either regular AA batteries or rechargeables and you'll enjoy your digital experience.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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