If you're looking at digital cameras this holiday season, you have plenty of company. Digital cameras are better and easier to use than ever. And this year, you can buy one that produces close-to-film quality without breaking the budget.
I noticed the change this summer on a trip to Italy, where at least one-third of the tourists I saw were snapping digital photos. According to the U.S. Photo Marketing Association, the number of rolls of film processed by photofinishers here has been declining since 2000, and the organization expects digital cameras to outsell film cameras for the first time this year.
Take a look at the store shelves and it's not hard to see why. Basic snapshooters with enough resolution for excellent prints are available for as little as $100. For serious photographers, single-lens reflex models such as the Canon EOS Rebel have broken the $1,000 barrier for the first time.
Does that make a digital camera right for you? In the past I've hedged a bit about this. But if you take more than occasional snapshots and you're on reasonably good terms with a computer, you can have a lot more fun today by going digital.
What makes digital photography so attractive? First, unlike traditional cameras, digital cameras don't use film. Instead, they capture an image as a grid of tiny dots, or pixels, on a light-sensitive wafer known as a charge-coupled device, or CCD. Once the CCD determines the red, green and blue values of each pixel, the camera stores the data in flash memory, which keeps the image intact even when you turn the camera off.
Some cameras have a limited amount of flash memory built in, but most use removable memory cards (the kind used in many digital music players). If you fill up one card, you can remove it and insert another.
Some people refer to these memory cards as "digital film." But there's a big difference. Once you've taken a photo on film, that piece of film is used up, and there's not much you can do if the shot isn't a good one -- except pay for a lousy print.
Since all but the cheapest digital cameras have liquid crystal displays on the back, you can review your photos and delete the bad ones on the spot, freeing room for good shots on each memory card.
Once you've transferred photos to a computer, you can erase the card's contents and use it again.
There are two ways to get your photos from the camera to the computer. One is to hook the camera directly to the computer's USB port and use software provided with the camera to transfer the pictures. Or, you can use a memory card reader, which hooks to your PC. Some high-end computers designed for multimedia use have memory card readers built in.
Once you've stored a digital photo on your computer, you can edit it in ways that professional photographers only dreamed about in their darkrooms until recent years. You can change the exposure, contrast and color balance, remove red eye, remove blemishes (I call it digital Clearasil), smooth wrinkles or even cut off Steve's head and paste it on Bill's body.
That done, you can e-mail a photo to family and friends, print it yourself or upload it to an online service that will make prints for you -- which is often cheaper and easier than doing it yourself.
In addition, many storefront photofinishers can take flash memory cards and make prints while you wait.
So, all things considered, digital photography is more flexible than film and cheaper in the long run -- particularly if you take lots of photos.
That said, buying a digital camera requires a little extra technical know-how. In addition to the things you look for in a film camera -- the design and quality of the lens, the amount of automation the camera provides and the degree of control over focus and exposure (if you want it) -- a digital camera is actually a tiny, single-purpose computer.
The most important consideration for most buyers -- and a major factor in the cost -- is the camera's "resolution." This refers to the number of pixels the camera uses to record each image. More pixels means greater detail. High-resolution images can produce larger prints without graininess than lower-resolution photos. You can also crop a high-resolution image and still have enough pixels left to produce an acceptable print.
Resolution is measured in megapixels, or millions of pixels. For example, a camera that records an image 2,000 pixels by 1,500 pixels has a total resolution of 3 million pixels, or roughly 3 megapixels. The camera's resolution is usually printed at the top of the sticker or shelf label that describes features.
Cameras designed for consumer snapshooters range from 1 to 5 megapixels -- and you'll pay about $100 per megapixel of resolution. Which brings up the question: How much resolution do you need?
Unless you're strictly interested in sending photos over the Web, stay away from 1-megapixel cameras. A 2-megapixel camera will produce a good 4- by 6-inch enlargement and 5 by 7 in a pinch. A 3-megapixel camera (the sweet spot in today's market) can produce great prints up to 5 by 7 inches and decent prints up to 8 by 10, while 4- and 5-megapixel cameras can produce 11 by 14 or larger images.
The downside to high resolution is storage -- all those pixels occupy space on a camera's memory card and your computer's hard drive. For example, the 2-megapixel Nikon CoolPix model I tote in my pocket gets about 50 photos on a 32-megabyte memory card. The 3-megapixel Hewlett-Packard camera I'm testing gets about 30 on a card the same size.
Those cards cost about $25 -- the price of six or seven rolls of film. But they're reusable -- so in the long run, they pay off.
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