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The Digital Photography Revolution

John Lawton

Photo: John Lawton

A few years ago digital cameras were little more than pricey gadgets for geeks. The models themselves were bulky and hard to use, and homemade prints were typically fuzzy—hardly worth the $800 investment. Still, digital photography had its advantages: you could review pictures seconds after snapping them, erase bad ones, edit the keepers, and never need to buy a roll of film. Fast-forward to today: improved technology and lower prices mean that even die-hard Luddites are ditching their 35 mm point-and-shoots. But with a slew of cameras to choose from, where do you begin?Read on for a primer on the most important aspects of going digital.

MEGAPIXELS
The key to digital picture clarity is the number of megapixels—the electronic dots that make up a digital image—a camera can capture. The more megapixels, the better the resolution. As you inch up the megapixel scale (current consumer models range from one to four), you gain the ability to crop a portion of a photo and enlarge it without degrading the image's quality. A two-megapixel camera can produce adequate 4-by-6 prints, but Paul Worthington, an analyst at the digital-imaging consulting firm Future Image, advises most consumers to buy a more advanced, three-megapixel model, which delivers 8-by-10 prints that are indiscernible from those taken with a film-based camera. Don't waste your money on the $2,000 four-megapixel models that are starting to hit the market, however. "Three megapixels give more image quality than anyone is going to need," Worthington says.

FEATURES AND HARDWARE
As with most electronic gadgets, the more expensive digital cameras on the market usually come with additional features and higher-quality components. What do you really need?First, be sure to choose a model that has optical zoom rather than digital zoom; instead of getting you closer, the latter simply crops and blows up images, diminishing the quality of the print. And watch out for something called "interpolated resolution," a method of digitally enhancing resolution that is less important than a camera's actual resolution—the maximum number of megapixels it can capture.

With all the high-tech bells and whistles of digital cameras, it's easy to forget that lens quality can drastically affect the sharpness of your photos. Price is one basic indicator, according to Michelle Lampmann, a digital-imaging analyst at the Boston-based InfoTrends Research Group. "Cameras priced over $400 are simply going to have more-refined glass and better optics," she says. Although all camera makers are continually improving their lenses, Lampmann notes that manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, and Olympus are generally considered the best.

When it comes to lenses, remember that size is important. With palm-sized digital cameras, like Canon's Elph S300, what you gain in portability you sacrifice in function—its smaller lens simply can't take in that entire Italian palazzo.

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