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.
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.
The downside to higher-resolution cameras is that pictures take up more space on the memory cards that store them in your camera. Most cameras come with just one 16 MB card, which typically holds only five high-quality images, so you'll probably need to purchase a 32 MB or 64 MB card ($50—$60 and $89—$100, respectively).
Most models use either a Compact Flash memory card or one made by SmartMedia. If you're the type to take lots of pictures, go with a camera that uses the former. Compact Flash cards are being developed a bit faster than SmartMedia ones, so you can expect to have less-expensive, higher-capacity options sooner. If a camera has a different memory system, consider carefully before buying. Sony's Memory Stick is compatible only with Sony's own CyberShot line, and there are just two choices for printers: Sony or Epson. Agfa's ePhoto CL30 Clik! camera stores pictures on Iomega PocketZip discs, two-inch mini-CD's that sell for about $10, but they haven't caught on with other manufacturers and risk becoming obsolete.
To maximize memory, the majority of cameras let you change both the resolution (the number of megapixels used to capture an image) and the compression format (how the image is saved and re-created when uploaded to your computer) before you shoot. Lower resolution and higher compression each increase memory capacity. According to InfoTrends' Lampmann, the best way to pack more photos into your camera is to increase compression rather than decrease resolution, since resolution more directly affects picture quality. "It's when you start reducing the resolution and increasing the compression that you get a lower-quality image," she says. And changing just one part of the equation is effective: a 32 MB memory card that can hold 12 three-megapixel images at lowest compression, for example, can store 40 of the same images at an increased compression.
Be sure to buy a few sets of rechargeable AA batteries for your camera (usually about $12 for four), so you'll always have extras when you run out of juice. Even though a few hours of use in a digital camera is enough to exhaust batteries, most manufacturers don't sell their models with rechargeable ones. "When I go abroad my first purchase is always a recharger that will work in that country," says Worthington. His trick to making it through an entire day with just two sets of batteries?Turn off the LCD screen that enables you to review your images. (That also means you shouldn't buy a camera without a viewfinder, since it forces you to use the LCD to set up shots.)
All the cameras come with software that can be used to enhance images on your computer. So with a printer and photo-quality paper, you can produce your own pictures at home. Ink-jet printers are the least expensive, but you'd do well to invest in a newer model that uses fade-resistant technology, some of which also let you conveniently slip the memory card directly into the printer. Recommended are the Sony DPP-SV55 ($350), Olympus Camedia P-200 ($450), and Canon's CP-10 ($399), a compact model that spits out credit card—sized prints. If you don't want to make your own prints, many photo labs can handle the job, or you can look online. Shutterfly.com allows you to upload photos to its Web site free (you can store as many high-resolution images as you'd like) and then order pictures (from 49 cents per 4-by-6 print).
The Best Of The 3.3 Megapixels
It doesn't get much more professional than the Olympus Camedia C-3040 Zoom. You can shoot up to five pictures in rapid succession, attach four-second sound bites to photos, record five-minute movie clips with sound, and add telephoto or wide-angle lenses (with an adapter). Comes with a 16 MB SmartMedia card, and resolution and compression adjustment. 800/622-6372; www.olympusamerica.com; $999.
If you think a camera should also be an accessory, check out the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-P1. It's small enough to slide into a Fendi baguette, it's fully automatic (think: easy to use), and it has optical zoom. It uses Sony's Memory Stick storage system and also features Clip-Motion, a mode that links up to 10 pictures. 800/222-7669; www.sonystyle.com; $800.
The Fuji FinePix 6800 Zoom and the Porsche 911 share the same designer. With this many features, it's no surprise: 3x optical zoom, finely tuned resolution and compression adjustment, high-speed shooting (up to five frames per second). Plus, it can operate in fully automatic, manual, or preset modes for specific settings (such as "portrait"). Comes with a 16 MB SmartMedia card and a rechargeable battery. 800/800-3854;www.fujifilm.com; $899.
Nothing better captures the convergence in the digital market than the new Kodak mc3 —a combination digital still and video camera that also has a built-in MP3 player. Although you definitely sacrifice quality for the opportunity to move from video to photo to audio (images are less than one megapixel), the MC3 is just fine if you'll primarily be posting pictures online and sending them via e-mail. At $229 (that includes 16 MB of memory), it's a steal. 800/235-6325; www.kodak.com.
Those who want high resolution should check out the Toshiba PDR-M70 , a 3.3-megapixel model that goes for an unbelievable $599. It comes with a 16 MB SmartMedia Card and has plenty of desirable manual functions, including different flash modes and manual white balance to adjust to lighting conditions. And, unlike most models, it comes with a rechargeable battery. 800/288-1354; www.toshiba.com.