They cost more than traditional 35mm cameras, don't come close to matching their quality and offer relatively simple photographic controls. So why are so many people rushing to buy low-end digital cameras?
Start with the trend that's changing everything: the Internet. Getting photos onto Web pages or into e-mail messages using traditional cameras is a tedious and expensive affair: Shoot the picture, wait to finish the roll. Take it in to get developed, wait some more. Scan it into your computer and only then will you see the photo onscreen.
The same process--but with a filmless digital camera--goes something like this: Shoot the picture, connect a cable or pop in a floppy disk, and transfer away. Since images are stored electronically, you don't pay film and development costs, and the transfer time is reduced to the time it takes you to upload the image to a computer. Quick, painless and cheap.
But it's not just Web publishing that's making digital cameras attractive. Digital images are also great for newsletters, business reports and flyers. You can use software (which usually comes with the camera) to crop, edit, size and otherwise manipulate photos in ways never before possible without expensive lab equipment.
Not to mention that digital cameras are pure fun. Shoot a picture, and you can see it instantly in the camera's LCD display window. If you don't like the photo, simply erase it. After the cost of the camera, the total cost of each and every photo is--drumroll please--not a penny.
The popularity of digital cameras is also being fueled by the widespread adoption of inexpensive, high-quality color inkjet printers. With special paper and the right camera, you can generate printed photos that may not rival the output of traditional 35mm cameras but are more than satisfactory for many applications.
You'll find digital cameras on duty with real estate agents, insurance adjustors, architects, field service workers, professional photographers, interior designers and anyone who's running a serious Web site or interested in storing, manipulating and printing photos quickly, or transmitting them electronically.
For all these reasons, the market for digital cameras is expected to hit $5.4 billion by 2002, according to a study published jointly by International Data Corp. and Future Image.
And while you'll find cameras priced from $75 to $45,000, most cameras cost between $500 and $1,000--the niche now ruled by so-called megapixel (more than 1 million pixel resolution) cameras.
One caveat: Don't expect the same quality you'd get with traditional cameras. Digital cameras don't handle skin tones or low-light conditions very well. You'll also find quite a difference in color among camera models, particularly in indoor light.
Bottom line: You'll love your digital camera only if you set aside any notion of becoming Ansel Adams--or the JC Penney studio photographer, for that matter.
Eric J. Adams is a freelance writer in Petaluma, California, who has contributed to a wide range of computer, business and general interest publications, including PCWorld, Macworld, Wired and The New York Times.