So how do you go about purchasing a newfangled digital camera? The most important question to ask yourself is this: What will I be doing with my camera? Keep that question in mind as you determine the different features you need from the camera of the 21st century.
*Resolution. The more pixels a camera produces, the richer the colors and the finer the texture of photos produced. Sometimes, instead of pixels, vendors or reviewers refer to the camera's supported resolution.
If you want a camera to use exclusively for Web publishing, you can get away with an under $400 VGA resolution camera that offers 640 x 480 resolution (approximately 300,000 pixels). These cameras are fine for photos displayed on computer monitors, but the photos will appear grainy in print, particularly in large sizes.
If you plan on printing photos or want an all-purpose camera, your best bet is a megapixel camera, which supports a screen resolution of approximately 1,280 x 960. Do the math, and you'll see that's more than a million pixels (1,228,800 to be exact). But don't get hung up on multiplication; many cameras use resolution-enhancement techniques to make fewer pixels look like more.
Until recently, there was no such thing as a megapixel camera that cost less than $1,000. Today, there are plenty, including the Epson PhotoPC 700, the Kodak DC200, the Nikon Coolpix 900 and the Olympus D-340L.
*Storage. If there's no film, where are the pictures stored? In the camera's memory, just as data is stored on your computer's hard drive. And, like your computer, the more storage there is, the better. Check the camera's "image capacity in highest available resolution," and you'll find quite a range.
There's only one thing better than lots of fixed storage: removable storage for unlimited memory. Most vendors sell adaptors that allow you to store photos on memory cards that can be read by your computer. Some even use plain old floppies. Just make sure to figure the cost of additional memory and transfer equipment into your budget.
*Photographic controls. We've become accustomed to sophisticated features on 35mm cameras--features just now showing up on digital cameras. All the cameras mentioned here, for example, include a self-timer (so you have time to get in the picture), as well as all-important autofocus. You'll also find a range of other features, depending on the model, such as special red-eye-reduction flash modes, zoom lens, macro mode (for close-ups), black-and-white mode, panorama mode and more.
Decide which features are best for your needs before buying. If you're a pro or photography aficionado, compare the camera's ISO equivalency, shutter speed range, focal range and available lens packages as well.
*Power consumption. Digital cameras are power hogs because, for one, they're completely electronic. Second, most digital cameras come with an LCD viewer, a tiny (up to 2.5-inch diagonal) screen for viewing photos as you take them and after they've been stored. Once you add in a flash for low-light situations and start taking a lot of pictures, you'll drain a full set of batteries in just 20 to 30 minutes.
Therefore, you'll want a camera with power-management features that runs on readily available batteries, like standard "AAs," instead of hard-to-find specialty batteries. Another option is to look for a camera that uses rechargeable camera batteries, like Canon's PowerShot A5 or Epson's PhotoPC 700.
*Design and feel. Digital cameras only vaguely resemble traditional cameras. They're oddly futuristic and wide-ranging in design. That's why it's so important for you to actually handle the camera before buying one. Do the controls fit your fingers? Is the swivel LCD screen comfortable to view or obtrusive? Is it easy to upload photos? And, above all, is it compatible with your computer?
*Bundled software. Your digital camera is, in reality, a computer peripheral, so you need software to integrate photos into software programs and Web sites. Virtually every camera comes with some sort of camera-to-computer transfer utility, as well as a TWAIN driver that allows you to transfer images directly into any TWAIN-compliant application. Some vendors go a step further and include image manipulation programs as well. The Konica and Nikon models, for example, ship with the popular Adobe PhotoDeluxe. Epson and Kodak ship with other titles. If you're using a Mac, make sure you can get Mac-compatible software before you buy.