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Camera Shy?

If you were waiting until the prices (and features) were right to buy a digital camera, then your wait is over.

Despite the falling prices and the improved technology of digital cameras, it's still too early to declare old-fashioned film dead. But for entrepreneurs who don't have time to run down to the one-hour developer and scan photos into a computer, now is a pretty good time to go digital. Owners of earlier digital camera models who are now ready for an affordable upgrade will find a lot of alternatives vying for their attention.

Matching yourself and your business with the right kind of camera is an important step. One of the easiest ways to break it down is by starting with the megapixels. Our chart covers mostly 4 megapixel cameras that fall within the $500 price range (all prices street). A 5 megapixel Olympus C-5050 ZOOM and a 3.2 megapixel Canon PowerShot S230 are included for good measure. You can get a lot of flexibility for your money. The resolution is high enough to allow for good 8-by-10 enlargements. If you need to go much larger than that, then look upwards in the product lines for higher resolution devices.

On the other end of the scale, if you only need to take snapshots for Web page use and don't plan on doing much of your own printing or demanding graphics work, a 1- or 2-megapixel point-and-shoot camera will cover your needs for less money. For good snapshot prints, 2 megapixels is the minimum required. Cameras with more than 4 megapixels will appeal to more advanced users and are usually stocked with image-quality features like film SLRs.

There is a small heap of storage formats waiting for you out there. Old standbys like CompactFlash (CF) and SmartMedia (SM) are still going strong, while more recent additions such as Secure Digital (SD), IBM's Microdrive and xD-Picture (xD) are proliferating. If you're upgrading and are already invested in one type, choose a new camera with the same storage. The $799 Olympus C-5050 ZOOM covers a lot of bases and supports all four of those storage technologies.

Zoom is a handy feature built into all the cameras in our chart. The important factor is the optical zoom. The $499 HP Photosmart 850, for example, comes with a hefty 8x optical zoom. Once you max out the optical zoom and move into the digital zoom capabilities, you compromise image quality. This doesn't matter much for Web applications, but can be noticeable when you get into enlargements and high-quality graphics work.

If possible, take a hands-on test run of the digital cameras on your short list. The handling, feel, features, menus and weight vary quite a bit. Some, like the $499 Nikon Coolpix 4300, offer a movie mode that captures short videos. More camera-savvy users will like the manual features some models provide. Point and shooters, however, should search for simplicity and ease of operation.

A word of warning when buying: There have been a lot of complaints in recent years from buyers suffering at the hands of fly-by-night Internet digital camera retailers. Signs include too-good-to-be-true prices on desirable cameras and high-pressure phone sales tactics that try to get you to buy extra accessories at inflated prices. Take care when dealing with unfamiliar resellers. Either research them for customer comments online or purchase a brand you already trust.

The current crop of digital cameras offers some impressive features and quality at good prices. You're bound to find a model that will complement your business well without squeezing your pocketbook.

Shopping List
Bone up on your megapixels and your optical zoom before you plunk down your cash.

COMPANY/MODELCONTACTMEGA
PIXELS
MEDIA
TYPE
FEATURESSTREET PRICE
BENQ
DC4500
(888) 723-2238
www.benq.com
4.0CF3x optical zoom, 3x digita zoom, weighs 11.2 ounces$399
CANON
POWER SHOT s230
(800) ok-canon
www.usa.canon.com
3.2CF2x optical zoom, 3.2x digital zoom, weighs 6.4 ounces, movie mode$399
HEWLETT-PACKARD
HP PHOTOSMART 850
(800) 752-0900
www.hp.com
4.1SD8x optical zoom, 7x digitalzoom, weighs 13 ounces$499
NIKON
COOLPIX 4300
(800) nikon-ux
www.nikonusa.com
4.0CF3x optical zoom, 4x digital zoom, weighs 7.9 ounces, movie mode$499
OLYMPUS
C-5050 ZOOM
(888) 553-4448
www.olympus-america.com
5.0xd, sm, cf,ibm,microdrive3x optical zoom, 4x digital zoom, weighs 13.4 ounces$799
PENTAX
OPTIO 430rs
(800) 877-0155
www.pentax.com
4.0cf, also 11mb built-in memory3x optical zoom, 2x digital zoom, weighs 7.1 ounces$399

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This article was originally published in the March 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Camera Shy?.

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