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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.
What You See . . .
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.
Will digital cameras replace 35mm cameras any time soon? It's not likely, but they could elbow out traditional cameras for various reasons, including ease of use and low operating costs.
Tomorrow is another story. With inevitable advances, it won't be long before digital cameras produce photos, if not superior, then certainly equal to today's traditional cameras. So in 20 years, don't be surprised if a kid tugs on your sleeve and asks the question: "What's film?"
To view the specs on several models, check out the Best Buy's table.
Try Before You Buy
You probably wouldn't think of trying out a traditional camera in the store before purchasing it, but if you're smart, you'll compare digital cameras before you buy. Here's how:
1. Ask a salesperson to allow you to test two or three cameras. Take home the photos on a floppy disk, and print them with the same output device you plan on using with the camera.
2. If that's not possible, ask the salesperson to print out the photo for you on one of the store's printers.
3. If you're buying by mail, be sure to check the return policy.
Regardless of how you buy, take a lot of shots the first few days in all sorts of lighting conditions. Make all the color adjustments the camera allows and try again. If the results aren't satisfactory, return the camera and get another. After all, you're spending $500 or more, so you should be satisfied, however fresh the technology.