Digital Photography: Preparing to take the plunge

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Five years ago few consumers looked at digital cameras seriously?and for good reason. The cameras were terribly expensive, hard to use and offered mediocre picture quality. Early models even lacked the one thing many people buy digital cameras for in the first place: a screen on the back that lets you review the photo you just took.

That?s changed. Today?s digital cameras rival film cameras in terms of user friendliness and features, and they are competitively priced. Most consumer digital cameras now sell for between $200 and $500. Taking the plunge into digital photography shouldn?t be scary, but there are a few things you need to look out for as you shop. The key features to look for are photo resolution, size, and the focal length of the camera?s lens and its zoom capability. Most digital cameras have a built-in flash.

Instead of recording photos on film, digital cameras have an electronic sensor that records and digitizes photos and then stores them on a removable memory card. Unlike film, which can only be used once, you can store and erase photos on these memory cards almost indefinitely. Memory cards come in many shapes and sizes, but they all serve the same purpose. Popular memory card formats include CompactFlash, Secure Digital, MultiMedia, SmartMedia, xD-Picture Card and Sony Memory Stick. Which one is best? For most of us it really doesn?t matter, since they all do essentially the same thing.

Digital images are made up of tiny dots called pixels. The more pixels in a photo, the sharper it is. A camera with a sensor that captures one million pixels is a one-megapixel camera and can produce images that yield good 4- by-6-inch prints. A two-megapixel camera can yield sharp 5- by 7-inch prints, while three- and four-megapixel cameras can yield quality 8- by 10-inch and 11- by 14-inch prints, respectively. Of course the cost of a digital camera rises as the resolution of its image sensor increases.

Also note that because of design differences between film and digital camera, the focal lengths of the lenses used are different. The focal length is the distance from the lens to the film or digital image sensor. While a 50-millimeter lens is considered a ?normal? lens on a 35mm film camera, a digital camera might use an 8mm lens to capture the same image. Most digital camera brochures will give a ?film camera equivalent? focal length when talking about lens size.

Many digital cameras have zoom lenses, which allow you to get closer to a subject without actually moving the camera. Keep in mind here that optical zoom is far better than digital zoom. With optical zoom, the distant subject is brought closer optically, resulting in a sharp image. Digital zoom takes a portion of what the camera sees and enlarges it with software, resulting in a grainy enlargement. You can combine optical zoom and digital zoom to increase the zoom capability of your camera.

At the small end of the digital camera scale is Pentax USA Inc.?s (800-877-0155, www.pentaxusa.com) tiny Pentax Optio S4. This 4.23-megapixel camera weighs just 4.1 ounces and measures 3.3 inches wide by 2 inches tall by 0.8 inches thick. The camera has a 5.8mm to 17.44mm zoom lens, which is the optical equivalent of a 35mm to 105mm zoom lens on a 35mm film camera. The lens offers 3X optical zoom and the camera adds up to 4X in digital zoom, for a total of 12X effective zoom.

At the higher end of physical size scale are cameras like Canon Inc.?s (800-652-2666, www.canonusa.com) 6.3-megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel, which looks and feels like a single lens reflex (SLR) because it is one. The view you get through the eyepiece of the unit comes through the camera?s lens, not through a separate viewfinder, as is the case in most digital cameras. The $999 unit has an 18 to 55mm zoom lens, can use interchangeable lenses and can be connected to professional accessories such as external flash units.

Olympus America?s (888-553-4448, www.olympusamerica.com) mid-sized Olympus Camedia D-565 Zoom offers a top resolution of four megapixels but can often be found for less than $300. A sliding cover protects the unit?s 3X zoom lens.

Once you have your digital camera, how do you turn the photos on that memory card into a print? You get your photos out of a digital camera by linking the camera to a computer with a cable or by removing the memory card and inserting it into a card reader linked to your computer.

If you have a photo-quality printer, you can make your own prints on standard paper or on special photo paper available in most office supply stores. Many printers now come with memory card slots, thus allowing you to print out your digital photos without even turning on your computer. Hewlett Packard Co.?s (800-752-0900, www.hp.com) $299 Photosmart 7960 photo printer includes slots that accept CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Secure Digital and MultiMedia cards as well as Sony Memory Sticks and xD-Picture Cards. Once you insert a memory card, you can print out small thumbnails of the images on the card. From there you can use the buttons on the printer to select the photo you want and print out a full-size print.

You can also take your memory card to some drugstores and order prints over the counter or via a computerized kiosk with a built-in card reader. Another option is to open an account with a photo-finishing Web site such as Shutterfly (www.shutterfly.com), PhotoWorks (www.photoworks.com), Ofoto (www.ofoto.com) or Mystic Color Lab (www.mysticphotolab.com). These companies let you upload and store your photos on their Web sites and then order prints as you need them. If you don?t have a computer, some of these services, such as PhotoWorks, allow you to mail in your camera?s memory card, which, of course, is returned with your print order.

Digital cameras usually come with a small-capacity memory card, often as small as 8 or 16 megabytes (MB). If you just bought a four-megapixel camera and decided to shoot all of your photos at full resolution, you?ll only be able to get eight photos on a 16MB memory card. A 128MB memory card will give you ample room for photos, while a 256MB, 512MB or one-gigabyte card will give you even more storage.

Once the memory card fills up, you don?t toss it out, of course. You erase what you don?t want and move the other images to your PC?s hard disk or burn them to a CD or DVD disk, if your computer comes with a drive that can write to these disks.

One last tip: Digital cameras burn through alkaline batteries very quickly. Invest in rechargeable nickel-hydride or lithium-ion batteries and a charger.