Q:I still don’t own a digital camera, but I think I am ready to buy one. What should I look for? — Lisa
A: Digital photography is experiencing explosive growth much like digital music in the recent past. Surveys suggest that digital camera sales will likely outpace film camera sales in 2004.
With their ease of use, low cost and flexibility, digital cameras make more sense than film cameras for most casual photographers.
The first feature that will likely be discussed by camera salespeople is the "megapixel" rating. While this is an important feature, it is not the most important. Digital cameras capture images in little dots called "pixels": The more pixels you can capture, the more detail is available, especially for printing.
If you plan to print only 4-by-6 or 5-by-7 images, then you won’t need as many pixels for an acceptable output. If you plan to print 8-by-10s, even occasionally, be sure to get at least 3.2 megapixels.
A feature that is just as important is the lens, as it will ultimately determine much more about your image quality than the number of pixels. The ability to capture light, the type of zoom and the actual translation of colors is determined by the lens.
In general, digital cameras offered by camera companies have more sophisticated lenses than those offered by computer companies. Computer companies that sell digital cameras tend to pack the camera with more features and less technology because their typical customer is less sophisticated. Camera companies are trying to keep their more knowledgeable film camera customers satisfied, so they tend to concentrate more on the technology.
The zoom feature is another point of confusion. Typically, both an optical and digital zoom specification will be listed. The only one that matters is the optical zoom, as it is a true lens-based zoom. Digital zoom simply trims the image electronically and can mean lower picture quality. In fact, as soon as you get your camera, disable the digital zoom so you don’t use it accidentally.
If you plan to shoot things from long distances, the higher the optical zoom rating, the better. Most cameras come with a 3x optical zoom, but some cameras are now offering up to 10x in reasonably priced packages.
The type of media used to capture the image is not that big a deal, unless you are trying to match the format with other digital devices. The only media that I am not thrilled with are the mini-CD types that burn the images directly to the disc. They are convenient, but my experience has been that they are much more sensitive to being jarred, causing the laser to become misaligned.
Finally, check the battery system and, most important, how it feels in your hands.
The battery system will have a huge impact on how usable your camera is, based on cost and convenience. Some cameras use expensive disposable batteries that can eat a huge hole in your wallet,
especially on vacation.
I prefer cameras that have rechargeable batteries because you become less concerned about how often you use the camera. (Some also allow emergency use of alkaline batteries.) The LCD display that makes it easy to aim and review your images is also a battery killer, so be careful how you use it. If you really want to extend the battery life, turn off the LCD until you really need it.
Camera manufacturers try to keep the form factor as small as possible, so be sure to hold the camera in your hand and work with it to see if it’s comfortable. Don’t buy a camera online if you have never touched it, or you may be disappointed.
You can find exceptional cameras with lots of great technology and features in the $200 to $500 range.
Typically, both an optical and digital zoom specification will be listed. The only one that matters is the optical zoom . . . Digital zoom simply trims the image electronically and can mean lower picture quality.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR (620 AM) and the "Tech No Phobia" television show at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Cox 9. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.