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Digital cameras take still photos with quality near that of a good camera. Instead of using a lens to focus the image on film, they focus the light on a charge coupled device. This CCD converts the image into a rectangular grid of dots, or pixels. This electronic image is stored on compact, reusable Flash Memory cards (repackaged computer memory) for eventual transfer to a computer for editing, emailing, printing or archiving. Over time, the higher initial costs are offset by the inconsequential subsequent cost per photo.
FILM VS. DIGITAL: AN UPDATE
Every time we test a new digital camera (and there are a lot of impressive ones out there) we wonder if we'll ever see one that matches the high resolution and image quality of a typical film-based camera. Despite misleading claims to the contrary, the latest 2.1, 3.3, and high-end 4MP digital cameras do not capture as much detail as an average 35mm SLR, a decent 35mm or APS point and shoot, or even the best single use cameras. Sure, you can get full frame 5x7- or 8x10-inch print out of some digital cameras. But when it comes to making 11x14 inch or larger prints, or to cropping your images, digital cameras are not up to the challenge.
In other words: Dollar for dollar, film remains the highest resolution image capture medium.
If you compared the scans you get on Picture CDs to those from a high res digital camera, you probably wouldn't agree. That's because Picture CD scans are fairly low in resolution (they're scanned at only 1,000 ppi res) and should look fuzzier than a shot from a 2.1 or higher megapixel camera. Even the best 4000 ppi scanners we've tested aren't capable of capturing all the detail found in a 35mm color original under optimum conditions (tripod, mirror lock up, etc.). In our tests, the highest res we've found in a 35mm color slide or negative is 77 lp/mm. The best 4000 ppi scanner can capture about 60 lp/mm, about 25% lower. But that's perfect, because under normal shooting conditions (i.e., handheld instead of tripod mounted), 60 lp/mm is about the best you'll ever get from an SLR. Meanwhile, you might be able to get 40 lp/mm from a top single use camera (in bright light), but a 4 MP digital camera delivers only 27 lp/mm res.
Here are some key features to decide between if you buy.
What's your audience and how will you use your photos typically? Small, low resolution images (thumbnails) will download rapidly from your web site or can be easily sent with emails. Large resolution images are necessary for printing a larger format photo-quality image to hang on the wall. Older cameras were all lower resolution, while today only budget models tend to be.
Encouragments for buying the highest available resolution:
Cropping and some other editing reduces effective resolution
Future technological enhancements: The next generation, much faster, Internet and dramatically higher resolution computer screens (due out in a few years), will make higher resolution photos much more common.
Ideally the decision on what kind of storage to buy would only revolve around deciding how many images you needed to store before getting back to your computer to download the images.
Unfortunately consumers lose because manufacturers have yet to adopt one technology to store images. Selecting a short lived format could force you to needlessly toss your expensive ($200+ for a 80 MB card) flash memory when you retire your first camera. Since each manufacturer only supports one format (based on licensing costs), if the format's features are critical to you, your choice of cameras will be dramatically limited.
Sony's proprietary Memory Stick technology is the most blatent case of this. Like the old BETA video format, it is unlikely to be adopted by other manufacturers. Buy a Sony and you'll be forced to stay with Sonys.
Some cameras use floppy diskettes. While ubitquitous, these don't hold even one high resolution image and are slow and bulky and relatively error prone.
Other proprietary solutions (40 MB mini-Zip disks and Sony's Memory Sticks) inextrictably restrict your use to their products. If you never travel with your camera, or always take your laptop with you, then these solutions become more reasonable.
The only formats I'd consider are:
While not a video camera, many digital cameras can store a short but rapid sequence of photos that suffices to record some events- wood chopping competitions, handshakes and what not.
I love this personally since often my subjects also have unique sounds. Alternatively I want to record the location of the photo verbally since my short term memory is much better than my long term memory and I don't keep a written log of my photos.
Once downloaded to your computer the most useful file formats are:
Computer disk drives are much cheaper per megabyte than flash memory. Additionally, editing software runs only on computers. For these reasons most digital photos get transferred to a computer every time you fill up your Flash Memory. At some point even the modern, high capacity computer drive is likely to start filling up.
At this point most people move their photos onto a CD-ROM which is the cheapest form of long term, archival quality storage. At 640 MB per CD, CD's will typically hold at least 400 high resolution images, or up to 5,000 low quality images. While the CD burner hardware typically costs about $200, each CD only costs about $1 per disc. DVDs are now making their way onto the scene. With CD-R's ability to store 6 GB (or about 8 CDs worth of data per DVD), and eventually 12 GB, these will replace CDs as the format of choice over the next two years.
The easy alternative is to take your flash memory into a high tech camera store and they will be happy to transfer your photos directly to CD-ROM for only about $10. This works especiallty well while travelling but depending on which country you are in you might find equipped camera stores only in larger towns. Such stores abounded in Norway, but don't exist at all in India currently.
Two techniques exist: pull out the Flash Memory and stick it in a special reader attached to the computer or attach a cable from the camera to the computer.
Ways to transfer the photos:
Some programs are free and often come with either the computer or the camera. The best software costs real money. The most popular, high-end software is Adobe's PhotoShop.
Great printers are available inexpensively ($150-500). Ink tends to be proprietary and charged at what I presume is a highly inflated rate. Since photos use lots of ink, costs per 8.5" x 11" page could easily be several dollars per page. Special, glossy papers also can add up over time, albeit to a lesser degree.
Computer disk drives can store more pictures for much less money than Flash Memory. CD-ROMs (and soon DVDs) are slower but even cheaper for storing photos.
When storing more than a few dozen photos you will quickly appreaciate the need for some storage system. The minimal per photo cost coupled with the freedom to experiment often causes one's output of photos to climb dramatically, further increasing the need for a storage and organization system.
A number of databases exist for doing this, but when I last looked, almost two years ago, I didn't find any great database system that did this for a reasonable price. Most were either museum quality and priced for that market, or home grown systems that used proprietary systems and weren't robust, well designed, flexible or expandible. I suspect something has been developed that fits the bill, though I don't know about it yet.
Adobe PhotoShop 6.0 - Complex but superb photo editing software
Nikon has three cameras that go from simplier to full-featured - though even the simple camera is pretty darn good. They're getting more competition, but be sure to check them out:
Canon S-20 SureShot
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