onsidering a digital still camera? Get in line—1.8 million were sold in 1999, the expected prelude to a banner year for the next you-gotta-have-it electro-gadget. By substituting digital silicon for analog film, digicams make film photography seem so, well, 10 minutes ago.

True, today's digicams are light-years ahead of last year's models. Picture resolution is up, complexity is down, and the opportunities to use your pix are growing as fast as e-mail and the World Wide Web itself.

For e-mailing photos to friends or posting them on the Web, there's no reason to hold back. Digital cameras are unequalled for capturing low-resolution images and uploading them to the datasphere.

After being instantly "developed," digital images can be subjected to mind-bending manipulations with the computer. Do your blanched Aunt Bessie and Uncle Cornelius need a Cancun tan? Want to erase your no-good ex from a treasured family picture? No problem. Who knows—with enough fiddling, you probably can convert your rusty-but-trusty Chevy II into a plum Aston-Martin!

But if you're looking for photo-quality prints, another calculus applies to the digicam decision. True, digicams are easy to use in point-and-shoot mode and their high-resolution images are practically as good as film—after correct processing.

But the purveyors of digital photography don't mention the problems that can arise after you shoot the picture. Do you have the gadget for downloading images to your computer? Can you use—or are you willing to learn—the complex image-processing software that usually comes with the camera? Will you need a bigger hard disk to store your files? How will you catalog your originals so you can find them next year? Make sure the software is capable of two things:

1) Saving to JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format (best for Internet travel and most universal for cross-platform use).

2) Naming your images during the download process. This will make identification much easier later.

Most critical, how much fiddling on the computer will you need to get good images? "Without adjustments made in software, you will get really mediocre prints" with most home printers, says Ward Lundgren, co-owner of the Camera Co. in Madison, Wis. "You have to spend time adjusting color, contrast, and brightness. People don't think about that."

In fact, every print may require five or 10 minutes of manipulation.

But let's leave the caveat emptor behind for a moment and examine the critical issues in buying a digital camera. We won't recommend individual models— they change too rapidly and what works for us may not for you. Rather, we'll concentrate on the basic selection criteria. Many Web sites, including those listed below, carry camera reviews and comparisons, but remember that sites mounting reviews and selling cameras may have an incentive for bias.

    Taking in the sites

Perplexed author David Tenenbaum confronts the digital dilemma in the camera store. Using a point-and-shoot image from a $300 digital camera, the top photo is a high-quality version printed on an Olympus dedicated printer (about $300), without correction.

The middle photo shows a low-quality version printed on an ink-jet printer with minimal correction.

The bottom photo shows how more software correction can improve quality.

Only an
in-person test
can tell you if
you understand
the controls and
like the images.
I hereby highly resolve
The key issue with digital cameras is resolution. How many pixels—dots of information—do they capture from the scene? Pixels are listed in the confusing "width × height" format: In low-resolution mode, a camera may capture 640 pixels × 480 pixels, plenty for e-mail or Web use.

Judge cameras by their capacity at the higher end. The Nikon Coolpix 950, for example, costs about a kilobuck ($1,000) and can grab 1,600 pixels × 1,200 pixels. The total of roughly two million pixels should—with a good printer and suitable manipulation—make prints like those on familiar film.

Generally, you can downgrade the resolution on a camera to meet your needs at the moment. At low resolution, cameras work faster, batteries last longer, and your storage medium will hold many more images. But for quality prints, the more pixels the better, and one million pixels is the minimum. Unfortunately, millions of pixels create huge files—two megabytes and up—that are highly unsuitable for e-mailing, and a big hog on any storage device (unless you burn the images onto compact disks). Photo processors today have the capability of burning images to CD or giving you prints from your card.

Some digital cameras can output pix directly to a floppy disk or via cable to your computer. More commonly, they store photos on a removable card that must then transfer files to the computer:
  • Compact Flash cards can store up to 96 megabytes of data. You'll need an adapter to read files into the computer, so make sure it connects to your computer's SCSI (small computer sytems interface, pronnounced "scuzzy") or USB (universal serial bus) port. However, most of today's laptops have a card slot built right into them. If that's the case, there's no need for a SCSI or USB interface.

  • Smart Media cards max out at 64 megabytes, but they easily download on a nifty reader that goes into your computer's floppy disk drive.

Even if the cards work with your computer, it better be hefty—a Pentium processor or a late-model Mac. Don't forget a truck-sized hard disk for storing high-resolution files. Finally, you'll need a good color ink-jet printer and special photo paper to get decent prints.

Once you get beyond the lowest price, many digicams can change from wide angle to telephoto. Cameras with "digital zoom" use digital techniques to enlarge the center of the image. Digital zoom is cheap—but really a cheat—because there's less data in the image, leading to graininess or "pixellation." Far better is the more costly "optical zoom," where, as with conventional cameras, the lens does the zooming.

"Without adjustments
made in software,
you will get
really mediocre
No question about it: Digicams are battery hogs, so you'll want high-quality rechargeables, preferably nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal hydride (and don't forget to budget for the correct charger). Many cameras can be plugged in for stationary use, and some will run off external battery packs. Battery-saving tip: Shut off the video display and use the optical viewfinder, if the camera has one.

Light sensitivity
With a film camera, you buy film to match the lighting conditions. With digital, the sensitivity is built in to the camera's light detector. Sensitivity is measured by the ISO (International Standards Organization) number (for comparison, all-purpose film is rated at ISO 200). The higher the number, the greater your ability to peer into the darkness; doubling the ISO number doubles the light sensitivity.

Almost forgot! You're going to want to use this thing, too. Can you understand the controls? Can you operate the features that attracted you in the first place? Does the camera start up in idiot-proof "point-and-shoot" mode? (Hint—it should.)

Where to buy?
Part of the high-tech allure of digital cameras is the prospect of reading reviews and buying on the Web, without leaving your Barcalounger. But be cautious about buying a point-and-shoot digicam with point-and-click. Only an in-person test—not some "expert's" opinion—can tell you if you understand the controls and like the images. And if a store has knowledgeable staffers, the staff can walk you through the almost inevitable postpurchase hardware and software snafus. Online outfits have a lousy record of help—unless you count reading computerized FAQs as help, that is.

"You have to
spend time
adjusting color,
contrast, and
People don't
think about that."
Even if you can operate the camera, unless you're a graphic artist, you're likely to want some advice when you get to the critical printing phase. The image software that comes with the camera may or may not be intuitive: Many programs, fortunately, include simple "auto-adjust" features. But if that's absent, or the results are poor, you'll have to dig through a thicket of functions to make the "instant" pix.

A final note: Don't expect to save much money by abandoning film. Besides buying the camera, you'll need connectors, batteries, special photo-grade paper—and possibly upgrades to your computer, hard drive, or printer—plus the add-on doo-dads we'll discuss in a future article.

Eventually, experts expect silicon to entirely replace film photography. But when you realize how hard it can be to get a good print today, you will gain new respect for that lowly film and the familiar photo processor!

Taking in the sites

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.