Photograph by numbers
A beginner's guide to digital photography
By Atticus Fisher

A RESEARCH GROUP that tracks digital-imaging technology predicts that 53 million digital cameras will be sold worldwide in 2004. But if you're like me, such market figures have no more meaning than crop circles. The more relevant benchmark is the mom factor (MF): when a piece of consumer technology ends up in the hands of my mother (and probably yours), rest assured the product has reached market saturation, if not outright commodity status. My mom bought a digital camera a year ago. Mind you, this is a woman who is afraid that switching to broadband might "cause a fire," and clings to AOL like a kitten in a flood. Yet on a recent trip home, she booted up her PC and proudly showed off dozens of amazing photos she had taken with her digital camera while doing medical work in Sudan over the summer.

In other words, no more excuses. Digital-camera technology continues to mature as prices drop, and the market is glutted with models for every conceivable skill level, need, and price range.

Of course, all this choice is also why many people haven't made the jump to digital. As with desktop computers, scanners, and printers, there is a bewildering array of digital cameras from which to choose (200-plus, as of this writing), and each model is explained in terms only an engineer can understand. Throw in the fact that marketers aren't always up-front about what a particular feature really means, and you get consumer inertia. But don't despair: if you don't know a megapixel from a hot shoe, or if you're already a film-photography enthusiast but haven't yet switched to digital, this guide can help you. It isn't possible to cover every aspect of digital photography here. However, you'll learn several key features of digital cameras that can point the way toward a more-informed decision about what to buy.

Why digital?
So what makes a digital camera so great, anyway? In a nutshell, flexibility and instant gratification. By using digital information rather than film to capture images, you can do much more with your photos, and more quickly. No more wondering if you got the shot while a photo lab develops your film or you hang around a darkroom - press the shutter button, then check the shot on the digital camera's LCD screen. Cropped off your friend's head? Delete the photo and try again. There's no wasted film, which means you have creative freedom without monetary penalty. And after you've snapped all the photos you want, there are dozens of output options. Upload the photos to your computer. If you properly captured your friend's head but the picture is too dark, lighten it with image-editing software. Then attach the picture to an e mail and instantly zap it to your friend, or your friend's friends. Or upload the photo to a Web site for access by an even-larger audience. You can burn a slide show of your photos to a DVD that can be played in your cousin's DVD player, or you can display photos directly on a TV, DVD player, or VCR. Of course, if you still yearn for the tangible, you can create prints, either with your own printer or with the aid of a digital-photo service.

That's not to say digital cameras are the frugal photographer's delight. Although prices have dropped, they're still more expensive than film cameras. In addition, you may need to purchase a photo printer, image-editing software, memory cards, or extra batteries, or even upgrade your computer. Digital cameras can be hard to use because of obfuscatory on-screen menus and other controls. Thanks to their electronic innards, digital cameras can also be slower than their film cousins. Probably the biggest complaint about digital cameras is lag, which refers to the time delay between camera start-up and when you can take a photo; between when you depress the shutter button and when the camera snaps the picture; and between each of the shots themselves. Although higher-end digital cameras have minimal lag, you'll obviously have to pay more for this improvement. For less-expensive cameras, you'll have to learn strategies for working around it, such as anticipating the shot. (Good luck.)

What you need
There's no magic shopping formula for finding the right digital camera, despite what the salesperson at your local big-box electronics store might claim. As with any high-tech purchase, before setting out for the mall, determine what you are going to do with the device, why, and how frequently. How often do you take pictures? Of what subjects and under what types of conditions? What do you want to do with the pictures? Are you going to print photos like crazy, or merely e mail a few to friends? Are you a hobbyist with professional aspirations, or just a tech tinkerer? Having this information will help you determine which camera features you require. Just as you don't need a $4000, 4GHz PC to surf the Web and send e mail, a $5000 D-SLR digital camera is overkill if you take snapshots only for occasional prints or e-mail attachments.

The mistake consumers frequently make when gadget-shopping is allowing themselves to be talked into buying an overpowered product. In the long run, you're better off purchasing a cheaper-model camera, and upgrading later, than paying thousands for a pro-level camera that collects dust because using the controls is like giving Darth Vader a hug. Digital cameras fall broadly into the following user categories.

Beginner - Point-and-shoot cameras with minimal controls and settings for users who just want to get the shot without a lot of fuss. Beginners usually want pictures that can be attached to e mail and occasionally printed in small formats. Cameras at this level typically have fixed lenses or 3x-4x optical zoom. Resolution ranges from two to three megapixels (we'll get to megapixel ratings later). Prices range from $100 to $300.

Intermediate - Cameras that offer more control over the shots than point-and-shoots do, but that don't inundate users with features. The intermediate user prints photos frequently. Cameras in this range offer manual settings, such as exposure and white balance, with pre-programmed modes for shooting under various speed and lighting conditions. Some models also have video-recording capabilities or small form factors. Resolutions range from three to five megapixels for larger-format printing, and prices range from $300 to $700.

Prosumer - For the hobbyist with pro aspirations but not the pro budget, "prosumer" (a mix of "pro" and "consumer") cameras feature four- to eight-megapixel resolution for large-format printing and up to 12x zoom lenses. They can accept external flashes and auxiliary lenses, and offer control over every aspect of shooting. Prices range from $700 to $1100. Professional - Cameras for those who shoot photos to put bread on the table. The pro level is the exclusive domain of the D-SLR (digital single-lens reflex), a camera that can cost thousands of dollars and has resolutions as high as 11 or 12 megapixels. Manufacturers of D-SLRs typically sell only the camera body, as it is assumed the buyer owns a quiver of lenses. Unfortunately, discussion of pro-level D-SLRs is beyond the scope of this guide.

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