HOME Technology 2003
Insatant pics from digital clicks
Digital technology continues to change the face of photography as a profession and a hobby as cameras get smarter and more capable allowing users to take greater control over their output.

While analogue 35mm cameras still dominate the market the drift toward digital is turning to a steady flow as people become more confident digital can deliver the quality, reliability and the tools for home editing.

A shift in price, the availability of dedicated photo printers and growing confidence in the photo retouching software bundled with cameras is bringing down the barriers.

At the low end this yearís cameras are smaller, more capable and more affordable Ė at the entry level you might get a basic point and click unit for under $200. However itís important to be aware of how you will use this camera, how much memory it comes with, the quality of print outs it will deliver.

Brands are better

You canít go wrong with established brand names including Kodak, Hanimex, Minolta, Panasonic, Fuji Film, Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Kodak, Casio, Agfa and Canon who were in the photo business long before everything began moving to digital.

The benchmark entry level for major brands last year was around $600 for a two megapixel (Mpx) camera - this year itís 3 Mpx for about $500 and for another hundred dollars you should get an optical zoom lens. Of course the price continues to escalate based on features, lens capability and image quality.

Currently 6-7 Mpx cameras are on offering for a price but there are some important rules of thumb to take into account before you become befuddled by numbers.

A 2.1 Mpx camera will still deliver a high quality 6 x 4 inch print although 6 Mpx give you much more to work with. However megapixels arenít always a good guide to what youíre getting, says Canon consumer products marketing manager Gary Walker.

"It doesnít always mean you are going to get a better picture. While a high megapixel camera will enable you to zoom in on an image or blow it up to a large size once its on your PC. It also takes a lot of memory to store these images and a lot of processing power to capture them. Often these cameras tend to operate a lot slower and take a long time to give you back the image unless you have the processing power to handle it."

Processing power

Mr Walker says a digital camera has a lot of work to do including focusing, white balancing, exposure compensation and composition, then it has to write al the colours onto a memory card. "Once youíve pressed the shutter button and it takes a while to take that photograph and often you miss the moment. The same goes for play back Ė it can take a while for the processor to bring up the focus or the contrast and all of this draws a lot of power."

He warns that cheaper cameras often use normal AA batteries or rechargeable batteries, which may only last for a few shots before they need to be recharged or replaced.

Canon is addressing these issues with its unique focuser called Digic, which has a proprietary Ďall in oneí chip to handle all this processing resulting in very low power consumption.

Canon is also begun marketing Pictbirdge technology, a joint development with Sony, Fuji, Olympus, Epson and HP geared to directly connect your camera to a printer without the need for a PC in the middle. All the processing power is in the camera. Essentially any Pictbridge enabled camera can communicate with any compatible printer via a USB (universal serial bus) port.

Optical zoon preferred

Most digitals have 35mm style lenses but if you want to get closer to your subject zoom is necessary. However the experts says glass if preferable and optical zoom give better results using a combination of lenses to magnify the image at higher resolution while digital zoom simply magnifies the original image.

Inbuilt flash is standard to shed light on portrait situations or in a darker environment. The more expensive units often have a hot shoe for an additional flash. Some cameras have adjustment levels to increase or decrease exposure offered by the flash.

Typically selection of ISO levels or film speed is automated to recognise lighting conditions, as opposed to the analogue camera where the user is committed to the 200 or 400 ASA rated film they buy.

In a similar style to an analogue power winder, a good digital camera might also offer a burst rate of for example four frames per second to capture fast moving objects. The majority of cameras give the ability to capture low resolution videos in MPEG format which can be played back using PC or Macintosh media players or posting on the web. Most cameras also capture sound on these min-videos, although everything depends on how much space is left on the memory card.

Some cameras may appear cheap but when you realise the memory card can only handle eight high quality images the extra memory required may blow out the overall price.

Memory requirements

The main advantage of a memory card is that you no longer have to purchase film. A good camera will come with adequate removable memory such as compactflash, memory stick or secure digital cards (64Mb cards est $60-$90). Having a couple of cards means you can keep shooting when you run out of space. For example you can buy enough memory to store 400-500 films - two 256Mb cards Ė for about $500.

What you see on the camera LCD screen is pretty close to what you will get. However if you have over or underexposed the image then you wonít have the detail necessary for good results when downloaded your images via a USB (universal serial bus) port or via a dedicated card reader into a PC, laptop or other device to manipulate using the software that typically comes with the camera.

Tim Holmes, sales manager with Photo Warehouse says one solution if shooting lots of images on location or on holiday may well be portable battery powered devices like the Disc Steno ($550) a portable CD writer or Picture Pad (est $1000) which enable you to store thousands images on a 20Gb hard drive which are both able to take input from most of the memory formats.

There are a growing number of digital labs around which specialise in laser printing high quality images on true photo paper for the same cost as standard film if the user wants to step up in quality from their home printer.

Mr Holmes says its important to think about how youíll be using your camera before making a purchase. "Do you want something really small that you can put in your pocket or something or to have a lot of manual over-ride features. You may need a 10 x optical zoom if you are shooting wildlife or sports or a macro capability if you want to work really close-up. Itís important to know exactly what your need are."

Look at the overall mix of main features including megapixels, the optical zoom and the level of control provided for the user with aperture and shutter priority. Typically thereís a one year warranty on all digital cameras, although parallel imported cameras or those purchased overseas can pose a problem because the warranty is often applicable in the place of purchase.

Do you homework, avoid brands youíve never heard of, know what you want before you step into the store. Shop around on the web and the shop floor to see how the prices vary You might be surprised.

Resources:

Monthly digital camera web magazine
http://www.megapixel.net
Imaging Resource
Digital cameras and photography
http://www.imaging-resource.com

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