From the December, 1998 issue of PC Alamode
Holiday Buying Guide:
Is there a Digital Camera
on your Wish List?
 
by Susan Ives

by Susan Ives, Alamo PC You want that digital camera, don't you? You've left drool marks on display cases at CompUSA and Best Buy. You clipped ads from the Sunday paper and stuck them on the refrigerator. You've dropped hints to Santa. The only question is: which one? The main reason to get a digital camera is because they are fun. Wherever I go with mine, people ooh and ahh and call their friends over to have a look. It's like driving a convertible or walking through the neighborhood with a matched pair of Afghan hounds. You stand out from the crowd. It's also convenient. I bet that every one of you has a 35mm camera stashed away in the closet with a half-shot roll of film in it that you snapped last Christmas. Sure, you'll get it to the camera shop for developing as soon and you click off those last three frames. Digital is immediate and economical. Since the camera uses no film, you can take one photo, download it and not feel guilty that you wasted film. You can be profligate when you go digital. I've probably taken more photographs in the 18 months that I've owned a digital camera than in the 18 years that I've had a 35mm camera.

 It's (almost) idiot-proof. We've all taken photos of our best friend's wedding only to discover that the bride has has her eyes closed or a tree growing out of her ear or you lopped the top of her head off. With digital photography, you can immediately review the results and snap again if the picture isn't up to snuff.

 Digital is portable. The first digital camera I ever saw was owned by a U.S. News reporter in Northern Iraq. Used in conjunction with his laptop and a modem, he could transmit a photo back to his office in Washington in minutes, while the other journalists were still trying to hitch a ride to the photo lab 20 miles away in Turkey. You can do the same when you are on vacation or on a business trip.

 Digital cameras don't use film. Instead, they capture photographic images on a series of photosensors and then dump them into the camera's internal memory. You then suck the photos out of the camera and put them on your computer's hard drive. From there, you can digitally enhance them - crop, rotate, eliminate pimples, even wipe out your ex-spouse. From there, you can view your photos on the screen, e-mail them to a friend, incorporate them into a presentation, transfer them to a t-shirt or print them.

 The technology that is used in digital photography was developed in 1969 by Bell Labs, now called Lucent Technologies. Most digital cameras today are based on a charge-coupled device (CCD) which captures the images. 

CCDs consist of a series of metal-oxide-semiconductor capacitors fabricated very close together on a semiconductor surface. Light striking a CCD image sensor creates a pattern of charged picture elements, or pixels, and the device remembers the pattern until it is read out for display or more permanent storage. CCDs only record light level, so color is added by striping columns of cells in alternating red, green, and blue filters.

 An alternative to CCDs is a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) active pixel sensor array that draws on the same CMOS technology as CPU and memory chips. Image sensors based on CMOS chips draw less power - and eat batteries at a slower rate - than CCDs, and are cheaper to manufacture. Also, CMOS chips can be assigned tasks other than image sampling -- for example, white balancing and analog-to-digital conversion functions that CCD-based cameras assign to other circuits and memory buffers.

 Affordable digital cameras are still a fairly new consumer product and are thus still expensive. But prices are dropping. I paid $600 for my Olympus D200L 18 months ago. Today, I could get twice the camera at the same price. Experts are predicting that increased demand coupled with the cheaper but just as capable CMOS technology may bring the price of good-quality digital cameras down to the $100 range in the next year or so. If you need one or want one by all means buy one, but if you can hold off for a year or so your bank account won't be as traumatized as it will be if you buy now.
 
 

Features to look for:

Resolution: 

Resolution is the most important factor in selecting the right camera. If you make the wrong decision you will either be disappointed by the output or throw good money away. Indeed, resolution is so important that I wrote a separate article explaining it.

 If you just want to dabble without investing a lot of money, consider a VGA 640X480 resolution camera, which can now be purchased for $300 -$400. Most people will want to spend a little more for an XGA camera, which sell for $400-$900. The megapixel cameras, which start at about $700 and climb up to more than $8,000, are for the serious photographer with compelling quality requirements.
 
 

LCD Panel: 

An LCD panel allows you to preview a photo as soon as you snap it. Consider this a necessity. The entire "gee whiz" attraction of a digital camera comes from being able to take a photo and then immediately pass it around to the peons to show off your slick new toy. On a more practical level, the LCD preview panel lets you check to make sure that the photo is satisfactory - if not take another one right away. It also gives you the option of deleting unacceptable photos, which saves memory storage space and download time. 

Memory: 

There are three kinds of camera memory: 
  • The least versatile is unexpandable built-in memory. When this memory fills up, typically with about 60 photos at the lowest resolution and 20 at the highest, you must either delete some of your photos or download the stored photos to your PC to free up more space. Avoid this if possible.

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  • Most cameras now come with removable memory. The camera will come with one memory card, and additional ones can be purchased. Depending on your brand of camera, cards come in various sizes ranging from 2MB up to more than 30MB. Plan to pay about $10 per megabyte for spare cards. The higher the resolution of your camera, the larger the file size of each photo and the more spare memory you will need. They are, of course, reusable.

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  • A few cameras, notably the Sony Mavica, store images on a 1.44mb floppy disk. This gives you versatility in that you don't have to tote around special cables, drivers or software to use your photos; they can be used on any computer that has photo imaging software installed. You won't find this feature on cameras with a resolution greater than 640x480 because beyond that point the images become too large to be effectively stored on a floppy.

Transfer: 

There are several methods of transferring photos from the camera to the PC:
     
  • Most cameras come with a cable, usually a serial cable that pops into a spare serial port, although Universal Serial Bus (USB) cables are starting to appear. You then use software to suck the photos out of the camera and onto your hard drive. Make sure you have a spare serial port or a USB port. A few cameras, such as the $2,400 Polaroid PDC-300, use a SCSI cable.

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  • If your camera comes with a smart memory card, you can probably also buy either an optional memory card reader or a device that will allow you to use the memory card in a PCMCIA slot (most commonly found in laptops.) This is a faster method of transferring photos from the camera to the computer and allows you to download photos while the camera is in use.

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  • A few cameras come equipped with IrDA, or infrared transfer, capability. IrDA is most commonly found in laptops. And the cameras that use a floppy disk as a storage medium don't have to mess with cables or card readers.

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Software:

All digital cameras come with software that you install on your computer. At the very least, you will get a TWAIN driver that allows your camera to interface with photo editing software that you already have installed on your computer. (Any geek can tell you that TWAIN defines a standard software protocol and application programming interface (API) for communication between software applications and image acquisition devices.)

 Many cameras will come bundled with the image editing software itself - most commonly, Adobe PhotoDeluxe. Don't make your purchasing decision based of a large free software bundle. Most of it is junk. 

Once you have installed the TWAIN driver, you can download and edit your digital images using any photo editing program, including Adobe PhotoShop, JASC PaintShop Pro, Corel Photo Paint or the new Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000 that was demonstrated at the November Alamo PC meeting. 

Flash:

A flash is a necessity for indoor photography. Some of the older cameras did not have them but it appears that most of the current models do.
 
 

Optics: 

Optics defines the quality of the lenses. Most of the earlier consumer-grade cameras and many of the lower-end ones available today have a fixed focal length with all of the sophistication of one of those cardboard cameras that you can buy at the supermarket checkout line. More features at affordable prices are starting to appear. 

If you plan on taking photos from any distance look for a zoom lens. Additional lenses are now available for some of the XGA- and megapixel cameras; expect to pay about $100 for a telephoto lens. A few of the very high-end cameras can accept standard lenses - for example, the $7,000 Nikon will accept Nikkor lenses and the $5,600 Minolta accepts bayonet-type lenses.

 One important distinction is between an optical and a digital zoom lens. An optical zoom works much like a zoom on a conventional camera; it zooms in on the picture detail and fuzzes out the background. A digital zoom takes a portion of your shot and magnifies it. This is one case where optical is better than digital.
 
 

Power: 

Digital cameras typically use two batteries - a long-lasting battery for long-term storage and AA batteries for taking photos, using the flash and LCD panel and for downloading. Most digital cameras eat AA batteries; with my camera, I rarely fill up the memory with 60 low-resolution images without having to change the batteries at least twice. I strongly recommend buying an AC adapter for downloading and a rechargeable battery kit for day-to-day operations or all of the money you save on film and processing will be spent on batteries. A few of the higher-end cameras use rechargeable NiMH or lithium ion batteries. If you get one of these, you will want a spare and a stand-alone charger.
 
 

Extra features: 

Some digital cameras also can record sound (the $800 Ricoh 4300 can record 8 seconds of audio with each picture.) Some can take continuous snaps, making it possible to make a mini-movie. Others have a panorama feature with accompanying software that with stitch pictures together. Some let you add a real flash attachment. The color fidelity of digital cameras is not a pure as with 35mm cameras but built-in white balance is helping to correct this shortcoming in some of the higher-end cameras.
 
 

System requirements: 

Working with digital photographs - especially the higher resolution "photorealistic" ones - will put a strain on your computer. You will need at least 32MB of RAM; 64 is even better. Have plenty of hard drive storage and/or some high-density storage such as a zip drive. Get a good video card. A Pentium is a must. For photorealistic printing you will need a good color printer, preferably one designed for photographs. At the low end, the $279 Epson Stylus Photo 700 will give adequate results. If you want your photos printed on glossy paper, be prepared to spend about $1 a sheet.

 If you want to learn more about digital photography, read the online books, The World of Digital Photography at http://www.shortcourses.com/chapter01.htm. or the Digital Camera Primer at http://www.dcforum.com/dc/new/primer/primer.shtml

Buying guide are available online from ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/products/camerauser/index.html, Computer Shopper, http://www.zdnet.com/computershopper/edit/cshopper/content/9805/297263.html, Family PC, http://www.zdnet.com/familypc/content/9806/fthw/index.html and C|Net, http://www.computers.com/cdoor/0,1,0-21-2,00.html?st.co.revp.unav.cd21.

 The information on the outside of the camera box is apt to be scanty and this technology is changing so rapidly that the store clerk might not be up on the latest features. Before buying, research your camera on the Internet or, at the very least, make the store let you pop the box open so you can read the spec sheet inside.

 Which one would I buy today? I think I would bite the bullet on cost and go for Kodak DC260 ($999.) It's fully featured, including the both digital and optical zoom, audio and the option of adding lenses and a real flash. The 1536X1024 resolution is as much as I'll never need. It would last me a few years before I started lusting after the next best thing. If I was being more frugal, I'd get the Casio QV-5000SX, for $599. If I was really on a budget, a good starter camera is the Agfa ePhoto 780, for $399. 

If you're looking for a present for the kids, don't despair. Mattel's Barbie's Photo Designer includes a digital camera that can store up to six photos at a very low resolution (240 x 320) and has all the software you need. It's pink. But for $64, it's a steal and I'm sure your daughter will let you borrow it. 

As an Army public affairs officer, Susan Ives had to develop photos in a tent and thinks that digital photography is just great.