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    Beware: Digital cameras dogged by shortcomings

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #719  August 5- 11, 2003 High Tech Office column

    So like millions of others, you’re looking to buy a digital camera. About a dozen manufacturers with a hundred or so models are competing for your dollars.

    How to decide? One obvious is price; digital camera prices remain higher than film cameras, starting about $200 and ranging up to $7500 for Kodak’s new 14-megapixel DCS Pro 14n digital SLR.

    More popular models cost $400-$750. Three megapixel picture size is allows for prints up to 8 by 10 inches, with relatively small file sizes. Four-five megapixel cameras offer more flexibility; they can always be set to take smaller, more space-saving photos, while their larger settings allow for larger printouts and produce photos that can be cropped while still leaving lots of pixels for display or printing.

    Decide what’s most important for you. You can get a camera that’s small enough to fit in your pocket or that includes a large optical zoom, but you’ll rarely find both in the same package. Which do you prefer: a larger zoom or more pixels? You can get both, but you’ll pay for the privilege.

    Most of us, most of the time, simply leave the camera in automatic mode, point, and shoot. Despite this, most cameras pile on additional modes and features. All too often, though, the menus and user interface are poorly designed, making it hard to get to these features when you want them. A nice plus on some models is the ability to customize the menus, making more-often used features more accessible. Also nice is a movable LCD screen, especially helpful taking shots in a crowd.

    Be aware of digital photography’s dirty secrets. Among them:

    • unlike film cameras, there’s a noticeable lag time between you press the button and when the picture is taken. Some models also suffer from auto-focus lag. As a result, what you see when you click often isn’t what you get. As well, most models also take a second or two (or longer) to store the image to your memory card. All of these make for problems using digital cameras for sports or action photography (or even for shooting active young children).
    • Battery life varies widely among models, and can be hard to find out. Even though many models come with battery chargers, the number of shots per charge makes a big difference. You don’t want your charge to run out in the middle of the day, far from your charger. The ability to use standard AA batteries in a pinch is vital. Invest in a couple of sets of NiMH rechargeables. Cameras that take two AA batteries tend to be smaller than models requiring four batteries, but also tend to take far fewer pictures per charge.
    • You want a zoom to focus in on the important part of your picture. But the widely-advertised digital zoom is in most cases next-to useless; unlike the real, optical zoom, digital zoom simply throws away pixels, making the pixels at the centre larger. You don’t get more detail, you simply get larger pixels.
    • The built-in flashes are rarely usable beyond 10-12 feet. Beyond that, you’ll get dark subjects against black backgrounds. Make sure it’s easy to turn the flash off.
    • The memory cards that ship with all models are too small. Budget on getting one or more larger cards, 128 MB or larger. And there are at least five incompatible memory card formats, which can be a problem when you’re shopping for your second or third camera, only to discover that the new model you want can’t use the extra memory cards you already own. Compact Flash is the most widely used format, and offers the biggest range in sizes, up to gigabyte sized mini hard-drives (for maxi prices).


    If you’re researching digital camera models, check out Steve’s Digicams ( with extensive and trustworthy reviews.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan