Digital cameras are better, but know what you're buying

First published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #627, October 30- Nov 5, 2001: The High-tech Office column

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

Only a few years ago, shooting pictures with a digital camera could be counted on to create a stir. Users tended to be either on the high-tech cutting edge or minorities such as real estate agencies who found the ability to rush images into print a clear benefit.

Prices on the far side of $1,000 for pictures of mediocre quality helped to keep the market limited.

Quality, though still not as good as 35-mm film, has improved while prices have dropped. As a result, digital cameras are no longer rarities and most of the traditional camera-makers have entered the market. When choosing among the growing number of models consider:

- How much is too much? It was once a big deal when digital cameras started claiming "megapixel" images, offering picture sizes of 1,024 x 768 pixels. Picture sizes have continuously risen, with higher-end models now offering four or more megapixel images, and even low-end units promising 2.1 megapixels. Larger pixel sizes are required if you need to print high-quality large images such as near-film-quality 8.5-by-11-inch prints.

But the larger images you shoot, the fewer you can store. With some cameras, at their highest quality you may be able to store only two to four at a time. If your end uses are photos to post on a Web site or pictures that will be reproduced at relatively small size or photocopied, then multimegapixel images are overkill. You can set most cameras to take smaller pictures, allowing you to store more at a time. But why pay for more camera than you'll need?

- What features do you need? In the increasingly crowded market, manufacturers are piling on features. For example, many models now can shoot short low-resolution video clips, complete with sound. Will you ever use this? More features mean more complexity and more cost. Once again, buy what you need.

- How many shots can you get on a set of batteries? This varies dramatically among models. Batteries vary, as do photographers' habits, so any published figures are, at best, estimates. Battery life is still one of the most common complaints of digital camera users. I returned a camera after consistently getting 30 shots to a set of alkaline batteries. The vendor contacted the manufacturer, who admitted that this was normal for that model. By contrast, Fuji claims that its low-end Finepix 2300 and 2400 models should get about 200 shots with the LCD display (a big battery drain) turned on and about 400 shots with it turned off.

This information can be surprisingly hard to find. Before buying a particular digital camera model, try an Internet search with the camera make and model and the words "battery life." Or talk to someone who uses that model.

- Accessories worth buying. When you're planning to buy a digital camera, budget for some extras. Many higher-end cameras come with rechargeable batteries. Buy an extra set. Other models use standard AAs. Buy two sets of NiMH rechargeables and a charger.

Virtually all digital cameras store their pictures on a tiny removable card, either Compactflash, Smartmedia, or Sony's Memory Sticks. You're going to want one with a higher capacity to store more pictures at a time. The eight-MB Smartmedia card shipped with Fuji's 2400, for example, holds 19 two-megapixel shots (or 89 Web-friendly 640x480 shots). An $80, 64-MB card ups that to 159 high-resolution shots (or 663 at the lowest resolution). Unlike film, these cards are reusable as you move the photos over to your computer. Transferring your photos to a computer is another battery-drain. Consider an AC adapter or a memory card reader to save your batteries for taking pictures.

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