Digital Cameras

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Digital cameras are rapidly overtaking film cameras.  Digital has a number of advantages - lower cost (at least in terms of film and processing), the images are easy to manipulate, you can see the results instantly, you can send the images instantly to almost anyone, and you don't have to worry about x-rays or light ruining your film (but watch out for magnets!).

What is available today (2005)?  Well, digital cameras on the market today aimed at the consumer market range in price from under $100 to over $1,000.  Within this price range are a wide variety of options, and you can probably find a camera with any combination of them.

Bottom line?  I have a Canon EOS 3 camera; it is the best handling camera I have ever used.  Since I bought my first digital camera (a Canon D-60), I have run exactly 1 roll of film through the EOS-3, and that was to test its capabilities against the digital camera.  I doubt I will ever buy another film camera.


Feature Comments
Viewfinder Inexpensive models have a simple optical viewfinder (not coupled to the lens).  More expensive cameras use a liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor which can also allow you to examine the images you have recorded.  Larger LCD's are usually better, but check the resolution.  The most expensive digital cameras have both SLR optical viewfinders and an LCD.  By their nature, the LCD's on the SLR types are usually not "live" as are the ones on other digital cameras.  While the glass viewfinder on an SLR is the best way to see what you are photographing, there are advantages to a live LCD viewfinder.  A really nice feature is the ability to tilt and swivel the LCD, allowing you to take pictures from unique angles.
Zoom Lens There are a variety of zoom lenses available; for the most part these are similar to the ones available for 35mm compact autofocus cameras or for camcorders.  A few of the top models use lenses from the SLR lines.  Don't be fooled by digital or overall zoom; on most cameras the digital zoom is useless.  Focus instead on the optical zoom.
Digital Zoom This is a feature which uses software to digitally enlarge the image.  Often, the image takes on a pixelated look.  It's usually not very satisfactory.
Resolution The higher the better.  At the bottom end are 640 x 480 pixel units; at the top are so-called megapixel cameras with resolutions up to 3072 x 2048 or better.  Remember, you can always reduce the size of an image! Models with higher resolutions often allow you to go to a lower resolution to be able to save more pictures in memory.  4 MB seems to be about the minimum both for onscreen and printed images.
Memory  The more the better.  Some cameras have built-in memory and must be linked by a cable to a PC to download the pictures.  Most cameras have some kind of removable memory which not only removes the need for cables, but also allows you to carry memory chips instead of a laptop into the field.  There are several different formats of memory available; these range from "flash cards" at $25 for 32MB to cards holding up to 4 gigabytes (and costing under $1000).  Memory prices continue to fall, however, and once the images are on the computer you can save them on CD's for $1 per 600MB (and free up your memory to reuse).  Some cameras use 3.5" floppy disks (holding 1.5 MB) as memory; these are slow and limited to low resolutions. Other options include miniature DVD recorders.
Flash Some cameras have a built-in flash, others use regular camera flashes.  The built-in flashes tend to be anemic and prone to red-eye, but then again digital does not need as much light as film.
NTSC Video Out This option allows you to put images (or short movies) into the (current) TV standard.  It can thus be recorded on videotape and watched on a TV monitor.  If you want to show your pictures to friends, this is a good option because there are more TV's and VCR's around than there are computers.
Microphone Some cameras have a built-in microphone and can record sound as well as images.
MPEG This allows the camera to take many still JPEG pictures in quick succession and record them as MPEG movies, which can be viewed on a computer.  If so equipped, the camera may be able to record sound to go with the video.  Nice option, but eats up memory - why not get a camcorder?
Computer Link Even if they have removable memory, many cameras have the ability to interface to the computer.  There are many possibilities: serial Links, IR (wireless), parallel links, USB, PCMIA, or the current speed champ, IEEE 1394 (firewire).  It all depends on how much data you want to download, how fast you want to download it, and what ports your computer has available.

Consider this as well as you go digital:

First, if you are intrigued by the possibility of capturing movies, you might want to consider a digital camcorder instead of a camera.  Slightly heavier, and limited in resolution, these cameras have virtually unlimited data storage in the form of tapes and minidisks.
Second, memory cards are expensive.  If you are going to be away from a computer for several days, it might be more economical to get a portable digital hard drive.  Some of these units can store 40 gigabytes of photos and even include a LCD panel so you may review the images.  They have slots to download the photos from your camera memory card, thus reducing the number of memory cards you need.  These units can be purchased for under $400.
Third, many of the affordable SLR digital cameras used reduced-size image chips, that is the image chip is smaller than the 35mm film frame.  This means that your 35 mm lenses, while they fit on the camera, do not place all of their information on the image.  The camera companies like to say this makes a 100mm lens the equivalent of a 160 mm lens, but all it really does is crop the edges of the image so that a 100mm lens has the field of view of a 160 mm lens.  Worse, your wide angle lenses won't see as wide an angle as before.  Cameras with full size chips are available but cost 4x as much.  These prices are bound to drop.  Also, some manufacturers are now producing special lenses for their digital SLR's that have true wide-angle capability; however such lenses usually won't work on film SLR's.