Digital Cameras: Pixels With Pedigree

Despite the fact that you can pick up extremely inexpensive film cameras nowadays (not counting single-use cameras), there’s very strong chance that the next camera you buy will be digital. The sales figures speak for themselves – digital camera sales for 2002 were reported to be up 104 percent on the previous year, with sales expected to double again in 2003. It seems that, on both commercial and consumer fronts, an increasing number of people are switching from film to digital.

In 2003 digital camera sales are expected to catch up with traditional film cameras – the trend is being fuelled by an ongoing price decrease across the board. For example, three mega-pixel cameras (for mega read million), once considered high-end models, today sell for less than thousand dollars. Two mega-pixel cameras are around the $600 mark. Casio has five mega-pixel camera with an rrp of $1999 – unheard of even year ago.

So, why the swing to digital? Isn’t this compromise when it comes to image quality? While it’s true that early digital cameras were really only designed for capturing images for electronic applications (eg the Internet), in the past 12 to 24 months the industry has witnessed massive pixel race that has changed people’s thinking about digital photography. With pixels now peaking at around six million, the focus has switched to on-board processing software, as well as lenses, memory capacity, and ease of use.

Although there are still challenges to overcome, such as that grainy effect on certain flash photos, the quality issue has to large degree finally been laid to rest. Wide-spread adoption of digital cameras over the next three to five years is sure bet, as camera owners enjoy the convenience, speed, and savings that digital photography provides.

Consider the benefits digital photography has over traditional 35mm cameras. There is the advantage of seeing your pictures as soon as you’ve taken them, then selecting the best for printing, and dumping the rest.

No longer do you need to keep spare film on stand-by, and taking pictures costs you nothing.

Thanks to USB ‘plug and play’ capability, digital cameras allow you to share photos with other people in an instant. The latest memory cards or ‘sticks’, including CompactFlash, SmartMedia and Secure Media, can hold up to 128Mb of images and are, of course, re-usable.

Many people are now investing in one of the many specialist inkjet photo printers to ‘direct print’ 35mm-like images on their desktop (Canon, HP and Epson for example) – great idea, but be careful on your consumable usage. new DPS protocol (direct print system) being developed in Japan is expected to make plug-to-print technology universal across the industry.

Which camera for me?
Understand that no one camera does everything perfectly – this is the advice from Minolta sales manager Steve Meadows of Tech Pacific. “Do you require portability, or high quality? Are you ‘snapper’ or serious photographer? Many people simply want to record events, places and people. So my favourite piece of advice for them is: ‘the best camera in the world is the compact, portable you have with you, not that bulky high-spec one that never gets taken anywhere’. “

Buyers should avoid cheap imports, stick to well-known brands, and reputable dealers who specialise in digital cameras. “Their pre-purchase advice is as important as their after-sales service,” suggests Meadows.

Picking brand is no easy feat. Look at the pedigree of the manufacturer – digital camera is still camera after all, so how long has that name been in the game?

Mike Armstrong, national manager camera division for Canon, believes that pixels aren’t the “be all and end all”- auto-focus, exposure control, and lenses are just as important. “You can generally tell good digital camera by the speed at which it looks at an image, decides what to do, and takes the picture,” he says.

Armstrong also offers the following guide to assist in selecting an appropriate camera: “To produce standard six by four prints, 1.3 to two mega-pixel camera is adequate. However, for A4-size reproduction you’ll require two to three mega-pixels, while anything A3 and above calls for four to six mega-pixels.” Armstrong believes comparing pixels to prints is still very relevant as people still prefer to pass pictures around.

Sony’s Sam Williams advises digital camera buyers to choose the highest mega-pixel camera their budget will allow, “Because you never know when you’ll want to enlarge particular picture”.

Williams, like many others in the industry, views processing and printing labs as vital in the digital photography environment, and encourages users to submit their best images to print in order to best preserve and keep track of them. Users with ADSL connection can make use of online printing services, otherwise it’s case of dropping your memory device into the lab, many of which now supply customers’ images on CD-ROM as well as paper. Film processing houses have had to quickly adapt to the digital processing market and have been quick to promote the benefits and convenience of their services.

There are other features which can swing buyers in favour of one particular brand or model of digital camera. For example, there are cameras like the relatively unknown Mustek G-Smarts and MDC 3500 which also double as web cameras. Many cameras, such as Fujifilm’s FinePix range, can record short video clips of 20 to 60 seconds duration (depending on the size of the memory device) and up to VGA in quality (30 frames per second). Just don’t expect to be able to email it to family and friends!

Pointers & pitfalls
Digital cameras can be likened to mini computers – essentially they consist of memory, microchips and processors and an image sensor chip (CCD or Charged Coupled Device). Ensure that your computer is grunty enough to handle all those large image files from your new camera, and remember that you can reduce the resolution of image files for the purpose of emailing (saves tying up phone lines for hours on end). The software that comes with your camera should specify minimum system requirements.

On the subject of performance, make sure that rechargeable battery and charger come with the camera, or that they are at least available. Flat battery frustration will spoil your digital photography experience for sure.

The size of the LCD screen on camera is important too (it allows you to preview and review pictures in colour), but remember that they consume fair amount of power, so keep it turned off when not in use.

Lens options can also be somewhat confusing when comparing models, as some cameras come with optical zoom lenses, and some with digital zoom. Digital zooms essentially enlarge the pixels, which will reduce the resolution of the image. So perhaps look for an optical zoom, or at least combination of the two.

Market watch
What’s hot in digital cameras? There was flood of new models to market in 2002, and 2003 will see many others hit the shelves. Because of their 35mm heritage, you will already be familiar with most digital camera brands such as Canon, Kodak, Fujifilm, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and Leica. Other brands have strong electronics background, such as Kyocera, Samsung, and Sony.

Twiggy-thin Exilim “Wearable Card” cameras from Casio are leader in the compact stakes, with some models offering on-board MP3 audio and voice recording, built-in 12Mb memory and 0.1 second shutter release time.

Fujifilm’s line-up starts with the credit-card sized one mega-pixel SlimShot, and includes no less than eleven FinePix models, ranging from two mega-pixels up to 12 mega-pixel SLR camera for professionals. It is predicted that digital SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses will come in for particular attention by manufacturers in 2003, now that the pixel race has slowed.

Simon Millidge from Olympus distributor H.E.Perry is picking that the

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