Product Reviews

A photocourses.com/New York Institute of Photography Special Report:

DIGITAL CAMERA BUYING GUIDE – NYI's TEN SHOPPING TIPS




More and more people agree that digital photography is "cool."

Photo dealers happily report that sales of digital cameras are "hot."

©Epson
Digital cameras have a lot of plusses. One of the most popular features of a digital camera is the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) viewing panel that allows the photographer to view the results of each photo an instant after it's taken. Using the LCD, the photographer can immediately show the picture to other people, including the photo's subjects. The LCD is also an instant-editing device: If the photo didn't turn out as intended, the photographer can delete it and shoot again.

With a digital camera, you can take a picture and zip it off to your online auction site without the time and cost of taking a roll of film in for processing. Plus, with the right connections and a little know-how, a digital photo can be quickly transmitted as e-mail or sent to an online photo service that will turn the image into a print, a coffee mug or T-shirt, or other photo bauble. We're also starting to see picture frames and other devices that will display your digital photos right after you take them.

Amid these plusses, we must insert a cautionary note – digital cameras are complicated tools and they aren't cheap. We've prepared this Special Report to help you decide whether this is the time to buy a digital camera, and if it is, which model might be right for you. We would love to hear your feedback on what you read. E-mail our Digital Editor.

BUYING A DIGITAL CAMERA

Let's Start With A Prediction :

©Samsung

This year has been laced with uncertainty - Wall Street flips and flops while analysts argue whether or not we're in a recession.

Amidst all this uncertainty, it's great to be able to state one fact with confidence:

More digital cameras will be sold this year than in any other year in the history of civilization.

Simply put, the digital camera has arrived as a consumer bauble, and many American households will acquire one this month or in the coming months.

This doesn't mean film-based photography has been abandoned. In many instances, the purchase of a digital camera is not based on a desire to replace the family film-based camera, but rather to enhance the family's computer system. After all, in recent years more and more American homes became wired for e-mail and the Internet and upgraded to more powerful computer systems. New computer sales appear to be slowing at least in part because people have sufficiently powerful systems already. Now, what to do with that computer? The addition of a digital camera is a logical next step.

Shopping Tip #1: Don't think of a digital camera as a replacement for the family film camera. Digital photography is different from using a film camera. We think lots of families will be using film to record vacations and family fun for many years into the future. But a digital camera has many benefits of its own, and it is a logical extension to your home computer system. Just as there are times you select one tool rather than another for chores around the home, a digital camera is another photographic tool, and we think it's one you need to get the most enjoyment out of your computer.

©Olympus
In fact, an old friend just told us of buying a new computer for the family (after all, it had been a few years). The salesperson suggested a digital camera as an inexpensive add-on. Our friend, having already spent about a thousand dollars on his order, found it easy to say "yes" to a digital camera even though he had never considered buying one before that moment.

What kind of camera, we asked, had he purchased? He had no idea. He didn't know the brand, the number of megapixels, or whether it had a zoom lens or a fixed focus lens. He just decided it was time to add a camera to his computer system, and although it cost around $100, he gave it as much thought as the average person might give to buying audio speakers for a computer system. Did he get the right camera for his family? We have no idea, but we promise if you follow our Ten Shopping Tips, you'll vastly improve your chances of getting the right camera.

Digital Photography: It's Time!

Make no mistake – we think this is a great time for everyone to get involved with digital photography. At the same time, we know that there are lots of different models of digital cameras currently on the market with feature sets that vary widely. When this variety of features meets up with consumers who aren't up to speed on the basic elements of digital cameras, you've got a formula for confusion.

The confusion is compounded because it's on both sides of the sales counter. We've discussed the matter with some higher ups in the photo world who lament that some camera sales staff are reluctant to even discuss digital camera models with customers because the salespeople themselves don't feel up to speed on the features and options on digital cameras.

We're here to help. While we can't make you an expert on digital photography in one short article, we can give you the basic information you need to know to determine what kind of camera will work best for you. If you're interested in a complete training program click for information about our new Digital Photography: The Complete Course. But for now, let's just concentrate on getting you up to speed so that your first digital camera is one that will give you a lot of pleasure.

Shopping Tip #2: Regarding prices – When we mention a specific camera, if there's price information available, you'll find it listed as follows: (SP $XXX). SP stands for "street price," an approximation of what you'll expect to pay at a U.S. specialty store with aggressive pricing. As a rule, street prices are a more meaningful index of true cost than the manufacturer's list price.

When digital cameras first started to be sold, they were usually purchased by what market analysts call "early adopters." These are the first people to try new technical devices. It doesn't matter that the gear is complicated, costly, and hard to master. Early adopters are happy to read all the specs and struggle with complicated instructions.

But that's not the way things are for most of us. Consumers want "plug-and-play." A gadget you can use right out of the box. Digital cameras are close to plug-and-play, and now that they're being sold in all kinds of stores, the standard information that you get is rather vague.

Here are some sample camera descriptions taken from recent actual newspaper advertisements.

Advertisement 1: "1.3 Megapixel Digital Camera with 2X Digital Zoom. Features 1.8" LCD, 4MB memory card, built-in flash with red-eye reduction and USB connectivity." Price tag: $199

Advertisement 2: "2.1 Megapixel Digital Camera with 3X optical and 6X digital zoom." Price tag: $599.

Advertisement 3: "3.3 Megapixel Digital Camera with 3X Optical/2X Digital Zoom. ISO settings of 100, 200 and 400 offer amazing flexibility in various lighting and action situations. Included 16MB CompactFlash card stores up to 110 images." Price tag: $799.

We'll sort out all the abbreviations and lingo in these descriptions. First, let's look at the two basic types of digital cameras.

Camera Types

For consumers, the basic choice is between a digital camera that resembles either the traditional point-and-shoot model or a single lens reflex (SLR). If you're a serious photographer, you already know that SLR cameras allow you to use different lenses and give you the opportunity to see your photo through the lens that will take the photograph, rather than through a separate viewfinder system.

SLR Digital Cameras

©Fuji
While they have dropped in price in recent years, digital SLR models are more expensive than digital point-and-shoot cameras. A detailed discussion of the leading models is beyond the scope of this article, and for most people contemplating the purchase of their first digital camera, we suggest that you look at the many point-and-shoot models that exist at all price points under $1,000.

However, if you know you want a digital SLR and you're prepared to pay the price to own one, we suggest you consider these models: Nikon D1 (price is in flux as updated models are being introduced), Fuji FinePix S1 Pro (SP $3,500), and the Canon EOS-D30 (SP $3,000). There are other manufacturers producing digital cameras as well.

You should also be aware that Kodak offers several SLR models – the DCS-520/620, and the DCS 560/660. These are actually built using either a Nikon F5 body (620/650) or a Canon EOS1N body (520/550). In prior years, Kodak and Fuji had employed a variety of partnering arrangements with Nikon, Canon and Minolta, and these hybrid Kodak models continue this trend.

In recent months, we've seen the introduction of two exciting digital SLR cameras that differ from the ones we've discussed so far in two main ways: both are less expensive, and both feature fixed lenses. That means you get a zoom lens with the camera but you can't remove it and replace it with a different lens.

Interchangeable lenses have long been the hallmark of SLRs, but in recent years computer-assisted optical designs have made it possible to create zoom lenses that cover such a wide range of focal lengths that being able to change lenses is not such a necessity. Taking advantage of refined optics, both Olympus and Minolta have developed SLR digital cameras that come with a fixed zoom lens.

Olympus brought out the E-10 about six months ago, and it has proved to be very popular. With a 4-Megapixel 2/3" chip and a fast f/2-2.4 8-47mm zoom lens, we've seen lots of photographers using this camera. (By the way, the 8-47mm zoom range is the equivalent of a 35-140mm zoom on a 35mm film camera.) The street price for the E-10 is just under $2,000.

Minolta had not brought out a new digital model in some time. That's two or three generations of cameras at the rate things have been changing recently. At the 2001 PMA, there was talk of a new Minolta DiMAGE Digital Camera with a true 5-Megapixel chip, but it wasn't ready for testing. Now, Minolta has just announced its intention to bring the DiMAGE 7, with an expected street price of $1,500 to market this summer. Sporting 5-Megapixels, the camera also outdoes the E-10's zoom range with a 7-51mm zoom that's the equivalent of a 28-200mm zoom in 35mm terms.

We've had a chance to play with an advanced model but haven't been able to test the camera yet. One interesting feature is that the SLR viewfinder isn't optical glass but rather an electronic viewfinder similar to the type you see in a camcorder. There are lots of other features that suggest that Minolta and Olympus will be in a real battle for the top spot in the under $2,000 digital SLR category. Nothing like competition!

Point-and-Shoot Digital Cameras

The vast majority of digital cameras that are being sold today are point-and-shoot models. The ads we quoted at the top of this article are all for point-and-shoot models. Some of the digital point-and-shoot models offer highly sophisticated features that you would expect to find in SLR cameras, but not in traditional film point-and-shoot models. If you're an advanced photographer, this means spending thousands of dollars on a digital SLR is not your only option. There are some really cool cameras that give professional-looking results available for less than $1,000.

Chances are the digital camera you're going to buy will be a point-and-shoot model. Before we turn to brands, model numbers and prices, let's review the key features you should look for as well as some of the other factors you should consider.

Lens

©Olympus
As with film-based point-and-shoot cameras, you will find models that have a single fixed-focal length lens, and others that offer fixed a zoom lens. Unless you're looking for a very compact model, we think a zoom lens adds a lot to the picture taking experience.

As you read in the actual digital camera descriptions we listed above, digital cameras (as well as digital camcorders) offer two types of zoom statistics - optical zoom and digital zoom. "Optical zoom" means that the actual glass lens of the camera zooms through a range that goes from a wide angle view of the scene in front of the camera to a narrower view that makes a distant subject look bigger.

"Digital zoom" means that the camera's electronics provide an even larger image that can be captured optically. This is done by interpolating the image captured by the optical lens. While there may be times when digital zoom is necessary to get an image of a distant object, the truth is that it does not create as good an image as can be recorded optically. We don't find digital zoom to be a feature worth using.

Shopping Tip #3: We think a zoom lens is a good feature. You'll have more picture-taking possibilities with a 2X (or more) optical zoom lens. Don't pay attention to digital zoom, try to avid using it, and don't pay more for a camera that features a long digital zoom range.

Pixel Array

This is probably the most confusing issue for most new digital camera buyers. Here's our crash course:

"Pixel" stands for picture element. A single pixel is the basic building block of a digital image. A photograph composed of more pixels will have more detail than one made from fewer pixels. The first consumer digital cameras that appeared in the mid-1990s featured a chip that could capture less than one million pixels. A few years ago, we started to see cameras that could capture one million pixels or more. To simplify the terminology, we now rate camera capture levels by megapixels. Since mega- means million, one megapixel equals one million pixels.

In rapid succession, we've seen the introduction of two-, three- and even four-megapixel cameras. There is some hocus-pocus in the way megapixels are counted, but the bottom line is that we think overall consumer satisfaction begins with cameras that can capture two megapixels or more on the chip.

©Toshiba
In general, a two-megapixel digital image will yield a good 5"x7" print when printed on photo-quality paper on a good inkjet printer, and a tolerable 8"x10" print. A three-megapixel image can make an 8"x10" print that is hard to distinguish from a print of the same size made from a 35mm film image. That's close to photo quality.

The problem is that a two- or three-megapixel image creates a big file that can take a long time to download to your computer or send to an on-line printing service. In addition, if you're going to use your digital photo on a personal Website, the resolution of your computer monitor won't be able to show all the detail you've captured. For this reason, most good digital cameras give you a choice so that you can record images using only a portion of the maximum available pixels, and create a smaller file. If you're taking pictures for use only on the Web or for e-mail, a one-megapixel file will be plenty.

Shopping Tip #4: Our advice? Think about buying a two-megapixel or greater camera. A year ago, two-megapixel cameras were selling for just under $1,000. Today, there are a number of good two-megapixel models selling for under $500. To give you the flexibility to make decent photo-quality prints, we recommend you shop for a model that can capture at least two megapixels per image. Remember, you may pay a little more for a digital camera than a film-based model, but, for the most part, you're not going to have to spend a lot of money on film and processing.

Digital Film - Memory Cards

©San Disk
Did we just mention film? That brings us to the question of storage devices for digital cameras. One of the big differences between film and digital cameras is that film is relatively cheap, while the materials used to store digital images generally are not. Up until about a year ago, there were two principal types of "digital film" – the SmartMedia card and the CompactFlash memory card.

Sadly, these two types of cards are not interchangeable, and camera manufacturers were not able to agree on one medium or the other. You'll find a few cameras that can take both, but generally when you purchase a digital camera today, you'll be committing yourself to working with one type of memory card.

Memory is essential because, as we've noted, digital files are big and cannot be stored conveniently in the camera. While it's true that you can review each image as you capture it and delete the ones that you don't like, one memory card can only handle a limited number of high-resolution digital files. With any luck, you'll quickly fill your memory card with great pictures. This means that if you plan to use a digital camera on a trip, you'll probably want to have two or more cards for your camera. If you can download your images to a computer as you travel, you might be able to get by with a single card, but we think that's unlikely.

In both CompactFlash and SmartMedia, you'll find memory cards that range from 8 or 16 megabytes (MB) to 64MB or more. Current street prices for a 16MB card run about $40-50, while a 64MB card will set you back about $175.

Exactly how many images can you store on a 16MB card? We wish we could tell you for certain, but it depends on the exact size of the file created by a given camera, as well as the resolution that you select. On cameras that give you a choice of different resolutions to record your photos, the number of images you can capture will vary as you switch back and forth between resolutions. To give you a rough idea, we have a three-megapixel model that can fit 16 of its highest resolution images on a 16MB card.

That's why a statement such as the one we cited in Advertisement 3: "16MB CompactFlash card stores up to 110 images" is misleading. With that camera you can store "up to" 110 images if you use the camera in its lowest resolution mode. In high resolution you might get only two dozen.

Other Storage Devices

At the top of this section, we said that there were two "principal" types of storage media. Sony, one of the big players in the digital camera world, has been marching to a different drummer. You can buy different models of Sony Digital Cameras that record images on conventional floppy disks, on mini CD-R discs, or on the Sony Memory Stick. That's quite a choice.

In reality, Sony had a big seller when it brought out the Mavica Series that records on floppy disk. People understood floppies. They were cheap. The camera was a hit. The problem is that you can't fit too many images on a 1.44MB floppy. And you can't record even a single high resolution two-megapixel image on one standard floppy, so as the amount of megapixel capture in cameras evolved, the viability of the floppy as a storage option declined. Our advice - don't opt for the floppy disc system.

The Memory Stick is an interesting concept. When it arrived on the scene about two years ago, one industry wag noted, "The only reason to introduce another storage medium is to stick it to the consumer." We don't necessarily agree with that, and there are some interesting compatibility possibilities with other Sony products. So far, no other major manufacturers have jumped on the Memory Stick bandwagon.

©Sony
Last summer, Sony dropped a bomb that has been greeted with enthusiasm by the photo press, the Mavica MVC-CD1000 (SP $1,300) a two-megapixel model that captures images on 3" mini CD-R discs, each of which can handle 156MB at the price of about $3 a disc. While you don't have the option to erase images you don't like, this is by far the cheapest storage solution to date. And, you can just plop the mini-CD into your computer's CD drive with no connectivity issues. We anticipate that this will create some dramatic shifts in the digital film terrain in the next year or two. The MVC-CD1000 has performed well in initial tests and is available now. It's a high price for a two-megapixel model, but if you're an early adopter you might want to check it out. We predict that new cameras that use mini CD-R discs will proliferate and drop in cost.

Light Sensitivity

One of the great benefits of traditional film cameras is that you have a wide choice of different kinds of film and different film speeds. One of the drawbacks of most digital cameras is that the light sensitivity of the chip that captures the image is relatively slow, the equivalent of ISO 100 film. That means you'll find it hard to take pictures in low light without using flash.

The camera described in Advertisement 3 touted: "ISO settings of 100, 200 and 400 offer amazing flexibility in various lighting and action situations." If you think about it, that's not amazing in film terms, where there are lots of films available with ISO speeds from 25 to 1000 or more. In many digital models, a faster ISO speed is created using electronic gain that gives an apparent higher speed but at the cost of increasing the "noise" or static in the image recorded. For the time being, most digital cameras have the same sensitivity to light as a film camera loaded with ISO 100 film.

Shopping Tip #5: Since most cameras use either StartMedia or CompactFlash cards, buy one or two cards in the 16 or 32 MB range. If you download your photographs regularly, this should suffice. Check whether the model you're considering buying comes with a memory card, and if so, what size. In that case you may only have to buy one additional card. Don't buy more cards right now. We expect further price drops in the future.

Digital Camera Power.

Digital cameras don't work without power. There's no such thing as a manual digital camera. You will need to either have batteries in your camera or use it plugged into an electrical outlet via an adapter.

Batteries for Digital Cameras.

©Panasonic
One difference between digital cameras and film-based models is that most digital cameras tend to consume a lot of power. This means that you need to use high-performance batteries and that you'll probably want to buy several sets of rechargeable batteries that fit your camera, usually AA-batteries. If you get rechargeables, we prefer the newer NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) models, rather than NiCad (Nickel Cadmium) varieties.

AC Adapter.

You will definitely want an AC adapter for your camera. It's true that most of the time you'll be taking photographs you won't want to be tethered to an electrical cord. However, when it comes time to do serious editing of the pictures stored on your memory cards, or to download your photos into a computer, you'll find the job a lot easier if you're running the camera via an AC adapter. Plus, if you're in the middle of a long download and the batteries conk out, you're likely to have to start all over again. The continuous power of an adapter will help you avoid this.

We have three shopping tips:

Shopping Tip #6: Plan to purchase one or two sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger if you don't already have one.

Shopping Tip #7: Realize that some cameras come with an adapter as part of the things you get with your camera. That's good. But other models don't come with an adapter. We can cite one popular model that sells for a little under $1,000, where the adapter is an add-on that lists for $79.95! Ouch. Make sure you know whether the model you're considering comes with an adapter as part of the basic package.

©Canon
Shopping Tip #8: The need for an adapter is so prevalent that there are companies that make adapters for the various best-selling camera models that come without them. That means, for the camera described above, you can shop around and find the manufacturer's adapter for $59.95 or even $49.95, or buy an adapter from an after-market manufacturer for $29.95.

Taken collectively, these three tips means that you need to add the cost of rechargeable batteries and (possibly) and adapter to the price you're going to pay for your camera. You'll need both items. Some good stores may offer these as a package at the original time of purchase.

Camera Connectivity:

Another issue which buyers don't pay much attention to is the way the camera connects to your computer (or other devices) in order to get the photos out of the camera (or storage card) and into the computer.

In the very early days of digital cameras, way back six or seven years ago, the connection between the camera and the computer usually used standard cables that went into the computer's serial port. This kind of connection is fine for transmitting words and numbers, but the giant size of the files created by digital photos means that a serial port cable connection takes a long time to transmit a single file that represents one photograph. As a consequence, downloading photographs into the computer took a long time. For lots of consumers who bought early models of digital cameras, the time required to move images into the computer was too long, and the cameras got returned to the store.

Photo industry executives were stunned by the high return rate of the first few generations of digital cameras. In part, the problem stemmed from consumer expectations, in part from the limited quality and performance of the cameras. Even though the early cameras created files no larger than one megapixel, the long wait to download a file that wouldn't print a decent 5"x7" photo sent a lot of early digital camera purchasers back to the store to return the digital camera and revert to using film.

It appears that initially, consumers had fallen prey to the "digital is automatically better" sales pitch, which is based on a fallacy. This stemmed from the audio model. When digital sound – the CD – came upon the scene, the old analog device – the photograph record – quickly fell from favor. The CD was less fragile, provided great sound, and was easier to handle and more portable.

In photography, the same "digital is better" formula didn't work. Film is a great way to record images. To make digital photography work well enough to appeal to consumers, the image quality had to improve. That meant bigger files, but that ran the risk of longer download times.

USB Cable
Fortunately, help was on the way. The recent introduction of two connection devices, the USB (Universal Serial Bus) connector and IEE-1394, usually called FireWire, solved the transmission problem. Both provide high-speed connections that make it easy to download the large files associated with digital images. The USB connector is much more common on consumer hardware, and is now featured on many digital cameras. FireWire is more common for users of digital video, but we include it so you're familiar with the term.

We think that the USB will be the standard for digital cameras for quite some time. It is much faster than serial connections. While things have been changing quickly in the development of digital photography, the current slow-down in computer sales suggests that lots of people are content with their Windows 95/98 and MAC OS-8 and 9 models. Since most current computers and the latest digital cameras feature USB ports, we think this combination will be around for awhile. Downloading two- and three-megapixel files via a USB port is a great improvement over previous options.

©San Disk
If you have a camera that uses a SmartMedia or CompactFlash card but doesn't have a USB port, all is not lost. If your computer has a USB port (you may not even realize that it does) you can buy a USB card reader that will accept your memory card and that plugs into your computer allowing a fast USB download from your card.

Shopping Tip #9:Go USB. We view a fast connection as essential for digital photography. If your computer has a USB port, then you should make certain to purchase a camera with a USB connector. If you have a camera without USB, but your computer has a USB port, then look for a USB card reader that you can use with your memory card.

Other Digital Camera Features

A good digital camera should have a screw mount on the bottom to allow it to be affixed to a tripod. Every camera will come with software that allows you to set up your computer to download images taken by the camera. Many manufacturers also "bundle" the camera with other software, such as an image-editing system. The camera should also have a built-in flash unit that allows you to turn the flash off and make it fire when you want it to do so, regardless of the lighting in the photograph.

Make the Digital Revolution Work for You:

In October 1998, we attended a photo industry dinner where one stock analyst had a tough question for the industry executives. He asked: "Right now, you've just introduced two-megapixel cameras that sell for about $1,000. What price do you think those same cameras will sell for at Christmas 2000?" Several executives declined to answer. One did, and he turned out to be right: "Most two-megapixel cameras will be selling for around $500 by Christmas 2000."

©Polaroid
There have been a lot of new cameras introduced since then. That means there are some good cameras that aren't the latest model but still have lots of great features that will be heavily discounted. Let's summarize our Shopping Tips. We've suggested you'll get the most pleasure if you purchase a camera that can capture at least two megapixels, that has an optical zoom lens, and USB connectivity. We've urged you to make sure you have both rechargeable batteries and an AC Adapter. With those criteria in mind, we come to our final tip:

Shopping Tip #10: There are a lot of good deals out there for the shopper who knows what he or she wants, and who can ask the right questions. Visit the online sites, check with your favorite photo specialty store and your favorite discount store. The right camera for you is out there, and it's your mission to find it.

Parting Shots:

We couldn't end this article without a nod to the interesting digital photo gadgets and widgets that have just started to appear on the scene. After you've acquired a basic digital camera, here are a few of the more intriguing items you might want to consider:

Webcams: These are static units that sit atop your computer. Perfect for funky teleconferencing or setting up a "Live-at-my-house" Website. Models start under $100. As a rule, they're not for use in the field since they don't take memory cards, but once you go digital, there's no telling where you'll go next.

ComboCams: We made this term up, but in our mind it includes digital cameras that can also play MP-3 files and capture short bursts of video and sound. Do any of these replace your camcorder or home audio system? Not yet, but stay tuned. For example, consider the humble Aiptek PenCam (SP $100 or less) - it's a digital camera, a WebCam and can capture 40 seconds of video. It fits in the palm of your hand and weighs 5 ounces. True, the pictures are very low resolution – about 100,000 pixels, but think of the fun you could have with such a device! Sorry, the PenCam is not available for Mac Users at this time

PalmCams: A few years ago the experts determined that maybe digital cameras would be a good add-on to your PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), such as a Palm Pilot or one of the other brands. Well, they're available now. For example, the Kodak Palmpix Digital Camera (SP $200 or less) works with many Palm models and the IBM Workpad. Images are sub one-megapixel, and some Palm models require an additional docking device, but think of the conversations you'll be able to start at the office when you whip out your PDA and start taking pictures you can show on your PDA's LCD display. For you Handspring users, there's also a digital camera add-on.

Dick Tracy Call Your Office: A year ago, Casio announced its Wrist Camera (WQV1-1CR), that can capture 100 very low-resolution black-and-white images. The camera, which sells for under $200, has caused more buzz than lots of other unusual gadgets. We're not sure if the camera's unavailability is due to a manufacturing glitch or what, but it's clearly a harbinger of things to come.

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