Last week in TidBITS-407, I discussed resolution and other general digital camera issues; this week I'll talk about how to choose the best camera to suit your needs. If you buy a camera based on my listings, make certain that specific model hasn't undergone any drastic specification changes or else WYWMNBWYG (What You Want May Not Be What You Get).
Resolution Review -- Before purchasing a digital camera, as we noted last week, you should to consider what resolution you require. To review, for quality photographic prints or to enlarge small sections of images for onscreen viewing, purchase a camera with as high a resolution as you can afford. Digital camera resolution will only improve and today's "high" will be tomorrow's "normal" or even "low," so you may as well not start behind the curve.
Choose a camera with 640 by 480 ppi (pixels per inch) resolution as an absolute minimum. If you can afford it, go up to 1,024 by 768 ppi or higher. This lets you print larger pictures using the full image size and allows for moderate cropping without too much image degradation.
I also suggest that you check out print quality at different resolutions before you buy. At least two camera manufacturers, Olympus and Epson, offer sample images on their Web sites. Make sure you don't print the images from your Web browser, because your output will be locked at the screen resolution of 72 dpi. Instead, download the files using the links provided, then open them in an imaging program such as Adobe Photoshop or PhotoFix. From there, print your samples at different resolutions and sizes to see for yourself how they'll look. (If you don't yet have imaging software, a program like the shareware GraphicConverter should let you view and print sample images.)
Avoid the Shakes -- Unless you've got several thousand dollars to blow on a professional Steadicam system, even the best digital camera will seem like a poor choice if you can't keep it still when shooting. Favor cameras that have conventional optical viewfinders or through-the-lens reflex viewing (which enables you see the image through the lens used for taking the picture, just like looking through a telescope), and look for cameras that you can steady against your head to avoid camera shake. Cameras that provide only an LCD screen to view the image you're going to shoot may look nice sitting in a camera store, but make you hold the camera away from you to frame the shot, which creates unsteadiness. Also, the LCD image washes out if you shoot outside with the sun at your side or back. An exception might be cameras with screens that swivel to allow you to look down into them as you brace them against your chest or waist.
Screens, Batteries, and More -- Shakiness aside, cameras that have integrated LCD screens (or as a plug-in accessory) in addition to a regular viewfinder can still be useful. They're great for checking the quality of pictures you've already taken, and for pre-framing tight close-up shots, preferably with the camera on a tripod. However, they're not usually integrated into cameras under $500 and, to tell the truth, you won't miss them.
Some cameras allow you to view images on a television screen. This is a nice feature, especially if you want to check a large view of your shots when you're traveling and don't have a computer handy. You can also use the camera for presentations by pre-recording your pictures in the correct sequence on a storage card. Just make sure you buy an AC adapter if it's not supplied with the camera.
If the camera doesn't have a rechargeable battery, buy rechargeable batteries and a charger, or be prepared to support The Energizer Bunny for the rest of your camera's life. Most of these cameras eat batteries like candy, especially since batteries must power the flash and the LCD screen used to preview and post-view shots (if the camera has an LCD).
If you can afford a camera in the intermediate price range, look for cameras with a removable storage cards - it's a pain to stop shooting and spend half an hour transferring images to a laptop halfway up Mount Everest. At the moment, there's no established storage card standard, but the SmartMedia Card holds promise (about $10 per MB). In addition to being able to transfer images directly from the camera, it should also (with appropriate adapters) be able to pop into a PC card reader or directly into your floppy drive for faster cable-free transfer. (Don't confuse this capability with cameras that use standard high-density floppy disks; the SmartMedia card is entirely different).
Books - Reading a book or two will improve your background knowledge of digital cameras and help you use one more effectively. Three good books on digital photography are:
Essentials of Digital Photography by Akira Kasai, Russell Sparkman, and Elizabeth Hurley (translator). (New Riders, ISBN 1-56205-762-6, $60.00.) This intermediate to advanced book covers digital photographic theory and practice, along with Photoshop techniques. Outstanding! The bundled CD-ROM is a gem and includes a cross-platform tutorial and other goodies.
Digital Camera Companion by Ben Sawyer & Ron Pronk. (Coriolis, ISBN 1-57610097-9, $30.00.) This winner of a book contains a potpourri of great stuff at a beginner-to-intermediate level, although it's marred somewhat by a Windows-only CD-ROM.
The Photographer's Digital Studio by Joe Farace. (Peachpit Press, ISBN 0201-88400-3, $25.00.) Joe Farace is a long-time photographer who's "been there and done that." The book was the first and is a still-relevant overview for the beginning or intermediate user of what to do after you've taken your picture.
My Digital Camera Choices -- Now that we've talked about issues and features relating to purchasing a camera, it's time to focus on cameras especially worth consideration. I'll save my winning set of camera models for the end of this section and begin with three cameras that deserve serious consideration.
Fuji DX-5: Sized at 4.5 by 1.5 by 2.5 inches, this compact pocket camera has a fixed focus that keeps everything sharp from about two feet to infinity. Fuji recently redesigned the camera, and the original integrated LCD monitor was dropped in favor of a bright optical viewfinder. Two manual aperture settings (for different lighting conditions) and a neat pop-up flash make it a great traveling camera. It can take 640 by 480 ppi images and has the added plus of SmartMedia removable cards. No TV output. $300.
Konica Q-EZ: This camera's main claim to fame is that it can shoot as close as 1.4 inches. It uses removable storage cards, has autofocus, and you can preset and control some of its functions using your computer. (I haven't tried this, so if that appeals to you check it out before you buy.) It lacks an LCD display and has no TV output, but it's a handsome-looking camera from a camera house with a great reputation. $400.
Minolta Dimage V: This camera's lens swivels mightily and can even be detached and used at the end of a three-foot cable tether to look around corners, over people's heads... I'll let your imagination take it from there. Put the camera in your pocket, mount the lens on your helmet, and you're set to jump - just don't forget your parachute. Features include a fixed focus, zoom lens, LCD viewing, removable SmartMedia storage cards, 640 by 480 ppi, and a 1/10,000 shutter speed. This camera is worth a look, particularly if you like to amaze your friends with all the latest technical marvels. $700.
The Winner -- My winner of the 1997 World Series of Digital Cameras is... the Olympus Camera Corporation's lineup of cameras, which address a variety of tastes (and pocketbooks). An innovative camera manufacturer for generations, Olympus always comes through with the right stuff at the right time, from half-frame cameras to autofocus point-and-shoot 35s, and now to digital cameras that, in my opinion, are the best in their class.
Here's a quick rundown of the specifications for Olympus's camera lineup. If you buy a D-220L or D-320L, make sure it's a 220 or 320, not a 200 or 300; these earlier models lack removable storage or television compatibility, and are still being sold. (You might be able to get a great price on one of these if you can do without those two features.) All prices are average street prices; you may be able to do better.
D-220L: This baby is sweet, small, and loaded with features, which include 640 by 480 ppi high resolution (320 by 240 ppi low); three user-selectable compression modes; autofocus; optical viewfinder; built-in LCD screen; flash; 2 MB removable SmartMedia storage; and TV-compatibility. $500.
D-320L: Buy this one if you want a big brother to the D-220L with all its features plus 1,024 by 768 ppi high resolution, 640 by 480 ppi low. This camera was a Macworld "Best of Show" winner for 1997, and it's worth every penny of its price. $700.
D-500L: This camera has a totally new and exciting design. It has a TTL (through-the-lens) single lens reflex type viewfinder; 3x zoom lens; flip-up powerful flash; 1,024 by 768 ppi high resolution, 640 by 480 ppi low - both with multi-compression modes; and 2 MB removable SmartMedia storage, though - regrettably - no TV output. $900.
D-600L: This camera provides the highest resolution -1,280 by 1,024 ppi - of any camera under $2,500. It also offers an alternate resolution at 640 by 512 ppi, helpful when shooting images for the Web and multimedia, or when large-sized prints are not required. The D-600L has all the features of the D-500L (plus a few more, like 4 MB removable SmartMedia cards) and even though it lacks TV output, I predict it will fly off dealers' shelves. $1,300.
The following URL points to a detailed FAQ on the D-500/600Ls, plus sites where sample images can be downloaded.
Web Sites for Digital Photography -- The Web offers a number of resources for immersing yourself further in the world of digital imaging and photography. The best photography site on the Web, bar none, is Zone Zero, where you can spend many pleasant hours looking at both digital and conventional exhibits. Two other sites are also worth checking out. PC-Photo Forum is an ambitious and well designed commercially supported site with detailed digital camera comparisons, reviews, and a search engine to find the best camera prices. And, only a few weeks old, the Digital Camera Resource Page goes into great detail on digital camera industry news, specific cameras, technical glitches and fixes, reviews, forums, and other good stuff.
Magazines offer other interesting sites: Photo District News Magazine has a hip site with great technical information and a special digital section; PhotoElectronic Imaging Magazine specializes in digital photography; and newcomer PCPhoto Magazine stands to become the de-facto popular publication for digital photography.
Choosing and Using -- Whichever digital camera you choose, keep in mind that it probably won't be the only digital camera you're going to own. Like people who buy computers (which are notorious for becoming techno-relics as little as six months after purchase), digital camera owners understand that the future promises better hardware with more snazzy features (satellite broadcasting? holographic output?). But while you wait for your ideal camera to appear, you'll watch your friends become digital shutterbugs. If you think you need to buy a digital camera in the near future, by all means consider jumping into the foray now. Like it or not, digital photography will no doubt usurp film-based photography in the coming years. And to you traditionalists who are scoffing at that statement, I ask: "How many photographers do you know who still coat glass plates?"
[Arthur H. Bleich has been a photographer, writer, filmmaker, musician, and teacher. He currently serves as the Executive Director of The Children's Telemedical Health Fund, which provides free medical and psychological care to needy kids through interactive television.]
Sponsor Specials -- TidBITS sponsors Small Dog Electronics and Cyberian Outpost are both offering digital camera specials this issue; check the sponsorship information at the top to learn more.