If you've ever tried to put together a good audio-video system, you know the angst that goes with it. Even with an unlimited budget, you have to make hard choices between this amplifier and that receiver and those speakers. The same applies to digital cameras - they're only a part what we call digital photography. Look at your first digital camera purchase as just a component in a larger system, the capture component. But, if you're like most people and want prints of your digital pictures, the output component is equally important because without it, the images printed from best digital camera will disappoint you. Plus, you'll want to think about batteries, more storage space, and just how you'll be transferring images from the camera to your computer.
From Input to Output -- So, along with choosing a digital camera, choose the right printer, and right now the best photo printers are made by Epson - period. I'm uninterested in getting into a religious war along the lines of the Mac versus PC debates, but suffice to say that Epson is my pick, and a good Epson printer should be the first item on your digital camera budget. There are two basic lines, the Stylus Color and the Stylus Photo, and the primary difference is that the Stylus Color printers print in four colors, whereas the Stylus Photo printers print in six colors. The more colors, the better the photos, which also benefit from smaller ink droplet size - 4 picoliters is better than 6 picoliters. However, ignore high resolution figures (above 720 dpi) on printers; they are not always true indicators of print quality. The price you'll pay often reflects print speed and number of interface options; just make sure to match those to the amount you plan to print and to your current (and future) computer system.
I'm partial to the Epson Stylus Photo 870 and the wide-format 1270 because they give gorgeous prints at high speed. The $250 Stylus Photo 870 is the biggest bargain in six-color inkjets on the market today. But if that's too much, look at the four-color Stylus Color 777 which has 4 picoliter droplets and matching iMac color choices for under $100. You can compare specifications on the many different models on the Epson Web site.
I'm familiar with the "fading" flap about ozone and possibly other airborne elements that are causing the light cyan ink in the Stylus Photo 870 and 1270 to take a premature hike resulting in "oranging" of the print. But this has been much overplayed. Take it with a dash of light magenta: most users have never experienced the problem and besides, only prints on Epson's Premium Glossy Paper seem to have faded, and Epson has now reformulated that paper. [Remember too that you're printing a digital photograph - since it's digital, you can always print additional identical copies. -Adam]
Recharge It! Once you have resolved the printer problem, it's time to add other elements of the system. If you read digital camera newsgroups and other forums, you're bound to read something like, "I really like this camera but battery consumption sucks!" or words to that effect. It's as if the new purchaser expected NASA-level performance out of a crummy set of alkaline AA batteries (yes, the particular poster I had in mind did). This unfortunate situation occurs because most digital camera marketing mavens think consumers won't buy the product if they were to say: "We've put a set of drugstore batteries in here to get you started, but you'll have to spend a few bucks more for rechargeables."
The smart manufacturers slip in rechargeable NiMH (or in a few cases, lithium-ion) batteries and a charger and defuse the issue from the beginning. But if your new digital camera comes only with standard sizes of alkaline batteries, just buy a Quest Premium Gold Battery Charger (it comes with four batteries), and four extra batteries and be done with it. The Quest charger monitors each battery individually, does a fast charge in just a couple of hours followed by a controlled trickle, and you can leave the batteries in the charger for as long as you'd like- they're always topped off and ready to go when you are. As an added advantage, it includes a 12-volt DC plug that lets you use the charger while driving.
Store Those Images -- Along with battery life (the reason to have an extra set of batteries), the other factor that will limit how many images you can shoot at once is the size of your memory card. There are three basic types of memory cards: Compact Flash, SmartMedia, and Sony's proprietary Memory Sticks. Most digital cameras come with small (commonly 8 MB) memory cards, and particularly if you want to shoot at the highest resolution offered by your camera, you'll fill that puppy up with a mere handful of shots. Trust me, you'll want at least one more memory card, but choose 64 MB or under because, like eggs, you don't want to put all your shots in one basket. Several smaller cards are better than one humongous one. The camera you choose generally dictates which type of card you use, but it may be worth keeping in mind that SmartMedia cards, although the smallest, are sensitive to static electricity because their contacts are exposed. Compact Flash cards are more common, usually less expensive, and come in larger sizes. Sony's Memory Stick cards are also relatively inexpensive but limited to use with Sony products right now. You'll have no trouble finding retailers that sell memory cards, but it can pay to shop around.
Image Transfers -- Finally, there's the question of just how you plan to move images from the camera into your computer. Many people worry about whether or not the camera supports USB (or serial connections, for older Macs), but it's not as big a deal as you might think. Everyone I know hates using USB because you have to plug a cable into the camera, then the other end into a USB port, and then fiddle around with a camera that sits in front of your computer. Here's how the sophisticated photographers do it. They buy a digital camera based on the features they want, whether or not it has USB. Then they get a Delkin or Microtech International USB multi-card reader that reads Compact Flash, Compact Flash II, and SmartMedia cards. When they want to transfer images, they pop the memory card out of the camera and into the reader.
And if you primarily use a PowerBook that supports PC Cards, you can buy inexpensive adapters from companies like Microtech or Unity Digital into which you insert the memory card. Then, when you pop the adapter into the PowerBook, it shows up like another disk, so it's not only easy to work with, it doubles as a RAM disk if you need to transfer files to another PowerBook.
If you don't yet have an extra memory card, look for bundles that provide a memory card and some sort of card reader - it can be cheaper than buying them separately.
What's the cost of these digital camera components? Less than $500 for the printer, rechargeable battery package, extra memory card, and USB or PC Card reader. You don't need all these items right away, but those five bills will save you so much grief, you'll smile every time you use the components.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami and is Feature Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts Digital Photography Workshop Cruises for Zing.com (where he is right now). TidBITS readers can participate in the Zing Digital Photography Workshop-at-Sea between 03-Dec-00 to 10-Dec-00, where pictures taken by and of the class will be posted each day at Zing.com, where they'll remain through January. Log in with zingcruise2000 as your member name and zingcruise as your password. Arthur also invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner to read a complete guide to buying your first digital camera - TidBITS will also have more on that in next week's issue.]