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Buying A Digital Camera

After last month’s column about Megapixels (Do Megapixels Matter? – PC Alamode, November 2002) a loyal reader wrote in with a request for more information about digital cameras. Jo Ann Compton (member #763) asked, “I'm in the process of buying digital camera (finally). As I understand from your feature this month, the pixel has solely to do with the size of photo one wishes to have completed. In my case it would be 8"x10" or 9"x11". Is there any reason to go beyond 3.0 megapixel? Are the double types of zoom of great benefit? Can you just begin at the beginning and fill me (us) in on purchasing a digital camera?”

Well, I am happy to try and clarify some of the issues involved in buying digital cameras. It is very tempting to think that a 3-megapixel camera would be all you will need to print 8x10 photographs. And if you will be content with the image as you have shot it, you would be correct. But half of the joy of having a digital camera is that you can assume full control over your own digital darkroom. Having worked in a high-end photographic lab, I can tell you that there are a lot of things you can do to improve your images after you have shot them. One common technique is to crop out extraneous parts of the image to better focus on the subject. When you crop out a third of a 3-megapixel image, you basically lose a million pixels leaving you with a 2-megapixel image. The more information you have to start with, the more flexibility you have when you are working with your images latter.

All of the digital camera manufacturers, like there computer-making counterparts, try to dazzle buyers with a raft of impressive numbers. One set of numbers describes the zoom features, optical and digital, of the camera. This is usually expressed as a value of X, such as 3X Optical and 7X Digital zoom. Optical zoom is the age-old zoom feature that has been in the analog cameras we are all familiar with. This is a function of the lens and optics of the camera. High-end digital cameras are often compatible with standard photographic lenses. Optical zoom gets you closer to the subject, but the camera is recording the same amount of information and your picture will still be sharp.

Digital zoom, on the other hand, involves the camera simply reinterpreting the pixels in the image, enlarging them to make the image bigger. This does not capture any more information or make you image sharper. To the contrary, this will degrade the quality of your images, making them more pixilated and jaggy. While digital zoom can occasionally be handy, it is a very poor substitute for the optical variety and you can achieve a similar effect by enlarging your image in Adobe Photoshop or an equivalent program. When you are out there comparing camera models’ zoom features, look primarily at the Optical zoom.

Jo Ann also inquired about some other digital camera features, specifically Docking Stations, Memory Cards and Batteries. A Docking Station is basically a convenience feature included with some cameras. It stays hooked up to you computer and you can place the camera into it to upload your images and/or recharge your batteries. A Docking Station is not necessary for your camera…it’s simply a nice bonus.

Memory for the camera is very important. Think of it as the digital version of film. This is where the images are stored until you move them to your computer. You have several storage methods to choose from. The most flexible are the memory cards, typically they come in two standards – Compact Flash and SmartMedia, but there are also a couple of other options. Some cameras have built-in internal memory, so that if you don’t have a card you can still record some images.

Memory cards are available in different capacities. Higher capacity cards allow you to not only shoot more images, but also to shoot them at the higher quality levels that the camera supports. Digital cameras have a trade-off of quality versus quantity. You can shoot lots of low-resolution images or fewer high-res images. Here is the run down on the major memory types:

  • Compact Flash: This is a very common format, but it is one of the larger cards available for digital cameras (often dictating a larger camera). This is Flash RAM and it is about half the size of a PCMCIA card (there are even PCMCIA Card adapters available). Capacities run up to 1GB. IBM even makes a 1GB MicroDrive compatible with this format. Prices are about $.50/megabyte for the medium sizes, but the 1GB versions are over $600 each. IBM’s MicroDrives are available for less than $300.
  • SmartMedia: These are smaller, wafer-thin Flash RAM cards. These cards are readily available and moderately prices (about $.50/MB). They are only available in capacities up to 128MB.
  • Memory Stick: This is a proprietary memory card format from Sony that is about the size of a stick of gum. If you are a big fan of Sony products, or you already have lots, this is a good memory format for you. Most Sony devices support this format including Vaio computers, Sony Camcorders and Clié Organizers. Weighing in at about 4 grams, Memory Sticks are available in sizes up to 128MB. Prices are a little higher for this format.
  • Floppy Disk: Some of the Sony digital cameras also record directly to standard 3.5” floppies. This is convenient for transferring the files to you computer, but floppies are slow and are only 1.4MB. This will not allow you to take many high-resolution images on one disk.
  • Secure Digital/Multimedia Card: These cards are a newer format jointly developed by SanDisk, Matsushita Electronics (Panasonic) and Toshiba. These are postage stamp sized and weigh about 2 grams. The SD cards are encrypted, the MM cards are not. Since they write data serially, they are slower than Compact Flash or SmartMediaThey are available up to 512MB and prices range from $.60 to $.80 per megabyte.
  • xD-Picture Card: Olympus and Fujifilm jointly developed this format. The xD, or eXtreme Digital, format will allegedly be available in capacities up to 8GB and will work in Fuji and Olympus cameras.

If you have an older camera or another device that supports one of these formats, it would be best to standardize on one memory type. If you are buying a new camera, I would stick to one of the top three choices, but Compact Flash is the most plentiful, least expensive and has the highest capacity. In any case, there are USB card readers available for all of these memory types.

Batteries are another area where you can spend a lot of brainpower pondering your choices. Digital cameras burn through the batteries like a kid with candy. There are two major battery options: built-in rechargeable or standard AA. The built-in battery version is rechargeable, but you may not be able to replace it when you run out of juice during an important shoot. Some of the rechargeable models have separate external chargers and you can purchase additional batteries for about $50-$60. On some models, you have to plug the camera itself in to recharge the battery. This can really stifle you creativity.

The standard AA batteries are a more flexible approach to powering your camera. Whatever you do, don’t use standard alkaline batteries. Your camera will suck these up like Slurpees. A set of four might last twenty minutes. You can get rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries that will last a lot longer and are reusable. You can also use photo lithium AA batteries; they are disposable, but they last a lot longer. And in a pinch, you can always go to the drugstore and get standard AA batteries. There are even a few cameras that support both types of batteries…they have a built-in battery, but can take AA’s also.

There are a few other things to think about when shopping for your digital camera. Most cameras have little LCD screens that allow you to view your photos. This is the biggest single drain on your battery life. A camera with a conventional viewfinder that allows you to turn off the LCD can help save your batteries. Some cameras have flip-out LCD screens; this is a nice feature that will allow you to take photos from different angles.

USB connectivity is a great feature. This allows you to link your camera up to your computer without having a card reader. Be sure that your camera has a lens cover, avoid damaging the lens to ensure that your pictures come out the best possible. If you want to be able to hook up an external flash, make sure that your camera has a ‘hot shoe.’ Also, a tripod mount on the bottom of the camera is a handy feature for some special effects photography.

There are plenty of great web sites to help you figure out which camera is right for you. Check out the Digital Camera Resource Page (, This site is updated frequently with reviews of new cameras. Also take a look at Imaging Resource ( and Steve’s DigiCams ( for other news and reviews. Steve’s Digicams even has some QuickTime VR movies showing all the camera details you can stand.

Once you have determined what camera you want, look around for the best price. There can be a wide discrepancy among different vendors. The Internet is a great tool to help you find a good price. Check out c|net (, DealTime ( or DealCam ( to help you comparison shop.

Now is an exciting time to get in to photography. The advances in the hardware available for digital photography have been staggering. There are a lot of choices to be made, but once you have your own digital camera, you will be impressed with the flexibility you have in bringing your images to life.

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. If you would like to see the Graphics Guy address a specific topic email Paul Vaughn at Come on…be honest, who doesn’t want a digital camera?


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