Recently I went out to buy an inexpensive camera, but came home with an inexpensive digital camera instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Simple and convenient, digital cameras don't use film so there's no cost or wait for negatives and prints, and the images can go straight from the camera to a computer, or even a TV set, without using a scanner. Such a deal!
I'm hardly the first person seduced by the lure of a filmless camera. According to "PC Magazine," more than 2 million digital cameras were bought last year, outselling conventional 35-mm single-lens reflex cameras for the second year in a row. But the trade-off for instant images is a fuzzy picture at premium prices.
Digital cameras are way more expensive than comparable point-and-shoot film cameras. For $300-$600 you can get a fully automatic conventional camera with a superior lens and plenty of features. Digitals in the same price range may not have a flash, much less a zoom, and the images they create are "VGA," which means low resolution (640-by-480 pixels).
Low resolution is fine for on-screen images, like at websites, or 3x5-inch prints off a home ink jet printer. Start to enlarge, however, and the image undergoes pixelization, which means it looks less like a photograph than a bunch of little squares all jumbled up. For sharper pictures with a film camera, you buy a slower film. To improve a digital camera's resolution from VGA to XGA "megapixel" (1,024-by-768), you have to buy a more expensive camera.
The viewfinder on many digital cameras is an LCD panel, which is like the screen for a laptop computer, only the size of a postage stamp and the quality of a hand-held video game. To frame a shot, instead of bringing the camera up to your eye, you hold it at arm's length and squint at the LCD panel.
The nice thing about the LCD viewfinder is that it doubles as a playback for pictures, so you can instantly tell if the shot you took is a keeper or if you should delete it and try again. But it is also a major power drain, killing a lithium battery after just a couple of hours of use. Some models say the AC adapter is "optional," which means you have to buy it separately.
One cool feature on many digital cameras is that the lens is mounted on a spindle and can rotate 180 degrees, enabling you to frame yourself in the viewfinder for a self-portrait, or furtively photograph what's behind you. It is also virtually silent in operation, which no "click" when you snap a picture.
There are three ways images are transferred from a digital
to a computer, none of them perfect. Many digital cameras record
on removable memory cards that can be slipped into adapters and
into a computer. Others use standard 3.5-inch floppy disks,
transfer easy, but causing the camera to look more like a disk
a camera. And then there's my camera, which has a built-in
To download images I have to connect the camera to the computer
cable and download files, which besides being slow, puts extra
tear on the camera, and makes the AC adapter anything but
Of course, each brand of camera saves its images in its own proprietary format, so each has its own software for converting its images into a format other applications can read. Many also bundle stripped down versions of popular software for manipulating images, or turning them into posters, post cards or photo albums.
As with many new electronics, digital camera prices will probably come down as quality goes up. But for now, if you want a good quality image, you are better off staying with a film camera, and buying an inexpensive scanner to put pictures on the Internet. Indeed, "PC Magazine" notes that poor image quality and lack of versatility contribute to a return rate for digital cameras as high as 40 percent.
Still, I'm going to hang onto mine. Because once I figure out how to take a decent picture with it, transferring images onto the Internet really is easy. Besides, mine comes with one other nifty feature: Hook it up to a TV or VCR that has a "video in" terminal and it becomes a slide projector, able to project images full screen. And no matter how big the TV screen, the quality of the image is the same. Let's see your 35-mm single-lens reflex camera do that!