Photo opportunities abound here in North Idaho. Subjects may range from the eagle you saw
soaring across your meadow this morning to the
five-inch deep pothole you tried to describe to your
disbelieving Aunt Bertha. Many times a photograph is
the best way to convey North Idaho life to far
away friends and family. Until recently, the images
produced by digital cameras weren’t much to write home (or Aunt Bertha) about. But like
everything else, technology moves on and digital camera are
finally becoming interesting to hobbyists and
If you are considering buying a digital camera,
first you should think about the pros and cons of
digital photography. A digital camera can be great in
some situations and useless in others. If in the end, you
decide that digital is the way to go, then you need
to learn the lingo of digital cameras before you go
Where is it going?
Before you consider buying a camera of any type,
you should think about the end result: the
photographs. How will they be used? If you plan to make
high quality enlargements or dream of seeing your
photograph on the cover of a nature magazine, stick
with film. You can’t buy the wide array of lenses and
filters that you can for film-based cameras, and
enlarging digital photographs is problematic (more on
that issue later).
You also should think about the future. If you want your pictures to act as an archival record
of your activities, or pass your photographs down
to your grandchildren, stick with film-based
cameras. Data formats quickly go out of date, computer
platforms change, and data stored on magnetic
media doesn’t last forever (remember 5-1/4" disks,
CP/M, WordStar?). Of course, even if you go the
digital route, you could print out all your color
photographs for posterity. However, unless you buy special
paper and a good printer, the prints may not hold up
well over time.
To go or not to go digital?
With all those caveats in mind, digital photography
is not going away. It has some serious advantages
over film: the most notable being that you don’t have
to pay for the film itself or get it developed. Pictures
are suddenly essentially disposable. You can take 59
iterations of the eagle on the meadow photograph
and send the 58 worst ones to the big data dumpster
in the sky. And then take 59 more pictures. All
without waiting for or paying for developing. This
instant gratification is a compelling feature, especially
for those who like to e-mail pictures to family
and friends. At your family reunion, the
photographer could e-mail pictures of the festivities to those
unable to attend almost as soon as the events occur.
Digital photographs are also useful for
businesses. If you have products that change rapidly or you
want to put photographs of your product line on
the Internet, digital photography is much faster
and easier than scanning numerous photographs. Anytime you have to work on a computer with a
large quantity of images that change frequently, a
digital camera is probably a good choice. For
example, some large animal shelters use digital cameras to
put photographs of their resident animals on-line.
Know thy resolution
If you have a good application for a digital
camera and it’s time to buy, you need to learn a few terms
to make a good buying decision. First look at the camera’s
resolution. Digital pictures are made up of little dots called
pixels. The more pixels in an image, the higher the resolution. A camera’s resolution
is generally expressed using two numbers: such as
640 x 480, which indicate the number of dots per
inch (width x height). Higher numbers mean you can
take higher resolution photographs, which result in
better image quality. Unfortunately, the higher the
resolution the larger your file sizes will be as well.
Because digital photographs are made up of pixels, they
cannot be enlarged very much before the quality degrades. Although film-based photographers
have always had to deal with "graininess," a digital
photograph cannot be enlarged much before a far
uglier problem arises: "pixelization." Your
photographs look like they were painted by Van Gogh using
a square paintbrush. It’s not pretty.
When you buy a camera, think about what size
you want your photographs to be and where they will
be published. If you plan to use your photographs
solely on the Internet, you can get away with a lower
resolution camera because on the Web, you have to
use low-resolution images so they download quickly.
If you plan to print out your photographs at a
standard photograph size such as 4 x 6, you should look at
one of the newer "megapixel" cameras with a
resolution of 1,024 x 768 or 1,152 x 864.
Options and more options
Most cameras come with autofocus. Low-end cameras sometimes come with fixed-focus, which is
basically akin to the viewfinder lens you had on your
old Kodak Instamatic. A few very expensive cameras
also offer the manual focus and aperture settings you
find in standard 35-mm cameras. Like camcorders,
some digital cameras now offer a small LCD display,
so you can see exactly what your picture will look
like. Others also come with a zoom lens which can
help you get closer and frame your subject more
easily. Also be sure to get a camera with a built-in
flash (most come with one).
Two other technological elements you must consider: batteries and memory storage capacity.
Digital cameras have a tendency to suck up batteries, so
you may want to look for one that has lithium batteries
or invest in rechargeables to save money in the long
run. The camera’s memory determines how many pictures you can take. Some have a fixed amount
of RAM and (like your computer) the more RAM, the better. Figure out how many pictures you can take
at the highest quality setting. Many newer cameras
now come with some kind of removable memory cards, such as PC cards, so you can swap them out as
you take pictures. Sony even has a camera that lets
you record pictures on a standard 3.5-inch floppy disk.
Getting the pictures out
Once you take your pictures, most cameras allow
you to hook the camera to the computer using a
serial cable so you can download the pictures to your
hard disk. If you have a PC card slot in your computer
or laptop and you buy a camera that uses PC cards,
you can just plug it into the adapter slot. A few
cameras also use a USB connection to download pictures.
At this point, digital cameras are still a curiosity
for most people unless they have a real business need
for the technology. Camera prices have not dropped enough yet to make them appealing for most
consumers. If you do decide to buy a digital camera,
be sure do some comparison shopping, so you get
the camera with the highest resolution and the most
features you can for your money.
pixel: The smallest dot in an image or on
a screen. Pixels are related to resolution. The more pixels, the higher the resolution.
resolution: The number of pixels in an
image, generally indicated in dots per inch (600 dpi) or the number displayed horizontally
and vertically (1024 x 768). The more pixels in an image of a given size, the higher the
resolution. Higher resolution images are better
quality but result in larger file sizes.
USB: (Universal Serial Bus) A communication standard that makes it possible for a
computer to communicate with external peripherals. Unlike other connection
types, with USB you can daisy-chain up to 127 different peripheral devices on a single line
PC card: Small credit-card sized external
device (such as a modem) that can be plugged into a notebook computer.