Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
Digital Camera Basics
want to get a digital camera. I need to know what's the best one to get. I
AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)
Digital cameras take pictures by capturing an image on a charge-coupled device (CCD). I have no idea exactly how this works either, but that doesn't matter. What does matter: the number of pixels your CCD has determines how sharp your pictures can be. The type of things you do with your pictures determines how sharp your pictures need to be, and thus how many pixels your CCD needs to have. Following me so far? Let's get practical:
Let's say you want to email pictures to relatives. Well, on a computer screen, a picture taken at fairly low resolution (640x480 or 800x600) will fill most or all of the screen, and look reasonably sharp, too. In fact, larger pictures taken at higher resolution mean larger file sizes for your emails. So even if you buy a high resolution camera, you'll want to send lower resolution pictures in your email so that you don't clog up your relative's email inbox with enormous files (you can lower the resolution using the software that comes with the camera, or, if you use Microsoft Windows XP, your operating system can do that for you automatically).
Therefore, lower resolution cameras - anything up to around a million pixels, also called 1 megapixel cameras - are fine for email, and they are the least expensive ($100 - $300). But if you try printing those pictures out, they'll be fuzzy at or above 3"x5" size. You also won't be able to take a small area of the picture and blow it up clearly to a larger size. Therefore, if you plan to regularly print out your pictures, a one megapixel camera just isn't good enough.
Two megapixel models (cameras with two million pixel CCDs) can print up to 5"x7" with startling clarity. You can even print out 8"x10" prints with a little fuzziness. Two megapixel cameras cost between $350 - 450. Three and four megapixel cameras are available as well. If you are an amateur photographer, these are the models to get. However, at $600 and up, they may be overkill for anyone used to cheap 35mm PHD (Push Here, Dummy) cameras.
So, could you just go out and buy the least expensive 2 megapixel model and be happy? You could, but there are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Zoom - there's optical zoom (a zoom lens) and digital zoom (software trickery). Guess which one is better? Optical zoom. Most people would be well served by a camera with a 3x optical zoom lens. However, if you opt for a three megapixel camera, the extra pixels give the digital zoom more resolution to deal with, so you might be OK without optical zoom on those higher resolution models.
Picture storage - on 35mm film cameras, this is simple enough: all pictures are the same resolution (very high), and you can store a certain number of pictures per roll of film. On digital cameras, it's not quite so simple, but the analogy still works: instead of a roll of film, you have a memory device of some kind. The more memory you have in the device, the more pictures you can store. Just like film, you can swap in a new memory device if you fill up the old one. However, unlike film, there are different types of memory devices, some of them are proprietary designs, and all of them are pretty expensive.
I recommend a bare minimum of 32MB of storage, with 64MB being a lot better. There are several different types storage devices you'll run into. Memory sticks only work in Sony products. This is fine if you also have a Sony camcorder that uses memory sticks and a Sony MP3 player that uses memory sticks and a Sony Clie (Palm Pilot-type thing) that uses memory sticks. Otherwise, stay away from them - they cost a bit more, and can't be shared among other devices. Compact Flash is another type of memory card; itís used by lots of different products from different manufacturers, so prices are slightly more reasonable.
PC interface - once you've taken a whole bunch of pictures, you want to transfer them to your computer for editing, storage, email, and printing. All computers sold in the last year or two come with a USB port, which allows you to move those pictures off the camera quickly and easily. On older computers, you have to resort to using a serial or parallel port - if your camera even supports it. And many cameras simply don't support anything other than USB, because moving large amounts of data over the older connections is excruciatingly slow. If your computer doesn't have a USB port, seriously consider purchasing a new computer with an Intel Pentium 4 processor and the Microsoft Windows XP operating system before buying a digital camera. The newest computers make working with digital photos a breeze.
Ease of use - some digital cameras are as easy to use. Many aren't. My research indicates that Kodak's digital cameras are among the best in this regard, and some of the newest models include a mini-docking station to charge the camera and transfer files at the same time - similar to a Palm cradle.
If you have a computer with a USB port, the new Kodak 2.2 megapixel cameras - once you fully load them up with memory and a quick docking station - are reasonably priced (around $450 for a complete package), take nice pictures, and are easy to use.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart