Digital Cameras

Digital Cameras<@VM>Zoom in on a camera with right resolution, price

Multimegapixel models have sharp resolutions, high storage capacities and good shutter controls for less than $1,000

By David Essex

Special to GCN

The Internet has made digital photography a medium for our age, enabled by affordable and convenient digital cameras.

Now you can snap a picture and quickly transfer it to a PC, where the image typically resides in the Web's ubiquitous Joint Photographic Experts Group file format, ready to be linked to a Web page or attached to e-mail messages. People all over the world can see what your eyes had seen just seconds before. This basic functionality is available for less than $200 in consumer-class cameras that make predictable compromises in quality, features and reliability.

Epson's Photo PC 3000Z has 3.34-megapixel resolution, a 3X zoom lens, and serial, USB and NTSC/PAL interfaces. It's priced at $999.

For business or government users and professional photographers, the best digital cameras offer substantial increases in image quality, image manipulation and convenience that are more suitable for office uses, such as creating marketing materials, product brochures and e-commerce catalogs.

Top professional cameras can cost up to $5,000, but many government agencies will be happy with midrange professional and high-end consumer cameras, a few of which cost more than $1,000. They're the focus of this guide.

Agfa's ePhoto 1680 has 1.3-megapixel resolution, a 3X zoom and a viewing screen on top. It's priced at $399.

Price angles

These 'prosumer' cameras'part professional, part consumer'are segmented into three levels, according to the resolution, measured in millions of pixels, or megapixels, of the electronic charge-coupled device (CCD), which processes light bouncing off photographed objects.

Cameras of around 1-megapixel capacity generally cost less than $400, while 2-megapixel cameras are in the $600 to $800 range. Nearing the $1,000 level are the 3-megapixel cameras'3.34, to be precise'announced in late winter and recently shipping from several major vendors, including Epson America Inc., Nikon Inc., Olympus America Inc. and Toshiba America Inc.

The lenses for these cameras are almost always made of glass, although the sub-$200 models often have inferior plastic ones. They are rarely interchangeable with lenses from standard 35-mm single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. And as you go lower in price, you will find fewer of the fine-grained controls favored by photographers, such as a high number of aperture settings and shutter speeds.

That's the word from Ron Glaz, a senior analyst in the digital camera and scanner program at International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. Glass lenses provide better image quality than plastic lenses and more
f-stops, or aperture settings. Glass lenses' faster shutter speeds also make it easier to adjust to lighting conditions.

The best lenses tend to be in digital cameras sold by the well-known vendors of traditional cameras, such as Canon USA Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., Nikon and Olympus, Glaz said.

As with any digital medium, storage type and capacity are issues that must be managed by the user, and the challenge is especially acute on such compact devices.

Although some high-end cameras have small areas of memory to hold a quick series of burst mode shots and short videos, the vast majority of cameras rely completely on removable, miniature memory cards that contain a type of erasable read-only memory for storing images.

The most popular is CompactFlash, a cookie-size wafer that holds between 8M and 192M of memory. Olympus has SmartMedia technology, with capacities up to 64M, which has been adopted by a few other vendors. Sony Electronics Inc. has the Memory Stick, which is about the size of a stick of chewing gum and can store up to 32M.

Fuji's FinePix 4700 has 3.34-megapixel resolution, a 3X zoom and USB connectivity. It's priced at $999.

Cards, drives, disks

Although a small memory card usually comes with the camera, the high-capacity ones are expensive, costing as much as several hundred dollars each.

Removable miniature drives, such as IBM's Microdrive and Iomega's Clik, are also available, but only on a handful of camera lines. Sony's Mavica line takes 3.5-inch floppy disks that fit inside the camera.

Because of these storage limitations, you may have to pace your picture-taking according to the capacity of your memory card and the file format and resolution of each photo. The largest cards can hold hundreds of the most tightly compressed files, while the smallest cards can only hold perhaps a dozen uncompressed files.

Some of the higher-priced cameras offer the option of saving in uncompressed format, which retains more of the details of the original photograph, providing more image-manipulation options and the best possible quality and largest sizes for color printing. JPEG is fine for almost all uses, however, and offers several file size and image quality options to choose from.

Obviously, the speed and convenience of transferring photo files to a PC is a critical factor in convenience, though many people carry several memory cards with them, just as you'd carry extra rolls of film with a traditional camera.

Internal memory card readers installed in a PC drive bay or attached externally via serial or Universal Serial Bus offer one convenient option. The latest generation of cameras have added the USB connection, which runs more than 100 times faster than the painfully slow, 9,600-bit/sec serial standard, which provides a link to older PCs that lack USB ports.

Focus on the essentials

  • Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars extra on memory card storage if you plan to print many high-resolution images. The cards that come with cameras have only enough space for a handful of such photos.
  • Consider cameras with 2-megapixel resolution, which offer exceptional image quality for most uses. They offer the best balance between performance and price. The step up to 3 megapixels doesn't add as much noticeable quality as the move from 1 to 2 megapixels, especially when you consider the $200 to $300 premium.
  • Buy a camera with Universal Serial Bus capability if your PC has USB ports. Serial links are intolerably slow by comparison.
  • Be realistic: The image quality of digital cameras doesn't begin to match that of single-lens reflex film cameras until you get into the high-end price range. The best consumer models just aren't here yet.

You also can download from cameras directly to PCs using either USB or serial, but this method isn't as convenient as plugging memory cards directly into a reader when you have dozens or hundreds of images to transfer. With USB, the reader or camera appears in Microsoft Windows Explorer as if it were a drive, with all the usual drag-and-drop file and directory controls.

Digital cameras come with the necessary cabling'card readers are optional'and communication software, as well as at least a basic program for manipulating images. Higher-priced models come with brand-name graphics software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Also new in the past year are cameras with limited sound recording, which is great for attaching short narrations to Web site images, and video for shooting short clips of up to a minute or two, saved in the Web's popular AVI and MPEG formats.

The near future holds further migration of SLR-like lens control into the less expensive cameras, and a likely increase to 4-megapixel CCDs within two years. CompactFlash cards will hit 256M within six months, with 512M products arriving next year, predicted Michael Rubin, Nikon's senior product manager for digital cameras. Glaz said Speed Stick cards will soon jump from 32M to 64M.

Eventually, the big names in cameras will likely make lenses from their SLR cameras interchangeable with those on some higher-end digital models, allowing serious photographers to better integrate digital photography into their work styles. And digital cameras and handheld computers are likely to continue to merge functions.

But today's state of the art is more than adequate to satisfy most government users' needs, and any of the cameras in the accompanying chart will give you a good start.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

VendorProductResolution in megapixelsLensMedia typeIncluded/optional storage capacity in megabytesHardware interfacesPrice
Agfa Corp.
Ridgefield Park, N.J.
ePhoto 16801.33X zoomSmartMedia4/64Serial, NTSC/PAL video$399
ePhoto CL30143-mm equivalentCompactFlash4/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$499
ePhoto CL501.33X zoomSmartMedia8/64Serial, NTSC/PAL video$549
Canon USA Inc.
Lake Success, N.Y.
PowerShot S203.342X zoomCompactFlash16/192Serial, USB, NTSC video$1,030
PowerShot S102.112X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB, NTSC video$769
Eastman Kodak Co.
Rochester, N.Y.
DC21512X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$399
DC2401.33X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB$699
DC2802.052X zoomCompactFlash20/192Serial, USB$799
DC2651.63X zoomCompactFlash16/192Serial, USB, infrared$899
DC2902.13X zoomCompactFlash20/192Serial, USB, infrared$899
Epson America Inc.
Long Beach, Calif.
PhotoPC 6501.0939-mm equivalentCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$349
PhotoPC 8002.1438-mm equivalentCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB, NTSC video$599
PhotoPC 850Z2.113X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$799
PhotoPC 3000Z3.343X zoomCompactFlash16/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$999
Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. Inc.
Elmsford, N.Y. 10523
MX-2900 ZOOM1.33X zoomSmartMedia8/64Serial, NTSC/PAL video$399
FinePix 4700 ZOOM3.343X zoomSmartMedia16/64USB$999
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
PhotoSmart C200139-mm equivalentCompactFlash8/192Serial, NTSC/PAL video$299
PhotoSmart C50023X zoomCompactFlash16/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$699
Nikon Inc.
Melville, N.Y.
Coolpix 8002.112X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, NTSC video$599
Coolpix 9502.113X zoomCompactFlash8/192Serial, NTSC video$899
Coolpix 9903.343X zoomCompactFlash16/192Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$999
Olympus America Inc.
Melville, N.Y.
D-360L1.336-mm equivalentSmartMedia8/64Serial, NTSC/ PAL video$299
D-460 ZOOM1.33X zoomSmartMedia8/64Serial, NTSC/ PAL video$499
C-2020 ZOOM2.13X zoomSmartMedia8/64Serial, NTSC video$699
C-2500L2.53X zoomSmartMedia32/64Serial, NTSC video$1,299
C-3030 ZOOM3.343X zoomSmartMedia16/64Serial, USB, NTSC video$999
Sanyo Fisher Co.
Chatsworth, Calif.
VPC-SX5001.538-mm equivalentCompactFlash, IBM Microdrive (optional)8/340 (with Microdrive)Serial, NTSC video$699
Sony Electronics Inc.
Park Ridge, N.J.
MVC-FD881.38X zoom3.5-inch floppy1.44/N/ANTSC/PAL video$800
Cyber-shot DSC-7701.55X zoomMemory Stick, PC Card8/32Serial, NTSC video$1,499
Cyber-shot DSC-F5052.15X zoomMemory Stick4/32Serial, USB, NTSC/PAL video$999
Toshiba America Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
PDR-M42.135-mm equivalentSmartMedia8/64Serial, USB, NTSC video$499
PDR-M52.13X zoomSmartMedia8/64Serial, USB, NTSC video$799
PDR-M703.373X zoomSmartMedia16/64USB, NTSC video$800

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