Sharp shooters

Ricoh's RDC-7 has 3.34-megapixel resolution, a 3x zoom and up to 128M of storage. It's priced at $549.

Nikon's D100 is an SLR camera that uses Nikkor lenses with up to 1G of storage. It's $1,999.

Affordable high-resolution models accelerate the march of digital photography

Digital cameras are in the fast lane of price-to-performance development.

Steady advances in digital technology have cut in half the cost of high-quality imaging in the past two years, while bringing more of the features of professional-class single-lens reflex (SLR) film cameras within the price range of government users who need more than point-and-shoot pictures.

Last year, it was rare to find a 3-megapixel'approximately 3-million-pixel resolution, or 3-MP'camera for less than $600. Now it's rare not to, with some basic models selling for as little as $299, and only a few models with extra features and superior image-capture controls topping $699, said Michelle Slaughter, market research analyst for InfoTrends Research Group Inc. in Boston.

Even some models of 4-MP and higher-resolution cameras can be had for around $400, though you'll pay several hundred more for the most sophisticated models.
The latest megapixel leap, to an impressive 5 MP in recent months, features cameras in the $1,000-$1,500 range.

But nonprofessionals should beware: Some of these cameras have a large number of on-camera controls that might mystify beginners and diminish their usability. 'You have to be a gadget head to want one of these higher-end models,' Slaughter said.

Beyond that, you're generally into professional cameras, such as the Nikon D100, with true SLR camera bodies and prices exceeding $5,000.

The trend toward digital SLR cameras brings more than extra megapixels. It also means manual-focus rings and higher magnifications of true, optically based zooming far above the typical digicam's 2X or 3X.

That means the camera doesn't have to digitally simulate the last few stages of enlargement, which typically introduces jagged pixel edges and other imperfections into the image.

Faster, faster

Faster aperture speeds and high-speed drive modes of several frames per second'often marketed to sports photographers'also are handy in government applications such as surveillance.

But having SLR features doesn't always make for a true SLR camera. Minolta, for example, calls its DiMAGE 7i an SLR-type camera, meaning it has SLR-type controls but not lenses that are interchangeable with those of film cameras.

In contrast, Olympus calls its Camedia E-20N a digital SLR, which basically augments the digicam with a slew of SLR-like lenses that only fit it and related models. The distinction is significant: Olympus says worries about dust make it difficult to design interchangeable SLR lenses for digital cameras because their image-processing chips'usually charge-coupled devices, or CCDs'could get damaged.

The latest digital image enhancements include preset controls for various types of photographic subjects, such as portraits, sporting events and night scenes; faster image processors; and the availability of high-speed PC input via the IEEE 1394 FireWire interface. Beyond that, there's little new being offered in under-the-hood technologies.

Analysts and product managers say the competition in memory-card storage has settled somewhat, with CompactFlash the clear price-performance leader, and slim Secure Digital and MultiMedia cards just emerging as a good fit for ever-shrinking camera sizes, though it is still relatively expensive per megabyte.

Pick 3 megapixels

A camera's megapixel rating'which translates to resolution'is the most important feature to keep in mind. A 3-MP resolution is the minimum you need to print 4- by 6-inch, film-quality photographs.

For larger sizes or where cropping is likely, 4-MP and 5-MP models are a good investment.

For field work involving hundreds of shots and relatively few downloads, mind the storage media; the 1G capacities available with the IBM Microdrives that fit Type II CompactFlash slots might suit your needs best.

If fast uploads to a PC and on to the Web or e-mail are important, consider a camera with an optional docking station. Beware battery life'extra rechargeable batteries help, but be prepared to replace them frequently if you stress the camera with frequent downloads.

Once you've identified your specific needs for resolution, lens options, connectivity and storage options, you'll likely find a fit from among the 3-MP-and-up digicams in the accompanying chart. The cameras themselves'if not the process of finding the exact one for your needs'have become almost foolproof.

'At this stage,' Slaughter said, 'digital cameras have achieved such a level of usability that I don't see any pitfalls.'

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

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