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Digital cameras
Digital photography allows you to be more easily involved in the creation of the print than film photography.

Digital cameras give you extraordinary control over images. You can transfer them to your computer, then crop, adjust color and contrast, and add textures and other special effects. You can make prints at home on a color inkjet or snapshot printer, drop off the memory card at one of a growing number of photofinishers, use a self-service kiosk at your local drugstore to select, edit, and print pictures instantly, or upload images to an online photofinisher. Final results can be e-mailed, made into cards or T-shirts, or uploaded to a photo-sharing Web site for storage, viewing, and sharing with others.

Like camcorders, digital cameras have LCD monitors for composing shots or viewing those already taken. Many digital cameras can also shoot video with sound. While some camcorders can shoot still photos, a typical camcorder’s resolution is no match for a good still camera’s.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

The leading brands are Canon, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony. Other brands come from consumer-electronics, computer, and traditional camera and film companies.

It’s easier than ever to go to extremes with a digital camera. Small is bountiful, and big is also booming. The smallest cameras we tested recently, subcompacts, weigh 5 to 8 ounces and can fit in a pocket. Price: $185 to $450.

Mainstream compacts are too big to pocket, but small enough for most handbags and glove boxe. The ones we tested recently weigh 7 to 14 ounces. Price: $140 to $480.

More serious cameras have the versatility and power to capture fast action or create photographic art under the most demanding light conditions. Advanced compact cameras are typically larger and heavier than compacts, with versatile controls and long zoom lenses. Price: $280 to $850.

Super-zoom cameras are characterized by a very long zoom range—10x or greater. While traditionally larger and heavier than compacts, a few new models are designed to be smaller and lighter than older models. Price: $250 to $700.

SLRs (single-lens reflex), the largest and heaviest type, offer the most versatility and power, including interchangeable lenses. Price: $600 to $1,700 for consumer models; professional models can cost thousands.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Digital cameras are distinguished by their resolution—how many pixels, or picture elements, the image sensor contains. One megapixel equals 1 million picture elements. A 4-megapixel camera can make excellent 8x10s and pleasing 11x14s. There are also 5- to 10-megapixel models, including point-and-shoot ones. These are well-suited for making larger prints or for maintaining sharpness if you want to use only a portion of the original image. Professional digital cameras use as many as 16 megapixels. Price: $100 to $400 for 4 megapixels; $150 to $500 for 5 and 6 megapixels; $300 to $1,000 for 7- to 10-megapixel point-and-shoot models, and up to $1,700 for 10-megapixel SLRs.

Most digital cameras are highly automated, with features such as automatic exposure control (which manages the shutter speed, aperture, or both according to available light) and autofocus.

Instead of film, digital cameras record their shots on flash-memory cards. Compact Flash (CF) and SecureDigital (SD) are the most widely used. Once quite expensive, these cards have tumbled in price—a 256-megabyte card can now cost less than $20. Other types of memory cards used by cameras include MemoryStick Duo and xD.

To save images, you transfer them to a computer, typically by connecting the camera to the computer’s USB or FireWire port, or inserting the memory card into a special reader. Some printers can take memory cards and make prints without putting the images on a computer first. Image-handling software, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, Jasc Paint Shop, Microsoft Picture It, and ACDSee, lets you resize, touch up, and crop digital images using your computer. Most digital cameras work with both Windows and Macintosh machines.

The file format commonly used for photos is JPEG, which is a compressed format. Some cameras can save photos in the uncompressed TIFF format, but this setting yields enormous files. Other high-end cameras have a RAW file format, which yields the image data with no processing from the camera and can also be uncompressed.

The optical viewfinder is becoming increasingly rare, replaced by larger color LCD monitors. (Some are now as large as 3 inches.) Monitors are very accurate in framing the actual image you get—better than most optical viewfinders—but might be hard to view in bright sunlight. You can also view shots you’ve already taken on the LCD monitor. Many digital cameras provide a video output, so you can view your pictures on a TV set.

Many new models let you capture video and sound. Some let you record video in high-quality MPEG4 format, up to 30 frames per second, up to the memory card’s capacity.

A zoom lens provides flexibility in framing shots and closes the distance between you and your subject—ideal if you want to quickly switch to a close shot. The typical 3x zoom on mainstream cameras goes from a moderately wide-angle view (35 mm) to moderate telephoto (105 mm). You can find cameras with extended zoom ranges between 8x and 15x, giving added versatility for outdoor photography. Other new cameras go down to 24 or 28 mm at the wide-angle end, making it easier to take in an entire scene in close quarters, such as a crowded party.

Optical zooms are superior to digital zooms, which merely magnify the center of the frame without actually increasing picture detail, resulting in a somewhat coarser view.

Sensors in digital cameras are typically about as light sensitive as ISO 100 film, though many let you increase that setting. (At ISO 100, you’ll probably need to use a flash indoors and in low outdoor light.) A camera’s flash range tells you how far from the camera the flash will provide proper exposure. If the subject is out of range, you’ll know to close the distance. But digital cameras can tolerate some underexposure before the image suffers noticeably.

Red-eye reduction shines a light toward your subject just before the main flash. (A camera whose flash unit is farther from the lens reduces the risk of red eye. Computer editing of the image may also correct red eye.) With automatic flash mode, the camera fires the flash whenever the light entering the camera registers as insufficient. A few new cameras have built-in red-eye correction capability.

Some cameras with large LCDs, and some with powerful telephoto lenses, now come with some form of image stabilizer. (Optical-image stabilizers are the best type; some cameras use simulated stabilization to try to achieve the same effect.) Stabilizers compensate for handheld camera shake, letting you use a slower shutter speed than you otherwise could for following movement. But an image stabilizer won’t compensate for the motion of subjects.

Most new 6- to 10-megapixel cameras come with full manual controls, including independent controls for shutter and aperture. That gives serious shutterbugs control over depth of field, shooting action, or shooting scenes with tricky lighting.

HOW TO CHOOSE

The first step is to determine how you will use the camera most of the time. Consider these two questions:

How much flexibility to enlarge images do you need? If you mainly want to make 4x6 snapshots, a camera with 4- or 5-megapixel resolution should be fine. It will also make an 8x10 print of an entire image without alteration that won’t look much different than one from a 6- or 8-megapixel model. But to enlarge the image more or enlarge only part of it, you’ll want a camera with resolution of 6 megapixels or greater.

How much control do you want over exposure and composition? Cameras meant for automatic point-and-shoot photos, with a 3x zoom lens, will serve casual shooters as well as dedicated hobbyists much of the time. The full-featured cameras in the advanced compact and super-zoom categories offer capabilities that more-dedicated photographers will want to have. Two of the more important capabilities are a zoom range of 5x to 10x or more, which lets you bring distant outdoor subjects close and also lets you shoot candid portraits without getting right in your subject’s face, and a full complement of manual controls that let you determine the shutter speed and lens opening.

Once you’ve established the performance priorities that you need from a camera, you can narrow your choices further by considering these convenience factors:

Size and weight. The smallest, lightest models aren’t necessarily inexpensive 4-megapixel cameras. And the biggest and heaviest aren’t necessarily found at the high end. If possible, try cameras at the store before you buy. That way, you’ll know which one fits your hand best and which can be securely gripped. In our tests, we found that some of the smallest don’t leave much room even for small fingers.

Battery type and life. All digital cameras run on rechargeable batteries, either an expensive battery pack or a set of AAs. In our tests, neither type had a clear performance advantage. The best-performing cameras offer at least 250 shots on a charge, while the worst manage under 100. We think it’s more convenient to own a camera that accepts AA batteries. You can buy economical, rechargeable cells (plus a charger) and drop in a set of disposable lithium or alkaline batteries if the rechargeables run down in the middle of shooting.

Camera speed. With point-and-shoot cameras like the ones we tested, you must wait after each shot as the camera processes the image. Most models let you shoot an image every few seconds, but a few make you wait 5 seconds or more. They may frustrate you when you’re taking photos of a subject that is very active, such as a child.

Your other cameras. If you own a film camera with interchangeable lenses, you can probably use those lenses on digital SLRs of the same brand. Some new Olympus digital SLRs require a special $100 adapter to use film lenses, but you’ll only be able to focus those lenses manually.

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