Shutterbugs, It May Be Time To Go Digital

Did you spend your summer vacation clicking away with your camera--but still don't have the pictures to show because the film is sitting undeveloped on your desk? If you're big on instant gratification, it might be time to think about moving into the digital domain, because digital cameras--both still and video--have come a long way in recent years.

For still-camera buffs, the big development has been technology that produces digital pictures rivaling the quality of film snapshots. In digital video, the hot news is lower prices: The superior image quality of di-gital camcorders now can be had for a much smaller premium over the price of analog, or VHS, models.

Going digital offers unique advantages. Images can be viewed immediately on a built-in display, and if you don't like what you see, just delete. On a PC, you can crop or retouch photos before sharing them via E-mail or a Web site. And with the latest Kodak and Minolta models, you don't even need a PC to make minor changes and relay pictures to the Internet.

Pay attention to the pixel count in still cameras, though. The resolution of the image-capturing chip is measured in terms of picture elements, or pixels, which are the tiny dots that make up an image. With most older digital cameras, the pixel count was woefully low--typically 380,000 or fewer compared with 12 million pixels or more for 35mm film. Now, most camera makers offer "megapixel" models with upwards of 1 million pixels. That's still too coarse to keep big enlargements from coming out grainy but good enough to give you near-film quality images for prints 5 by 7 inches and under, assuming you use a high-resolution printer and glossy paper. While prices started out at $1,000, megapixel cameras can now be had for as little as $500.

LCD CAVEAT. When shopping for a digital camera, look for one with a traditional viewfinder--and use the built-in LCD screen sparingly. That's because the LCD will quickly drain the camera's batteries. And if you plan to take the camera on trips, get one that stores pictures on removable "film," such as flash memory cards. How many pictures a card can hold depends on the level of resolution you select: The better the quality, the fewer the images you can store. At the highest setting, a common 4-megabyte card may hold no more than one image, but six megapixel pictures can be stored using minimum image-compression techniques. A pricey 32-MB card can store 48 such pictures.

Large-capacity flash cards can cost a few hundred dollars, but they can be reused after the images have been transferred to a PC. To simplify the job, some filmless cameras come with a floppy-disk adapter. Just plug in a flash card, insert the adapter in your A-drive, and copy the images onto the hard drive. Two cameras offer image-storage options worth noting. Canon's Powershot Pro 70, due in stores in November, has two flash-card slots that can take up to 96 high-res pictures. And Sony's Mavica doesn't need a floppy adapter because it stores images--although not megapixel--on a regular floppy disk.

"BURST MODE." Zoom lenses are becoming as commonplace on digital models as they are on film cameras. But be sure to get an optical zoom. Unlike digital zooming, which blows up the center of an image at the expense of image quality, optical zoom lenses work like a telescope and preserve image crispness. Another new feature on some digital models is "burst mode." Like the motor drive on 35mm cameras, it lets you snap a rapid sequence of pictures with one press of the shutter button. So you can take a series of shots--as many as 10 in half-second intervals.

Have you stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and snapped three or four photos from left to right? Then you will appreciate digital stitching. A few high-end cameras have built-in software that automatically locates the overlap between any two adjacent pictures and then combines them seamlessly.

Meanwhile, the new Digita software from FlashPoint Technology transforms cameras into miniature PCs. These cameras have a Windows-like menu on the LCD, rudimentary programs for cropping or adjusting contrast and color hues, and can connect to Web pages. So if you're PC-less, you might want to check out Kodak's DC220 and DC260 models or Minolta's Dimage EX Zoom 1500.

Still reluctant to give up your expensive 35mm camera? An innovative product from Imagek, due by Christmas, may prove interesting. This subsidiary of chipmaker Irvine Sensors plans to cram a digital camera's electronics in a 35mm film-size cartridge that you put into a regular camera. In place of the usual tail of film, there's a 1.3-megapixel imaging chip on a stiff card. Inside the cartridge are 40 MB of flash memory--enough to store 30 pictures. To offload the pictures, plug the card into a PC's PCMCIA slot. Imagek says its drop-in cartridge can be reused 100,000 times. So while the cartridge price is expected to be around $1,000, each "roll" of pictures may end up costing a mere penny.

Alternatively, keep your trusty 35mm camera and get yourself a digital camcorder. Virtually all such camcorders can also take stills, although not at megapixel resolutions.

Digital camcorders are just starting to break below the $2,000 mark in stores. But they're worth the premium over analog versions. With a horizontal resolution of 500 lines, digital video quality is roughly twice as good as VHS and noticeably better than even Super-VHS, which offers 400 lines. This technology comes in exceptionally trim packages. JVC's GR-DVL9000 and Sony's DCR-PC1 camcorders, for example, are about the size of a paperback and weigh roughly one pound. Credit the small size mainly to a diminutive videocassette that's only a third as big as a VHS cassette.

Yet engineers have managed to squeeze some remarkable features inside these baby videocams. The lens, for instance, can zoom to amazing magnifications. If the quality penalty inherent in digital zooming bothers you, some digital models sport multiple lenses--like Canon's XL1 DV model. In addition, these cameras often have an image-stabilization feature that compensates for inadvertent hand movements--so the footage won't be jittery.

If today's digital marvels seem small, just wait. Sony intends to market a palm-size camcorder later this year that records images on so-called memory sticks. The name is apt, because these flash-memory cards are about the size of a stick of gum. If the memory-stick concept catches on, digital camcorders could soon shrink to the size of a fat credit card. And you will probably need a fat credit card to purchase them, at least for a while.

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