A Sharper Focus for Digital Shutterbugs

Do you really need all those bells and megapixels? Here's a guide to help you figure it out

The kids' soccer game sidelines I frequent are loaded with digital photographers these days. Yet judging by the deep frowns and occasional expletives, digital cameras are rivaling VCRs for baffling buttons and controls, not to mention a bewildering set of specs and features. Time and again, I hear: "I'll have to read the manual someday because I know I can do a lot more with this thing than I do."

Part of the problem is that aggressive salespeople push the more expensive cameras, the ones with the most megapixels. That determines how large your final prints can be and still look sharp and clear. If your goal is filmlike prints even at the 8-by-10-inch size and above, you're likely to want 3 to 5 megapixels. Aquarium hobbyist Randy Carey of St. Paul, Minn., for example, uses a 3.14 megapixel Nikon Coolpix 990 to snap the zippy tetras in his 60 aquarium tanks. He gets sufficient detail for him to publish the results in fish enthusiast magazines.

But photographers like Carey actually, ahem, read the manuals. I've discovered that some of the happiest digital photographers these days have cameras with simple controls, quality just good enough for their particular needs, and as small a size as possible. That way, they tend to take their cameras everyplace they go and not just drag them out for special occasions. "Megapixels are like megahertz in a computer," says Jeff Bonforte, a former dot-com executive now taking a breather in Switzerland. "It's a myth that you need as many as you can get." He prefers a compact 2-megapixel Canon Digital ELPH that he even takes on the airplanes from which he skydives three times a week. He has clicked off some 1,500 shots in the past 18 months.

Unless you're a pro or serious hobby shooter, some basic, practical needs should dictate your digital camera choices, and I'd lump those needs into three user groups. First, there are the True Digis. These are tech-savvy folks, often young, like Bonforte: They take lots of pictures, but they mostly e-mail and post their photos online. For them, the camera's size matters most, and less is invariably better. Two cameras on our list will suit them best: the Canon PowerShot S330 Digital ELPH and the Minolta Dimage X. Both are lightweight, have about 2 megapixels, are straightforward to use, and list for $399 (nearly every camera's list price can be beat with some shopping).

The next group, the Snappers, want to use their digital camera like they did their regular camera, for holidays and vacations--and yes, those soccer games. They probably do some e-mailing to Grandma, but they also want prints, either printed at home, at the drugstore, or at an online service such as Ofoto. For the best results, they need at least 3 megapixels.

That much horsepower typically comes with lots of features, but you'll have to take the time to find them. Jerry Grossman, vice-president of marketing for consumer digital products at Nikon, says that all manufacturers are struggling to make their manuals easier to use. Nikon is experimenting with CD-based lessons and other ways to help customers discover such automatic modes as Nikon's "beach" exposure well before the sun sets on their seaside shooting.

One nifty Snapper camera is the Canon PowerShot S30. It's relatively compact, sports 3.2 megapixels, and lists for $599. I found the controls on this camera confusing at first, but after spending 20 minutes reading the manual and playing with the camera, I found its logic appealing.

The final category I'll call the eBay (EBAY ) brigade. They use digital images to support their own small-business activities, whether at eBay or their own Web sites. They even create marketing material that they previously hired a photographer to handle. Charlene Court Smith of San Francisco used to be a creative director for the home furnishings store Pottery Barn, but she left to launch her own handmade jewelry business. She sends digital shots of her jewelry around the world to help find the rare shells and bones she uses, and sends photos of finished pieces to high-end boutiques and stores. She might have opted for a camera like the Fujifilm Finepix S602 Zoom. Running around $650, it's a near-professional-grade, 3-megapixel camera with an excellent close-up or "macro" lens. However, the compact Canon S330 ELPH works for her. "It seemed the most intuitive of the cameras I looked at," she says.

Such online sites as dpreview.com or imaging-resource.com are extremely helpful for digital camera shoppers. But nothing beats a fact-finding trip to the store. How else will you know whether your big fat thumb fits on the Minolta Dimage's thin, square little body, for example? Be realistic about how much printing you'll want to do, and pay attention to how natural the controls seem. If deleting a shot or switching from landscape to close-up settings seems overly complicated, seek out a simpler camera.

Two more technical details to research: battery type and life (Will AAs work, or do you have to buy a $40 or $50 rechargeable just to get a spare?) and storage (What kind of memory cards does it store images on, how much do they cost, and how many images will each hold?).

Once you've got the camera, set aside some time to work with snapshots on your computer. For me, that has become more than half the value of digital photography. For example, my husband and I were considering a painting for our living room. The artist let us take a digital photo of it, which I brought home and merged with a photo of the room. It took 15 minutes to convince us we had the perfect spot for it.

Such tricks may require an extra investment in a photo-manipulation program like the $99 Photoshop Elements. But investing some time in learning all that you can do with the camera and its images has a nice payoff. It may save you a little money, and you'll have a lot more fun.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

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