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Thinking about buying a digital camera soon?

Douglas Ford Rea

Douglas Ford Rea ’78, professor and photojournalism chair at RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, is a leading authority, practitioner and teacher of digital photography. His photographic specialties include instant imaging as well as color and traditional photography. Rea oversees RIT’s award-winning publication E.s.p.r.i.t., which has been a testing ground since 1989 for digital photography and publication.

Photo by John Retallack ’70

By Douglas Ford Rea ’78

Hey, it’s 2005 and you’re thinking about buying your first digital camera? Well, you’re not the first to think about this, but perhaps one of the last! Sales of digital cameras have grown exponentially over the last five years and there seems to be no end in sight. The reasons are clear: Many digital cameras are fun to use, and they do everything we want them to do well, sometimes more!

Why go digital?
Today’s technologies are great, fast and affordable! It used to be that conventional film-based photography was the easiest path to making snapshots. That’s no longer the case. Digital is just as easy and offers you a lot more options on how to use your photographs.

If I were to go digital, where would I begin to look for advice?
Look for advice from a reputable camera dealer in your region. They are often your best and fastest source for getting your questions answered. In addition, you can get a lot of good information from the Internet. Visit Web sites such as www.dpreview.com and www.steves-digicams.com. Both sites have timely reviews of the latest camera technologies and accessories.
If I decide to go digital, can I buy a camera that will last forever? After all, I gave my daughter my Minolta SRT 101 and two lenses. That trusty gear lasted me a long, long time!

Digital cameras, like computers, will become outdated. Today’s digital cameras are laden with features such as optics, imaging effects and video. Expect to see more of the same. You should buy the camera that fits your needs, use it for as long as it serves those needs, and eventually either sell it on eBay (or pass it along to another family member) when you outgrow the technology.

OK, I’m going digital. What camera do I need?
Most people need a digital camera that’s reliable and easy to use. After all, if you want to make good pictures, you don’t want to have a camera that fights with you! A lot of digital cameras these days are loaded with little buttons – which makes them cumbersome to use. Sometimes I pick up a new camera and it reminds me of the first digital watch I received many years ago as a birthday present. I spent an hour learning how to set that darn watch – sheer frustration! Many digital cameras present challenges that feel the same. Stay clear of them!

If the camera doesn’t feel intuitive as soon as you pick it up, you won’t make many good pictures with it. Truth is, before you start shopping and comparing “camera features,” look for a digital camera that feels good in your hand. A camera that’s easy to turn on and off. One that you can pick up and make photographs without having to push a lot of little tiny buttons! If you’re like me, you want it to just work, period.

Once you have found that kind of camera, i.e., easy and fun to operate, you have found something you’ll like to carry and use.

Camera features, you say?
Did you understand the directions I gave you above? If not, you should not be looking and comparing camera features. Go back and read the paragraph above. After doing this, you are ready to look for distinguishing camera features. Today’s digital cameras are rich with features. Please note that being a cell phone is not a good feature! I have yet to see a cell phone that can make good digital images.

How many megapixels do I need?
Camera resolution is an important issue. Four megapixels is a good baseline for resolution. Such cameras will provide you with images that can make a good 8x10-inch print. How often do you make an 8x 10-inch images? If you answer, “hardly ever, or never,” 4 megapixels is enough. You will find point-and-shoot cameras with 5, 6, 8 megapixels and more. Most often, the larger the image size the more overkill and more cost involved. And, the larger the image, the more hard-disk space it will take up for computer users.

What type of memory card (storage) does the camera use?
Compact flash and SD cards are two of the favorites. You should have cards that are a minimum of 128 MB in size so you can capture a reasonable number of pictures when on vacation or at a school graduation. Memory for digital cameras has done the polar opposite of gasoline! It’s come way down in price. You can buy it at your local camera store, photo lab, or department store. I like to buy a back-up memory card just in case I need one, or in case I lose my first card.

What should I look for in a digital camera?
Look for a camera that is:

• easy and fun to use;
• good on battery life;
• known for having excellent optics;
• easy to review images, i.e. has a large LCD display on the camera’s back, and is easy to connect to a computer (USB connectivity);
• of high enough resolution (4 megapixels is a baseline);
• rugged and water resistant;
• equipped with software for your PC.

Where do I get prints from my photographs?
There are a lot of options available for getting prints from your digital camera. At first, you are best to visit your local camera store where they probably have print kiosks and/or print services available. Secondly, your large retailers will offer both in-store and online services (online services means you need a computer and Internet connection). Thirdly, a direct camera-to-print system such as the Kodak EasyShare™ brings fast and easy printing home to you without the need of a computer. And, finally, if you really get into digital photography, i.e., “soup-to-nuts,” then having a fast Mac or PC with a photo-quality printer is a must!

But if you are a “newbie” to digital photography, I would keep it simple, initially, and work your way up to meet your needs. Remember, start with your local camera retailer.

Should I take a course in digital photography?
Yes! It will help you make better pictures sooner. You can get seminars, courses and workshops at many colleges, high schools, community centers, camera stores and computer stores. You can also attend special educational seminars such as Photoshop World™ where you will be like a kid in a candy store!

What could happen if I’m having too much fun?
I, personally, hope this is the case. Of course, some people (new to digital photography) move up from point-and-shoot cameras to D-SLR’s (digital single lens reflex) cameras in fairly short order. At this point, things get more expensive and involved with cameras, camera accessories, powerful computers, and home-based photo printers. That’s the cost of having a little too much fun.

Final thoughts
Digital photography doesn’t have to be expensive and it certainly should be fun! The important thing is to jump in and get your hands dirty. Remember, keep it as simple as possible.