Digital Camera Megapixels
No computer necessary-- some printers produce quality prints directly from the camera's memory.
A digital camera is a great tool with abilities that can leave even the most sophisticated 35-mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera gathering dust. In less time than it takes to drop off a roll of film at the drugstore, the owner of a digital camera can edit and print his own pictures. Or if you are in the home-remodeling mood, use your camera and its editing software to superimpose colors and designs, and even remove walls, offering a vivid prediction of what the job will look like when it's done. Michael and Karen Bourne of Mountain View, Calif., wanted to replace the tile around the fireplace in their living room. The tile superstore closed before Karen got off work, so Michael took his 4-megapixel camera shopping and shot a variety of colors and patterns. Then he took the digital images home, and Karen, an engineer and computer whiz, superimposed them on a photo of the fireplace. After some switching of colors, sizes and patterns, they made a design selection. Then Michael emailed the digital images and tile specifications to contractors and asked for bids. The couple ultimately hired a contractor located more than two hours from their home, who based his price solely on the photos that the Bournes showed him - and they even saved him a two-hour trip to preview the job. If you're contemplating buying a digital camera and, like the Bournes, intend to use your camera for more than just snapshots, here are some basic guidelines for choosing not only the right camera, but also the accessories that you'll need to get the most out of your purchase. A Good Enough Picture Digital camera image resolution is measured in megapixels, with most available cameras ranging from 1 megapixel on the low end to 6 megapixels on the pro end. If you're looking simply to post pictures on the Web - say to sell items on eBay, a 1-megapixel camera is often more than adequate. It also will do the job if you want to advertise your used car in the AutoTrader. If you're always shooting outside, you may even be satisfied with snapshots from a 1-megapixel camera that you use for emailing to family members. And if you're giving the camera to a small child, prices on these cameras have gotten so low that if she drops it or loses it, you won't be heartbroken. But if you hope to print the images from a 1-megapixel camera, you're destined to be disappointed. Even at snapshot size, the edges of the image will be fuzzy, and the individual pixels will be visible. If framing prints and sharing them is part of what you want to do with the camera, it's worth a few extra dollars to move up to a 2-megapixel camera. That may not sound like a huge jump - and it may not represent a big leap in price either - but it doubles the image quality. A well-lighted photo shot with a 2-megapixel camera will produce a very satisfactory print up to 8 by 12 inches, says Bryan Fleming, the CEO and co-founder of AnyTimePhoto.com, a company that sells prints from digital pictures. Fleming thinks that while many people will be perfectly satisfied with the quality of photos from a 2-megapixel camera, moving to a 3-megapixel camera will bring with it a better lens that will make this significantly higher quality camera worth the investment. A photo shot with a 3-megapixel camera will produce a sharp, clean image, even when enlarged to standard poster size. Unless you plan to shoot photos for a high-quality magazine or some other sophisticated professional use, Fleming says that spending money on a camera with 4 or more megapixels is overkill. On the other hand, prices have dropped, and 4-megapixel cameras tend to come with features - like the ability to use the camera in manual mode - that greatly expand its usefulness and the pleasure an experienced hobbyist will get from it. If you do want magazine-quality images, look for a camera with at least 5 megapixels. Photos shot with a 5-megapixel camera will compare favorably with those shot with a professional-quality 35-mm SLR - plenty good enough for most corporate or industrial photo uses. The Secret Is in the Lens Good photography depends on good lenses. Inexpensive digital cameras are likely to have lenses made of glass that is not as flawless as glass found in better models. The quality of the glass is hard to judge if you're not a pro, so Dave Johnson, author of How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera, advises sticking to cameras made by top-of-the-line camera companies (and ignoring cameras made by companies whose roots are unknown or in computers). He says experienced camera companies know the value of using good glass and have experience working with it. While very high-end digital cameras made by Nikon and Canon offer the ability to use lenses from the 35-mm SLR world on their digital cameras - an option worth exploring if you own a collection of good lenses - most lower-priced digital cameras come with built-in lenses. Lenses on 35-mm SLR cameras are rated in focal length (measured in millimeters). A lens with a focal length of about 50 mm is known as a normal lens and it's equivalent to what the human eye sees. Anything lower than 50 mm is called wide-angle, and anything larger is called telephoto. A zoom lens is a lens that can change focal lengths, bringing you closer to or farther from your subject. A useful zoom will take you from 22 mm - about twice as wide as the human eye sees - to 105 mm, or twice as far away as the human eye sees clearly. Digital cameras often come with a built-in zoom lens, but deciphering the capabilities of that lens is trickier than it is with a 35-mm SLR camera. In the first place, digital zoom doesn't count because it is not real zoom - it's software in the camera that adds pixels to the image to make it appear larger. It creates the illusion of zooming in on the subject, but in the process it blurs the image. The subject will appear closer but have less detail. Real zoom is optical zoom. Look for the optical zoom rating, not the digital zoom rating when comparing digital cameras. Sometimes you'll see optical-zoom focal length expressed as it is in the table on the bottom of this page. But most of the time, especially in low-end cameras, it will be expressed mathematically - 1X, 2X, 3X, etc. This refers to a range. For instance, a 25- to 50-mm lens would be 2X, and 25 to 75 mm would be 3X. But the range isn't absolute, so be sure to look at the specifications for the range covered. A 75- to 150-mm lens would be a 2X, but it lacks the ability to shoot a picture as the normal eye sees it. A 35- to 70-mm lens is also a 2X, but that range is much more useful. A workhorse 35-mm SLR lens, preferred by many working photographers, is 22 to 105 mm. A digital camera with that range would be a 5X lens. Some camera manufacturers offer a 35-mm equivalent rating. That's the easiest to understand. So search the specifications for that measurement if you're unsure. If you plan to use the camera for shooting fast-moving sports or bird-watching, the 10x to 12x optical zoom cameras on the market provide amazing pictures. You can capture the auto-racing pit action from the stands or identify a bird that you can't even see from the ground. Lighting Makes the Picture Unless you're going to be shooting everything outdoors, it's important to consider the flash capabilities of the camera. In the camera's specifications, this will be expressed as maximum range of flash. Most medium-priced cameras have a built-in flash unit with a range of 10 to 15 feet. The greater the range, the better the flash. Other useful features available on some cameras and not on others are: Red-eye reduction. Slow sync, which is useful for night photography. If you're photographing a person standing in front of a lighted monument, for instance, slow sync allows for slow shutter speed, giving time to expose the background properly before adding flash at the end to expose the person. Fill flash. Good for shooting pictures outdoors when there are lots of shadows. If you're planning to do a great deal of indoor photography, Johnson recommends buying a camera with an external flash mount, known as a hot shoe. He warns that you'll have to buy a compatible flash as well. The one that works with your 35-mm SLR will, at best, self-destruct when you hook it up to your digital camera and, at worst, will damage the camera itself. The Power of Memory Digital cameras commonly come with a pathetic 8- or 16-megabyte memory card. The 16 will hold about 10 pictures, so factor the cost of a 128- or 256-megabyte memory card into the purchase price. Some people prefer two 128s, because it allows them to pull out the smaller card, put it in a safe place and replace it with a new one, offering assurance that you won't lose all your pictures if you should lose the camera while traveling. Others prefer the 256 because it will hold more than a hundred pictures. Some cameras offer an AC adapter as an accessory, but Johnson thinks that's not necessary. Instead, he recommends buying a camera that runs on two regular AA batteries as opposed to rechargeable, proprietary lithium batteries. You can buy AAs anywhere, while the lithiums can be hard to find. And you can always purchase rechargeable AA batteries as another option. If you must go the lithium route, buy two batteries right away, so you can swap when one battery gets low. One way to preserve battery power is to purchase a card reader. Instead of using the juice from the battery to transfer your pictures from the camera to your computer - a battery-draining task - you can pop the memory card out of the camera into the reader and use the reader with its AC connection to transfer the photos. How the camera uses its memory power is also worth considering. Cheaper cameras have what is known as shutter lag. That's the time between when you push the button and when the picture is taken. If you're shooting things that are standing still, it matters less (although waiting those seconds can be irritating), but if you're shooting action, shutter lag can mean you won't get the shot. The best way to judge shutter lag is try the camera out. If that's not possible, camera reviewers usually point out this problem. To avoid the problem, buy a moderately or better-priced camera from a quality camera company. Saving the Goodies It goes without saying that you have to have a computer - or at least access to one - before you can use a digital camera. The computer-editing software that comes with most digital cameras is limited and often hard to use. Johnson recommends buying either Jasc Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop Elements, because either will allow you to do the kind of sophisticated editing that makes digital photography so exciting. Hunt around on the Web, and you can find either program for about $50. Unless you have a giant hard drive, you'll also need a way to store pictures - a CD burner or a removable drive of some sort will do the job. A number of companies have sprung up that offer online storage. The services include ways to share pictures that are better than email. You upload your pictures into a virtual album and then send friends the album's Web address. Many also offer inexpensive printing and CD storage if you don't want to invest in a printer or burner. Some sites that are worth considering include: AnyTime Photo www.anytimephoto.com e-Memories www.myphotowebsite.com Photo Parade www.photoparade.com Where to Shop If you're technically inclined and willing to spend some time shopping, Don Franz, group publisher of Photo Imaging News, thinks you'll get a better camera - and maybe even a better deal - if you shop in person. "Trying a camera out in a retail store gives you a much better idea of what a camera feels like in your hands and what it will do than reading about it online," he says. Still, it's a good idea to take advantage of the extensive online information about digital cameras. In particular, take notice of the pricing. Even if you decide it's worth paying a little more to buy a camera from a local dealer, shopping first online will give you a good idea of what you'll have to pay. Two recommended online sources that provide expert information on a broad range of subjects, reviews and technical specs on most cameras are: Megapixel.net www.megapixel.net/html Steve's Digicams www.steves-digicams.com n Jennie L. Phipps is a freelance writer based in Farmington Hills, Mich.
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