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Sharpshooters

Sophisticated SLRs and pocket-size portables are today's hotshot digital cameras
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

Odds are, if you don't already own a digital camera, you're seriously thinking about buying one. This is the first year that digital cameras will outsell traditional film cameras (by a whopping 27 percent), according to Infotrends Research Group. While some traditionalists take this as a biblical sign of the apocalypse (right up there with reality TV and laws that ban cigars in bars), it makes perfect sense to me.

For starters, you have to figure that many people who already have perfectly serviceable film cameras in the closet are adding digital to their arsenals. Film isn't dying just yet—it's still cheap and easy to use, and while high-end digital models are approaching the resolution and color reproduction of film cameras, they haven't caught up.

Still, the advantages of shooting digital make the switch nearly irresistible. For starters, you get instant gratification—you point, you shoot, you see what you captured on the built-in LCD screen. More important, when you take a photo in digital form, it's easy to transfer it into your computer and improve it, cropping out unwanted areas, adjusting brightness and tint, removing that demon-from-hell red-eye effect that ruins so many flash photo portraits. Going digital lets you save once-in-a-lifetime images that would require expensive professional retouching if shot on film—that's worth a couple of hundred dollars right there.

The biggest reason my digital camera is always handy while my film enlarger is gathering dust in the basement, though, is the way digital changes the way I shoot. With a traditional camera I'm paying film and development costs every time I press the trigger. Inevitably, that means hesitating over shots that good sense says have a minimal chance of coming out well, a strategy that means plenty of missed opportunities. With a digital camera equipped with a reusable high- capacity memory card, I can shoot first and ask questions later. Kids running around like lunatics? Just keep snapping in hopes of capturing a great moment, and toss out all the losers with no regrets (the bad photos, that is, not the rotten kids). The same holds true for shooting in difficult lighting conditions, or those interesting angles you can get only while perched precariously on your tiptoes. Might work, might not, but it's fun trying, and failure doesn't cost you an incremental dime.

Deciding on the right camera for your needs isn't easy—the store shelves are crowded with models ranging from under $100 to several thousand. Survey your options, though, and you'll find that digital models fall into much the same categories as film cameras. You have your low-end point-and-shoots, with no zoom lenses or manual settings, to satisfy the casual snapshot photographer. Then there's the step-up to mid-range cameras, generally with 3X zoom lenses and higher resolution, that turn out images suitable for
substantial-size prints and combine point-and-click automation with settings you can tweak when you feel ambitious. The next jump takes you to high-end models with more powerful zoom lenses and even higher resolution, usually festooned with additional fancy features you'll use three times in your lifetime. Finally, there's a relatively new category: high-resolution SLR cameras at prices nonprofessionals can
seriously consider.

These "prosumer" SLRs, which ran $20,000 just a few years ago but now can be had for under two grand, are an exciting trend. How is an SLR different from any other camera, you may ask? Whether we're talking film or digital, SLR stands for single-lens reflex, which means when you line up a shot, you're looking through the lens that's taking the picture and not through a separate viewfinder. That allows you to frame your subject with precision. It also lets you change lenses for a wider angle or a close-up view, or add filters for special effects. SLRs have traditionally been the category in which manufacturers offer their best optics and mechanical systems, appealing to the more demanding audience these cameras attract.

The other hot area in camera development is the serious pocket-size digital. Crappy little miniature models have been available for some time—you've probably seen them advertised in spam e-mail or splashed in the Sunday circulars at too-good-to-be-true prices. Today, we're seeing amazing achievements in miniaturization without the sacrifice of image quality, cameras you can literally pop in a pocket and carry everywhere you go, just in case a great photo opportunity suddenly arises. It's easier to build a high-quality tiny camera using digital technology than it is with film, since an electronic photo sensor is much smaller than a frame of film. Recently, digital camera manufacturers have pressed this advantage in truly impressive ways.

While these two categories differ radically when it comes to size, function and price, they have one thing in common—each opens up new picture-taking options. The digital SLRs represent a step up in photographic quality and control, while a pocket-size camera tags along easily on days when you'd leave an ordinary camera at home.

Before delving into specific models, here are a few key points to remember when shopping for digitals.

Resolution. The one easily comprehensible statistic you'll find when evaluating digital cameras is resolution, a number expressed in megapixels. A pixel is a single tiny dot of light; a megapixel is a million of them. It takes several million pixels to create a respectable-looking image, especially if you're planning to print the picture on paper. A three-megapixel camera delivers the resolution you need to produce a handsome 8x10-inch print. Why go higher, then? You don't have to, really, but greater resolution in the original image means more freedom to zoom in on a portion of the picture and crop out the remainder without noticeably affecting the sharpness of your final print.


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