If the Digital Age is coming into focus for the average consumer, it's no thanks to his digital camera. Sure, he used the gizmo to snap a few photos and download them to his computer. It was fun for awhile to crop pictures on-screen and print them out right away.
Then the family vacation came along and he left the digital camera at home and took a real camera instead.
That's been the problem with digital cameras up to now. They've had too much digital - and not enough camera.
Fortunately, a new crop of these image machines is coming along that will begin to change consumer perceptions. True, the pictures still aren't as sharp as traditional photos. The advantage is that there's no film to process.
So once you snap a photo, your computer can modify the image any way you like and then print it out immediately. The new digital cameras make this process more flexible and easier than ever.
Take the Kodak DC25. Unlike the older DC20, the new $500 Kodak sports a built-in automatic flash, color screen on the back, and removable storage. The removable storage feature is key.
In the first generation of digital cameras, you snapped 16 or 20 photos and the camera was full. You couldn't take any more until you deleted some or downloaded them to a computer.
Now who (except an inveterate nerd) is going to vacation in Tahiti with his computer?
With removable storage, you fill up one memory card and then replace it with another, just like film cartridges. Unfortunately, one memory card doesn't fit all cameras. Kodak is pushing one standard; Minolta, another. One drawback with the Kodak model is that it lacks a zoom lens.
Camera screens are another big item this year. Many of the first digital cameras used only viewfinders, so you couldn't see what you'd taken until you downloaded the images to a computer. The new liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) on the back of many cameras let you see what you're taking and review what you have.
Camera companies are taking different tacks with LCDs. Casio has enlarged the size of its screen from 1.8 inches in its earlier models to 2.5 inches in its new QV300 model. The $699 camera also has two focal lengths, so photographers can get a closeup or panorama - a feature the Kodak lacks.
The bigger the screen, however, the more power it draws from batteries. That is why Epson's new PhotoPC 500 - an improved version of its PhotoPC - offers the LCD as a $199 option. It looks ungainly when attached to the camera's side, but it does save battery power. Another plus: The camera accepts 37mm camcorder lenses so you can do zooms or wide-angle shots.
Although Epson has improved the photo sharpness in its new model, neither it nor any other digital camera can match the detail of even the cheapest film-based cameras.
Will consumers overlook the inferior quality in exchange for the greater flexibility? They just might after taking a look at the Minolta Dimage V.
Due to hit store shelves by next March, the Dimage has just about everything one could expect from a digital camera: built-in flash, zoom lens, removable storage, and a small LCD. It also has a unique detachable lens, which you can snap off and stretch as far as the one-meter connecting cable will allow.
Suddenly, ground-level and high-angle shots are easy - and you can see what you're getting from the LCD on the camera's back.
Minolta says its new model will be competitively priced with other consumer digital cameras. That's a good sign, because I want one.
Taking the pictures is only half the battle, of course. Most consumers will want to print them out onto paper. Fortunately, advances in printer and paper technology are coming that will get us closer to the standards set by film.
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