Are faraway relatives bugging you for family pictures again, and you haven't had time to get the film developed?
It may be time to go digital.
"Digital is instant gratification," says Katheryn DeVitto, manager of Hunt's Photo and Video, a nationwide catalog camera retailer.
The minute you take the picture, you can look at it - and even zap it via the Internet to family and friends around the world.
Its speed and convenience explain why digital photography is poised to replace film for most shutterbugs, says Gene Ritvo, a professional photographer in Weston, Mass., who has turned to digital in the past few years.
Falling prices are also enticing more consumers to go digital. Though top-end models (see photo at bottom) can still run into five figures, decent models go for as little as $299. Digital Instamatics run $80 to $100. Until recently, prices had hovered around $1,000.
Another plus is that you'll never have to pay for film or developing again. Images can be uploaded from the camera to a personal computer and printed out on a color ink-jet printer.
Photos can also be e-mailed to loved ones, or posted on Web sites devoted to personal photos. Zing.com, shutterfly.com, ofoto.com, photonet.com, and America Online's "You've Got Pictures" all provide space to post personal pictures. For a fee, Ofoto provides high-quality prints by mail.
Like any electronics, digital cameras are subject to Moore's law - their capability doubles while the price is cut in half every 18 months. Manufacturers continue to learn which features buyers want, and which to eliminate to cut the price.
The cheapest digital models lack features essential to digital photography, such as a liquid crystal display (LCD) viewing screen that allows users to see their pictures instantly. They also have marginal picture quality -adequate for 3x5 prints or Web posting, but not much more.
Cameras in the $300 to $700 range offer zoom lenses and other features common on traditional cameras, says Ms. DeVitto.
Beyond that are professional digital cameras and digital video cameras that can also take stills.
Lots of buyers take their first steps into digital photography with cheap models and later move up to mid-priced digital point-and-shoots. That's what happened to Joy and Tony Jenkens, who bought a $100 Relisys camera to post pictures of their baby daughter, Jessica, on the Web for family and friends.
A few months later, Mr. Jenkens bought a mid-line Olympus D450 Zoom on the Internet for about $350. "I didn't think I needed a digital camera," says Mrs. Jenkens. "The beauty is, without film, you can take as many pictures as you want to get the right one."
The problem is, it can take time to get that perfect shot. Color pictures require a lot of digital memory and can take several seconds to record. Often, there's a delay between when you press the shutter and when the picture records. So a baby's smile or a toddler's antics may pass before the camera snaps.
More expensive digital cameras minimize this problem with what's called "burst" technology, which allows the camera to shoot more pictures while earlier ones are still storing.
For snapshots, an LCD screen is helpful, allowing you to instantly see photos after they are taken. If the baby in the photo is smiling, keep the shot. If not, delete and try again. After all, the "film" is free -almost (LCDs use up expensive batteries quickly).
Most cameras use one of four types of picture memory. Most require a flash memory card that fits in a standard slot in the camera. These cards vary, storing anywhere from 10 to 30 pictures. When a card gets full, simply slide in another.
Sony cameras use a proprietary "memory stick" that works the same way but isn't interchangeable with flash cards by other manufacturers. Some models store pictures on internal hard drives, which are slow and heavy, but relatively cheap and with much more capacity.
Some expensive cameras use PC-card memory like a laptop computer. And Sony Mavicas use cheap floppy disks that hold only one or two pictures.
Because these memory devices are reusable, additional pictures cost nothing more to take. Flash memory (and Memory Sticks) cost about$40 for 2 megabytes of storage, or about six pictures. So if you don't have a computer nearby to empty pictures out of the camera, you need to make those six pictures count, or spring for extra cards.
Higher-end cameras hold more shots. For example, the memory card in the Jenkens' new Olympus holds more than 70 pictures.
Even $100 digital cameras come with software and cables to upload pictures, fix red eyes, and dress up the photos on the computer with fancy borders, color tints, and cropping tools.
For serious shooters, digital cameras offer simpler lighting controls than film cameras. Starting in the $400 to $600 range, several cameras allow you to control the color of white.
White is white, you say? Not if you're shooting indoors. Fluorescent lights turn film pictures green; incandescent light turns them orange. Professional photographers use filters to compensate on film. Digital cameras adjust for you with a simple button.
Even the right white balance can't give digital pictures the warmth of film, though, says Mr. Ritvo. He uses regular film to photograph his grandchildren.
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