Digital cameras: Don't make a snap decision

Like many Americans this December, the people of Macedonia, Ohio, are taking a technological leap forward in their holiday gift shopping. Their present of choice: digital cameras.

"They're definitely the hot item this year," says Bill Smoot, manager of the Cord Camera store in this Cleveland suburb, population 9,000.

For the past month, lines of prospective camera buyers have begun forming at the shop in the early morning, according to Mr. Smoot. And fairly few of those customers are seeking cameras that shoot film.

As goes Macedonia, in this case, so goes the nation. Sales of digital cameras over the past month have expanded like an 11-by-14 enlargement.

Indeed, six of the 10 most-sought products online this holiday season have been digital cameras, according to market-research firm BizRate.com

By year's end, 12 percent of all US households are expected to own a digital camera - 20 percent by the end of 2002, according to Boston-based InfoTrends, another research firm.

Still, experts advise families not to cast their standard film cameras into the household pile of obsolete gizmos. The advances of digital photography, they say, come with their own hurdles.

Compared with film-using models, digital cameras offer clear advantages. They allow the shooter to immediately view the photo in a tiny LCD screen and delete and save without paying to develop disappointing prints.

Digital images can be uploaded to a computer via a cable or docking station. Users can then send them as digital files attached to e-mail, or make their own prints using special paper and a quality printer.

Many users like the idea of archiving digital photos for perpetuity. Digital images eat up significant space on a computer's hard drive, but they can easily be "burned" onto a CD for storage. (Proponents of film counter that prints and negatives can also be scanned and digitally stored.)

Also, the cost of many digital cameras has fallen closer to most consumers' preferred price point. Popular models come with 2 million pixels (or two megapixels). Their price has dropped from $600 last year and $1,000 in 1999 to between $200 and $400 in 2001. (Professional-grade models still run several thousand dollars.)

"People are entering the market now because they feel they can get a good value product, and because they want to start learning to work with digital photos," says Michelle Slaughter, an analyst with InfoTrends.

Jennifer Mann has as many uses for her digital camera as the device has functions. The Jamaica Plain, Mass., native recently used it to take pictures inside a furniture store. She then e-mailed the photos to her mother to get her opinion about what to buy.

"We've also used the camera to take pictures of tuxedo order forms to send to errant groomsmen," says Ms. Mann.

Mann is a satisfied user. But, like many "early adopters," she admits digital has its drawbacks. Supposed savings from at-home printmaking have not materialized. They need not buy film. But even savvy computer users like Mann grouse about the hefty costs of paper and ink, and the sometimes complicated process, at least initially, of transferring photos onto their computers.

"They find out how time-consuming it is ... and that it's not the big money saver they thought it would be," says Smoot.

Average-quality photo paper runs between 60 cents and $1 a sheet and can fit only about three 4-by-6 prints. Ink cartridges cost about $30.

"If you start to do multiple copies of a print, that's when people start to balk at price," says Ed Lee, an analyst with Lyra Research in Newtonville, Mass. "People are concerned they''ll use up all their ink on 20 copies of one picture." As a result, he says people only print out 15 percent of their digital images.

There are printing alternatives. Large stores like Cord Camera are outfitted with labs that can make glossy photos of digital files. Customers can either upload them to the store's website or bring their memory cards into the store.

Another option: digital-camera kiosks. Once loaded with a memory card, the machines at such stations produce prints on photo-quality paper.

Kiosks can be found in many camera stores, and manufacturers have plans to install them in shopping malls, airports, and hotels. But for now, prices are a barrier. A single-sheet printout, according to InfoTrends, costs about $6.50.

Some consumers have also expressed disappointment in the print quality of digital images. On-screen sharpness doesn't always translate to paper.

Tiny pixels, the building blocks of digital photos, often blur in larger prints - even with quality consumer cameras - and rarely render the sharp clarity of film. In general, prints from two-megapixel cameras begin to blur at sizes of 8-by-10 and above. Experts say people who frequently order 11-by-14 prints and larger upgrade to a four-megapixel camera. Regardless of the model, digital photos produced on a home printer usually degrade after two or three years.

For that reason, many photographers - from amateurs to professionals - prefer 35-mm film cameras over digital models for important images, such as family portraits or artistic landscapes.

In Odessa, Texas, the Odessa Camera Store is the largest camera shop between Dallas and Arizona, with a "Texas-sized" 4,000 square-foot space, boasts owner George Scott. Most customers compose photographs of landscapes, sunsets, and sand hills. Nine out 10 still buy film cameras. "My customers don't take to new things as quickly as people in Dallas, where everyone has to have digital to keep up," says Mr. Scott.

Where video and still cameras meet

Consumers looking to upgrade their tape-based video cameras with digital versions will find a number of them billed as having digital still cameras built in.

High-end digitals like the Canon Elura 20MC ($1,700) can capture and store dozens of pictures. As with most digital video cameras, however, the still-image files are small. The picture quality, experts say, breaks down on paper.

Elura user Janki Mehta, from Raleigh, N.C., was disappointed with his first stills.

"When I download them to my computer ... and uploaded them for development, [the photos were] very blurry, not crisp and clear," he says.

More videophiles are attracted to an alternative perk. About half of new digital still cameras are able to record up to one minute of digital video, just enough to contain the occasional fleeting moment.

Yet experts say neither still cameras that shoot video nor video cameras that shoot stills perform both functions well.

Such a convergent device probably will not materialize at an affordable price for years.

"People shouldn't be waiting [for convergence] with prices on both cameras and camcorders already so low," says Michelle Slaughter, an analyst with Boston-based InfoTrends.

Framing the options Two-megapixel digital camera

Kodak EasyShare

Advantages

As with all digital cameras, you can view photos immediately after snapping. Photos can be uploaded directly to a com- puter, printed out at home, or e-mailed. Use editing software to correct mistakes. Files are small and easy to store.

Disadvantages

Digital cameras often drain batteries quickly and have limited storage capacity. Photos can be difficult to upload. Costs of paper and printer ink are high. There is normally a shutter delay. Prints larger than 4-by-6 often blur.

Cost

Between $200 and $400

Four-megapixel digital camera

Olympus Camedia

Advantages

Yields higher-quality enlargements. More optical zoom features and better lenses. Usually comes with more memory. Movie mode records digital-video clips.

Disadvantages

Digital files eat up more storage space. Enlargements bigger than 11-by-14 tend to lose sharpness. Between $600 and $800

Cost

Between $600 and $800

35-mm SLR film camera

Pentax ZX-30

Advantages

Print quality almost always better than digital. Allows a wider range of experimentation with shutter speed and aperture than digital. Establishes stronger connection to mechanics of photography.

Disadvantages

Can view photos only after develop- ment; no opportunity to edit mistakes. Must scan to digitize before storing in a computer or e-mailing. Limited to 24 or 36 exposures. Prices likely will not go down.

Cost

Between $300 and $500

Digital video-camera

Canon E2010

Advantages

Records hours of digital video. Quality never degrades. Video can be transferred onto separate disc or hard drive. Some models record at night. Capable of taking digital-photo stills.

Disadvantages

Digital-video stills normally less than one megapixel. Most photos of any size lose clarity on paper. Normally clunkier than a camera, except for high-end models.

Cost

Between $700 and $1,700

- Whitney Woodruff Moody, Staff

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