This may be the Year of the Digital Camera, when what was a high-tech gizmo only a year or two ago is morphing into an ordinary consumer item. By January 2006 more than half of all American households will own at least one digital camera, predicts the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, manufacturers displayed a dizzying array of sleek models with nearly every feature a photographer could want - and many more.
In fact, the term digital camera itself is too generic to mean much. Do you want a camera that's also a mobile phone? Do you want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses? To shoot video and audio? To be able to take large, even poster-size, prints? To shoot underwater? Each of these requires some special features and some special homework before buying.
But for the majority of picture takers, looking for a shirt-pocket camera to capture family snapshots, here are some things to consider:
Megapixel mania has cooled. Like automakers who cram as much horsepower as they can under the hoods of their cars, digital cameramakers have been bragging about how many megapixels their models offers. A megapixel contains roughly 1 million pixels, or picture elements, tiny squares of light that make up the digital image. To a certain extent, the more you have, the better the resolution of the picture.
Megapixels have been "a way of delineating this silver camera from that silver camera" in an industry with a lot of similar-looking products, says Chris Chute, a senior analyst for digital imaging at IDC, a market research firm in Framingham, Mass.
But if you printed out a typical 4-by-6-inch print from a 3-megapixel camera and from a 7-megapixel camera, "you'd get pretty much the same picture," he says. In general, only when photos are blown up to very large sizes will more megapixels make a visible difference.
"A 5-megapixel camera is more than sufficient," adds Gary Pageau, a spokesman for the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) in Jackson, Mich. Beyond that, "you're talking about [cameras for] the hobbyists, the advanced amateurs who need the extra resolution to do more sophisticated things with their pictures." These include digitally "zooming in" and printing just a small portion of the picture.
Besides megapixels, say industry insiders and analysts, consumers today want:
• The best price. Average selling prices will fall from $340 in 2004 to $295 by the end of 2005 and to $200 by 2009, predicts IDC.
• The right "look and feel," a subjective judgment in which the "sizzle" sells the camera.
• Brand names they recognize, such as Kodak, Canon, or Sony, says Mr. Chute. Those three companies are the top-selling brands so far this year, according to IDC, together accounting for nearly 3 in 5 digital cameras sold in the United States.
Other questions to ask or features some buyers may want to consider:
• Are the controls simple and easy to understand and operate? How easily can the images be printed out or transferred to a computer for storage?
• Shutter lag. High-end cameras have eliminated annoying shutter lag, the time between pressing the shutter and actually capturing the image. Though the situation is improving, it's still a problem with lower-priced cameras.
• How big is the memory card (how many pictures will it hold)? Most people will want more memory than is included with the card in the camera and will buy more. A slightly more expensive camera with a bigger memory card or other extras included could be a better buy.
• Automatic "red eye" removal keeps family and friends from looking like aliens.
• Large view screens. More and more people show their photos right from the camera. A larger screen makes this more enjoyable as well as making composing shots easier.
With some 38 percent of all mobile phones sold worldwide last year equipped with cameras, some observers are asking if consumers need a separate digital camera.
Most of today's camera phones produce fun but fuzzy pictures. But many new models coming to the market are being equipped with 2- or 3-megapixel resolution, more than enough for decent snapshots. Samsung has announced it will ship a 7-megapixel camera phone.
"Within two or three years, you're going to have a [camera phone] product that's competitive in terms of resolution and possibly from an ease-of-use perspective," Mr. Pageau says.
Still, he doesn't see camera phones becoming the only camera in the house. "You're going to buy a camera phone primarily for the phone, and when the opportunity arises, you're going to take pictures with it."
Keep in mind, too, that even with the same megapixel rating as a digital camera, camera phones usually have poorer- quality lenses, which will lower picture quality, says Richard Tranchida, executive vice president of Ritz Camera Centers, the largest US chain of retail camera stores.
Even though the cost of printing digital photos is dropping, digital prints, whether made at home, online, or at a photo store, are usually more expensive than prints made from film. Photographers who aim to print every shot they click may be better off getting one of the great bargains on film cameras that are available today.
Most digital photos are never printed but saved in a memory card, on a computer, or online. Keep in mind that photos stored on a home PC are just a hard-drive crash away from disappearing.
Printing digital images at a photo store is usually cheaper than producing prints at home, Chute says. Many photo stores let people send in their digital images via the Internet. Prints are returned by mail or picked up later - sometimes as little as an hour later - at the store.
Or customers can go to the store and download their photos into an in-store kiosk, printing out only those they want. "There are lots of options," Pageau says.