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Thu 26 Apr 2001 04:00 AM

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The digital instant

Convenience, convenience, convenience: digital photography has always been about the instant snap. Now you see it, now you save it — and later you touch up the image. Convenience is still the industry watchword. Only now it’s about quality as well.

Introduction|~||~||~|To say that digital cameras are coming on in leaps and bounds would be a chronic understatement at best. Just a couple of years ago they were little less than an insult in the eyes of any professional or semi-professional camera user. Today, even professionals in the Middle East are going digital. The quality of lenses, inbuilt camera electronics and the ease of use of today’s ‘commodity’ software in manipulating images means that the sheer versatility on offer to digital photographers makes it harder and harder to take an analogue approach seriously for day to day photography. Windows ME (Millennium Edition), with its built-in imaging and video functions, makes it pretty much the perfect upgrade choice for today’s digital camera user. And yet there’s much more on offer, too, from software such as Adobe’s excellent Photoshop or Corel’s bundled (and also excellent) PhotoPaint, where truly professional photo effects can be applied to images. The digital camera and the personal computer are like peaches and cream: there’s little point to having the camera without the PC, and it’s becoming increasingly more compelling to have the PC complemented with a digital camera. But, having summoned up the good sense to make that digital leap, you’ll probably find that it’s not the easiest choice in the world to make. Manufacturers insist on confusing resolution claims by using the ‘Megapixel’ phrase, as well as by slipping seemingly higher resolution capabilities into the equation by including claims for ‘interpolation.’ An interpolated image has, basically, been blown up artificially and can’t match the resolution of a ‘real’ image. If you’ve ever used a video camera with ‘digital zoom’ then you’ll know what to expect: the more the image is blown up by interpolation, the lower the image quality gets. Interpolation basically adds in extra pixels using the surrounding pixels as an average to ‘blow up’ the image size. It just isn’t the same as an original high resolution image, and quality loss is the end result. So, be careful to check claims of high Megapixel resolutions from resellers, and ensure this is the non-interpolated image size. ||**||CCD resolution|~||~||~|The crucial benchmark is the basic capability of the CCD (Charge Couple Device) that interprets the incoming signal through the lens. It’s the resolution of the CCD that matters most of all: look for a camera that has a CCD with an equal, or ideally higher, value to its CDD resolution when compared to the claimed ‘Megapixel’ resolution.The resolution of a digital camera is important. The higher the true resolution that’s on offer, the higher the detail available from a digital camera image. If your PC screen is a standard 15" VGA monitor, it’ll probably be set to 800x600 or 1024x768 resolution. So, if your aim is to take digital snaps for storing and displaying on your PC screen, you’ll be unlikely to want to go beyond these kinds of resolution: you’re looking at 1.23 Megapixels at the very most (a 1024 x 768 screen is, in fact, only 0.8 Megapixels). However, there’s the added advantage of printing to consider as well. The higher the resolution you can take snaps at, the larger you can blow up printouts at optimum image quality. If you’ve got a capable colour printer, and you want to invest in ‘photo quality’ paper and cartridges, you’ll be able to print out pictures that, simply, are amazing. Even one of the latest, ultraportable digital cameras will allow you to print out photo quality pictures at the sizes you’ll be used to seeing from your local photo studio. Then add to the mix all of the power of ‘post-processing,’ or image manipulation, you get from your PC graphics program — for free. You have virtually total control of how your image will appear. If you’re willing to output three images per page, you’ll save money on conventional processing, too. Print different formats, use images in cards or send them to friends over the Internet as you will. You just can’t do that with a normal photograph!||**||Storage & peripherals|~||~||~|The choice of printer is an important one: look for a printer that can match the resolution and quality of your camera, and take a look at the cost of ink and paper before you make your buying leap. There are very real differences. Bear in mind that today’s printers are ‘loss leaders’ for manufacturers; they are likely to make more money from selling you colour cartridges and paper than they ever did selling you the printer in the first place.Factor the cost of peripherals into your buying decision. You’ll want to buy a CD writer if you’re going to take this all seriously: even a 10 Gigabit hard disk can start to disappear at an alarming rate when you’re storing hundreds of snaps at high resolution. Why not write your collections onto CDs for later recall, and save your hard disk space for those all-important games and short-term storage. Remember: every time you dump that 8MB memory to disk, you’re using disk space. In fact, every image you store on disk at 2048x1536 pixel resolution is almost a Megabyte of storage. A hundred pictures = 100 Mbytes! If you’re not willing to start writing CDs, then a Zip drive at least will come in handy for storing snaps.One solution to the hard disk space problem is image compression. Most of today’s digital cameras support USB bus connectivity (that means easy and fast dumps to your PC) and most support JPEG image formats too. JPEGs were effectively designed for image compression, making the most of image quality and available disk space. But they have their limitations: compression means loss of quality at the end of the day. If you’re a perfectionist, look for a high end camera that supports RAW format files as well. Quality will, at all costs to your hard disk, be maintained. ||**||Digital vs. optical zoom|~||~||~|Most digital cameras boast some form of zoom lens but note that the digital focal length and its 35mm equivalent are measured differently — most manufacturers list both and it’s easy to confuse the two. An optical zoom functions much like a traditional lens, capturing all the detail in a single shot. However, a digital zoom blows up a particular area of the picture and discards the rest. So, an optical zoom allows you to preserve the image fidelity — a digital zoom does not.Another major factor in buying a camera should be its resolution; the higher the resolution the better, although the quality of your images at the end of the day will also depend upon a host of criteria such as lens quality and exposure. Low-resolution snaps are fine for amateur photographers who don’t want to blow up their pictures afterwards. Conversely, high-resolution images are sharp and detailed, but take up more of the camera's memory and often prove too big to email.All in all, you shouldn’t really miss that old camera too much: particularly if it was an APS camera. APS is the ‘in-between’ format that the photographic industry contrived to sit between good old-fashioned 35mm and digital photography, offering convenience at the price of quality. Most people are happy to take snaps with APS cameras, but today’s digital cameras now exceed APS quality at standard print size, and without requiring that irritating visit to the local developer.||**||

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