Every year, digital cameras are gaining resolution and speed. More than 14 million will be sold this year, outselling film cameras by 30 percent.
But many potential holiday buyers fear the planned obsolescence of cameras that get better every year and wonder if it's more prudent to shoot film for another year or two. I tested several of the latest digital cameras in order to answer that question.
Images produced from today's digital cameras are inferior to 35mm film but better than most people need. The gap in quality between film and digital has shrunk into the shadows.
The benefits of digital photography are numerous, chief among them being its immediacy. When the shutter is pushed, the picture you take, the people before you, become frozen onscreen, and, for a few seconds, suspended, waiting for acceptance or deletion. The camera can be plugged into a computer and the picture e-mailed within minutes of its taking.
But chances are the picture will be bad, due to poor composition, lighting or timing. A delete button marked by a trash can is pushed and it is gone. It is not the product of wasted film, chemicals and paper. It does not clog landfills. Above all, it is free.
A digital camera pays for itself in savings from film and development costs. An active photographer will save the cost of a camera after taking the equivalent of 20 rolls of film.
The reason many of the pictures will suffer from poor timing is digital's greatest curse: delay. Digital cameras suffer from focus delay, shutter delay, and storage delay. If you pose each shot, if you make your subjects say cheese, then a delay of less than a second will be noticed but insignificant. But pictures of moving children often produce glimpses of exiting forms. This makes capturing what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment" more difficult than with a film camera.
Film for digital cameras is in the form of memory cards, which yearly grow in capacity and come down in price. The 16-megabyte cards that come with the cameras offer so little storage as to be useless, holding less than six pictures.
Because you cannot go into a grocery and buy another memory card when it fills, the goal must be overcapacity, like the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Memory cards come in many different formats that matter little. Buy the camera you like best and then get a corresponding memory card of at least 256 megabytes, which will cost between $60-100 and hold around 100 shots. Memory cards also come in different speeds. Get the fastest you can afford.
Aside from the camera and memory card you must purchase an extra battery.
The inconveniences of digital printing pale when you remember that after film and development costs are included, each 35mm print costs 75 cents. There are printers that can be plugged directly into cameras, without a computer. A $99 Epson 820 printer will print photographs indistinguishable from an enlargement as long as you use special photo paper. Inkjet-paper prints fade faster than photo paper, so if you want archival prints good for at least 80 years, there is the Epson 2200, which costs $699 and uses pigment-based ink.
The lens is the most important part of a film camera. Because the quality of a digital image has so much to do with computer chips, the lens plays a less dominant role. Many judge a lens by how telescopic it is -- how far one can stand from the subject -- whereas professionals often prefer wide-angle lenses.
Most digital cameras offer lenses that zoom from moderately wide, most often 35mm, to telephoto.
The other important quality of a lens is its maximum aperture, or how much light it lets in. More light allows a photographer to take a picture by natural light, whereas a slower lens requires a tripod, or flash, which is harsh and flattening.
The larger the aperture number, the smaller the aperture, the less light the lens allows in.
Apertures are not graduated like a volume dial. The Canon G5 with a 2.0 lens, for example, is able to shoot in half as much light as its competitors with a 2.8 lens.
Unlike film cameras, where size doesn't matter, the larger the digital camera the better the image. So digital cameras involve a trade-off; smaller, more convenient, but nakedly degraded quality.
Even so, the best camera is often the smallest. These cameras go with you, where a better but more massive camera is often left behind.
The most exciting camera out of the box is the Pentax Optio S4, which along with most of the compact field has a four-megapixel sensor, a 35-105mm zoom, and costs between $310-$430. It is tiny and light, with a machined metal body and a small depression on the back of the camera. Unfortunately, the image quality is middling and the shutter and menu navigation buttons are mushy. The S4 has the most sex appeal, but is a scentless flower, and is only for people who value size and style above all else.
The Canon S400, which costs between $375-$450, has a larger, sturdier, stainless steel body and produces images that are consistently better than the other compact cameras. Although slightly slower to the first shot than the Optio S4, the Canon is able to fire off four shots in rapid succession.
The Minolta Xt, $222-$299, is an elegant camera with significant delay between shots and one less megapixel. It is almost as small as the Pentax Optio S4 and has a unique internal zoom lens that does not protrude.
Prosumer digital cameras, those used, that is, by amateurs savvy enough to use professional gear, provide higher-image quality, greater control and faster response time than compact cameras. But they do so at the expense of size.
With the exception of the Pentax Optio 555, they must be slung over the shoulder. This class of cameras has five-megapixel sensors, which offer a noticeable improvement in image quality.
The Canon G5, $514-$789, is the best of the prosumer models. It is black, with classic proportions and quick response time. Because of its large maximum aperture, it is able to shoot pictures in half as much light as its competitors. But the G5, unlike most of the cameras, has a lens cap instead of a self-closing lens, which was maddeningly easy to dislodge.
The smallest prosumer camera is the Pentax Optio 555, which produced pictures of exceptional quality. If you need a smaller camera but are unwilling to give up picture quality and creative control, the Optio 555 is the best camera available.
The Sony DSC-V1, $510-$700, is a handsome, chunky camera with a fast shutter and nicely clicking controls. But the G5 is a better over-the-shoulder camera and the Optio 555 is cheaper.
Single lens reflex
Digital SLRs are expensive and bulky but use much better chips than the other cameras and are able to focus and shoot just as fast as their film counterparts. They have six-megapixel sensors that produce image resolution difficult to distinguish from film. The batteries last a long time -- 600 shots for the Digital Rebel. Large memory cards permit wild, spree-filled shooting with no cost other than a dribble of electricity.
Unless you are a professional photographer, and are willing to pay an extra $600 for ruggedness, then the only camera to buy is the Canon Digital Rebel. It has shattered the pricing structure by offering a digital SLR for $899 or $999 with a detachable zoom lens. It is made from cheap, hard plastics like those used to adorn rental car interiors, making it much lighter than other digital SLRs. The zoom lens that comes with the Rebel is slow, with a 3.5 maximum aperture, needing four times as much light as the G5.
The Digital Rebel focuses faster than the Nikon D100, which costs $1,500-$1,700 for the body alone or the new Olympus E-1, which costs $1,000-$1,700 for the body alone.
If you are willing to shoulder a camera, then avoid the prosumers and buy a Digital Rebel. They are so good that nobody discounts them.