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Digital takes photography to new level, for a price

By WILLIAM LAMPKIN
Published May 31, 2004

  photo
[Times photo illustration: Sherman Zent]

Digital takes photography to new level, for a price
Our 20-year-old Nikon camera still has a roll of film in it from a trip last summer. And more and more, we are shooting digital photos.

Going to new heights with your digital camera
Experts offer shopping advice and tips for taking your digital camera on vacation.

Tweaking, printing, sharing your digital photos
If figuring out which digital camera to buy can be overwhelming, so can the choice of how to share and print the images.

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The editors at PC World magazine rank point-and-shoot and advanced cameras for monthly top 10 lists. For current features, prices and an explanation of how the magazine tests, please check its Web site.
Top 10 Digital Cameras
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Our 20-year-old Nikon camera still has a roll of film in it from a trip last summer. And more and more, we are shooting digital photos.

Our family has been using a 7-year-old Kodak digital, a camera with low resolution and other limitations that had me thinking of moving up in category - way up.

I wanted more than a simple point-and-shoot camera: A digital single-lens reflex camera was on my wish list. But until last fall, prices for the digital SLRs were out of the ballpark. The camera bodies were close to $2,000, then you had to buy a lens. If I were still using my camera for news photography, I could have justified one, but not for use as a family camera.

The Kodak 210 was a 1.4-megapixel camera with a power switch that would turned the camera on with a light, accidental touch. In addition to frequently draining four AA batteries, the camera captures so-so snapshots that can be printed only as large as about 4 by 5 inches. That's okay for many circumstances, but what if you wanted to print something larger?

Shopping for a digital camera is different from looking for a film model. Film cameras have remained largely unchanged for years. Since I bought my Nikon equipment 20 years ago, new 35mm SLRs have added autofocus systems and improved light metering, but other than that they are still basically the same. They shoot film, which gives you flexibility in print sizes.

Digital cameras, on the other hand, are evolving, with new features and better resolution every year. And their images are limited in final print size by the camera's megapixels. The higher the megapixel number, the larger the print you can make.

In September, Canon introduced the 6.3-megapixel Digital Rebel SLR for $899 for the camera body only; $999, packaged with an 18-55mm zoom lens. In January, Nikon followed up with the 6.1-megapixel D70 for $999 for the body only; $1,299, packaged with an 18-70mm zoom. Prices were getting more reasonable.

Then over the past few months, our old Kodak became undependable: Sometimes it would turn on when you wanted it to, but many times it wouldn't. And my wife finally agreed it was time for a new camera.

I wanted the flexibility of an SLR - interchangeable lenses and more control over shutter speed and aperture - as opposed to a compact digital camera that relies mostly on automatic settings for point-and-shoot simplicity. I also wanted a camera that would capture images large enough to make high-quality prints of 8 by 10 or larger.

I had been reading reviews and researching prices at sites such as Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review, and checking out manufacturer's Web sites about the new digital SLRs (see box for addresses).

I've been a Nikon fan for years, but the price of the D70 and a lens, though lower than many earlier digital SLRs, still gave me pause. I couldn't use my old Nikon lenses with the D70 because they weren't autofocus and lacked other circuitry.

While still pricey, the Canon Digital Rebel came with a lens for the price of the D70 body alone, and the Canon had gotten glowing reviews.

Back in the early 1980s when I was shopping for my old 35mm Nikon, lenses and accessories, it was easy to find significant discounts off the manufacturer's suggested retail prices. I quickly discovered that isn't the case with today's digital SLRs.

Steve's Digicams and other Web sites showed some discounts of up to $100 or so, but the deep discounts were being offered by online retailers that I'd never heard of, that had gotten low ratings by other shoppers or were offering the camera body only. I also checked prices at several local stores and on Web sites of several of the large camera stores where I'd purchased equipment before.

Most retailers were selling the Digital Rebel for about the suggested price, while offering a compact flash card, a camera case or another free bonus to help soothe the sting of the bill. Costco had sold the film version of the Rebel but hadn't carried the digital one. I was curious about what one of the warehouse stores would charge.

This spring, I noticed that the Costco Web site offered the Digital Rebel. I hoped to see a nice discount at Costco. Like other retailers, however, Costco was selling it for the suggested price, and throwing in an extra battery, about a $60 value.

With little variety in prices, my decision on where to buy the camera boiled down to which extra would be most useful and how much trouble it would be to return the camera if I didn't like it or if there were a problem.

For the bonus, I settled on the extra battery because the Digital Rebel uses a special rechargeable one that might be difficult to find in a crunch, and it probably wouldn't be something I would buy on my own.

Costco's Web site also got my vote for its return policy: money back, including tax and shipping charges, no matter the reason for the return. Plus, I could return it to the Clearwater store, rather than having to ship it back to an online retailer.

That caution turned out to be warranted. The camera arrived on a Friday. I spent the weekend testing the camera, learning its features, taking pictures and liking the camera a lot.

Then Monday after work, I picked up the camera and discovered that the function buttons on the back no longer turned on the LCD screen when pressed. The screen would display the image after I snapped a photo, but I could not access the user settings or review images stored on the camera's Compact Flash card. A call to Canon tech support quickly provided an answer: That shouldn't be happening. The technician said there was nothing I could do to fix it; it would have to be returned.

I boxed it up, stopped by Costco after work the next day and got our money back with no hassle. I double-checked the digital camera Web sites and their reader forums and didn't see anything that would indicate widespread problems with the Digital Rebel. So, I went home and ordered a replacement at Costco.com.

The second camera arrived in a few days and has worked as expected ever since.

- William Lampkin designs and edits the Tampa Bay Business section, including Personal Tech, and writes occasionally on gadgets and Macintosh-related topics. He can be reached at personaltech@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 28, 2004, 09:35:19]

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