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Pictures into pixels

Digital cameras are growing in popularity as prices fall and image quality improves. But is the new technology best for you?

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 1999


When Jim Patterson takes pictures around Pinellas County, he uses a high-tech digital camera. When he goes to Europe this spring, he will take a traditional camera and 20 rolls of film.

Patterson, a professional photographer, said, "It's just more practical" to use film, which saves time and money and produces better pictures.

Consumers interested in photography face the same choice: film or digital? An increasing number are going digital as equipment prices fall, quality improves and more people send photos by e-mail and post them on personal Web pages.

Sales of digital cameras grew about 45 percent in December compared with a year earlier, according to market research firm PC Data (www.pcdata.com). It said about 40 percent of the digital market was being sold for home use.

About 350,000 digital cameras (costing $1,200 or less) were sold in 1996, according to the Digital Imaging Marketing Association, part of the Photo Marketing Association International (www.pmai.org). That number grew to about 750,000 in 1997, and was projected to reach 1.1-million last year. By comparison, 10.6-million 35mm cameras were sold in 1996, 9.6-million were sold in '97, and 9.9-million were projected to be sold in '98.

Consumers intrigued by filmless photography have new terms to learn and a wide range of products from which to choose. They should not be intimidated, though.

"If people have a little comfort level (with technology), getting images is not that big a deal," said Jon Pepper, executive editor of the Digital Focus newsletter (www.digfocus.com).

Consumers thinking of going digital with their home photography should consider these points:

* How much camera to buy depends on how it will be used.

"If they only want photos that they're going to share online or watch on TV, then they could go with a lower-resolution, less expensive (camera)," Pepper said. People who want to print their images will want a higher-end camera.

Resolution for digital cameras is measured in pixels, or the number of dots in an image. The greater the number of pixels, the sharper the picture. But the number of pixels does not track directly with the cost of the camera. For example, the Agfa ePhoto 780e costs about $300 and has a resolution of 307,200 pixels. For only $100 more, the HP PhotoSmart C30, has more than 1-million pixels, known as megapixel resolution. Some cameras have passed the 2 megapixel mark.

In megapixel cameras, consumers have plenty of choices for less than $1,000, some for less than $500. If those prices intimidate, wait a bit. They will go down. According to a report from Prudential Securities, digital camera prices are decreasing at an average rate of 30 percent a year.

Patterson, the photographer, likes the Nikon Coolpix 950, which sells for about $1,000. Patterson recently tested an Epson 750Z, which sells for $799, and plans to buy one.

Pepper, the newsletter editor, said many companies, including Nikon, Kodak and Olympus, have models that produce good images.

For more detailed information on individual cameras, PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com) tested 20 models that cost less than $1,000 in its Jan. 19 issue.

* Costs don't stop at the camera.

Digital cameras devour batteries. Photo-quality paper for a printer can cost 35 cents to $1 a sheet. And special photo quality ink cartridges for printers add still more to the cost.

On the other hand, digital photographers don't have to pay for film or wasted pictures. "It's probably more or less a wash," Pepper said.

Patterson, who wears a number of hats, including graphic designer, freelance writer and reviewer of high-tech gadgets, said the economics of a digital camera work fine when he is close to home and likely to shoot fewer than three dozen shots over several weeks. But he realized the costs would quickly soar if he went digital on his European trip.

Patterson estimates he will spend about $300 on film and developing for an expected 720 slides of his vacation.

By contrast, it would cost him thousands of dollars to buy enough storage disks to preserve a similar number of digital photos. That is partly because Patterson, who has a professional's high standards, resists the compromise in quality required to compress his digital images and fit more on a disk.

Many hobbyists are more willing to cull images as they go to save storage space, and they are willing to compress the images they do keep. (Some cameras come with compression capabilities.)

Many computer software programs use JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) compression. It can reduce a family photo from 100k bytes to 10k bytes.

* From camera to computer.

One of the best-selling digital cameras is the Sony Mavica, which retails for $500 to $1,000 depending on model, and one of its attractions is ease of use. The Mavica uses a standard floppy disk to store the photos. Take the pictures, take the floppy out of the camera and pop the floppy into your computer.

However, tech being tech, all cameras don't work the same way.

Some cameras download directly from their internal memory to the PC through a cable, though that can be slow and puts a tight limit on the number of images that can be saved between downloads.

Other cameras use CompactFlash or SmartMedia disks, which require adapters (costing $80 and up). Take the disk out of the camera, put it in the adapter that connects to your computer and download the images. SmartMedia seems to be the choice of many, Pepper said, because CompactFlash can be "a bit more complicated."

Despite choices that may confuse consumers now, experts see the growth of digital photography continuing.

Prudential Securities' report says the combination of improving quality and falling prices will make digital photography more of a competitor in the overall consumer market in as little as three years.

For others, it is just a natural evolution.

"It's really wedding the major technology movement of today with something that's been a real popular staple of consumer life for 100 years," Pepper said.

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