By Patty Hankins & Bill Lawrence
Now that it's the holiday season, many are starting to think about getting a digital camera. Are you thinking of getting your first digital camera? Or perhaps getting one for someone else (or of course, hinting to someone that a digital camera is the perfect gift)? We use digital cameras pretty heavily, and get a lot of questions from people who are considering getting their first digital camera. As far as we're concerned, there is no one right answer for the digital or film question.
If you are thinking about going digital, here are a few things to consider in making the decision about timing and what type of camera would work best for you.
1) Do you have a computer? OK, there's a good chance, if you're reading this on the web or on your e-mail, that you have one. If you have a digital camera, you're going to need someplace to store those digital files, so a computer with a BIG hard disk is a good idea. This also lets you edit and print the photos if you are so inclined. If you don't have this capacity, then you should either think about whether you want to invest in a computer, or stay with film for a while longer.
2) Speaking of printing, what are you going to do with the photos? If you want to print them yourself, then you will need a photo quality printer. There are a number of good ones out there, some of them quite cheap (under $100), and some of them don't even need a computer to print (however, the limitations on editing the photos on these are enough that we'd recommend having a computer with your printer). There are two big reasons why you need to think what you're going to do with the photos. First, if you are only going to put the shots on the web or print the full frame photo to 4x6 inches, then there is no reason you would need more than a 2-3 megapixel (MP) camera. The new crop of 8 MP cameras looks quite nice, but why pay the money if you don't need it. On the other hand, if you're frequently printing larger than 11x14 inches, a 5-8 MP camera would be a good thing. Second, if you are going to do a lot of printing, then you may want to invest in a good printer and good photo editing software (perhaps even good color management software, but the mysteries of color management are a topic for another time). After a while, taking your digital camera to the local drug store, grocery store, or photo store for printing starts to get old.
3) What do you like taking pictures of? What camera are you using now? If it is a 35mm or APS point-and-shoot camera, then a point and shoot digicam would probably be perfect. If you use a 35mm SLR with a 500mm lens for shooting wildlife, there is no way you can do that with a little digicam. Some of the things you want to think about include:
a. what lens length are you currently using - if it is mainly a "normal" to slightly wide angle and/or slightly telephoto, then many of the consumer digicams would cover these focal lengths. These will let you take close-ups of people, and give you reasonable group shots. If you use a wide range of focal lengths, then you may want to look at the digital SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. These will (usually) cost more than fixed lens digicams, but give you the versatility of a wide range of lenses.
b. How fast does the camera need to be - if you are taking posed shots of people, nice scenic photos, and things that won't try moving while you press the shutter button, then most any camera will work. If you are taking photos of people or objects in motion, you'll have to do some research about the features of various digital cameras. Many of the digicams do not have particularly fast autofocus mechanisms (for those that have an autofocus, which we would highly recommend over fixed focus), and have what is known as "shutter lag", or excessive time between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually taking the photo. The shutter lag results in photos of what happened just after the action you intended to photograph. Most digital SLRs, and some of the higher level digicams, are designed to minimize shutter lag, but these will be the more expensive cameras.
c. What about a flash? Do you currently use an external flash? If so, you will want to look for a model with a "hot shoe" to hold an external flash. Almost all digital cameras have an in-camera flash, but they are not as powerful as a good external flash, and usually sit close enough to the lens to make "red-eye" a problem. They're not bad for occasional use, but if you want the flexibility of an external flash, you'll need to make sure the models you are looking at have a hot shoe or some other connection for an external flash.
4) What are you going to do when you travel? We take lots of photos when we're traveling, as do many of our friends and family members. With a film camera - if you run out of film, you can buy a few more rolls of film most anywhere. With digital, you'll need to have a way to store all the photos you take until you can get them downloaded. Some people end up carrying a large number of storage cards with them. We usually just take our laptop computer along. There are stores and services that will download your photos for you and store them to a CD - but before you erase your storage card, you had better be sure that you'll be able to access the files from the CD when you get home. We've heard some horror stories of people who have lost all their vacation photos because the store employee who saved their files to a CD made an error and the files were unreadable.
Going digital can be wonderful. We love the freedom of being able to take several hundred photos without having to change rolls of film and not having to think about the cost of developing every photo we take. We also enjoy using computers and the control of editing and printing our own images. But not everyone wants to spend that much time on the computer, just to be able to see their photos. In my family, there's no agreement on film vs. digital. We're almost totally digital (except for Bill's large format photography), and a few months ago we just bought my sister a used Canon SLR camera to replace her old one - and my mom has switched back to her film camera for taking photos of people. It's a matter of figuring out what is the best answer for you. So before you give up film, take a few minutes to decide if going digital is right for you.
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