While the resolution that you choose for your digital photos is an important consideration with respect to print size, another very critical issue is the file format in which the photos are saved. Some digital cameras, and especially lower-end models, save all photos in only JPG format. While this format is perfectly acceptable for online use, the compression methods used with JPG format will impact the quality of your pictures when printed. If you’re looking for the highest possible quality in your prints with no loss of detail, consider a digital camera that supports an uncompressed file format such as TIFF or better still, RAW.
Generally speaking, if a camera supports TIFF format, it should also support JPG, allowing you to switch between the two, usually via the LCD menu. While TIFF format is best if you intend to print your photos (either on your own printer or professionally), the associated file sizes are usually more than 20 times larger than a standard JPG. As such, if you intend to use TIFF format for all your photos, you’ll need an awful lot of memory – so choose wisely.
One unfortunate reality is that many photo processing locations will only print digital photos provided in JPG format, and may even charge you an additional conversion fee if you supply them with RAW images. Converting photos on your own is easy using a free program like IrfanView, available at http://www.irfanview.com. When converting TIFFs to JPGs for printing, use the Options button when saving the file and set the Save Quality slide bar to the highest setting – this will result in a larger file size, but ultimately a better-quality print.
Another key consideration with any digital camera is the type and amount of memory that you’ll require. Most digital cameras use Compact Flash (CF) memory, but everything from Smart Media to Memory Sticks to miniature hard drives are supported by various manufacturers. In general, the particular camera that you’ve purchased with dictate the type of memory you’ll need, although some models do support multiple types. One advantage of Compact Flash and Smart Media is that they tend to be readily available and relatively inexpensive compared to more proprietary memory types like Sony’s Memory Sticks. This is an important consideration, especially if you memory needs increase.
The amount of memory that you’ll require largely depends upon the number of pictures you intend to take, and the resolution or file format that you’ll be using. For example, if you’re saving picture in JPG format at a lower resolution, you can store many time more pictures than if you use TIFF format at a higher resolution. For casual users, a 256 MB memory card is usually sufficient, keeping in mind that you should have at least one spare memory card (perhaps a smaller one included with your camera) for “overflow” or backup situations, just like a spare roll of film. However, just like with a PC, you can never have too much memory for your digital camera. If you plan on taking lots of high-quality and high-resolution photos, a 1-2GB memory card (or better) is a great investment.
Batteries can be the bane of the existing of any digital camera owner. If you choose standard disposable (typically AA) batteries and intend to use the LCD screen often, be prepared to spend almost as much on the batteries as you did on the camera over the course of a year. A better bet is to invest in two sets of quality rechargeables and a charger.
Many vendors now provide a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery pack for their models, an investment well worth making as it extends the maximum battery life to well beyond what it possible with standard rechargeables on a single charge. If your model supports it, consider purchasing an optional AC adapter or dock for your camera, since transferring photos to your PC is also a huge drain on batteries.
One of the neatest features of digital cameras is their ability to support a wide range of features as part of taking a photo. For example, better lower-end models and higher usually support the ability to change photo effects, such as taking a picture in black and white, colour, using a sepia tone, or more abstract methods like a “solarized” look. This can greatly enhance a picture depending upon the “look” you’re after, and helps to avoid the need to edit your images later using an application like Photoshop.
Similarly, these models will also typically allow you to configure different flash levels, resolutions, image sharpness, and so forth. Since the number of images that you can store depends upon the amount of memory installed in the camera, you could take the majority of your photos at a lower resolution, and then selected photos that you intend to print at a higher resolution, optimizing your use of memory.
Because all digital cameras are different, it’s important to take the time to read the instruction manual to determine the optimal advanced settings for your photos. Better still, take the time to experiment with different settings in various lighting situations to see what works best. It’s obviously a better idea to do this in advance rather than be fumbling with the menu controls as that once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity disappears.
One particular area to consider when taking photos with your digital camera is the zoom feature. Two different zoom methods exist, known as optical and digital. As a general rule, purchase a camera with the highest optical zoom setting that you can afford, such as 6X or 12X. Most low-end models provide only digital zoom, which makes things appear closer, but generally makes the image “grainier”. For pictures that will end up online, digital zoom is usually fine, but if you intend to print your photos, you’ll be happier with the result of “real” optimal zoom.
If your digital camera supports both optical and digital zooming, take a good look at the menu when using the LCD as the viewfinder. Your model may come with a little on-screen slidebar that slows the extent to which you have zoomed. In many models, this slidebar includes a hashmark that displays the point at which optical zoom (which comes first) ends, and where digital zoom begins. If you’re planning on printing you photos, stick to the optical zoom range for best results. If you haven’t purchased a digital camera yet, trust us on this one and look for a model with the highest optical zoom that you can afford.
All but the lowest-end digital cameras provide an LCD screen that can be used as either a viewfinder or a way to review the digital pictures that you’ve taken with your camera. Of course, one of the huge benefits of an LCD screen is that you can immediately review your pictures, and then re-shoot if the image is not quite what you expected. For example, you can cycle through photos to delete the bad ones, and hence free up some storage space for additional pictures.
On most models, the LCD screen not only allows you to view or review features, but also provides access to advanced settings menus. For example, the LCD menus on many digital cameras allow you to change photo features, resolution, flash settings, white balance, shutter speed and other elements prior to taking a particular picture. This is a great feature, and the menus are usually easy for any user to navigate and understand. On lower-end models without an LCD screen, any advanced features are typically provided by buttons on the camera itself, and can limited in the functions they provide.
While you definitely won’t regret purchasing a model with an LCD screen (it’s one of those cool features you’ll want to brag about), you need to give careful consideration to how often you use it. When the LCD screen is active, the camera will chew through the batteries in no time at all. If you want to use the LCD as a viewfinder, be sure to turn it off immediately once you’ve taken the picture. Better still, use the standard viewfinder on the camera when you need to save battery power. It’s better to take two or three pictures of the same scene “just in case” rather than lose the ability to use your camera for the day because the batteries are dead.
In the same way that scanner resolutions are misunderstood, so are the megapixel ratings associated with digital cameras. The number of megapixels (millions of pixels) that a camera supports has become the marketing buzzword associated with digital models, but it’s actually much less important that you might think. Common numbers of megapixels supported range from under 1 on very low-end models to 10 or higher on high-end SLRs. The truth of the matter is that megapixels ultimately impact the size at which your pictures can be printed, and little else.
For example, to process your digital images as standard 4×6 prints, only .3 megapixels or 640×480 resolution is required. However, to produce maximum-quality prints at 8×10, you’ll need to take photos at a resolution of 1600×1200, where 1.9 megapixels are required. So, the number of megapixels your camera will need to support depends on how you intend to use your pictures.
If never intend to print pictures at 8×10, then a 1 megapixel camera would meet your needs, allowing for prints up to about 5×7 with no loss of quality. The same goes for pictures you intend to use for a website or email only, where lower-resolution images are fine.
As a general rule, the number of megapixels that a camera supports is a consideration, but far from the most important one. If you’re looking for a quality middle-of-the-road model to meet almost any situation, then a digital camera that supports approximately 4 megapixels should meet your needs.
In the same way that traditional film cameras range from the very basic to the extraordinary complex, the same is true of digital cameras. If you haven’t purchased a one yet, then take the time to read through this article and do some research on different models prior to handing a fistful of money to your local retailer. The model that is right for you will depend upon your budget, how you plan to use the camera, and what you intend to do with the pictures you take. There’s no sense in being disappointed if your digital camera doesn’t do everything you need it to. Similarly, there’s no point to purchasing a high-end model that includes a hundred features you’ll never use. The money you’ll save is probably better spent on another vacation that a few extra buttons.
While the line between low- and high-end digital cameras is becoming more blurred as prices drop and features improve, most models fall into one of three categories:
Point-and-shoot digital cameras: These models, much like a low-end film camera, are the least expensive and generally the easiest to use. They typically are capable of taking good quality pictures, but tend to support only lower resolutions (impacting possible print sizes), lack optical zoom capabilities, and support fewer advanced features. For most casual users, a point-and-shoot model works just fine.
Mid-range digital cameras: These models tend to support much higher possible resolutions, include optical zoom capabilities, and provide a wide variety of higher-end features such as support for different file formats, photo effects, white balance settings, and so forth. If you’re a little more serious about your photography, a mid-range model will likely better meet your needs.
Digital SLR: At the top end of the digital camera food chain are digital SLR models. Very similar to a 35mm camera, these models can often exceed traditional film quality, and produce stunning photographs at very high resolutions. Other advantages include the ability to attach different lenses in a manner similar to a standard SLR. For semi-pro or professional photographers, a digital SLR is definitely the way to go. However, be prepared to have anywhere from a many hundreds to a couple of thousand dollars at your disposal if this is the route you intend to take.