Three years ago, I went looking for a snazzy camera for my wife's birthday. Our old point-and-shoot was shot, and I wanted something more sophisticated. At the time, a digital model seemed the natural choice. But unless I forked over a king's ransom, I couldn't get one with the quality and expandability of a good old-fashioned 35mm single-lens reflex. So I paid $400 for an entry-level traditional camera and kept both feet firmly planted in the age of film.
Would I play the same waiting game today? No way. Nowadays, sleek and sexy digital point-and-shoots that produce perfectly good 4-in.-by-6-in. snapshots can be yours for less than $150. A bit more dough will get you the multi-megapixels you'll need to make beautiful 8-by-10s. And if you're willing to shell out $900, you can now get a brawny digital SLR with features and image quality close to pricey pro models.
No wonder digital cameras are outselling film cameras for the first time this year. By the time all the holiday wrapping paper is in the trash, nearly a third of North American households will own one. Many are buying a second, now that they're hooked on the ability to see their handiwork instantly, delete the duds, and flag the rest for prints and e-mails.
Count me in, too. Since our son was born, 15 months ago, we have been taking more pictures than ever. If we had to wait for film to come back from the lab, Junior would have grown another shoe size. So I decided to join the Digital Age.
Fortunately, prices have fallen so fast that I face loads of digital options. Canon (CAJ), for instance, now offers more than a dozen different models, including one in four fashionable colors. Sounds cool, but before I went shopping, I needed to think a bit harder about how I would use my digital camera. Did I merely want to leave Ludditeville at the lowest possible cost? Was I planning to get creative with my snapshots, blowing them up big or cropping out the crud? Or did I fancy myself a 21st century Ansel Adams, thus needing total control over each exposure?
A bit of everything is packed into even the cheapest models. As I quickly found out, there's no need to spend more than $200 to get good digital documentation of my son taking his first steps. Consider Nikon's Coolpix 2100, a top pick in the budget category. It has 14 exposure modes to match the setting -- a New Year's Eve party, a sandy beach, or a football game. The 3X optical zoom lets you grab close-ups of swimming kids while you stay dry. At two megapixels, the resolution is fine for snapshots and even 5-by-7s. Blow up the pictures bigger, though, and they start to look grainy. A warning: Cameras in this price range often have to struggle to shoot fast enough to catch a child's frenetic movements, sometimes taking as long as three seconds to react.
The Canon PowerShot S50, which goes for about $500, puts all those worries to rest. It's a high-end point-and-shoot that can grow with you. You'll be able to use it straight out of the box in the automatic mode, yet it boasts scads of features to make more sophisticated pictures. Its five-megapixel resolution is enough to make gallery-quality prints or, more likely, give you enough leeway to crop in close on the parts of the picture you want to enlarge. It has two continuous-shooting modes that take nearly two frames a second -- just like the paparazzi. And more skilled photogs can easily tinker with light, color, and contrast. Even the compact, black-metal body makes the PowerShot stand out from silver clones.
My favorite, the Minolta DiMAGE Xt, about $300, combines the best of both in a package that is both supercompact and chic. The Xt is wallet-slim and weighs just five ounces. Yet the diminutive controls are laid out intelligently, working equally well for me, a 6-ft.-4-in. stick with spidery hands, as for my petite wife. And when I learned I could hook this mighty mite to my PC for an impromptu videoconference with Grandma, I was hooked.
OPTIONS, FOR A PRICE
The coolest feature is the 3X zoom lens, which is completely contained in the body of the camera. That means when you turn the camera on, you're ready to shoot, instead of having to wait a second or so for the zoom to telescope from the front of the camera. There is one downside: The Minolta, like many compact cameras, uses a proprietary rechargeable battery instead of conventional AA alkaline types. That means you should buy a spare ($40) so you're not caught without when the battery dies. While your wallet's open, pick up a bigger memory card, too. It doesn't take long to fill up the 16-megabyte card that comes standard.
While I'm late to the digital party, lots of shutterbugs are graduating to their second or third digital cameras. Take Wendy Armstrong, a 41-year-old scrapbooking addict in Forest Grove, Ore. Bored with her lookalike snapshots, Armstrong looked to a more sophisticated camera to jazz up the commemorative albums she creates for friends and family. She hasn't been disappointed. In the month since she bought her $999 Canon EOS 300D Digital Rebel, perhaps the hottest new camera this year, she has taken more than 1,300 shots. One recent weekend afternoon, she snapped 120 of her six-month-old daughter.
How did she justify spending nearly a grand on this two-pound hulk? She wanted options. The 6-megapixel resolution produces sharp prints as large as 10-in.-by-12-in. -- a full scrapbook page. With all of the exposure controls of an SLR, she can adjust the depth of field to focus on only her chosen subject, slow down the shutter speed to blur motion in the background, or tweak settings to take flashless pictures at night. The camera also has a feature that automatically records each photo at slightly higher and lower exposure settings, giving the photographer three images to choose from. And the 300D works with 50 of Canon's EF lenses, including a 200mm telephoto that produced candid close-ups of her 3-year-old daughter in the backyard, shots the 3X zoom on her last digicam couldn't match. "Everyone who has seen this camera has drooled over it," she says.
I wanted my friends salivating over my artistry, not my hardware. That meant spending less on a camera so I could get a printer capable of high-quality images. The best ones now offer PC-less printing. While that once was possible only with cameras and printers from the same manufacturer, the $299 HP (HP) Photosmart 7960 has handy slots that accept storage cards from practically any camera. My photos appeared immediately on a color LCD screen, where I could zap the red-eye and do other simple edits. The vibrant eight-color prints looked amazingly realistic. Be ready to wait, though: It takes five minutes to print an 8-by-10 on the 7960, and it drinks twice as much ink as four-color models. Want a more economical choice? The $129 Canon i560 and the $99 Epson Stylus C84 deliver good-looking prints fast and efficiently.
Of course, you can upload your photos to an online service or tote them to the lab for printing. But with tools like these go-ing mainstream and with prices so low, it doesn't make sense to delay going digital. By Andrew Park