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We Americans are obsessed with taking pictures. Last year alone, we shot nearly 18 billion photographs. The majority of these snaps were taken to capture magic moments and to share with friends and relatives.
This holiday season, we're likely to go even more snap-happy as new technology makes it easier -- and faster -- than saying "cheese."
With the advent of digital cameras, our photographic sharing has taken on a new dimension. Instead of spending hours buying film, shooting, developing and mailing it to Aunt Minnie, you can pick up a digital camera, shoot snapshots, download images to your computer and e-mail them to Auntie and a dozen cousins in less than half an hour.
Dozens of digital cameras are currently available, priced from $299 to well over $1,000. Here are a few options for your consideration: Two higher-end models -- Nikon's Coolpix900-S and Minolta's DimageEX -- and two more basic units -- the Olympus D-340L and the Minolta DimageV. All are compatible with both PCs and Macs.
Digital images are not quite as high-quality as film images, but most pictures are never printed larger than snapshots, so the difference is difficult to detect.
Any of these will give you shots you can print or e-mail. The differences are in the image quality, features and ease of handling. All the cameras we chose come with computer software so you can download pictures to your computer and perform minor image touch-ups.
If you just want to e-mail and print small snapshots, this model will suit you. At $299 after a manufacturer's rebate, it's the least expensive digital currently on the market. You can e-mail a 6-inch by 8-inch image or print a small image.
You view photos with a small, dim LCD screen, which is difficult to see in low light.
The DimageV has a cord that allows you to detach the lens and shoot over, under or around things. Its zoom lens is equivalent to a 34mm to 92mm lens on a 35mm camera, and a macro function allows shots from as close as two inches. The camera shoots 16 to 80 images per memory card, depending on image quality and size of card.
The computer software requires an extra step to prepare each image for printing or e-mailing.
The images are somewhat grainy and the focus wasn't always perfect, but the price is right.
At $499, this model is a good deal because its image quality is about the same as the high-end cameras, any of which can make high quality 5-by7-inch prints.
It has a fixed rather than a zoom lens, but a built-in digital teleconverter doubles the focal length at the sacrifice of some image quality.
Point-and-shoot camera users will like the familiar-feeling rangefinder window for composing pictures, and the large bright LCD screen to view the finished shots. The camera shoots four to 240 images per memory card, and, best of all, it feels nice in your hands.
With this model, which costs $899, you can shoot bursts of seven high-resolution pictures in two seconds' time, and time-lapse shots at intervals of up to 60 minutes.
Unlike some digitals, however, it's very easy to delete pictures -- both a good and bad feature, depending on your point of view.
The camera's zoom range is equivalent to a 35 mm camera lens of 38 mm to 115 mm, and it also has macro capability for extreme close-ups.
The only digital to offer the option of higher quality, uncompressed images, it shoots from two to 960 images per memory card.
Live images from the EX (and the Coolpix 900S, see below) can be transferred to a videotape or TV monitor. Minolta will soon offer a 28mm wide angle lens accessory for the EX.
NIKON COOLPIX 900S
This camera is a bargain at $799. While I didn't like the feel of it at first, it grew on me, and it's now my current favorite digital. Like the EX, its zoom range is equivalent to 38mm to 115mm, but it also has an inexpensive wide angle accessory lens. A built-in digital teleconverter stretches the zoom to 230 mm, although with lesser image quality.
A burst feature shoots up to two frames per second, at the lowest resolution, which is fine for e-mailing a sequence of shots of your son's star soccer performance.
Like its 35 mm cousins, the 900S has a very sharp lens. It captures images well in low ambient light and has a variety of flash modes to suit every situation. It also synchronizes with standard Nikon 35 mm flashes for amazingly accurate flash exposures.
Digital cameras and memory cards are available at Adray Photo in Dearborn or Troy, Century Camera in Royal Oak, Woodward Camera in Birmingham and other area and mail order merchants.
SNAP AND FLASH
Film may be outmoded, but the need for batteries goes on and on.
Digital cameras store pictures on removable memory cards which can be erased and reused almost indefinitely. There are currently two different standards for these cards.
The Nikon Coolpix 900-S and the Minolta DimageEX digital cameras use the predominant format, SanDisk CompactFlash cards, which are available in sizes ranging from two megabytes to 96 megabytes. They're widely available and guaranteed to produce 10 million images.
Digital cameras such as the Olympus D-340L and the Minolta DimageV use variations of SmartMedia cards, which come in 2 MB to 16MB sizes.
Conventional wisdom says that CompactFlash-using cameras are a better bet, as you can buy larger memory cards to store more pictures, and it's more likely that you'll be able to use the cards in cameras you may purchase in the future.
Another thing to keep in mind is battery life. Digital cameras deplete AA alkaline batteries quicker than an Energizer bunny drumbeat.
An essential accessory is one or two sets of NIMH (nickel metal hydrate) AA batteries. They hold a charge much longer than standard batteries, and can be recharged overnight.