Digital Irresolution

What you should know about megapixels and other camera benchmarks.

I can thank J. Michael Fay for nudging me toward crossing the digital divide. Fay's the fearless explorer who recently walked a 15-month "Megatransect" through 1,200 trackless miles of Central African jungle. I'm the timid late adopter who thinks twice, thrice, and sometimes years before welcoming new silicon into my life. (PDA? That's the organization that runs the Pike Place Market, right?) And the divide in question lies between those who capture their Kodak moments on silicon chips and neo-Luddites like me who still use film.

I listened to my gadget guru, who's already on his third digital camera, extol the virtues of digicams. But I always had second thoughts: It's bad enough spending half your waking hours pecking at your desktop computer, and too much of that time dealing with crashes, delays, viral threats, and program glitches (and cursing Bill Gates). Why entrust your picture taking to another chip- driven device that's susceptible to heat, moisture, shock, and static electricity, and that's obsolete before you get it out the door? Even battery-driven automatic cameras make me nervous in the boonies; an old-fashioned manual shutter still works when the battery dies.

And then I read that Fay slogged through some of the dampest, stickiest country on earth carrying a digital video camera. OK, I conceded, if he can do it, I can at least see what's out there.

What I found was a head-spinning range of digital choices, whose capabilities are growing and whose prices are dropping at a Moore's Law pace. Four years ago, you might have spent $800 for a basic camera and as much again for a printer, with features that today cost a quarter to a third as much. And the options keep pushing the boundaries at both ends of the spectrum.

FIRST, A BIT of basic definition. "Megapixels" is far from the only index of capability (and cost) for digital cameras, but it's probably the most important, certainly the most ballyhooed. It indicates the number of electronic picture elements (or, to be precise, how many millions of them) are available to record each image, and it corresponds roughly to film grain, with much wider variation. The more pixels, other things being equal, the finer the resolution and the bigger you can blow up an image. Two to 2.2 megapixels, common in basic ($150 to $300) digital point-and-shoots, should make for sharp prints up to 5-by-7 inches. Much below that and you're looking at small snaps or viewing (and e-mailing) your images via computer. The next step up, 3 to 3.2 megapixels, should be good for 8-by-10 prints. Consumer cameras top out and professional models start at around 5 megapixels. From there, the sky's nearly the limit: Kodak recently unveiled a 14,000-megapixel single-lens-reflex camera body (which, like other Kodak and Nikon digital bodies, takes regular Nikon lenses); it's considered a bargain at around $4,000. Sinar will top that with a 22,000-megapixel model; anyone want to shoot wall murals? Don't even ask the price.

And then there's the baby of all digicams, the SiPix StyleCam Blink, a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup- sized mini with all of 307 kilopixels (a third of a megapixel) in high-resolution mode—enough, maybe, for e-mail or wallet prints. But the price is right: $36.94 on, with some software, including basic picture and video editing, thrown in. (I couldn't find the Blink at any local retailer, so I'm taking others' recommendations on it.) It's just a blinkin' toy, but it ought to keep the kids and other digital novices busy round the Christmas tree. And it could easily pay for itself in unpurchased film—at least until your kids want to upgrade to 22,000 megapixels. So there's your stocking stuffer, and you can stop reading—unless you're shopping for yourself.

If you are, you'll probably want to look midway between these extremes: A few 1-megapixel off-brand models dip below the $100 mark, and others fall somewhere above it—but what's the point? These basic point-and-shoots cost more than film models with better image quality, even before you spend more for additional memory, editing software, a photo printer—perhaps even a higher-powered computer to upload and store photos, if yours is as outdated as mine. Digital cameras are for people who shoot enough photos to save real money on film. If you just snap a roll or two at the holidays, stick to film. If you shoot a lot, you'll want a camera that can hold more pictures (memory) and do more with them (zoom, aperture range). Many consumer models have just 8 megabytes of memory, about enough for a roll's worth of shots—dangerously limiting in the field. But you can easily upgrade; CompactFlash, which seems to be the emerging memory standard, can be boosted to as much as 1 gigabyte for $725 at a fancy store like Glazer's Camera Supply (430 Eighth Ave. N., 206- 624-1100); 32 megs can cost $30 or less.

BUT THERE'S more to digital than megabytes and megapixels. The interface—the design of body and controls—is vitally important and often perversely unintuitive; digital-camera bodies vary more—from the usual molded-plastic soap bars to the Canon Elph's sleek, square, magnesium body—than their film counterparts. Likewise, their optical qualities. With film cameras, you control color balance and tonal range with your choice of film; with digital, you can tinker with editing afterward, but otherwise you're stuck with the camera's intrinsic qualities. Comparing these is tricky—impossible in the big discount stores that don't even put batteries in their sample models. But one ambitious Web site,, tries to take out the guesswork with a nifty "comparometer" showing a half-dozen images shot by various cameras—a fascinating comparison that's both an eye strainer and an eye trainer. Some relatively low-pixel cameras—the Fuji FinePix A101 and Kodak DC265—give more appealing results than higher- res models.

I could describe other models I find appealing, but why bother? This is digital technology, and whatever you like today will be obsolete tomorrow. Or maybe next spring. A hitherto-obscure Silicon Valley firm called Foveon has introduced a whole new imaging technology called X3 that, if it matches its hype, should revolutionize digital photography. With standard sensor chips, each photoreceptor (representing 1 pixel) can receive light of just one primary color. But each Foveon receptor picks up all the colors, for much more resolution and color saturation per pixel. Not only that, Foveon claims X3 chips are cheaper to make. So far, they're only offered in one high-end camera, the $1,800 Sigma SD-9, but mass-market models will surely follow.

So I might stuff a stocking or two, but otherwise, I'll cop this excuse and wait.

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