A week, as the man once said, is a long time in politics. Consider then the life of a digital camera. Barely off the production line and into the shops, and thenI it's obsolete, replaced by the latest model. Such is the pace of development and marketing in the digital domain that digicams are now reckoned to have a shelf life of no more than six months. And with 40 or more manufacturers now producing upwards of 200 models there's a great choice for careful buyers.
Less than a year ago Kodak chief executive George Fischer predicted: "The real explosion in digital photography will happen when the $300 million-pixel camera arrives." It is certainly not far off. Kodak has the DC200 at pound;300 and Jenoptik has just announced the launch of a near-megapixel model, the JD12, for less than pound;200. It's a safe bet that the pre-Christmas slash-and-earn clearouts coupled with "once in a millennium" special offers will bring prices down further.
Manufacturers have also realised that to take market share away from conventional single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, they must offer discerning users more sophisticated features. The early digicams were essentially point-and-shoot models with low resolution capture and fairly crude optics. The new generation has many of the creative controls long associated with SLRs - and more. Digital cameras now include a range of focusing options, the ability to shoot a sequence of shots, metering patterns and exposure control. Some makers - Nikon, Canon, Kodak and Olympus - also offer dedicated external flash facility.
Internal camera software has improved immensely. Users have the option of capturing images in black and white or sepia and can embellish their pictures with a variety of decorative borders; and all from within the camera. Some of the more expensive digicams are also incorporating Digita FX, a scripting system, which permits colour adjustment, editing and filter application. The most significant improvement, however, is in image resolution. Megapixel cameras - they can take images with more than a million pixels - are becoming the standard and even two-megapixel cameras such as the Fuji MX-2700 cost less than pound;600. To put it into context that's what you would have expected to pay for the basic 300,000 pixel camera three years ago.
So what's on the market? With many of the electronic giants and traditional camera manufacturers now in the market there's plenty of choice - at the last count more than 30 megapixel models were available. Purists looking for exceptional lens quality might want to opt for models from either Nikon or Olympus and their respective CoolPix and Camedia ranges. The CoolPix 900S and Camedia 900Z have superb image quality, but at over pound;600 apiece they aren't cheap.
Both Fuji and Kodak have a comprehensive range of digicams which incorporate good camera design and innovative electronic technology. Fuji's no-frills DX-10 has proved very successful as have the more expensive MX models. It presently boasts one of the first 2.3 megapixel cameras in production, the MX-2700. At pound;300, the Kodak DC200 is one of the cheapest megapixel cameras around and well worth consideration. Also worth a look is the recently released DC240Z which comes with optical and digital zoom (39-117mm equivalent), a well-designed menu system that allows easy picture deletion (imagine a camera full of only good pictures), as well as an excellent software bundle that includes Adobe PhotoDeluxe and PageMill.
So once you have got a camera, surely you just connect it up? If only it were so easy. Digital images, once taken, usually need to be downloaded into a computer either by cable, memory card or infra-red signal (like your TVremote control). The most common way has been by serial cable transfer, but with image files getting ever larger this can be a slow process. The establishment of a USB port (universal serial bus) on newer Windows and Macintosh machines should speed things up, but despite the industry hype many peripherals have yet to be fitted with USB connections. Also check that your system software supports USB transfer.
If you have a Sony Mavica your images are stored directly on to floppy disks and it's a simple matter of transferring disk from camera to machine. The push towards higher resolution cameras has, however, undermined what was undoubtedly an innovative solution to image storage. Double density floppies are now barely adequate for large picture files. Most digital camera manufacturers are opting for one of two incompatible systems. CompactFlash supported by, among others, Canon, Epson, Kodak and Nikon, has the larger market share and these cards can hold up to 64 MB of data - expect larger capacity devices in the summer. SmartMedia is favoured by Olympus, Agfa, Minolta and Ricoh and has a storage ceiling of 32Mbs.
Card readers - which plug into the back of your computer via the printer port and accept either format - are now available and are a quick and effective way of downloading data (SanDisk claims that ImageMate, its USB-enabled reader is up to 30 times faster than serial cable transfer). By purchasing a reader and two or more cards you won't have to tether your camera to the computer while images are being downloaded. If you do chose a smart card system consider using Piccolo from Pixology Software. This is a program designed to work with removable media devices, and stores images in thumbnail format. Additionally, and this would be particularly useful for schools with a range of digicams, the software can recognise which camera was used (the camera database can be updated online from the Pixology site). Other cataloguing software worth investigating is NBA PhotoWallet, K5 Photo and Extensis Portfolio.
Infra-red transfer of data between equipment, would seem ideal for a school environment where one more cable is one too many. Unfortunately it is not widely supported within the industry and although some digicams have an infra-red port this form of data communication is still a developing technology.
It's ironic then, that in this jamboree of cutting-edge digital technology the best pound;50 you will ever spend in a camera shop will just about stretch to a power adaptor, a battery charger and two sets of rechargeable batteries (typically four AA size). Even with light to average use, you'll recoup that outlay in a month. With LCD screens, zoom lens mechanisms and flash all screaming out for power, a battery's life is short.
Finally, before acquiring your object of digital delight, take time to acquaint yourself with the first immutable law of technology purchase long familiar to computer buyers. The minute you walk out of the shop your camera is plummeting towards obsolescence at a speed matched only by its rate of depreciation.
* FOR MORE DETAILS ON DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY...
What Digital Camera (published monthly)
ComputerActive (published fortnightly)
British Journal of Photography (published weekly)
Digital Photography for Dummies (IDG publications)
Photoshop 5 Bible (IDG publications)
Clitheroe Cameras Tel:01200 444 007
Morgan Computers Tel: 0171 255 2115
Digital Camera Company Tel: 01483 452 100
Peak Developments - www.peakdevelopments.co.uk
* Courses and information
These digital photography courses are thoughtful and easy to follow with clear explanations of technical terms and a large selection of online images.
Steve is a digital camera enthusiast. Digital cameras, camera reviews, news, photo-quality printers, accessories, digicam information sites.
Interesting essays on digital photography as well as the Kodak catalogue.
Great resource for traditional and digital photographers with interesting contributions and articles.
Travel from here to most of the hardware and software manufacturers. A useful collection of card readers, media reviews and articles.
SanDisk ImageMate reads CompAct Flash and SmartMedia (Mac and PC and USB), around pound;80 Peak Development, 01489 796 979
Chase Swift readers for Compact Flash and SmartMedia cards, about pound;60 each from Peak. Also from Impact Peripherals, 01483 797200
Impact card readers (pound;75) and adapters from UK Digital, 01200 444744