Getting the full digital picture
Digital cameras have finally come out of specialist shops and into the high street. For Christmas, all the big electrical stores were touting digital wares alongside more conventional camera equipment. Two years ago, as Steve Victor of Bannerbridge, which supplies computers and digital cameras to education, points out, "they were a novelty; nowadays they're a practical tool with good quality image resolution and colour reproduction".
Moore's Law - that every 18 months customers are able to purchase for the same outlay twice the computing power as formerly - is equally applicable to the domain of digital cameras. Models which were on the market a year and a half ago can now be bought at half the price. New versions have much higher specifications and often cost little more.
In practical terms this means that image resolution - the actual quality of the picture taken - is approaching the standard of conventional SLR photography. Unfortunately, there isn't yet an industry standard on digital picture resolution, much less an accurate correlation between digital and traditional image quality. Despite the hype, only the most expensive digital cameras truly rival SLR picture quality. But, as Jacob Peet of the Digital Camera Company points out: "Most people buying or using digital cameras are more than happy if they've got a decent image." For decent image, read any resolution of 640 X 480 pixels or higher.
The argument for using digital cameras in schools and colleges is convincing, some would say overwhelming. Any educational institution that is equipped with relatively high performance computers and printers has most of the hardware it needs for digital photography. And, with colour ink-jet printers becoming cheaper, it's possible to buy a high quality printer for less than Pounds 300. The Stylus Colour 600 from the acclaimed Epson range prints in colour on coated paper at 1,440 X 720 dots per inch.
So what qualities, specifically, should teachers look for in digital cameras? Ease of use is high on the list, as is the ability to load the images from the camera into a computer with the minimum of fuss.
There is certainly no lack of choice. All the big camera companies - Nikon, Canon, Ricoh, Pentax, Kodak - now have a digital range to rival electronic competitors such as Sony and Casio.
The Sony DSC-F1 is an impressively compact camera with built-in flash, a swivelling lens and rechargeable lithium battery which provides power for both the camera and LCD viewing screen. It will take pictures at resolutions of up to 640 X 480 pixels and has a cableless, infra-red transfer capability.
Better yet, the Sony Mavica range has much the same qualities but uses ordinary floppy discs to store its images. Just think, no more cables, PC cards or any other storage device. The Mavica MVC-FD7 also comes with a 10x zoom lens (equivalent to 40-400 in 35mm format) and image-altering ability which allows for sepia, monochrome and pastel shots.
Minolta's Dimege V has a built-in flash, additional storage capacity with SmartMedia cards and a 2.7x zoom lens (34-92mm in 35mm format) which can be detached from the camera body and operated via an extension cable. It is supplied with Adobe PhotoDeluxe software.
Fuji's DX-5 and DX-7 cameras also use SmartMedia cards but offer FlashPath, a 3.5 floppy-disc adapter. This year, DX users will be able to take pictures which, using FlashPath, will slot straight into a computer's floppy disc drive. The DX-7 offers an optical viewfinder and LCD screen, built-in flash and takes pictures up to a resolution of 640x480 pixels.
Kodak's DC210, the current digital object of desire, is an attractively designed "megapixel" camera with 2x zoom lens (29-58mm in 35mm format). It can take images up to a resolution of 1,152x864 pixels, which should satisfy all but the most discerning of camera buffs. It has infra-red transfer capability and uses CompactFlash memory cards which can hold a meagre seven images at best resolution and 40 at standard.
As previously mentioned, it is now possible to buy models which, barely 12 months ago, were market leaders. The Kodak DC50, featuring high image resolution, 3x zoom lens (37-111mm in 35mm format) and built-in flash, can be bought for Pounds 470; Apple's QuickTake 150 is now being offered for Pounds 235, and the Kodak DC20 "Instamatic" is Pounds 149. These were being sold for Pounds 875, Pounds 410 and Pounds 316 respectively less than two years ago.
But the really good news is that, given the immutability of Moore's Law, when you go out looking to buy the prices could have dropped yet again.
Sony DSC-FI (incl VAT) Pounds 545
Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 (incl VAT) Pounds 599
Minolta Dimege V (incl VAT) Pounds 599
Fuji DX-7 (incl VAT) Pounds 399
Kodak DC-210 (incl VAT) Pounds 849
Kodak DC50 (incl VAT) Pounds 470
Kodak DC20 Pounds 149
Apple QuickTake 150 (incl VAT) Pounds 235
Digital Camera Company - 01483 452100
Bannerbridge - 01268 419101
Xemplar - 01223 724200
Research Machines - 01235 826000