When one of Kodak's big cheeses tells photo industry journalists "the shoebox is on the way out", it is time to take notice. Bob Keegan, head of consumer imaging at Kodak Eastman, was contrasting the fate of traditional photos - often ending up in albums or shoeboxes - with the endlessly reincarnated digital image that can be stored on CD-Rom, floppy or hard drive, posted on to a webpage or embedded in email. It is a market which, he predicts, could be worth more than Pounds 50 billion by 2000.
Digital cameras have followed that familiar technological route from exciting must-have accessories to useful cost-effective tools, so much so that the significant issue for prospective education buyers is no longer if but when.
The good news is that quality is up and price is down. Jacob Peet, of the Digital Camera Company, identifies the move towards establishing the megapixel imagery base standard as the most significant recent development. It alone has driven down the price of lower resolution models to a level unthinkable a year ago, and with the pre-Christmas release of new models consigning last season's "best of show" to the remaindered section, this could be a good time to buy.
The first question to ask should surely be: what primary function is the camera required to perform? If, say, it is going to be used for images on a webpage, then there is a strong argument for stepping back from the technological cutting edge and opting for a lower resolution model.
Hi-res may mean better quality, but it also means slower download times for visitors to your lavishly illustrated and soon-to-be-deserted website. Also, a so-called VGA (these days usually 640x480 pixel resolution) camera can be half the price of a megapixel model and that the advance in quality from VGA to megapixel is not the startling exponential leap of previous developments.
If the camera is going to be used away from home or base - school trips, field projects and the like - then battery life and data storage become important factors. Does the camera of your dreams have alkaline or lithium batteries, or will it work on rechargeables?
When it comes to a battery's brutally short life, the less features your camera has, the longer they will last. Flash and LCDs just devour power and it is worth checking whether the LCD viewer can be turned off and the traditional optical viewfinder used instead. Transferring images to a computer also drains battery life, so if your camera does not come with a mains power adaptor, go out and buy one recommended by the manufacturer. Though expensive, you will not risk invalidating the warranty.
As picture quality improves, image resolution and file size will increase accordingly. Olympus has already demonstrated a new high-end model with a top resolution of 12.6 million pixels and this is expected to go on general release next year. With the notable exception of the Sony Mavica, which can store images on a floppy disk, most cameras now come with one of two removable cards, CompactFlash or SmartMedia Unfortunately, some industry pundits are predicting a re-run of the video platform war that saw VHS triumph over Betamax. Briefly, the more popular CompactFlash can store as much as 48Mb of data on one card. SmartMedia, on the other hand, does not yet have the same data-handling capacity and is not backwards compatible. This means cameras designed for 8Mb cards will not be able to handle the new 16Mb ones. It can, however, be incorporated into the FlashPath floppy disk system, making for exceptionally easy data transfer.
Jacob Peet warns against choosing a camera on the basis of its memory card. Both platforms, he feels, will co-exist for the forseeable future and the prime criteria should be photographic merit and functionality.
For specialist work where image magnification is essential, look for models with powerful zoom and macro facilities. Many digicams use digital zooms, but the quality can be variable. Generally, wherever possible, seek personal recommendation or read a specialist magazines.
With an estimated 40 manufacturers selling over 170 different digital cameras, of which about 30 are megapixel models, there is a healthy choice for buyers - and it is one that will increase. According to Kodak chief executive George Fischer: "The real explosion in digital photography will happen when the $300, million-pixel camera arrives."
This view is echoed by many within the British camera trade. "What the customer wants," says Bill Cockrill of Leeds-based Clitheroe Cameras, "is greater quality at a reasonable price." In the meantime, make the most of it - there's bargains to be had in them thar shops.
What Digital Camera published monthly
Computer Active published fortnightly
British Journal of Photography published weekly
Digital Photography for Dummies IDG publications
Photoshop 5 Bible IDG publications
Clitheroe Cameras 01200 444 007
Morgan Computers 0171 255 2115 www.morgancomputers.co.uk
Great place for online shopping
FIVE OF THE BEST
Casio QV-5000SX Pounds 500
Having pioneered many electronic features in digital imagery, notably LCD backs, Casio appeared to have lost ground. However, the new QV-5000SX is a megapixel model which goes some way towards re-establishing its reputation. 8Mb of internal memory (but no removable media storage) 2x and 4x digital zoom and ability to create panoramic pictures. Serial cable transfer of images is the only download facility possible and takes an age.
Fuji MX500 Pounds 450
A cheaper alternative to the highly successful MX700, this is a megapixel camera with manual flash control and Ni-Cad capability. Comes with a 2Mb smart media card, but the AC adaptor is an optional extra.
Sony Mavica FD71 Pounds 459
Essentially, an upgrade to the original and highly successful FD7 which introduced on-board floppy disk storage to digital cameras. The image quality is much improved, has an excellent 10x optical zoom and the floppy drive is now double speed.
Olympus Camedia C420L Pounds 300
It's now being sold at nearly half its original price! Excellent lens quality, good optical viewfinder and built-in flash. Comes with SmartMedia 2Mb card and Kai's 'PhotoSoap' software. Best resolution: 640 x 480 pixels.
Kodak DC50 Pounds 300
Ugly-bug, but with a 3x zoom lens, 5Mb removable storage card and a maximum 765 x 504 pixel resolution, who's looking? At this price, the only drawback worth noting is the lack of LCD monitor.
And, finally, there are two golden oldies that really are exceptional value for money: Apple QuickTake 150 Pounds 116
Casio QV-10 Pounds 90
All prices inclusive of VAT