In the distant past (about three years ago), if you wanted to take a picture you used a film camera. If you wanted to put your photos into your computer, you used a scanner. Then a revolution started, driven by the popularity of Web pages, e-mail, and the widespread availability of affordable CCDs (charge coupled devices) developed for use in camcorders. Two years ago, the first generation of digital cameras started a buying trend,

despite only reasonable image quality and high prices. Now, everyone has a digital camera and the market is very competitive. Photographic-quality printers have emerged, offering hard-copy for those who want to print out digital photos, and computer software has become very sophisticated. With over 2 million digital cameras sold in 1997, they outsold the traditional SLR (single lens reflex) camera. With their continued popularity, it may not be long before digital cameras outsell all film-based systems!

What makes digital cameras so attractive to the average user? A coupe of factors seem to be important. The first is a removal of the hassle of film development. Since most people use their cameras (often the cheaper point-and-shoot types) for daily snapshots, image quality is not of paramount importance. The regular trip to the photofinisher and the mounting costs of film printing add up, so being able to import your images from the camera straight into a computer (and also to a printer for hard copy) is attractive. Digital cameras tend to be easier to work with, too, as there is no film loading, no exposure calculations, and no fancy gadgets to lug around.

The first digital cameras were marketed primarily at Web page designers. The concept was that a Web designer could take a photo and import it directly into their Web page, instead of having to develop film and scan the image in. Although Web designers do love digital photography for its convenience, that particular marker segment never became an important one.

Pixels and pixels

Digital cameras work quite simply by allowing light to fall on the picture elements (pixels) or a CCD mounted inside the camera. The CCD records the amount of light that falls on each pixel and assigns a digital value to it. The digital values can then be transferred to a computer or shown on the camera’s screen in the same way that any graphics software on a computer manages to show images. The number of pixels on each CCD decrees how much resolution a single picture will have.

A typical computer screen with a VGA resolution of 640x480 comprises 640 pixels horizontally and 480 pixels vertically. A digital camera with 640x480 CCD pixel resolution will appear full-screen on such a VGA screen. If you bump the computer’s resolution to 800x600, either the 640x480 camera image takes up a smaller portion of the computer screen, or it is expanded to fit the larger format but is blurry because of the lack of picture information for each pixel. When you move to high resolutions like 1280x1024, low-resolution camera images look positively fuzzy.

The digital camera market is really divided into three areas based on price and quality. The two issues of price and quality are definitely linked with digital photography. To get better image quality from a digital camera requires better CCDs (more pixels and hence more resolution), better software, and higher quality lenses. Thus, there is a clear relationship between the overall quality of the final image and the price of the digital camera. That’s what causes the market division. The three areas of digital cameras don’t really have accepted names, but can be called general use, advanced, and semi-professional for lack of any other monikers. As you move from one area to the next, quality and price take noticeable increases.

The term semi-professional shouldn’t be taken to mean that professional digital cameras don’t exist. They do, but they are horrendously expensive. The author’s high-end digital photography system, for example, comprises special camera backs for 6x6cm medium format Rolleiflex cameras that cost in excess of $25,000. Similar systems for more popular high-end cameras such as the Nikon and Canon top-of-the-line models cost upwards of $10,000. These systems offer picture quality that is truly astounding, capable of being blown up to 16x20 inch prints before pixel size becomes an issue. These types of cameras are often used for work in fields like advertising as a fast way of seeing the final image, and for journalism where overall picture quality is compromised by the poorer quality of the printer presses.

Semiprofessional cameras, on the other hand, are much more affordable. Averaging well over $1,000, semi-professional digital cameras tend to offer resolutions of 1024x768 or 1280x1024. The captured images therefore look sharp and clear on any computer monitor running at these resolutions or lower. The images when printed on paper also look very good, as they rival most snap-shot cameras (unless the images are blown up).

The semi-professional cameras not only have higher density CCDs (more pixels), but also tend to have much higher quality lenses. The quality of the optics in a camera can affect the overall sharpness of the captured images dramatically. If you place on of the cheaper digital camera lenses (which are often made of plastic or low-quality glass) in place of a semi-professional camera’s coated glass lens, the final image is often no better than the cheapest camera’s. Camera software tends to be better, too, with the ability to adjust the exposure for different conditions.

Other features on semi-professional cameras may have utility for some customers, such as digital or optical zooms, adjustable flash, and high-capacity image storage. Many high-priced cameras make transferring images from camera to computer easier too, through the use of infrared transmitters or easy-to-use connection software.

At the low price end, designed for general use, image quality is often acceptable for the majority of users. Since family snapshots are the primary use for these cameras, a little blur in the camera quality is offset by the poor photographic technique of the users. Resolutions of these general user cameras tend to be 640x480 and sometimes higher. On the whole, the general use digital camera is designed for common use, and cannot properly handle special conditions such as backlighting (sun behind the subject).

General user cameras tend to be made of plastic, and are often more bulky and less friendly to use than their high-prices cousins. Transferring the images from camera to computer is usually by cable, with image manipulation software on the computer tending to the basic side. However, as mentioned, these cameras are more than adequate for the majority of users.

In between the two areas is the more advanced digital camera. These offer higher resolutions, better lenses, better software, and better construction than the general use camera, although at a premium. While the quality does not rival that of the semi-professional camera, advanced cameras can offer image quality equivalent to better point-and-shoot or low-end SLR film cameras, at least until they are blown up. Software for transfer of pictures and their display on the computer is better than the general use cameras.

Comparing the Cameras

As a semi-professional photographer I’ve had the ability to play with most of the digital cameras on the market, and compare not only their overall picture quality but their ease of use and value, as well. One thing that becomes obvious right away when playing with these cameras is that there is no overall standard to which camera makers must adhere. Every manufacturer is free to do whatever they want, which may result in some problems but does allow for much more frequent innovation in the field.

In the general digital camera market, there is a lot of competition. Cameras from well-known companies like Kodak, Canon, and Epson compete based on cost and image quality. Hewlett-Packard also weighs in with low priced units in their Photosmart line, although quality is no better than other cameras in this field. With prices of $800 or less, the general use cameras are mostly plastic and simple: point, click, download image. Connections to the computer are through cables, and a serial port is necessary. Almost all the cameras have built in flashes, but exposure calculations are poor with many of them. If you are taking a picture of your dog at a normal distance (about 6 to 8 feet) the camera works well, but move further in or further out and the logic circuits in the camera’s exposure control will average incorrectly, resulting in washed out or dark pictures of Fido.

Capacity for most of the general user cameras is low. In normal resolution mode (which can be blurry even at 640x480), some cameras allow up to forty images. But move to high quality images at 640x480 and you’ll be lucky to get ten shots stored in the camera before you have to download them. Cameras like Nikon’s Coolpix and Minolta’s Dimage offer 24-bit images (better cameras offer up to 30 bits) and about 330,000 pixels total (640x480 resolution). In the general camera market, the only units that really stood out are the Canon Powershot and Epson PhotoPC. The Canon Powershot 350 can store 11 high-quality or 47 low-quality images and tends to have the best image color of those units tested.

The more advanced market brings higher resolutions to 1024x768 but usually still with 24-bit color. They have higher CCD pixel counts of 800,000 but tend not to be able to store more photos than the average digital cameras because of the increased amount of data per photo. However, you do get not only better resolution but also better color quality and sharpness, due to better lenses and internal electronics. Flash units tend to be a little more talented, and may offer red-eye reduction (which removes the red dot in people’s eyes by preflashing the unit to constrict pupils).

In the advanced camera market, many common names crop up, including the well-know SLR camera makers such as Nikon, Minolta, and Canon, as well as camcorder manufacturers like Panasonic. Sony is a major player in this field, too, with several attractive and superbly designed models. Of the cameras tested, the ones that stood out as very good are the Olympus D-500 and Kodak line. Sony’s newer Mavica lineup stores images on a floppy disk for truly easy movement of images from camera to computer.

The semi-professional field is crowded with higher-end units built on lower-priced models. Improve the lens, add some memory, and slap a higher price tag on it. This approach does offer better quality for the end-user, but can’t compete with properly designed semi-pro cameras. Our favorite in this field is the Agfa ePhoto 1280. Agfa is a well respected name in the photography business, and they seen to have designed and built this camera themselves instead of rebadging a competitor’s model. The ePhoto 1280 has resolution of 1280x960, and despite a slightly bulky design works well.

Film or Pixel?

Just how good are these cameras, though, when compared to film photography. The sad fact is they just are not comparable. While digital camera shots may look fine on the screen, compare them with a scanned image from a decent film camera and the shortcomings are immediately apparent. Colors from a digital camera are not as accurate as a film image, and exposures tend to be off from the ideal. Inexpensive film cameras have much more sophisticated exposure and flash calculations than even semi-professional digital cameras.

Print out a digital camera image, even on a highest-quality laser printer, and the other major shortcoming of digital photography becomes apparent. The digital printed images are clearly less sharp and defined than even cheap point-and-shoot film images. That’s to be expected, as film grain counts (the equivalent of pixel resolution) are several orders of magnitude better. Side by side, it’s easy to pick out the digital image even at normal snapshot size printouts. Digital photography isn’t a complete waste, though. For many shots, it works fine, especially since most users don’t care as much about final picture quality as the memories the overall subject matter invokes.

Photo-quality Printers

Apart from digital photography, the other market niche that has seen a huge growth in popularity is high-density printers. Many manufacturers, including HP and Epson, claim photographic quality output from low-priced inkjet or bubble printers. Both the HP PhotoSmart and the Epson Photo Stylus printers retail for about the same price as other low-price printers, yet offer resolutions of about 1200dpi. They can print in six colors, and use an interleaving technology to blend individual dots on the page.

The claim of photographic quality is a bit overblown. Side by side, there is no danger of mistaking these photo-quality printouts with actual photographs. However, these printers are much better at presenting printed graphics than their predecessors, and in many cases can rival high-quality expensive colour laser output. To get the best from these printers, though, requires specially treated paper. The sheer volume of ink that must be applied to standard paper saturates the sheet, making for a soggy, crinkled image. With treated papers, though, the colors stay vibrant and crisp. It’s expensive to buy treated paper, but when you want a quality printed image, it’s worth it. Just don’t count on anyone mistaking your printout for a photograph, regardless of advertising claims!

Digital Future

Digital camera quality is increasing every year, mostly because of the dropping costs of manufacturing. Given the choice between lowering prices or improving quality of the camera, many manufacturers are doing both in an attempt to move in on two market areas. The digital revolution, as it’s been called by some PR companies, will continue, and camera output will get much better, but always bear in mind that these devices are intended to allow you to show pictures on your computer screen, not projected from a slide system or mounted in a big blowup on the wall.

Sidebar - Sony’s New Mavica Lineup

Sony shook up the digital market a couple of years ago with a small, silver wonder of a digital camera. It fit in a pocket, had very good image quality, and was just too cute. Sony followed up that hit with the Mavica lineup, notable because they use floppy disks to store images instead of RAM chips in the camera. No more connecting cables and waiting while images transfer from a serial port; instead, just whip out the floppy and plug it in.

This convenience with the floppy comes with overhead, though. The resolution of the cameras in the line are 640x480, making it a low-end general use tool. Twenty full-resolution images can be stored on a floppy. Of the three models we looked at, only the higher-end FD-7 had reasonable image quality and features in the camera. The cameras are all heavy, too, weighing in at over a pound. Sony offers a matching printer than can generate printed images from the camera’s wireless port or from the computer.