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Digital Camera Quick Reference

If you can't keep up with advances in digital camera, you're not alone. We help you make sense of megapixels, zero in on the zooms (digital, optical and total) and delve into everything from price points to paper to printers.

What Is A Digital Camera? A Webopedia definition.

A digital camera is a camera that, as its name implies, stores images digitally rather than recording them on film. Once a picture has been taken, it can be downloaded to a computer system, and then manipulated with a graphics program and printed. Unlike film photographs, which have an almost infinite resolution, digital photos are limited by the amount of memory in the camera, the optical resolution of the digitizing mechanism, and, finally, by the resolution of the final output device.

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Even the best digital cameras connected to the best printers cannot produce film-quality photos. However, if the final output device is a laser printer, it doesn't really matter whether you take a real photo and then scan it, or take a digital photo. In both cases, the image must eventually be reduced to the resolution of the printer.  The big advantage of digital cameras is that making photos is both inexpensive and fast because there is no film processing.

Basic Digital Camera Terminology

Looking for a digital camera, especially for those unfamiliar with the technology and terminology, can be an overwhelming project. Most digital camera manufactures use standard terms on the packaging and in product specifications on their Web site. For those treading into foreign territory, here are a few definitions to some of the most important terms you'll encounter while shopping for a digital camera.

aperture

A device in the digital camera that controls the amount of light admitted through an opening. In digital photography, aperture is the unit of measurement that defines the size of the opening in the lens that can be adjusted to control the amount of light reaching the film or digital sensor. The size of the aperture is measured in F-stop.

auto focus (AF)

Auto focus is a function of the digital camera where the camera will automatically focus on the subject in the center of the LCD or viewfinder. Digital cameras come standard with auto focus, and more expensive models of digital cameras will have the option to select the auto focus area, rather than just auto focusing on the center of the LCD or viewfinder.

digital zoom

Digital zoom is used to make the image seem more "close-up". Digital zoom on a digital camera works the same as cropping and enlarging a photo in a graphics program. This type of zoom will result in a loss of quality and image resolution because the image is simply being enlarged without any extra detail or pixel resolution being added. Due to the quality of photos taken when using the digital zoom function, these photos may not be of good enough quality to print images larger than 4"x6".

megapixel

A Megapixel is one million pixels. The term is used in reference to the resolution of the digital camera. When researching cameras, the number of megapixels is equivalent to the number of pixels available to capture an image. For example, a 2-megapixel camera can produce an image with two million pixels. It is important to remember that the number of pixels your camera is capable of using is independent of the optical zoom. A 3-megapixel digital camera will still capture only a 3-million pixel image, regardless of whether you're using 2x or 3x optical zoom.

The more megapixels your camera is able to capture, the larger prints at better print quality you can produce. For example, a 2-megapixel camera can print up  a 4"x6" or 5"x7" photo. If you're interested in larger prints, such as an 8"x10", you should be looking at a camera with at least 3megapixels.

memory

In a digital camera, memory refers to the number of images and/or video files you can store on your camera before you have to transfer the image files to your computer. Digital cameras have internal storage, and many come with removable storage options so you can store more images than the internal storage will allow.

optical zoom

Optical zoom is a "true" zoom feature. It allows you to zoom in (or out) on the subject in the LCD or viewfinder. This will enable you to get a closer view of the subject before taking your picture. Optical zoom changes the magnification of images with the actual optical glass before the images reach the imaging sensor. Optical zoom allows for better photo quality than digital zoom.

resolution

Digital camera resolution is measured in megapixels (see megapixel).

total zoom

Some digital camera manufactures advertise the camera's zoom capability as a total zoom. When you see a total zoom listing, it basically is the digital zoom multiplied by the optical zoom. For instance, a camera touting a 56x zoom could be a digital camera with 8x optical and 7x digital zoom. Total zoom is, in essence, irrelevant and you should always find out how much of the total zoom is true zoom (i.e., optical zoom).

Additional Digital Camera Features & Accessories

While zoom, resolution and focus are the basic options to consider in a digital camera, you'll also find hundreds of built-in features, upgrades and accessories available for most consumer digital cameras. Here is a list of some digital camera features you should become familiar with.

removable storage media

Removable storage media is another important feature of a digital camera. Removable storage allows you to store more images that the internal memory of the digital camera will allow. Different camera will offer different removable storage media options. Many older digital cameras simply allowed users to insert a floppy disk to hold additional files. Now cameras offer a variety of removable storage media such as Smart Media cards, CompactFlash, PC cards, memory sticks or even CDs. In most cases, removable storage media is easy-to-use and it can be erased and used again.

See the "Removable Storage Reference" in the Quick Reference section of Webopedia

docking station

With some digital cameras you may be able to upgrade to or purchase a docking station. Generally, you will attach the docking station to your computer, then attach the camera to the docking station. Docking stations provide you with an easy way of downloading your pictures to your computer and provide the means to recharge the digital camera's batteries. Some docking stations may also have simple one button options to e-mail photos

video capability

Many digital cameras today offer some sort of video capture. In most cases, it is simply a matter of changing the camera capture setting, clicking a button to start recording your video and clicking it again to stop. Digital cameras generally allow 15-20 seconds of continuous video capture up to several minutes. It is important to remember that video capture can really eat up your storage space and you should consider removable storage media if taking quick videos will be something you do frequently. Most video capture on digital cameras run at a resolution of 320x240. This resolution works fine for playback on your computer, but if you plan to do video editing and run these on your television you need to look into cameras which offer a video resolution of at least 640 x 480.

image editing features

Most digital cameras will come with a plethora of image features that allow you to change color balance, exposure, remove red-eye, add borders and more. While these features can be useful, it is important to remember that these things can all be done with some basic graphics and photo-editing software after the photos have been transferred to your computer.

Digital Camera Price Points

Like most technology, as time passes prices go down, features increase and last year's hot models are heading towards the obsolete pile.  Interestingly enough, according to Lyra Research, worldwide digital camera shipments rose to approximately 98 million units in 2006. Lyra Research forecast also projects worldwide digital camera shipments, excluding cellphones with cameras, to exceed 130 million units in 2010.

This quick price comparison will provide you with a basic knowledge of where price points currently lie in digital cameras, and what standards (megapixels and optical zoom) you can find within various price ranges.

Megapixels

Optical Zoom

Price Range

6.0 3x Less than $150
7.1, 7.2 3x, 3.4x,  Between $150 and $175
8.0 3x, 4x Between $200 and $250
8.0 10x Between $280 and $300
10, 10.1, 10.2 7x to 20x Between $350 and $550
12 3x Between $220 and $300
12 7x, 10x and higher $350 and higher (with professional SLR cameras in this range starting at the $800 range.)

From Digital Images to Prints

Regardless of the resolution of your digital images, you will always be limited to your printer resolution if you decide to print your photos. One of the best ways to help decide on which printer to buy is to determine if the printer will be used for tasks other than printing digital photos, and to estimate the total printing cost including paper and ink. Other things to consider include the quality of color photo printing the printer will do.

Color Ink Jet Printers

Basic inkjet printers generally will produce nice output onto photo quality paper. Many color inkjet printers will print up to 4800x1200 dpi within a $100 price range. For a better quality photo printing you can start looking at additional features such as printers that support black & white and color ink cartridges and photo color cartridges. You'll also want to make sure the printer can handle a wide variety of paper types, sizes and thickness. When choosing an inkjet printer it is important to look at the cost of replacement ink cartridges. You may find a great inkjet printer for $100, but you may be looking at upwards of $50 or $60 to replace the cartridges when they run out of ink.

Digital Photo Printers

Digital photo printers are printing devices dedicated to the one task of photo printing. They are usually limited to using just glossy paper, but you may can use smaller paper sizes, like 4x6 for example. Some of these dedicated photo printers will accept a maximum of 4x6 paper.  Photo printers also offer convenient features for digital image printing such as printing directly from a camera or removable storage device. Dedicated photo printers use a technology called thermal-dye which allows the output to be printed in 256 different shades of the primary colors. While these printers usually produce images at around 300x300 dpi, the amount of color shades will produce photos as sharp and focused as photos printed on a 1200x4800 dpi inkjet printer. Another attractive feature of digital photo printers is, of course, their size. They are quite small and this makes traveling with your camera and printer an easy task.

Online & Retail Store Digital Photo Processing

For those not too keen on printing their digital images at home you do have other options. The vast majority of retail stores and specialty photo shops which offer traditional film and negative photo processing services also offer digital printing services. If you have a CD-ROM writer, you can burn your images to a CD and drop it off at local photo processing outlets just like you would traditional film. To gain a competitive edge however, many outlets offer online services which allow you to upload your digital images online, select print sizes, and place an order. You would then either select a store location to pick up your prints or pay a few extra dollars and have the prints delivered to your door. Having your digital images printed for you is not as expensive as one might think. You can expect to pay as low as 19 cents each for a 4x6 photo up to $3 for an 8x10 print.

Different Types of Photo Quality Paper

If you've decided on an inkjet printer, the next step will be to choose the right type of paper for the job. For photo printing you need to purchase specialty inkjet photo quality paper. This paper is designed to prevent ink from spreading out during printing and will result in nice sharp and clear photo prints. From matte to glossy and iron on transfers, here are some of the many types paper you'll want to know about before buying!

Glossy Paper

Glossy photo quality paper is designed to make printed photos look sharp and vibrant. Handling of glossy paper is important as the paper can quickly and easily be marred by fingerprints and dirt. Glossy photo paper comes in several varieties including a specialty color protect/color life paper, semi-gloss, and premium (professional) grade.

Matte Paper

Unlike Glossy paper, matte paper produces nice quality prints but does not have that vibrant color finish. Matte paper is not vulnerable to being marred by fingerprints and it produces a non-glare photo. Types of matte inkjet paper include photo quality matte, premium (professional) grade, double-sided matte, and semi-matte.

Specialty Inkjet Paper

Specialty paper will come in a variety of finishes from matte, to glossy to satin, and then some! Generally you'll find a huge selection of specialty papers to suit any project. Types of specialty paper include photo quality cardstock, greeting card stock, photo quality stickers, labels, transparencies, and even iron-on transfers.



Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.




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