Network: A digital camera is not just for Christmas

They're sleek, high-tech and fun, but digital cameras are also expensive, so it pays to be sure of what you want from one before making a choice. By Martin King
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Digital cameras rank high in the list of most lusted-after presents this Christmas. They're good fun, bring a new dimension to photography, and the right one will impress your techno-hungry friends. High street interest has surged, despite price tags of anything up to pounds 700, but there are some important questions that buyers should ask themselves before they decide to buy one.

Why pay up to twice as much for a digital camera as you would for a traditional one? You save on the cost of film and processing, and you gain the ability to crop, enhance and even alter your images with comparatively cheap software rather than elaborate darkroom kit. The ability to review images immediately on the camera's small LCD screen is useful, but don't expect to see too much detail.

Where's the catch? Extra expense kicks in if you print the images. For the best quality output you'll need special ink cartridges and glossy paper (and that's if your current printer is compatible). Balance that, however, against the fact that you can view your photographs on screen and will probably only want to print the best of them.

What about quality? Image quality of traditional cameras is primarily determined by the lens. On digital cameras, it also depends on the potential file size of the image. The top ones boast 1800x1200 pixel resolution or higher; at this resolution, the quality of an A4-size print-out would be little different from what you could expect from a traditional 35mm negative.

How much do I need to pay? If you are intending to view the images on your computer, a medium level of resolution will be fine (about 1200 by 900 pixels at most). If you want to take pictures just for sending in e-mails, an even lower resolution would probably suffice.

Generally speaking, the greater the image capability, the more expensive the camera. Expect to pay pounds 300 unless you want something really basic. Prices of several top-range digital cameras have fallen over the past few weeks, but they still cost more than pounds 600.

What about extras? You might want extra memory storage, or you could find yourself restricted to just 12 high-resolution images even on the top-of-the range cameras. Also, an extra set of rechargeable batteries is important, as they can last just a few hours.

Any other tips?

n Software for basic image manipulation and for printing your photographs should be included in the price. Ask for a demonstration, as user-friendliness varies widely.

n Check on the connections to your PC or Mac - some are much easier to use than others.

n Are you planning to store all your images on your home PC? You may need a Zip drive or CD writer to back them up (or risk losing the family album in the event of your computer crashing).

n As is always the case with new technology, early adopters are paying a premium. The price disparity between digital and conventional cameras will inevitably narrow, and the post-Christmas sales should be very interesting.

Digital camera makers' websites:




Olympus: www.olympus-europa. com




The writer is managing editor of Independent Digital