Digital snaps aren't a snip

Taking your snaps to the chemist to be developed is close to being a thing of the past; but not quite yet. Everything else is going digital, and now it's the turn of the camera.

It all seems so obvious. Why bother loading complicated rolls of film and waiting for processing, when you can take photos and display them instantly?

Digital cameras are plummeting in price, and new models are announced weekly. That's the good news. But a half-decent digital camera will still set you back more than pounds 700 and its quality, even compared with a pounds 10 disposable job, is frankly rubbish. But you do get a lot of technology and some amazing features, if you don't need picture quality.

Instead of capturing the image on light-sensitive film, a digital camera uses thousands of charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to create a digital map of the picture. The more memory the camera has, the more pictures you can store.

Instead of having a viewfinder, it displays a bright, full-colour picture on a tiny LCD screen. This can also show pictures taken before. If you don't like what you see, you can scrub that picture and take another one.

Today's sub-pounds 1,000 digital cameras - you can pay up to pounds 20,000 for a studio model - are really to be used in conjunction with a PC. They are not meant to replace the conventional film camera. The current way of getting a photograph into a word processor document, personnel database or Web page involves first developing a film and then scanning it in. With a digital camera you can take a picture and download it to your PC to be inserted into a document or even transmitted over the Internet. Once on your PC, it can be edited, cropped or tidied up.

In its May issue, PC Magazine reviews 11 digital cameras all costing less than pounds 1,000, by Kodak, Agfa, Canon and Fuji, alongside consumer electronics brands such as Sony, Casio and Epson. Picture quality and ease of use were weighed up against features such as swivelling LCD displays, removable memory cartridges and sound annotation.

The Editor's Choice is the Sony DSC-F1, pounds 700 inc VAT. Runner-up was the Canon PowerShot 600. Though relatively expensive, at pounds 938 inc VAT, the Canon produced the best pictures by far and had the greatest storage capacity.

The digital camera is still more a business tool than a consumer product. But with prices going down and picture quality coming up, it won't be long before you make your last trip to the chemistn

Nick Edmunds