Image is what counts for the new Lord Lichfield wannabes

I Want To Own A ... pounds 20,000 Camera

Buying the coolest camera around is not as easy as it used to be. All the lifestyle magazines seem to know what you should spend your money on, but they all offer conflicting advice. In the past month, T3 has recommended the Fujifilm MX-700 digital still camera ("one of the smallest digital cameras we've ever come across"), the US edition of Stuff has saluted the Fuji Endeavour 3500ix ("ridiculously sleek styling") and FHM has taken its hat off to the Fujifilm Fotonex 1000ix ("it's the smallest compact in the world").

The MX-700 is a digital camera, which means that the images are stored electronically rather than on film, allowing you to check out your pictures instantly on a small LCD screen and ditch bad photos. You download images directly into a PC, onto a TV or your own printer.

The other two use the recently developed APS film, a new format which allows the photographer to choose, among other things, three sizes of image, essentially standard, widescreen and panoramic. None of them uses 35mm film.

It was not so long ago that the words "35 millimetre" were the great dividers of Lord Lichfield wannabes from mere mortals. On one side of the High Street were those who unknowingly took pictures of their friends with telegraph poles sticking out of their heads and with hands so shaky that photos came back from Truprint stickers on them explaining that they and not the developers were responsible for the hydra-like appearance of the framed faces.

On the other side, there were those who got their kicks from gawping at second-hand Nikons in camera shops, or from scouring small ads for cheap enlargers with which to dabble in the arcane art of developing in their own black and whites.

Inevitably, as a teenager with a desire to be David Bailey (ie take pictures of gangsters and semi-naked women), it was a world into which I plunged wholeheartedly, although sensibly my girlfriends always looked a few weeks into the future and declined the invitation to become nascent supermodels.

In 1983, I bought my first manual focus SLR camera (single lens reflex being the method by which the viewfinder looked directly through the lens via a cannily placed mirror, stopping you from taking pictures of your finger or cropping people's heads off) from an old bloke who was trading in his leather-clad 1975 Olympus OM-1 for pounds 80.

As I handed over the cash, he showed me the replacement he had bought: the Olympus XA-1, a petite black shell which snapped open to reveal an astonishingly good lens. I thought he was an idiot trading a real camera with virtually infinite focusing capacity for a toy with a few, pre-selected focal lengths, but it transpired that he, not I, had the future in his hands.

The Eighties was a great leveller of jumped-up camera snobs. In a decade, cameras sporting inferior film formats such as 110, 126 and the always doomed disc film became extinct (although somehow the prohibitively expensive, not particularly sharp, but incredibly funny when you're drunk Polaroid camera survived). Overnight everyone knew what a 35mm camera was because everyone had one.

Admittedly there is still a world of difference between bottom-of the- range fixed-focus happy-snappers and state-of-the-art auto-focus compact cameras with zoom lenses. Yet compacts have become so good that even pros are not averse to carrying them around in their pockets, for sly shots backstage when their more cumbersome gear might get them spotted and kicked out. Which is how I came by a Yashica T5 a couple of years ago.

A friend sold me on the make; he had managed to get the most intimate pictures of Oasis on their rise to superstardom and said Yashica's choice of Carl Zeiss lenses was perfect because it ensured an even focus across the whole of the frame, something inferior compacts didn't deliver. Another friend sold me on the model: the T5 had a brilliant feature, an extra viewfinder on top which you could look down into while holding the camera at waist level allowing you to surreptitiously take pictures without raising the camera to your eye.

Two years on, the same camera is half the price (now pounds 109) and, beautiful though it is, no longer draws breaths of excitement when it is produced at parties. That pleasure belongs to my friend' s Canon Ixus Z70 (pounds 260), a tiny APS compact with a pop out flash unit and a natty rotating front, housing a 23-69mm zoom lens. Its older brother, the Ixus Z90 (pounds 280) is better still; it is less fiddly and has a greater zoom range and a trendy, oversized lens cover which flips over to reveal a flash.

For those who want their camera to look more serious, however, the new Brownie on the block is the sleek silver Nikon Pronea S (pounds 299 with one lens), an APS camera which straddles the compact and SLR market, allowing you to experiment with modes such as shutter speed aperture and focus if you so wish. If you don't want to do anything more than point and shoot, then you will probably be put off by its relative bulk and the awkward lens cap before you ever get confused by the modes of operation. For those harbouring grander ambitions, though, the fact that the Pronea is compatible with the majority of Nikon' s 35mm AF Nikkor lenses is just one reason to buy.

Be warned, though: APS film has its drawbacks (see box on right), and will probably be looked back upon in just a few years as the dead cat bounce of celluloid film, which is now an archaic medium. The eyes of the real professionals are fixed on the possibilities of digital cameras. Although many had misgivings about the first SLR autofocus lenses - and still grumble about their efficiency in low light and the impracticality of utilising their manual functions - they are now an industry standard.

Likewise, after teething problems with original digital SLRs, the manufacturers are now producing top-of-the-range models with image definition on a par with that of their 35mm peers but no film (perfect for newspaper work and the Internet). If money is no object, and you want to use real pro digital cameras, then two stand out.

The first is the pounds 11, 750 Canon EOS D2000, the digital camera favoured by press photographers for its relative light weight, its compatibility with Canon lenses and its ability to shoot in bursts (up to 15 frames at 3.5 frames/second). It also records sound and, unlike its predecessor, the DCS3, it has an LCD monitor for immediate viewing of frames and an IEEE 1394 Firewire interface for high-speed transference of images.

From January, and for pounds 19, 995, you should be able to buy the studio- bound Kodak Professional's DCS 560. Also modelled on a Canon body, the important difference between this and the D2000 is a resolution of six million pixels as opposed to the D2000' s two million.

For a professional, digital technology is about speed and versatility - a picture can be taken on one side of the world and be downloaded to the other immediately. For amateurs, it means that you need never again take a blurry picture of your friends with lampposts sticking out of their heads. Unless you want to, in which case you can now call it art.

Incidentally, my Olympus OM-1 still works brilliantly and has needed only one minor service in its 23 year life. They just don' t make them like they used to, you know. SLR PROS Creativity You can control the depth of field, shutter speed and stick on funny orange filters. Viewfinders which look through the lens. Interchangeable lenses so you can indulge all your fish-eye fantasies. Focusing Most have a manual override allowing you to focus on the wall instead of the subject for seriously arty work. COMPACT PROS Creativity You just want to snap what you see. Price You do not want to pay a fortune. Ease of use You do not want to spend half an hour taking the lens cap off. Size You want to be discreet.

APS PROS/CONS Pro: Easy to load. Just pop in the film canister and start shooting. Con: Size of the negative. It is smaller than 35mm, which means reduced print quality. Pro: Size of roll. It is smaller, which means that APS cameras are generally easier to fit in your top pocket than 35mm compacts. Con: The price. It costs about 50p more for a film and pounds 2 more to process.

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