Digital cameras: Choosing the right one for you

The range of equipment on offer can overwhelm newcomers to the digital world. Mark Harris gets you started

You're pushing a trolley through the supermarket when you spot a pyramid of digital cameras, piled up high and selling cheap. Or you might be browsing online when up flashes a special offer on the latest five-megapixel camera. Should you join the digital revolution and snap up a new snapper, or will your ageing film camera last another holiday? Before you take the plunge, look beyond the price with exclamation marks and consider just what going digital involves.

Digital cameras have never been cheaper - or more powerful - than they are today, with the average selling price dropping about 25 per cent over the last year. But digital photography is very different from traditional 35mm photography, and if you invest in all the possible extras, you could end up with a bill several times the cost of the camera itself.

Everyone has a horror story about ruining a whole holiday's worth of photos by opening the back without rewinding the film first. But the truth is that film photography is pretty simple: you buy a film, take your pictures, then hand the film over to a photo lab to develop and print your images.

With digital cameras, you have the choice of overseeing every aspect of your photography, from the way the camera sees the outside world, to the detail and quality of the images it captures, and finally the transfer, storage, editing and printing of the final photos. It needn't be an expensive process but the camera and accessories you choose will determine how much you spend in the years ahead.

The first thing to consider is whether to buy extra insurance. Digital cameras are more complex than film cameras and are packed with expensive (and delicate) components such as LCD screens and high tech chips. Most cameras come with a 12-month warranty to cover faults in manufacture only. Buying an extended warranty might increase this to three years, but you'll get nothing if you drop your camera in the sand at the beach, or take your eyes off it for a moment in a busy pub.

Insurance including cover for accidental damage and theft starts from £15 a year for a £300 camera. Shop around for the best price and read the small print as some policies carry hefty excesses.

All digital cameras should come with the absolute basics you need to get shooting: a battery for power and a memory card (or built-in memory) for storing digital images. But if you want to take a camera away on holiday - or even out for a full day's shooting - you'll need to spend a bit more immediately.

Just turning the camera on and framing pictures uses a lot of power, and that's before you factor in power-draining features like zooming and using the built-in flash. Even the most efficient cameras can run through a fully charged battery in just a few hours if you're snapping away, so always carry a back-up set.

Unfortunately, most rechargeable batteries are custom-made to fit just one camera and a replacement can cost up to £35. If you're lucky enough to have a camera that uses common batteries (such as AA cells), you should be able to pick up high capacity rechargeable batteries and a charger for around £20, or even less. Look for batteries with 2000mAh capacity or higher to get the most shots from each charge.

Your other big investment will be memory cards. Most cameras come with just 16Mb or 32Mb of storage included. That's barely enough for a handful of best quality images on today's cameras, so think of it more as an emergency reserve. A 512Mb card (£30-£50) should be enough to get you through a week's holiday, or consider a 1GB card (from £50) if you enjoy shooting memory-hungry movie clips. Remember that, unlike film, you can use these cards over and over again.

The good news for your bank balance is that digital cameras and home computers are no longer joined at the hip. If you don't want to come to terms with a PC, you can simply take the memory card from your camera to almost any high-street photo lab and they'll do all the hard work, from editing and cropping your images to producing prints and even backing up your images to CD.

One of the best things about going digital is that you only need to print the images you want. A single postcard-sized 10x15cm print usually costs around 49p at a photo lab, but prices drop quickly if you order more. Shop around and you should be able to get 50 photos for around 15p each - or even as little as 10p with special offers.

You can also print at home without a computer, using a modern inkjet printer. Photo-quality printers cost from around £75 and connect with a cable to your camera, letting you choose what to print from its screen. More expensive printers have built-in memory-card readers and sometimes even their own LCD displays for editing images. Printing a 10x15cm photo at home costs from around 20p.

If you do want to explore the "digital darkroom" side of photography, home computers are far more approachable and easy to use than they were even a few years ago. A new computer can cost anything from £300 to £3,000, but even the cheapest will be capable of running image editing software, burning CDs for storage and connecting to the internet for ordering prints online or creating a web gallery from your photos.

If you already have a computer, most cameras come with basic image editing software for free. When you're ready to step up to something a little more advanced, a package like Adobe Photoshop Elements (£70) is powerful and not too tricky to use, although you will need to devote some time to getting to grips with the terminology.

So is it worth switching to digital? Although the cost of the equipment is daunting, a digital photographer printing a fifth of their images will pay around £50 less than a similar film photographer using 10 rolls of film - and the more you shoot, the more you'll save.

Ultimately, unless you take (and print) several hundred images a year, you're unlikely to save too much money by going digital. But the ease of shooting with an LCD screen, e-mailing images to friends and printing photos at home can't be matched by film cameras - and that kind of convenience can't be measured in pounds and pence.

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