Digital cameras: Photography on a shoestring

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The Independent Online

Getting into digital photography needn't mean remortgaging your flat or selling a kidney. The first thing to realise is that you don't need the latest, shiniest cameras. Digital technology is moving so fast that even today's smallest, most powerful cameras will look overweight and underpowered in a few years' time.

Decide what's really important to you now, and what you can live without. For instance, think how large you'll want to print your images. If you're happy with postcard prints, stick with a cheap three megapixel (3MP) camera. A 4MP or 5MP camera will produce images that look great at A4 size, and you only really need a 6MP or 7MP model if you're considering A3 or larger prints.

When shopping around, look at cameras six to nine months old that are coming to the end of their shelf-life. Retailers will be keen to get these out the door to make room for newer stock. You'll generally find the best prices online, and you can sometimes save more still by buying European versions - although beware of foreign instruction books, plugs and warranty issues.

Think twice before buying a second-hand camera. Many people (and even shops) have an unrealistic idea of how much their used camera is worth, plus it's reassuring to have the back-up of a manufacturer's warranty for the first year of your new camera.

For accessories such as memory cards and batteries, very few High Street shops can match retailers online. Secure Digital cards are slightly cheaper than xD-Picture-Cards or Memory Sticks, and work with a wider range of cameras. Don't feel you have to buy them from the same manufacturer as the camera - unbranded generic products are often just as good, and cost less, although remember that they may not come with a guarantee. It can be worth buying original inks and photo paper for your inkjet though, especially if you want fade-resistant photos to frame and display.

Remember, you don't need a computer or even a printer any more. You can take your memory card to a photo lab and use their electronic kiosk to browse your images and choose which to print. Printing in bulk (50 or even 100 images at a time) will save money. Some specialists will copy images from your card to a CD - Jessops charges a very reasonable £2 for this.

If you do want to print photos at home, choose a photo quality printer with at least four inks: the more inks it uses, the better colour reproduction you'll get. Don't worry so much about print speed. If you do a lot of printing from your computer, it can actually be cost-effective to buy a second, very cheap printer (around £40). Use this for text documents and you won't be wasting the expensive coloured inks in your photo printer on mundane printing projects.