Digital cameras: Take two (or three, or four - even 50)

You no longer have to be lucky to snap the best photos. Just delete the mistakes, says Charles Arthur
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Professional photographers used to say they'd only captured something on film if they hadn't seen it. The reason was that as the shutter opened briefly to expose the silver halide film, their view through the lens would be momentarily blocked. So if they saw something, they'd missed it.

Not so in the digital world, where you can watch just what you're taking. And not only that, but if you don't like the result, then you're not committed to keeping it and paying to have it developed. You just delete it.

The disposability of picture data (and conversely, the value of data once chosen) is the hardest idea to get used to about digital photography. For those who grew up with film, the idea that you might take 20 pictures and dispose of 19 at once seems insane. Only a few years ago, you'd have had to pay to have every one of those photos developed.

Professionals, again, know that getting a great picture is not a matter of luck. As the golfer Gary Player remarked after a spectator gasped "That was lucky!" as he holed a shot from a bunker, "the more I practise, the luckier I get." Professionals take dozens of photos in situations where amateurs used to take just one and trust to fate. That's because the professionals used to be the only ones who could afford to do that, throwing away 50 for a single great shot that they could sell.

The equivalent today is the family photo - the baby, the lunch, the wedding, the outing - where trying to get the smaller members of the family to cooperate can take what seems like hours. Makers of disposable cameras have begun to rely on weddings (if you put a couple of cameras on each table and encourage the guests to take pictures of each other, you'll see more of the reception than you can possibly do by walking around). But even there, one can see that camera-phones might begin to take over: e-mail or picture message your camera photos to the happy couple, and they can create a digital album, and then get that printed out for their happy memories.

Being freed from having to get the right photo first (or perhaps second) time has readjusted the gender gap when it comes to buying cameras. A survey in the US by the NPD Group this summer found that more digital cameras were bought by women than men.

Steve Haber, senior vice-president at Sony's personal mobile and imaging division, says of the research: "Women are more likely to be the memory keepers in a family, capturing and sharing family photos and storing family memories." Electronics retailers have seen a 20 per cent growth in the number of female customers in the past two years, and digital cameras can claim much of the credit: they're usually straightforwardly designed, don't come with much jargon and come in elegant packages. They're also easy to carry, so they fit into the "gadget that works" category that women like - unlike men, who enjoy tweaking.

However, earlier research from 2004 also suggests that once women are used to a digital camera, they're ready to geek it with the best of the guys: of those upgrading, the same ratio of women as men (29 per cent) wanted to have interchangeable lenses - for telephoto, wide-angle or close-up shots - on a new camera.

However being able to take lots of pictures, and throw them away, hasn't made great photographers of us all. Techniques like framing (getting only what you want in the shot and excluding the rest), timing and setting are still elusive skills for the majority, though you can judge yourself against the best of the amateurs on the photo website Flickr, whose "Delete Me!" group (at puts up the very best photographs in front of a baying crowd eager to mark them down. Only the best survive. And in photography, that's just how it should be. Happily, with digital, it is.