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Digital Cameras

When consumer-level digital cameras first came out, somewhere in the early 1990s, they were more of a gimmick than a useful tool. The resolution wasn’t good enough to make a print more than a few inches wide. Photographers weren’t ready to give up their film cameras, and computer fanatics weren’t into photography except as a way to fancy up their websites. But as a relatively short time passed, several things happened. Digital cameras improved and became more affordable, and picture-editing software also improved and became easier to use. Meanwhile, the scrapbook craze was growing bigger and bigger. It seemed logical to combine them.

Today’s digital cameras are amazing. Most of them don’t look much different from the ordinary 35mm and pocket-size snapshot cameras you’re used to. They slide right into your handbag, briefcase, fanny pack, or jacket pocket without weighing you down. They mostly run on AA batteries, which are available anywhere. Most use interchangeable compact flashcards or the newer, even smaller SD (secure digital) cards or xD picture cards for memory. A single card smaller than a matchbook can hold several hundred or more pictures. These cards can be reused indefinitely, and come in sizes from 32 megabytes to 1 gigabyte (1000Mb).

Digital cameras work somewhat the same way film cameras do. Light passes through a lens, but instead of exposing a piece of film, it touches a sensor panel. On both kinds of camera, you can focus the lens and adjust the lens aperture and exposure, or let the camera do it for you. The lens aperture determines how much light is allowed to pass through the lens, and the exposure is the length of time (in fractions of a second) that the light reaches the sensor. One nice feature that most digital cameras include is a view screen that lets you see your photos immediately, so you can erase the ones that you consider a waste of film.

Figure 3.2 shows a couple of my favorite digital cameras, along with their flashcards. You can get a camera with a 5-megapixel resolution for what you paid for a 640x480 (less than one megapixel) resolution model only five years ago.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 I really like my Nikons, but there are less expensive cameras that do the job just as well.

Why Go Digital?

The advantages of digital photography are many. Digital cameras are typically lighter weight and easier to carry around. You don’t need to buy film or pay for processing. And you’re not contributing to the chemical waste the processing plants dump into the sewers, which eventually end up in the water supply.

Digital photography is faster than traditional film photography. There’s no need to wait for film to be processed into prints and scanned into electronic format. You can look at your digital photos as soon as you’ve taken them. If there’s a TV set handy, you can display your pictures on the TV screen just by plugging in a cable that’s included with the camera. Transferring the photo from the camera to the computer takes only a few seconds. All you do is plug a cable from the camera into the computer (following the instructions included with your camera), open the downloading program that came with the camera, and choose the picture that you want to import.

Most digital cameras also let you throw away bad shots so they don’t waste memory space. The photos you decide to keep last as long as the hard disk, floppy, CD-ROM, or other storage medium you save them on lasts—virtually forever—without scratching, fading, or color shifting.

Another advantage is the space you’ll save. Nearly all digital cameras save pictures to a flashcard, a piece of plastic about half the size of a business card and only a little thicker. You can pack 20 of these flashcards in the space occupied by just two rolls of 35mm film, and carry as many as 5,000 high-quality pictures, instead of the 72 that the film holds. The new xD cards are scarcely larger than a postage stamp, and have up to a 512 Mb capacity. If you carry only a couple, and have access to a computer, you can upload your pictures and recycle the flashcard to hold more, an ideal situation for the world traveler or roving photo-journalist as well as the family on vacation.

In the long run, digital photography can be cheaper. After you’re past the initial investment—the camera, the computer, image-manipulation software, and a color printer—your pictures don’t cost you anything. You’ll never run out of film, and you’ll never need to buy any.

Having said that, you won’t be paying for film, but you might want to find a place to buy AA batteries by the case. (Costco and Sam’s Club have bulk packs at reasonable prices.) Whenever possible, run these cameras from their AC power packs. Lithium batteries give longer service, but because they cost more, it’s a toss-up whether you save anything by using them. A few sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger are definitely a wise investment.

When You Go Camera Shopping, Consider...

If you think that you’ll need to take several pictures of something in rapid sequence, choose your digital camera very carefully. Not all models can handle high-speed recovery between shots. Most require a delay of anywhere from 3–10 seconds or more between pictures while the camera compresses and stores the image it’s just captured. A better way to take a sequence of pictures is to use a video camera. It freezes the action every 1/30th of a second, so you can analyze a golf swing or watch the figure skater take off and land the triple Salchow as well as catch her at the peak of the jump. Such sequential photos are a fun addition to a scrapbook page, too.

If you are planning to buy a digital camera strictly to capture images for scrapbooking, any kind of point-and-shoot camera suffices. You’re not going to be worrying very much about image resolution because you’re not going to be using big prints. However, after you see how easy digital cameras are to use, and how good the pictures are, even from an older model, you’re probably going to want the best one you can find. Digital cameras are sold in camera stores, computer stores, and catalogs. You’ll find about the same prices everywhere. You can also usually save a few bucks by shopping on eBay for a slightly older but higher-resolution model. Beware of exceptionally low-priced cameras. They might be "gray market" merchandise brought in from third-world countries and therefore not covered by warranty. Or they might be cheaply made imitations of the good ones. I still remember buying what I thought was a really good calculator for just five dollars on a bargain table, and then getting it home and noticing that the brand name was "Shrap." Not very sharp of me!

Other considerations when digital camera shopping include the flash and the zoom. Although most experts don’t use built-in flashes on cameras, I have found them to be very useful. You simply need to be aware of the shadow the flash casts, and position the photo subject where a cast shadow won’t matter. The built-in zoom lens is a must-have in my opinion. You can’t always stand as close to something as you want, but you can zoom in closer on it, or you can pull back for a wider angle shot without moving the camera—and yourself—into a possibly dangerous location. Generally speaking, digital cameras use a multiplier (shown as 2 x, 5 x, or 10 x) to represent their capability to "zoom" in on a subject. For example, a normal non-zoom lens shows what you can see with your unaided eye. A 10xzoom is 10 times better, revealing more detail and making a subject appear that much closer to the camera. Always look for the words optical zoom rather than digital zoom. An optical zoom changes the length of the lens, whereas a digital zoom is just a gimmick that makes the pixels bigger so whatever you’re shooting looks bigger than it is. It lowers the picture quality in the process.

A macro, or close-focus, lens setting is also very desirable, especially for scrapbooking. You can use your digital camera as a quick-and-easy scanner to copy pictures and small objects that you want to put on a page. Because the lens, set to macro and fully zoomed in, lets you make nice clean copies of things at their full size—or larger in some cases—you can enlarge a picture to the point where you can use it as a background for a page. Figure 3.3 shows a quick example of this really neat effect. You’ll read more about this later, when you get into designing pages.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 You can fade the colors of the photo to make it a better background.

Suppose you just want to shoot a few digital pictures and you aren’t ready to spend a lot of money on a camera. There’s a solution for your problem, a one-use digital camera. You can take a picture, view it in the camera, and either keep it or discard it. When the camera’s full (it holds 25 photos), you take it back to the store, and they give you—for another 10 bucks—a set of high-quality 4x6 inch prints and a CD-ROM with all your pictures.

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