Digital Cameras

There's a lot of different digital cameras on the market. Read on to determine the features and functions you need.

The last few years have seen an explosion of digital imaging technology. With camera prices dropping to phenomenally low levels, and the proliferation of cheap image editing and printing solutions, it is now easier than ever to capture and print photographs in the comfort of your own home.

So, you're thinking of taking the plunge and purchasing a digital camera, or perhaps upgrading an existing unit, but need some help wading through the photo and technical jargon? Then read on.

First things first: why do you want one?


First things first: why do you want one?

The main decision you'll need to make before purchasing a digital camera is how you intend to use it. If, for example, you're an amateur photographer who's not interested in getting "arty" but just wants to take basic photos to e-mail to friends, then a lower-end camera will most likely suffice. If, however, you're keen to manipulate your photos and want to get into creative photography, a camera with manual options is going to better suit your needs.

For the purpose of this guide, we've described digital cameras as fitting into three main types: the lower-end or entry-level "point and shoot" device; the mid-range product, which can offer some manual capabilities; and the higher-end SLRs, which have a wider range of manual tools as well as optional extras.

Entry-level cameras are just that: good cameras for users who are keen to take small, medium-quality shots or the occasional family snap, or for users who don't know much about photography and want to get used to digital photography first. Entry-level cameras usually have a resolution ranging from 5Mp to 7Mp (1-megapixel equals 1 million pixels) with little or no manual options, and are priced around the $150-400 mark.

Mid-range cameras, the largest category of digital cameras, tend to offer more advanced features, such as manual shooting modes, larger optical zoom lenses and a resolution of 6Mp to 10Mp, so you can make larger prints and crop effectively. Expect to pay anything from $350 to $800.

Your last option is a digital SLR, the mack daddy of digital photography. Usually costing in excess of $1000 (and some models will set you back $6000 or more), they come with full manual functionality that far exceeds what is provided on even the most advanced compact camera. They give the user almost complete control by offering various extra features, such as increased zoom, interchangeable lenses and external flashes. They typically come with 8- or 10-megapixel sensors, although there are some monsters that offer 12 megapixels or more.

To help you figure out which one is best for you, we've put together some of the key features that you need to look at when purchasing a digital camera, as well as an overview of how digital cameras work.

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How digital cameras work


How digital cameras work

A digital camera is based on similar photographic processes as those used in film photography, so it's worth pointing out how a film camera works first, in order to understand how a digital camera works.

A film camera is basically a light-tight box with a lens at the front, featuring light-sensitive material (the film) inside. The lens focuses light onto the film, while a shutter sitting behind the lens controls the level of light allowed through to the film. A film camera has mechanisms that then allow the film to be wound along, and provide control over the lens aperture and shutter speed.

The other complicated element which then comes into play is the viewfinder. Less expensive film cameras can sometimes have a separate lens that shows in the viewfinder the approximate scene that will be recorded onto the film. A high-quality film camera, known as an SLR (single lens reflex), instead uses the camera's main lens for the viewfinder. The advantage of this is that what the user sees via the viewfinder is exactly what will appear on the film - even down to seeing the focus of the picture.

Although digital cameras work on a similar principle, the biggest difference between them and their predecessors is the replacement of film with light-sensitive sensors. Here, the light sensor device absorbs the light particles and converts them into electrical charges. Sensors can be thought of as a grid of thousands or millions of solar cells which transform the image into an electrical charge. The bigger the hit of light to the sensors, the greater the electrical charge produced, which means the photo will be more exposed.

Once these charges have been recorded, the next step is to read the accumulated charge of each. When capturing and converting these charges, the sensor cells are colour-blind, recognising only the intensity of the light. Digital cameras, therefore, have to employ coloured filters to produce the spectrum of colours which is present in the picture. The standard way of doing this is to rotate coloured filters across the sensor. These are usually green-red and green-blue filters.

Once both the charge and colour have been recorded, the final step is to convert the analog signal to a digital one by passing the information on the sensor through an analog to digital converter. This will turn the information into binary form, which can then be interpreted by a PC.

The predominant sensor used in digital cameras today is a Charge Coupled Device (CCD), although Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) sensors are occasionally still implemented. Generally a larger sensor will produce a better quality image, as it is able to capture more light, which is one of the chief reasons why SLRs offer superior image quality to their smaller compact brethren. That said, the size of the sensor is less important than the number of pixels it has. This is measured in megapixels, or millions of pixels, and most cameras these days start with at least a 5Mp sensor.

However, the CCD isn't everything, either: some of the higher-end cameras have only 5Mpr 6Mp sensors, and rely on a more expensive lens. Another thing to note is that most sensors in digital cameras are smaller than their film counterpart, so the lens required to produce similar-sized images via a digital camera is smaller. So, while the lens on a digital camera doesn't need to be as big, it will nevertheless affect the quality of your image as much as a lens on a conventional camera.

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Photo Terminology


Photo Terminology

As a PC user you might be under the impression that mastering digital photography is simpler than film photography. In fact, to get the most out of a middle or top of the range digital camera, you need to know exactly the same fundamentals about photography. For those of you who aren't too familiar with photo terminology, here are some quick explanations to help.

Aperture: The aperture of a lens is related to its diameter and is a measure of how much light the lens allows in. Altering the aperture, therefore, is an important means of controlling the exposure recorded within the image. Aperture is measured in f-stops, although, confusingly, the larger the aperture, the smaller the f-stop.

f-stop: A measure of how much light a lens lets in. More precisely, it's the ratio of the diameter to the focal length. So a lens with a true focal length of 20mm, which is 10mm in diameter, has a maximum aperture of f/2. An implication of this is that a zoom lens will have a smaller maximum aperture when it is zoomed in.

Shutter speed: This is the length of time light is allowed into the camera when a photo is taken. Commonly, shutter speed can be varied from 1/1000 second to a few seconds. One of the most important things to note about shutter speed is its effect on movement. With a slow shutter speed, typically, less than 1/60th of a second, a moving object will be portrayed as blurry. Faster shutter speeds allow the user to capture a moving object much more clearly - even droplets of water in a fountain will appear to be frozen in mid-air.

Focal length: The focal length is a property of the lens which dictates the amount by which it magnifies the scene. The zoom control on higher-end cameras is the means by which the focal length is altered. Commonly, the focal length of a digital camera is given as a 35mm equivalent because so many people are familiar with 35mm cameras. The actual focal length will be shorter, because the CCD is smaller than 35mm film.

You should also be aware that changing the focal length affects perspective. A short focal length exaggerates perspective; a long focal length shortens it.

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Camera features


Photo Terminology

Resolution

One of the most critical ways to judge a digital camera's image performance is by its resolution. A camera's resolution is defined by multiplying the number of pixels on the sensors horizontally with those vertically - otherwise referred to as the pixel rating.

Pixels (short for picture element) are minuscule dots which, when put together, create the image that appears on a digital screen. The more of these pixels there are on the screen, the sharper the image created and the greater the flexibility when taking and printing your photos.

Typically, CCD resolution ranges from 4-megapixel (in lower-end products) to as much as 12 megapixels. This can also be represented as 2272 x 1704 pixels to 4288 x 2848 pixels.

Alongside these figures, several manufacturers use two terms to describe the camera's resolution: effective versus total resolution. The total resolution figure represents the total number of pixels on the CCD. Effective resolution represents the number of pixels which are used to produce the image. Not all of the pixels on the sensor are used in generating the image, partly because some pixels are used as part of the circuitry for calculating the levels of charge across the sensors, and also because the CCD or CMOS device can create picture degradation on the very edge of the device.

So, a digital camera with a total resolution of 2384x1734, for example, can only generate images with a maximum effective image resolution of 2272x1712. Therefore, the figure which accurately gauges the camera's resolution is the effective one.

If you intend to take pictures only to e-mail to friends or to print at snapshot size, a camera with a low resolution will do. Even so, more pixels give you greater flexibility - you can print sharper pictures at larger sizes, or crop small pieces out of pictures. Basically any reasonably good 5 megapixel model will produce more than adequate shots up to a print size of 6in x 8in or so, but for bigger enlargements or more creative work, you'll want a more advanced device.

Cameras on the higher end of the resolution scale will have a steeper price tag, though, so make sure you know what you want to use the digital camera for before buying.

Digital cameras will also come with a selection of resolution choices, which often confuses the user. Setting an image in a high or "fine" resolution will result in a better quality picture, but will inevitably take up more memory than an image set in a lower resolution mode.

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Zoom lens

Two types of zoom feature on digital cameras: digital zoom and optical zoom.

Digital zoom simply crops an image to the centre - similar to the way a software image editor works. For example, when a user zooms in to take a picture at a magnification level of 2X (more on this below), the resulting image will have half the resolution of the original. In other words, the pixels that would have been used to capture the original or "un-zoomed" image are simply magnified. To compensate for the loss of actual pixelation, digital cameras then use a process called "interpolating", which adds pixels to the zoomed image using a complicated algorithm. The resulting image, however, is still far less vivid and effective than if the actual pixels had been used.

On the other hand, an optical zoom magnifies the image using a real multifocal-length lens. This means that the lens is actually magnifying the focal length and zooming in before the image is captured in pixels (the focal length is a property of the lens that dictates the amount by which it magnifies the scene).

The amount of this magnification is expressed in degrees, such as "2x" or "3x". A "2x" optical zoom, for example, means that if the camera's minimum focal length is 50mm, then it has the ability to take pictures up to 100mm.

These days pretty much every camera comes with at least 3x optical zoom. This is more than adequate for day-to-day use, but more serious photographers may want to invest in a more advanced model, that has a zoom lens of 6x or even 12x. Take note, if you buy an SLR, the zoom won't be measured in degrees like it is on a compact unit. Instead you will get a measurement for that lens, for example 18-55mm, but you can easily work out the comparable level by doing some simple maths.

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Usability

Good cameras can take pictures, display them, and let you scroll through menus quickly without having to stab buttons again and again to get something to work. Compare models side by side to gauge their speed, as well as the usability of the menu settings and functions.

After all, you don't want to spend your time trying to figure out how to swap between stored images and photo-taking modes when capturing that once-in-a-lifetime pic.

A plethora of menu and usability choices is out there. Most cameras use LCD panels to display your menu options, while others also employ dials for various image and setting options. Again, the quality of the camera you buy will determine the number of functionality features on the camera.

Focus Options

All digital cameras have the option of using auto focus to focus on the subject. Higher-end units may also offer manual focus, which will allow you to focus the image you are taking yourself. This can be useful for close-ups or situations in which the camera can't get an automatic focus lock.

Auto focus is great for users who want to keep photo-taking simple, but won't please the avid photographers who want more control over the focal length or depth of field used in the image (see "Photo terminology" section for more on these terms).

Also, look for a macro focus option. This will allow you to take very close-up photos of subjects on which you wouldn't otherwise be able to focus with a normal lens. Macro lenses can focus on a subject as close as 2cm or 3cm.

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White balance

Almost all digital cameras let you choose a white-balance setting via presets. These settings tell the camera the colour temperature of the light in a setting so that white comes out white and black comes out black - and, by inference, red comes out red.

Although all digital cameras have an automatic white balance control and will do an overall good job of figuring out the light when you take a photo, they're not always accurate. Some light sources, such as sun light or fluorescent light, may cast slightly coloured hues across your lens, which will then affect the quality of your image.

If you are concerned about colour accuracy, look for a digital camera with a manual calibrator in which you press a button while aiming at a white object.

Exposure settings

The same goes for the camera's automatic exposure.

Although all digital cameras have an automatic exposure control and will do an overall good job of figuring out the light when you take a photo, they're not always accurate. Shadows or dubious light sources can trick the camera into thinking there is more or less light present. This will then affect the exposure and hence the quality of your image.

All digital cameras let you shoot in fully automatic mode, but higher quality cameras offer aperture and shutter-priority modes, in which you adjust, respectively, either the size of the lens opening or how long the shutter stays open; the camera automatically controls the other variable to give you the proper exposure. Usually the same cameras also offer full-manual exposure control, in which you set both variables. These modes make a camera adaptable to almost any situation.

Your other option is to use the included preset scene modes. For example, choosing "sports" will open the aperture to a wide setting and force a fast shutter speed. They're useful, but you may have to spend extra time deciding which mode fits your setting.

Burst Mode

A good burst mode can be a great addition to a camera. Burst mode captures a series of shots in quick succession, allowing you to either record a series of fast paced events, or take multiple shots of something very quick like a soccer goal, in an attempt to nail the perfect snap. Some cameras will operate faster than others, with top end SLRs capturing in excess of five frames per second, while compacts are usually more sedate at two or maybe three frames per second.

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Movies and sound

Two additional features you may find on a higher-end camera are movie and audio. A movie feature will allow you to record a snippet of footage, which you can then play back on either the camera or on your PC. These are usually recorded as MJPEG, MPEG, QuickTime or AVI files.

Both MPEG and MJPEG files are the multimedia equivalent to JPEG and can be used for storing digital video and audio files. The difference between the two formats is that an MJPEG file saves each individual frame, rather than just saving the differences from one frame to another, like an MPEG file does. As a result, an MJPEG file will take up more memory space than an MPEG file, but has the advantage of being simpler to edit frame-by-frame than its counterpart.

AVI (Audio Visual Interleaved) is a sound and motion format developed by Microsoft for digital video in Windows. This means you will need a Windows operating system to be able to download and view these files on your PC.

QuickTime is another multimedia file type, developed by Apple. It can be used on any Mac or PC equipped with a QuickTime player, and combines images, graphics, audio and video into a single file.

As a whole, users can expect to get at least 15 to 120 seconds - and more if they have a big storage amount on their card -- of video footage on a digital camera (opting for a low resolution will increase the amount of footage recorded). A way of checking the quality of this feature across different digital cameras is to look at the frame rate: how many image frames are played back each second? A faster frame rate will reduce the time between each image frame, and make the transition between each frame much smoother. These days most modern cameras record at a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels at 30 frames per second, although there are a few models on the market now that shoot at a very high 1024 x 768.

An audio clip allows users to record a sound bite, which can then be played alongside an image or video clip. If you do buy a camera with this feature, you should get an average of 30 seconds of audio time. Audio files on digital cameras are usually saved as .WAV files - an uncompressed audio file type developed by Microsoft, which can be used both on PCs and Macs.

Hot shoe

The hot shoe is a contact slot used for attaching an electronic external flash unit to a camera. While available on most conventional SLR cameras, this tends to be an extra feature on higher-end digital cameras and will probably only interest professional photographers.

Panoramic shots

There is a gamut of software programs now available which allow users to combine their single photos into a panoramic shot.

To help these software programs, some cameras offer a "stitching" feature which groups the photos you want to include in a panoramic shot when you actually take them. The function basically allows you to tag which image you want to include as panoramic, while the software actually joins up the images together.

Certain manufacturers are now even building such software into their cameras, allowing you to stitch together multiple shots while out and about. This is particularly useful if you aren't confident using third-party PC software

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Storage


Storage

All digital cameras write to flash memory, rather than film. The advantage of a removable flash memory card is that images can be viewed, kept, or replaced on the spot. Most cameras have built-in memory, but this tends to be very limited and capable of storing only a few images at the lowest resolution.

Flash memory is different to standard RAM memory because it reads and writes information in blocks, rather than in bytes. Reading and retrieving from these blocks make it easier for the system to update information as it loads up. Flash memory is often used to house control code, such as the Input/Output system in the BIOS chip in your PC, but has also developed into a removable storage format for a variety of digital devices like digital still and video cameras and audio players.

Removable storage media cards used in digital cameras come in five main formats: CompactFlash, xD-Picture Card, Memory Stick, Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard (although this latter one is becoming less common). While the differences in performance between these storage technologies is not enough to warrant purchasing one type over another, users should be aware that digital camera manufacturers have opted for one particular media type for their range of products, and that the various media types are not interchangeable (with one exception: you can use MultiMediaCards in SD slots, but not vice versa).

Unless you want to juggle a bunch of memory cards in competing formats, find out which memory card the digital camera uses, and whether you can use that same type of card in devices you already own. Most companies these days elect to use Secure Digital cards (SD), although certain companies like Sony prefer to stick with their proprietary format (Memory Stick in this case). Additionally, if you want to be able to swap media cards with friends, it will be worth your while to do a bit of homework on what types of memory are supported in which devices.

Each storage type also comes in various sizes, anywhere from 16MB up to 8GB or 16GB. Having a good idea of how many pictures you plan on taking, as well as the quality of those images (for instance, if you want to be able to print all of your pictures versus taking e-mail happy snaps), should also influence your final decision.

To give you an idea of how many images can be stored on media cards, a typical 5 megapixel compact will produce shots that are about 1.2MB, so you could get around 200 or so on a 256MB card. If you're capturing shots at 8 or 10 megapixels however, they will be more like 4MB or 5MB and will take up considerably more room.

The price of the memory cards, of course, will factor into your decision as well, as some are cheaper than others, but generally these days flash memory is cheap enough that this won't be a limiting factor.

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CompactFlash (CF)

CompactFlash offers one major advantage over the competition. It offers the highest data storage capacity. CF also offers higher read/write speeds than some of its competitors. However take into consideration that it is also the largest removable memory card format on the market. Not many compact cameras use Compact Flash anymore, with most electing to go with smaller formats, so generally this won't be an option unless you're buying an SLR.

CF cards comes in two sizes, Type I and Type II. Type II cards are larger and can contain miniature hard drives within them. Type I cards are about the same size as Smart Media cards, but four times thicker. CF cards will operate at both 3.3V and 5V. The voltage refers to how much power the media card draws from the camera. Obviously, the lower the voltage, the less power needed by the card.

CF cards are currently available in 16MB, 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB, 512MB, 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, 8GB and 16GB increments. A 512MB card will cost roughly $15 while a larger 4GB card is a little pricier, at around $60.

Secure Digital (SD)

The modern day king of flash memory, most manufacturers these days support SD cards. They are significantly smaller than CF cards (SDs are about the size of a postage stamp size and weigh around 2 grams), and come in capacities up to 8GB.

SD cards were designed with built-in cryptographic technology for protected content, to ensure secure distribution of copyright data. The card's namesake security readiness is now a moot point, however. Though SD was intended to protect the music industry by incorporating the Secure Digital Music Initiative's digital rights management and copy-protection scheme, the specification was publicly cracked shortly after its publication, and the SDMI consortium is no longer active.

SD cards cost roughly the same as CF cards, with a 512MB unit setting you back about $15 and a 8GB about $125.

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MultiMediaCards (MMC)

MultiMediaCards (MMCs), though slightly thinner than Secure Digital cards, are the only type of removable media format which can interact with another format (SD). Most manufacturers are building SD slots into their devices instead of slots for MMCs, because the SD format offers faster read/write performance. However, because MMCs fit into SD slots, don't be afraid to purchase this type of media to use with SD-based digital products.

MMC cards are available in the same sizes as SD cards, and with very similar pricing until you get to the higher capacity cards, with a 4GB unit costing roughly $170.

Memory Stick Pro Duo

Despite being used predominantly in Sony products, Memory Stick media could be the best bet for digital camera buyers with other Sony devices.

Designed for use with both PCs and a wide variety of digital AV (audio/video) products, the Memory Stick can be used to store, transfer and play back AV content such as images, sounds and music as well as information including data, text and graphics. These days they are compatible with everything from Sony Ericsson phones through to the Playstation Portable. Memory sticks used to be a little larger and thinner than SD cards, looking more like a stick of gum than a postage stamp, but the now commonly used Memory Stick Pro Duo is a much smaller format, and comes in a little smaller than a standard SD card.

The only problem with memory stick technology is that no other companies really support it. Sony is the only camera company to make use of it, and while you may find the odd third party electronic device that supports it, for the most part you'll be stuck with Sony products.

Memory sticks are a little more expensive than their counterparts, with a 512MB card going for around $30 to $35, while a 4GB unit costs about $90.

xD-picture card

The other major memory format is the xD card (Extreme Digital). Two of the companies behind the SmartMedia card format, Fuji Photo Film and Olympus, made the switch a few years back, developing their own format of flash memory.

The xD-Picture Card is only 20x25mm in size and a little thinner than the other formats. However, it also costs a little more, with a 512MB card costing about $30 and a 2GB card is priced at $130. Currently xD cards don't extend to the same capacities as CF or SD cards.

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Reader drives for your PC

There are several ways of transferring the images from a digital camera to the PC: either by connecting the camera directly to the PC via USB and downloading the images (more on this in the connectivity section below), or by using a memory card reader.

There are a range of memory card readers now available in the market, and they are priced very competitively. A five-in-one card reader that supports all the major formats can be bought for as little as $30.

Select vendors have also taken image downloading a step farther, and released printers which allow you simply to hook your digital camera directly to the printer to print images, bypassing the PC. Some now also contain built-in multiple memory card readers, so you can print your images directly from your memory card, as well as perform basic image manipulation on the device's LCD screen.

Connectivity


Connectivity

The standard your camera uses to transfer data requires your PC to have the relevant ports. How fast data transfer is will depend on these and your camera's connection standard.

Universal Serial Bus

The vast majority of digital cameras on the market use Universal Serial Bus (USB) to connect to a PC. USB allows easy installation of peripheral devices; just connect your camera to its cable and the cable to your PC. You don't have to install device drivers or even turn off your PC.

These days, pretty much every camera contains a USB 2.0 port, which runs at 480Mbps. This is considerably faster than the 12Mbs USB 1.1 ports that used to be used. Keep in mind though, to make proper use of US 2.0 your computer will have to support the interface, which many older machines do not. Otherwise you'll be forced to transfer at USB 1.1 speeds.

FireWire

FireWire, also known as IEEE 1394, transfers data at the same speed as USB 2.0, but is more commonly used by digital video cameras to transfer video. There are a few high end D-SLRs that have this connection, but for the most part you won't find it on any sort of consumer camera.

An advantage of FireWire is that it allows some cameras to receive power from the connection. Therefore, you could connect your unpowered camera with a FireWire connection and receive power from the bus.

Another benefit is that FireWire uses peer to peer connections, letting you transfer data between FireWire devices without a PC. USB is host-based, requiring a connection to a PC. Peer to peer connections are useful if you want to move photos from one camera to another, or perhaps from a camera to a digital video camera.

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Dock

Some cameras don't connect directly to your PC, but instead sit in a dock, which in turn is connected to your machine, usually by a USB 2.0 connection. When docked, the camera will automatically connect to your computer, upload its images, and launch software for editing, e-mailing, and printing.

Cameras that use docks are generally aimed at novice users, and not many companies employ them any longer, with Kodak and Casio being the exceptions.

Video Out

High-end digital cameras usually come with the capability of recording video, and an audio visual (AV) output terminal. Using an AV cable, video can be transferred from your camera to your TV, VCR or PC. If transferring data to your TV, the AV cable will connect to its video in and audio in terminals.

Power


Power

Most cameras include an AC adapter to charge batteries or run the camera from an outlet. Some cameras will charge batteries in-camera. However, there are still three types of batteries used in digital cameras, and each have their pros and cons.

Alkaline

These are your standard off-the-shelf AA-sized batteries. Their biggest selling point is their availability. Their weakness is that they don't last as long as other battery types. If you're going to use alkalines, be prepared to buy more batteries regularly.

Ni-MH

Ni-MH (Nickel Metal Hydride) are rechargeable, AA-sized batteries, and can be used in cameras that use AA-sized alkalines. While Ni-MH batteries last longer than alkalines, they don't last as long as lithiums. They're also environmentally friendly.

Li-ions

The longer lasting but most expensive types of batteries are Li-ion (lithium ion) batteries. Rechargeable Lithium ions have a predictable voltage curve which allows cameras to have a reliable "fuel gauge" indicating how much charge remains. The bad news about Li-ions is they are not available in standard sizes such as AA and are more difficult (expensive) to manufacture. Therefore, if your camera can use only Li-ions, you won't have much choice when it comes to buying extra batteries or faster battery chargers.

Lithium batteries come in standard sizes and voltages, deliver two to three times as many shots as alkaline batteries of the same size, and have a shelf life of up to 10 years. While they may be too expensive for everyday use, their shelf life and capacity make them the best choice.

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Image Compression


Image Compression

Most digital cameras will store images as JPEGs. This file format stands for joint Photographic Experts Group, and saves image data by compressing it. The more compression (and therefore the smaller the file), the greater the loss of image quality. Users will usually be able to choose from "finer" or "normal" JPEG resolution modes on the camera, which offer more or less compression.

Some mid and higher-end models will be able to record images as other, less compressed file types, such as TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) or RAW. Because these types of files are not compressed like JPEGs, they take a lot more memory, and RAW files in particular also require post capture processing, making them a lot more work. The advantage of RAW files is that you won't lose any image data in the compression process.

Unless you're a professional photographer, this isn't really a big issue however, as the quality promised by a "finer" JPEG file should give you an excellent image quality suitable for printing your photos.

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Design


Design

The weight of the digital camera should also be a consideration when you're looking at buying one. Those who plan to travel with it, for example, may find that a lighter model is easier to carry around. Also, the physical size of the camera can be a persuading factor: you may prefer one which fits in your pocket to one you have to carry in a bag.

The majority of digital cameras weigh between 200g and 800g, although several lightweight cameras come in at a trim 150g. Be aware that a light camera will most likely have fewer features - and can wear a more expensive price tag.

You should also keep in mind whether the camera has a viewfinder or not. Basically all modern digital cameras come with LCD screens to frame the shot, except D-SLRs which use a different technology that prohibits them from doing this (note: some new D-SLR models circumvent this, allowing you to use the LCD for live review, but these are few and far between). This does however mean many basic units skip the inclusion of a viewfinder all together. So if you're a film traditionalist, or just like the feel of composing a shot using the viewfinder, then this will be an important consideration.

Software


Software

Few cameras come with truly valuable image editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or Ulead PhotoImpact. However, you will find that most cameras include software programs as part of the retail cost. This software is enough to keep you busy once you have taken your photos. You will find some of the software is third party, while others are developed in-house by the camera manufacturer.

The types of software you will see varies. For example, you may get video image editing software that can turn your photos into slide show presentations in AVI, MPEG, and EXE formats. Other software may allow you to edit and retouch your photos, then add special effects or place them in cards, calendars, frames and templates. You can even remove red eyes from pictures. Or, your camera may also come with software that allows you to create your own photo album using your digital photos or even convert your album for uploading to the Web. See here for an example of imaging software in action.

If you are interested in the software, research the camera you have in mind and then check the specs, where you should find any bundled software. If you are unsure what the software does, just copy the name of it in a search engine - and a quick search will yield all the info you need.

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Questions to ask the retailer


Questions to ask the retailer

Why should I buy a digital stills camera over a digital video camera?

Apart from the fact that a digital video camera is sure to make a bigger dent in your pocket, digital video cameras do not offer the same resolution quality as digital still cameras. Despite having better and larger lenses, the actual quality of the pixels only compares to the lower end of the digital camera range.

In addition, most digital video cameras that boast of more than 1 megapixel image resolution are large and bulky, and suitable only for taking basic Web or e-mail images.

What sort of warranty do I get with this?

Generally, digital cameras come with a one-year limited warranty.

A question worth asking if you plan on spending a lot of time overseas is whether the product warranty covers international travel. Camera users who want to take their digital camera away on holidays may not be aware that this could void the warranty. In some cases, warranties are region-based, so if the camera breaks whilst you are overseas, you will have to pay for the repair yourself. In addition, an extended warranty on a digital camera, such as a two-year warranty, will usually cover Australia only.

What accessories do I get?

Besides software, digital cameras can also come bundled with a range of accessories, including camera bags, pouches and straps, printing consumables, storage media and batteries. Find out what extra accessories your camera comes with, as these items can be expensive when purchased separately. In particular, check the amount of storage memory included - while most come with 8MB cards, you may be lucky enough to find a 16MB or even 32MB card bundled with the camera.