Digital cameras

My wife and I recently returned from a vacation and, naturally, forced family members to sit through a slide-show detailing our adventures. There was, however, one big difference between our slides and the family slides I remember from childhood: my “slides” were shown on a computer, and involved no film whatsoever.

That’s because they were taken with a digital camera, one of the latest developments in the computer revolution, and one rapidly taking the photographic world by storm.

My digital camera looks very much like an ordinary point-and-shoot 35-millimetre camera. It has a lens, a shutter, an auto-focus mechanism and a built-in flash. The similarities are due to the fact that all cameras are designed to capture the light reflected or emitted by objects and focus that light onto something that can register and record it. In a film camera, that something is a thin layer of chemicals that is altered by light; in a digital camera, it’s a sensor made up of thousands of tiny photoelectric cells. When light strikes one of these cells, it produces an electrical signal. The strength of the signal is determined by the brightness and wavelength (color) of the light. A special computer chip converts the signal from each sensor into a number that is stored electronically. The camera or a computer can then read those numbers and recreate the image that produced them.

Some digital cameras store images onto a regular floppy disk, but most use special removable memory cards, first developed for use with laptop computers. These cards act like film, in that you can take one out of the camera, put in another, and continue shooting, but they have one big advantage: they’re reusable!

Digital cameras let you choose what resolution you want to shoot pictures at. Resolution is measured in pixels (“picture elements”)–in other words, dots. Even regular photographs are really made up of millions of tiny dots. The more dots that make up the picture, the sharper it looks.

My camera, for instance, lets you shoot at 640 X 480 pixels or 1280 X 960. Low-resolution pictures are great for images you only want to look at on a video screen, while high-resolution pictures are better for printing. High-resolution pictures, naturally, also take up a lot more space: my camera can shoot 39 low-resolution pictures with its built-in memory, but only five high-resolution pictures.

Pictures can be previewed right on the camera, using a built-in LCD color viewscreen (which can also be used as a viewfinder)–and immediately erased if you don’t like them. They can also be displayed on your TV or downloaded to your computer.

For all their benefits digital cameras aren’t quite ready to completely supplant film cameras. They have a hard time taking lots of pictures in quick succession; they eat batteries, especially if you use the viewscreen very much; pictures exist only as electronic files, which can accidentally be erased or become unreadable; and most lack the sophisticated photographic controls even inexpensive 35mm cameras can boast.

Sure, you don’t have to buy film or get it processed, but since getting a good print of a digital photograph requires an ink-gulping color printer and expensive glossy computer paper, the savings aren’t as much as you might think, if they exist at all.

The biggest shortcoming is that even the best digital cameras, with resolutions of over 1.5 million pixels, can’t capture as much detail any old 35mm camera, much less the large-format cameras professional photographers prefer.

But average photographers don’t worry that much about resolution, or the little Instamatics of the 1970s would never have been so popular, and Polaroid would have gone broke. Snapshot-shooters like convenience, and digital cameras have that in spades, offering instant access to the image and capturing it in a form immediately ready to be transmitted or displayed electronically–which means you can e-mail a picture of your new granddaughter to your brother in Istanbul before you even get the film out of your regular camera. As well, digital photo albums take up no space at all, something that certainly can’t be said about traditional photo albums.

I own a 35mm camera and I spent years as a newspaper reporter and photographer. I won’t stop taking pictures with film, but based on my experience, I’m convinced digital cameras will eventually become the method of choice for ordinary people to capture the images of their everyday lives.

Any one want to see my slide show?

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