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Cybernaut

Let’s get digital

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When the camera was invented in the mid-19th century, some traditionalists felt that the process cheapened the work of the portrait painter. It accomplished in minutes what took the artist months of toil and trouble, and put immortality, once reserved for aristocrats, within reach of everyday people.

One German newspaper editor even went so far as to suggest that photography – invented by a crude Frenchman – was the work of the devil, and that photographs were inherently blasphemous because in capturing the image of man in all his vanity, ergo we are also capturing the image of God in that we are made in His divine image.

Lucky for Hugh Heffner, Ansel Adams and Annie Leibowitz, that particular chain of reasoning went nowhere, and the art and technology of photography continued to evolve.

Now we’re waist deep in the digital age, and still the technology shows no signs of slowing down or leveling out. If anything, the technology is moving at a faster pace.

Even a few years ago, digital cameras were reserved for people who work on the Web. Most newspapers and magazines preferred film quality shots, although much of the time those pictures were scanned and sent pixel by pixel through news organizations on the Internet. Regular users also didn’t see much point in going digital, either because they lacked the technology and know-how, or felt they would wind up with inferior print quality if they wanted to transfer their digital photos to slides or the family photo album.

Those issues are quickly and quietly being resolved. While digital music may never triumph over analog vinyl for the serious audiophile, digital pictures may never take away from the austerity of conventional photography. But it’s not for a lack of trying.

If you’re in the market for a new camera, and are thinking of going digital, here’s an overview of the basics.

The Camera

Digital cameras can run anywhere from about $300 for a simple point and shoot to $10,000 for a top-of-the-line professional set-up, which leaves a lot of room for performance-enhancing features.

Your basic camera will likely include a colour LCD screen, a flash with four settings (off, on, automatic and red-eye reduction), a 16 MB memory card, zoom settings, simple controls for contrast and darkness, and two resolution settings, low and high. Low resolution doesn’t necessarily mean lower picture quality, just fewer pixels.

For example, a 2-megapixel setting will capture images of 1,600 pixels wide by1,200 pixels high. On paper, that reproduces well as an eight by six inch. A 3-megapixel camera will capture images of 2,048 by 1,536, which reproduces an equivalent picture quality as an eight by ten. Resolutions in excess of 5.5-megapixels are possible with some high end digital cameras.

If you’re planning on posting your pictures on the Internet, you’ll have to shrink these pictures significantly to accommodate much smaller browser resolutions.

The larger your resolution, the fewer pictures you will be able to take. A typical 16 MB memory card can save approximately 50 pictures taken at 1.2 megapixels. Most cameras save images as JPEGs, a universal file format recognized by both Mac and PC equipment, although professional models will allow you to save shots as high-quality TIFFs.

If you plan on turning your digital photos into prints or slides, a higher resolution is preferable as pixel density will ultimately determine the clarity of a photograph – more pixels crammed into a given space, say a typical four by six inch photograph, will produce a sharper image.

You’ll probably need to buy an extra set of rechargeable batteries, and a plug-in power adapter might be a good idea if you’re taking pictures indoors and want to use the flash to illuminate and the LCD screen to frame your shots – both tend to drain your batteries a lot faster.

A good place to start searching for a digital camera that meets your needs is at industry review sites – visit www.photoalley.com , www.imagingresource.com or www.phot.cnet.com for a professional opinion.

The Picture

The difference between what the eye sees and what the picture looks like is not as dramatic using a digital camera, providing you use the LCD screen to take your shots.

Most cameras will come with a zoom feature built in, from 2X to 10X at the higher end of the spectrum. Keep in mind that 2X doesn’t mean twice as close – 3X does.

There are different kinds of zoom – optical zoom, whereby the lens handles the magnification, and digital zooms, whereby the camera focuses in on areas within the picture at the expense of picture quality. The same things will happen using this feature as happen when you blow up or edit a picture using photographic software.

For this reason, optical zooms are generally preferable.

If you want the lowdown on lenses and photographs, visit www.dpreview.com .

Most digital cameras feature autofocus, which means essentially that you focus the centre of the lens on your subject to get an accurate depth and light reading. If you know a little about photography already, most of your knowledge of photographic techniques will come in handy. If you don’t know anything about lighting, film speeds, shutter speeds, and focusing techniques, you can get a quick familiarization at www.photographybasics.com .

Once your memory card is full of pictures, you’ll need to download them to your computer. Most cameras or memory card readers come with serial cables that connect to your computer, plus the software you’ll need to download, save, and often edit your pictures. Advanced photo editing software can readily be found at computer stores, and recently at camera stores.

If you want to publish your pictures as slides or prints, find out what they need at your local photography store – they can outline their specifications for you, or recommend software that will make it easier for both of you.

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