This is really a primer on digital cameras. As you have seen from many of the photos included with the various reviews, there are advantages to sticking with a digital camera, especially when doing web work. The major benefits of a digital are that you don't have to pay for film or processing, you can immediately reshoot an image if it doesn't turn out right, and they are generally MUCH clearer images because you don't have to transpose them from analog to digital via a scanner. The disadvantages are generally high initial cost (though they soon pay for themselves over film and processing costs you are no longer paying), and they are not as flexible as a 35mm SLR. However, I do need to point out that newer digitals are cutting back on that gap rather rapidly. As I type this in October of 2001, there are now 5.1 megapixel cameras on the market.

Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages, what should you look for in a digital camera? 

The first question is always "what's all this megapixel stuff?". Basically the number of megapixels your camera has is a statement of the resolution of the camera. All things being equal, the more megapixels the higher the resolution on the highest setting. Another way of looking at it is 'How big a print can I make with this camera before you notice that it was taken by a digital camera?'

One can generally tell a digital image by what is known as 'pixillation'. This is where your smooth diagonal lines start to look choppy. You can see little blocks in them. This is what is known as pixellation. If you have been dealing with computers for more than 10 years, then you can remember the graphics of very early video games. In these games, there were no smooth lines that were not strictly aligned side to side or top to bottom. 'Curved' lines were very blocky and choppy. They were pixellated.

Getting back to the print deal, the more megapixels  the camera has, the larger the print that can be made before pixellation becomes a factor. Generally speaking, a 2 megapixel camera can make a clear 4 x 6 print, 3 megapixels; 8 x 12, 4 megapixels; 11x 16 and so on. If you want to transfer your images to prints, the more megapixels the better.

In terms of images on your computer, the more megapixels the larger the image that can be taken. For example, if your camera is 2 megapixels, then the maximum image you can shoot is about 1,000 pixels across. If it is 3 megapixels, that increases to 2,000 and so on. To get an idea of this look at your computer screen. The number of pixels across your screen is determined by many factors including the video card you have. On most computers, you can set your screen to 1,024 pixels across. Others with older computers and smaller monitors are limited to 800 pixels or even 600 pixels. The more pixels on a screen the more information is up there and the greater the resolution. Make sense?

For Modeling Madness, I request that images be at least 1,000 pixels across and in an unaltered state. This means at least a 2 megapixel camera. I do this as the images I receive are often not perfect and slightly unclear. By shrinking the image with software, I can  get back some of that lost resolution. If the photographer has already 'messed' with the image, I cannot regain that lost resolution and the image looks poor. On this note. Software cannot fix an image that is out of focus or too light. That is why it is imperative that you take to heart the information given on the first page.

The other important thing you need to consider from a digital camera is how close it can focus. For most model photos, you need to get within at least a foot. This generally means for most types, that you will need one with a zoom lens. Most digitals do not come with interchangeable lenses unless you are willing to fork over many thousands of dollars. What the quality cameras come with are good zoom lenses. You want a camera that has a decent range of, say, at least 3 to 1 and the zoom must be optical, not digital. Digital zooming is only enlarging the image and as the image gets bigger so does all the noise. This means a loss of resolution. It is the same as taking an image on your computer and enlarging it. If you have done this you can see how the image degrades as it gets bigger. That is why you want a good OPTICAL zoom.

Other factors also come into play when getting a digital camera. One is to makes sure your camera has a manual setting and that you can set the aperture when taking pictures. This aperture priority ability is key to taking sharp pictures as explained earler.

It is also my recommendation that you get one that takes a compact flash card or smart media card. These small memory units can hold a respectable number of images. I recommend getting one that is about 64 meg. The price of these cards is at an all time low and are a real bargain. 64 meg will give you the ability to put a decent number of images on it, even at a high resolution. There are other storage methods but they all have disadvantages. Some take floppy discs but you are limited to 2.8 megabytes. Some take a CD-RW, but those are quite large. Sony units take a memory stick, but they are more expensive than compact flash cards and many of us think these will go the way of the Betamax as only Sony uses them.

There are a number of other options that these cameras have, such as the ability to use an external flash, the ability to take mini-movies, etc, but those above are the basics you should consider. Though these cameras seem to go out of date as often as computers, the key is to get the best that you can afford at the time you are shopping. Try these price comparison sites and if you do buy on-line or by mail order, make sure that you are not trading in a low purchase price for a high shipping price. The cheapest camera I found when I was looking had a $45 s&h cost. I bought a slightly more expensive one that charge $7 to ship it to me.

Best of luck and any questions, don't hesitate to contact me about it. I can't promise to answer every e-mail, but I do read them all.

Scott Van Aken