Choosing and Using a Digital Camera

People often ask me about choosing and using digital cameras, so I thought I'd put together those discussions into a more accessible form. First, a disclaimer: I've only been using digital cameras since 2001, so I'm not vastly experienced. But I have put a lot of thought and research into it, and I do have a lot of experience with traditional film-based equipment.

(Note that all this is from a strictly amateur "fun" perspective. I've never done professional work, and do not consider myself an "artist".)

Is digital as good as film?

Digital has indeed caught up with film for the vast majority of users. From a resolution perspective, 2 MB will give great 4x6 pictures, and 4 MB will yield very good 8x10's, and even impressive 20x30 poster prints (albeit not tack-sharp close-up). So the issues are more subtle, revolving around other characteristics of digital cameras, and the "workflow" of digital photography, especially how one displays and stores the images. These considerations are what the article is about, mostly.

For a brief summary, my personal answer to this question is: Yes, but really only from the perspective of an amateur 35mm negative shooter, and with the physically larger, lower-noise sensors found in digital SLR's, and using a RAW workflow. The more typical smaller sensors found in compact digital cameras have good resolution, and are fine for everyday pictures, but for more critical work, suffer from noise and dynamic range limitations relative to film. While most professional news and sports photography has "gone digital", fine-arts and larger-format photographers still have very valid reasons to use film.

Why should I buy a digital camera at all?

The real issue is digital vs. film, whether you currently have a film-based camera or not. While both are for taking still pictures, they feel like rather different media in practice. To a large extent, it depends on your desired product: electronic images for web pages, or paper prints (or slides for traditional projection).

This is not an absolute distinction. There are various ways of getting electronic images from film: scanning from photos, or preferably, from the negatives or slides themselves using a dedicated film scanner, or most conveniently, getting your photo store or mail-order photo processor to scan the film onto CD-ROM. And there are various ways to get prints from digital cameras: either printing them yourself on a "photo-quality" inkjet printer, or getting real photographic prints from one of the online outfits and an increasing number of retail outlets.

But it remains the case that it's more convenient to get prints and especially slides from film, and electronic images from a digital camera, and that should be your primary consideration. There are other interesting differences, in my experience:

(More on these issues below.)

To digress a bit, one of the most significant differences in the actual user experience of different types of cameras, at least to me, is their viewing systems. Over the years, I'm most used to a 35mm single-lens-reflex (SLR) viewfinder image, which is a large, bright, and clear ground-glass image that helps one visualize what the final picture will be like. One also typically has ancillary information like shutter speed and aperture immediately available around the viewing image. The LCD screens on consumer digital cameras are quite akin, which is perhaps a reason why I like them.

I've also used rangefinder cameras a bit, and this is a very different experience. The "see-through" viewfinders of consumer digital cameras give you a small, relatively inaccurate, but accessible image in situations where the LCD isn't that great, such as strong lighting on the screen. Even a top-quality optical viewfinder, such as on a Leica M, just doesn't look as much like the final picture. It does have its advantages though: you can see stuff outside the frame, so can anticipate what's going to happen, and in some situations, like candid or street photography, you feel closer to or more in the action, whereas an SLR viewing image gives you a somewhat more objective or detached stance, like looking at a picture of the subject rather than the subject itself.

And then there is completely different stuff, like "look-down" roll-film single- or twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras, with laterally reversed images which make following action pretty painful, or even large-format view cameras, with bidimensionally-reversed images! And yes, there are digital backs for these, but now we're wandering pretty far afield...

How much should I plan on spending?

"It depends", of course! But seriously, digital cameras are still expensive relative to similar film-based cameras. For now, something like $3-400 is a reasonable "entry-level" target, especially when one adds some necessary accessories, such as a reasonable-capacity memory card, and an extra battery or a set of rechargeables and a charger. One can spend less, but that may imply a lower resolution (less than two megapixels) that might not allow for adequate prints. (Though this could be fine if you simply want a point-and-shoot-type camera for web images.) And one can easily spend twice that, if you want the resolution that will allow for good 8x10 or larger prints (four-plus megapixels) or more sophisticated features. And for $2,000+, one can start thinking about interchangeable-lens SLR's.

Are any brands preferable? Any to avoid?

I think anything you've heard of is probably fine, either as a traditional camera manufacturer such as Kodak, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Minolta, etc., or a well-known electronics manufacturer such as Sony or HP. There are some cheap, lower-resolution, strange-name cameras out there that I'd avoid. (See the price discussion above. Assuming you're a reasonable shopper, there's a strong element of "you get what you pay for". The danger is that at first blush, it's not clear what those extra-cost factors are, so it's easy to end up with a "bargain" that turns out to have annoying limitations relative to a higher-quality initial purchase.)

What about resolution?

It seems like 2 megapixels is the minimum useful resolution for most people. More is better, but it may not matter much if you're mainly going to be putting pictures on the web, or getting the occasional 4x6 printed. I do recommend taking pictures at full resolution and lowest compression if you can afford the space. After all, if you don't store those bits at first, there's no way of getting them back!

Note that cropping throws away bits, so if you're going to do drastic cropping, which is basically the equivalent of high-power digital zooming, you may need more pixels up-front to end up with enough for even high-quality web images.

As I write in 2003, even compact cameras may have 5 megapixels or more. The current consensus is that little is gained beyond this, since the lens resolution becomes a limitation, and smaller pixels require more amplification and are thus noisier. Digital SLR's with 6 megapixels receive serious professional attention, and the super-high-end with 11-14 megapixels is reckoned to match or even exceed effective 35mm film resolution.

Is a close up mode useful?

Many cameras have a so-called "macro" mode. You may not need this, since the "standard" focusing distance may be as close as 2 feet, and you wouldn't want to go below that for portraits of people. If you do want to take a picture of the occasional flower or fine detail from just a few inches away, then macro/closeup is useful.

Is a continuous exposure or movie mode useful?

I had previously dismissed "movie mode" as a gimmick, or just not my bag, but I'm warming up to it a little. The first thing to be said is that this capability, becoming more universal, does not by any means turn your camera into a real digital video camera: you are typically limited to short clips (say 30 seconds) of low-resolution (say 240-by-320 pixels) video. This can be fun for a "novelty" reminder of very dynamic events, but if you're really interested in video, you'll need to buy a dedicated video camera (which in turn will take mediocre stills; such is life).

Perhaps more useful is a "motor drive" mode that lets you take a number of full-size still images in rapid succession. Because of internal memory buffer constraints, there's usually a pretty small limit on the length of such a "burst". (Memory cards are actually fairly slow; it can take seconds to write an image to the card, or retrieve it for display/download.)

What about all the other modes that cameras may have?

I suspect that most people will just leave their camera on full-auto all the time. If you have special needs, like long exposures, or non-standard flash synchronization, then you probably don't need my help :-)

One exception to this is probably control over the flash. There are situations in which you'll want to disable the flash, and take your chances with a longer exposure. Or you may not want the distraction of multi-flash red-eye reduction when you're not taking pictures of people. Most or all cameras will support this kind of control; the real issue is how convenient it is: just a button press, or navigation through a complex on-screen menu.

Short of full manual control, it may also be useful to have more control of exposure and focusing. Examples would be backlight compensation, spot-metering, and metering and focusing "hold" options, which allow one to select some small or non-central element as the deciding point. And even fully-automatic focus and exposure systems differ in their sophistication and effectivness, with the best being "matrix" or "evaluative" systems that use a larger number of decision points, not just the center, or an average over the image.

As above, since digital sensors by default are fairly slow, it can be useful to be able to select a higher ASA equivalent speed, though like using faster film, "grain" increases and smooth tonality suffers.

"Playback" modes are something unique to digital cameras. It is useful to get a quick view of the picture just taken, so you can judge the effect of flash, the subjects having moved, etc. Most cameras also allow you to zoom in and navigate to check finer detail, delete pictures you don't want, etc. Most these days will also allow you to print directly from the camera, setting various attributes of the resulting print. I've never used the latter.

What about zoom, both digital and optical?

Digital zoom is worthless for taking pictures, since one can achieve the same effect in a more general way by cropping and re-sizing in any image manipulation program. Optical zoom is definitely valuable. For example, portraits are generally more pleasing if they're taken with a longer focal length, further away, rather than closer with a wide angle. (The latter tends to make noses look bigger!) For comparison, with a full-frame 35mm camera, a "standard" lens is 50mm, the "classic" portrait lens is anywhere from 85mm to 105mm, telephotos range up to 200mm or 300mm (with exotic and expensive lenses going beyond this), and wide-angles range from 35mm down to 20mm or even 14mm (exotic/expensive).

The minumum tends to be a 2x zoom, from 35-70mm (not really, but those are the equivalent focal lengths for a 35mm camera). That's a mild wide angle to a mild telephoto, and I would always rack it out to full telephoto for a portrait of a single person. For a larger group, with the people 6 feet away or more, then wide angle is fine. So if you are going to do individual portraits, a fixed focal length, which is typically somewhat wide-angle, may prove unsatisfactory. And of course for a wide range of subjects, from buildings to landscape to whatever, one sometimes wants to be more wide, or more tight.

More typical these days is 3x or 4x. These tend not to be that wide on the wide end, 35mm or if you're lucky 28mm equivalent, and offer the extra extension on the telephoto end. For stationary subjects one can use panorama software to get wider (and this is the only alternative for really wide situations, even 360 degrees!). And one can crop to get tighter, but that loses quality. The downside to a wider optical zoom range, up to 10x in some cameras, is size, weight, expense, possibly lower optical quality, and especially on the "long" or telephoto end, a very "slow" lens that requires a brightly-lit situation to work well. (The latter issue is exacerbated by the need for faster shutter speeds, or flash, to avoid camera shake with long lenses, since they magnify more.)

Bottom-line, for most people 2x (optical) zoom is the minimum they should consider, 3x will probably be fine, and one should consider the tradeoffs before going for something exotic like 10x. Some cameras can take optional adapters to make the lens have a wider or longer focal length, but those are rather clumsy, and expensive. Lens speed is important, especially since digital sensors are pretty slow by default. The fastest lenses on consumer cameras are around f/1.8 or f/2.0 at the widest setting, which is good. A maximum aperture of f/2.8 is OK, but a maximum aperture much below f/4.0 gets problematic in lower-light situations. And note that the maximum aperture is at the wide-angle end of the zoom range; the telephoto end will in general have a smaller (numerically higher) aperture (slower).

What about connecting the camera to download photos?

USB works pretty well, and is pretty ubiqitous. Serial cable would be slower, and is obsolete nowadays. When travelling, I prefer to transfer pictures using the Compact Flash card in a cheap PC Card adapter into my laptop. This avoids sucking down battery power, and may be quicker for a lot of pictures. When I'm at home, I use a fairly cheap USB Compact Flash adapter for my desktop computer, which is even more convenient. (Both adapters make the memory card look like a removeable disk.) USB 2.0 or Firewire might theoretically be faster, but I doubt most of today's memory cards can really take advantage of the extra speed. Besides, speed is not that important in this application.

What about ergonomic issues?

Do you want something really small and light? Are different shapes more or less appealing? There may be a lot of complicated controls and small buttons, with menus displayed on a tiny LCD screen on the back. Can you just live in "auto-everything" default mode? If you have friends with one, try to borrow one, or have them walk through the controls with you.

There's often a real tradeoff between portability and versatility. I've owned a range of cameras (see below), and I've enjoyed both the extreme portability and un-obtrusiveness of really compact cameras, and also the versatility and quality of digital SLR's, even at the cost of carrying around the traditional bag of interchangeable lenses, etc.

Sometimes a lack of control can be annoying, and a limitation; sometimes it can be a virtue: I've sometimes been surprised at being in the wrong "mode" after forgetting that I changed something, and I've seen more casual users completely confused by a control dial accidentally shifting into panorama mode, or what have you.

Different cameras seem to take different kinds of memory cards; what's going on there?

The first issue is card type. Compact Flash seems like a good choice overall, but there are also Smart Media, SD/MMC, xD, and Sony's Memory Stick, and newer, physically-smaller formats arriving every year. If you have other digital-storage devices, it may be convenient to have a common format.

I have chosen to standardize on Compact Flash ("CF"). For one, because it's electrically-compatible with the PCMCIA or PC Card slots in laptops, so a sub-$10 adapter works. Other formats require more sophisticated/expensive adapters (around $70). And with a CF type II slot, you can use a MicroDrive (see below). In general, it seems that the higher-end and professional cameras use CF, so there's an upgrade path. This may be because CF is a physically larger format than many of the others, so it tends to be available in higher capacities, or at lower prices for the same high capacity. But for most people these may not be compelling considerations.

Capacity is a very important topic. You will want to buy a bigger card. Cameras tend to come with unrealistically-small memory (a.k.a. "flash") cards. Many come with an 8 MB card, which will fit only 4-5 full-resolution, low-compression pictures! If I'm somewhere special, like a family wedding, or an exotic location, then I can easily take a hundred pictures a day. Highest-quality pictures (high resolution, low compression) can consume about 1-3 MB each, so it's easy to justify hundreds of megabytes of storage.

If you're on a long trip, and use up the card, you don't just run out and buy another one, since they're expensive and may be hard-to-find, so you need a large card, or be diligent about erasing the less-good images, or ideally be able to download them to another device, like a laptop. (You can get a 1 GB MicroDrive for a couple hundred dollars, or now even multi-GB flash cards, for thousands of dollars. Not all cameras are compatible with these Compact Flash II format device, however.)

For my first camera (2 megapixel), I found a good deal on a 128 MB card (a hundred bucks after rebate, now much cheaper), which was ample (for a single session). With my second camera, I found a 340 MB microdrive for a similar price, and that'll typically get me through a short trip, about 180 images from a 4 megapixel camera. With my third camera (6 MB), I went for the 1 GB microdrive, though there's no longer much of a price advantage over same-capacity flash memory cards.

A more radical choice is a camera that writes to CD-ROM, such as a Sony Mavica. (Earlier versions wrote to floppy disk, but these days, a floppy may not even hold a single high-resolution, low-compression image!) The drawback is a heavier, larger camera, but the advantage is that one can simply pop in a new CD-R to take more pictures. (Note that these are typically the "small" CD-R's, so you only get 156 MB per disk, and thus you'll need a bunch of disks to equal the capacity of the largest memory cards.)

The memory capacity and battery life considerations may make a digital camera a little sketchy for longer trips. If I don't have a laptop with me, I have been known to bring along a film camera as backup.

Something to consider are "digital album/wallet" devices, which combine a card reader with a small hard drive. These seem very attractive in principle, but are still a few hundred bucks, so it may be more cost-effective just to get the 1 GB Microdrive. I have used a Sima CP-150 Image Bank. This is a lower-end device, which I bought "empty", and installed a spare 5 GB laptop hard drive I had lying around. This works pretty well, though one doesn't get great feedback that the copy actually succeeded, which is a bit uncomfortable. The more expensive models have their own LCD screens, so can serve as viewers as well.

What about batteries?

Really small cameras may use expensive, custom re-chargeable batteries, and they still don't last that long. It may be necessary to buy an extra one, and make sure both are fully charged every day if you're on a trip. This probably rules out camping trips if you're going to take lots of pictures. Larger cameras will take higher-capacity batteries, or even take standard AAs, which is definitely a convenience (and a very valuable backup "in the field"). To save money (and the environment), get high-capacity re-chargeable AAs, like NiMH (Nickel Metal-Hydride). These are expensive up-front, but a good deal in the long run.

Battery life is an issue. Especially expensive are using the LCD screen, built-in flash, downloading via USB, and simply writing large images. A small camera with a tiny battery may only get 40-50 high-resolution, low-compression shots. Or one might get hundreds of shots using AAs, selecting higher compression to write smaller files, or avoiding the LCD screen. In general, cameras and batteries seem to be getting more efficient, so this may become less of an issue.

Do I need to care about the bundled software, or buy anything else?

Probably the first question is whether you need to become an expert in computer image manipulation to use a digital camera. The answer for most people is "no". You can use the bundled software to download pictures, maybe make a few simple adjustments like cropping and red-eye elimination, and then either print or use some simple web-publishing software, or one of the online photo-sharing services.

But to really get the most out of your images, you should get to know the image manipulation software. In my experience, colors are not perfectly balanced right out of the box, and contrast is often too low to make a really snappy image, at least on a computer monitor. I find myself wanting to make more sophisticated adjustments as well, such as correcting perspective or lens distortions. This gets one into the whole "digital darkroom" arena.

You can use online services like Shutterfly or Ofoto to get prints, and they'll probably do a fine job with "straight" files from the camera, since they do their own adjustments. For web display, if you're a perfectionist like me, you'll probably want to tweak them for color balance, contrast, cropping, etc. Cameras will often come with software, like Adobe PhotoDeluxe, which is fine, but does take a bit of learning to use to full advantage. Higher-end cameras will more likely come with Adobe Photoshop LE, which is more versatile. (Adobe Photoshop Elements is the more recent incarnation of LE, and has some advantages, such as being able to turn off color management, which otherwise means what you're seeing in the program is not what you'll see in a web browser.)

The full (and expensive) Photoshop application is probably unnecessary for most people reading this. But it does have some capabilities that are interesting, such as 16-bit and RAW-format processing. Thankfully, there are other, much less expensive programs that have some of these features, though perhaps in a less convenient or integrated fashion. I've used the very versatile and powerful Picture Window, from Digital Light and Color, which does 16-bit processing and offers a range of interesting image transformations, including perspective and lens distortion corrections.

I like panoramas a lot. This means "stitching" individual images into a wider (or taller) whole. Most consumer digital cameras have panorama modes to help you take the individual pictures correctly. There may be a bundled panorama software package that comes with the camera, and/or you may want to buy your own. I use Panavue's Image Assembler. Photoshop Elements does have a built-in panorama feature, but Image Assembler is more powerful at combining the not-perfectly-matched images one typically gets doing it hand-held. Ideally one would use a tripod and a panorama head, but I can never be bothered.

Some people will want to use a proper HTML editor or Web publishing tool, but so far I've done OK with a general text editor and Netscape's built-in Composer. More and more of the general-purpose picture-display programs seem to come up with some sort of album-generation mode, which produces the HTML for a web-site.

A more basic need is simply to browse image files from the camera, to select ones to print or work on further, or to show them in a casual "slide show". All or most of the image manipulation programs can do this to some degree, but I like the freeware IrfanView which is fast, simple, and supports a vast number of file formats.

A separate discussion is RAW mode processing, which pertains to feature of more advanced cameras, and is tackled next.

What about RAW mode?

Almost all digital cameras process the bits coming off the digital sensor in-camera, typically producing a standard JPEG-format file. More advanced cameras also offer the choice of producing a so-called RAW file, which has not been processed. The advantage of this is that one can select different processing parameters after-the-fact, and that the RAW file is the true "digital negative", with all its versatility intact, and nothing thrown away by the in-camera processing. For instance, one can often get an extra stop or so of exposure latitude from the RAW file.

A complication, though, is that the RAW format is not standard, but rather each camera vendor has its own, and so specialized software is needed to process RAW files and turn them into standard JPEG's for viewing. The vendor's own software seems typically to be somewhat lame, and so a third-party industry has sprung up. One of the best is said to be C1 from Phase One, though it only supports a limited range of cameras.

I've tried RAW files from my Canon G2, which doesn't seem to be that much of a win. JPEG is an 8-bit-per-color-channel format, and the G2's sensor theoretically gives 10 bits per channel. So using the RAW format, one can capture that in a 16-bit TIFF output file (almost 24 MB!). I was hoping to see the gain in exposure latitude, but didn't really, in practice, at least using Canon's own software. But at least one can do exposure leveling and color balancing in 16-bit mode, so that the final JPEG can still preserve a full 8 bits of per-channel resolution, which makes for smoother tonality. (Note that the typical "consumer" applications will only do 8-bit processing, so for this one does need full Photoshop, or one of the other more sophisticated image-manipulation programs out there, such as Picture Window mentioned above.)

RAW files from the Canon EOS 10D digital SLR have more to offer. The C1 program offers a smooth workflow that includes exposure correction that seems genuinely to pull a couple of stops more latitude from images. (Unfortunately, C1 only handles Canon's digital SLR's, not the "consumer" compact cameras such as the G2.)

So RAW seems to be the way to go at least for more sophisticated cameras and the most critical work. It does make everything more complicated though, including simply sharing images files straight from the camera. At least IrfanView (mentioned above) does have the ability to access and display the embedded JPEG that's part of the RAW file. Another issue I haven't quite wrapped my mind around is archival storage: TIFF and JPEG are likely to be readable for a long time, but what about proprietary RAW formats?

How do I print and store all those digital images?

You can make prints yourself on a photo-quality inkjet printer. These are getting very much better, and even a current "general purpose" inkjet printer will do reasonably well on glossy "photo" paper. A dedicated photo printer will do even better, and can do things like border-less prints. The online services mentioned above do make true photographic prints. The price is about the same, though you have to wait for the mail.

An attractive solution these days is just to have your neighborhood photo-finisher do it, since many are now becoming equipped with digital-capable machinery. Recently, we just emailed our images to the store, and they printed them for us! My local store also has a computer available with digital card readers, so you can just transfer your selected images to their computer, and walk away with your card.

Long-term permanent storage is a tough question, and was one of my real concerns in deciding to get a digital camera. Typically the picture files end up on your computer's hard drive after downloading from the camera. If you delete them, either on purpose or accidentally, they're just gone. So if you're going to be taking pictures that you value over the long term, you need to think about it. Not just the usual backup issues of not losing them, but how you're going to organize them so that you can find a particular picture in a year, or ten years, or your grand-children will be able to... I recommend against the online services for storage, since they have a nasty tendency to go bankrupt or otherwise disappear, and will never give you enough (free) storage.

Some possible answers: burn CD-ROM copies, or keep "mirror" copies on at least two separate computers (ideally in separate buildings). I do the latter, keeping everything "online" on multiple hard drives, which seem to be getting bigger and cheaper at least fast enough to keep up with my space consumption (which is many GB/year!). This also avoids the secondary problem of keeping track of lots of CD's. Do put pictures into folders with descriptive names. Always keep the originals from the camera intact, so do any cropping, balancing, etc. into a copy.

So what did you end up with?

Sub-compact

Canon S100

First a Canon S100. This was definitely on the tiny, convenient side, rather than high functionality/capacity. My considerations were that I would probably end up with other, more capable digital cameras over time (as anyone who's seen my film camera collection can attest!), so this was an initial rather than ultimate choice. I thought I'd start on the smaller/cheaper end at first. It's a 2MB, 2x zoom camera that's more than adequate for web photos. Its tiny size and weight meant that I could carry it everywhere, and in a bit over a year, I had over 1,300 images to show for it, including the London, Norway, and Barcelona trips of 2001. It does take Compact Flash cards, which are convenient for me to transfer onto my laptop. And I've always been a Canon fan, so that was one way to winnow down the vast array of choices. I did buy a larger-capacity memory card, an extra battery, and a case up front.

Full-featured compact

Canon G2

Then after about a year I moved up to a Canon G2. This is a much more capable camera, with a 4MB sensor, 3x zoom, and manual controls if desired. I've been impressed with the additional quality, which extends to subtler areas like better color balance, requiring less correction. I got a 340 MB Microdrive with it, and burned through the whole thing in a weekend taking pictures at my sister's wedding! In a bit over a year, I shot over 2,400 images, including 2002's France trip. The G2 is bulkier, though, and doesn't have that wonderful pocketable, hide-it-in-your-hand quality of the S100.

Digital SLR

Canon EOS 10D

More recently, I moved up again to a Canon EOS 10D. This is a single-lens reflex (SLR) that takes the same EF lenses as EOS film-based cameras. Since I already had an EOS A2 with some nice EF lenses, this was a natural choice. Most people would not want to consider this kind of camera. It's more expensive, and quite a bit bigger and heavier. In some ways, it actually offers less capabilities than "consumer" digital cameras! For instance, because of the mirror viewing system, the LCD screen is only active after a shot has been taken, for review.

Also, this breed of somewhat-more-affordable digital SLRs has a less-than-full-frame sensor, which means you only get the middle part of the image the lens is capable of producing. This is equivalent to a focal-length multiplier, in this case 1.6x. So a "standard" 50mm f/1.4 lens becomes an 80/1.4 fast portrait lens, which is very nice. And an 80/1.8 short telephoto becomes a 128/1.8, also very nice, considering how much Canon's 135/2 costs.

But an expensive 28-70/2.8 "L" (high-end) wide-to-short-telephoto zoom becomes a 45-112/2.8, which is not very wide-angle at all. Canon has a new 17-40/4.0 which becomes a 27-64/4.0, which is not bad, and quite versatile in practice. But this is as wide as you can get, without spending well over a thousand dollars, and wasting most of what makes these super-wideangle lenses so expensive in the first place. Nikon has a neat new lens that illustrates a new idea: a specialized lens that does not cover full-frame, so can be wider-angle and smaller. It's a 12-24mm f/4.0 that's equivalent to a roughly 20-40mm wide-angle zoom. People with other Nikon lenses will find the Nikon D100 even more attractive given the availability of this new lens.

Olympus has announced a new smaller-than-full-frame "4/3" format which they intend to be a new standard. This seems like a pretty reasonable idea, and may end up making full-frame cameras, which now cost several thousand dollars, the new "medium format" (i.e. a larger format for professional, very high-quality use). On the other hand, I can recall how half-frame (18x24mm) format film-based camers went through various eras of fashionableness, but never caught on permanently. Anyone who has seen or used the Olympus Pen F half-frame SLR's of the 1960's can attest to the attractiveness of the idea, given the wonderfully small and light cameras and lenses. (Of course, a new format means buying new lenses...)

So why buy the EOS 10D? There are two ways to compare. First, against my current digital cameras, especially the G2, and against my current film-based cameras, especially the EOS A2. The G2 has two main frustrations and limitations, which apply to any camera in its range. The first is in "action" scenarios, such as candids and sports. The lag time to "boot up", between shutter-press to actually taking the picture, and from shot to shot really get in the way of getting the picture. The zoom control is also not conducive to rapid action, taking a while to get from one end to the other, and often requiring some searching back-and-forth to get to the right focal length. The second is the limitations of the non-interchangeable lens. The 3x zoom is equivalent to a 35-105/2-2.5. This works pretty well most of the time, and is quite fast. F/2.5 at the telephoto end is especially impressive against much of the competition. And while optical quality is generally quite high, there are some compromises, such as significant barrel distortion at the wide end.

Digital SLRs are more expensive, and cater to a more advanced or even professional market, and so benefit from more expensive electronics that are faster and higher-capacity. The interchangeable lenses have specialized, more powerful auto-focus motors and actuators. This all means that these cameras are much more responsive, with shorter lag times, and more rapid and longer "burst" capabilities. It's much more like using a film-based SLR: the zoom lenses zoom quickly and positively, and I just love having the SLR viewing image back again. (I've noticed that point-and-shoot film-based cameras can also be quite slow, especially to auto-focus.)

And as for lenses, with the EOS 10D and the 17-40 zoom I can get as wide as a 28mm equivalent at very high quality (on the one hand only at f/4.0, on the other hand the larger 10D sensor will go to higher speeds and retain image quality), and Canon will probably come out with something like the Nikon 12-24 at some point. At the telephoto end, the sky is more-or-less the limit, with my light and compact 85/1.8 providing me with a very fast 128mm equivalent, and if I'm willing to lug my 70-200/2.8L lens around, I get up to 320mm, which is very effective for nature photography, especially at f/2.8. Of course, all this does mean going back to carrying a full camera bag around, which I'm only willing to do in certain circumstances. And it also means the shallower depth of field of longer focal length, faster lenses, which can be both good and bad.

SLR enthusiasts might be tempted to wait for full-frame cameras to become more reasonably priced, but those physically-large sensor chips may remain substantially more expensive for a long time. (Though they'll offer amazing resolution, with 11 and 14 megapixels available now!)

I could just stick to my film-based cameras when I want to use their interchangeable lenses and so on. But then there are the basic advantages of a digital camera: hugely higher image capacity at no marginal cost, and instant image review. This is particularly valuable in difficult lighting situations. My most extreme experience was at a fireworks display, where it was invaluable to be able to try different speeds and exposure settings and immediately see their effect. For now, when I want a super-wideangle lens (the 17-40mm is just wild full-frame!), I'll stick to film, as I will when I simply want to use a different type of camera, such as a Leica M rangefinder.

I've enjoyed my foray into digital photography immensely, and I hope you do too! I continue to use my film cameras from time-to-time, though now I typically get negatives scanned onto CD at the time of processing, and I still have a back-log of older negatives to scan myself. My web site has become my primary medium for arranging and showing pictures. It's hard to imagine buying another film-based camera for primary use.

Where can I get more advice?

www.dpreview.com has amazing in-depth reviews. www.cnet.com is more consumer-oriented, and has useful price comparisons. Photo store personnel are a mixed bag. In larger stores most are probably commission-oriented sales-critters, with a few more-knowledgeable enthusiasts out there, particularly in smaller stores. But if you do go to a store and get good advice, please buy there. The prices will probably be a bit higher, but how else is that good advice going to survive?

There are also sites that offer a lot of photographic and general software and hardware advice. One particularly rich one is Norman Koren's site.