NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The newest digital camera models are more fun, more capable and, for busy shooters, cheaper to use than film. Even by consumer-electronic standards, digital models have dropped in price and improved in quality at an impressive pace. Prices of some high-end cameras are now a twentieth of the price of lesser models three years ago.
The new cameras are so good, in fact, even pros are making them standard equipment. This year, for the first time, digital cameras are expected to outsell their film cousins.
It typically costs 39 cents a frame to develop your film at a discount photo lab, and you pay for every picture, whether the kids come out looking like angels or gargoyles. Once you buy your digital equipment, however, the price of taking pictures is zero. You thus have in your hands one of the secrets of great photography: volume. Snap hundreds, sift for the brilliant few.
With their latest lineups, digital camera makers are raising the specs in the consumer sweet spot (the $300-to-$500 range) from two megapixels to three. That ups the amount of visual information the cameras can record by 50 percent.
That means that affordable digital cameras now rival film in quality. They may even surpass film cameras in variety. To keep you from spending your summer days inside the camera store rather than outside snapping, we offer some tips on shopping and our picks in all the major digital camera categories.
Getting clear on lenses
Photography is about gathering light, so the lens is your most essential element. You might expect old-line players like Canon, Minolta and Nikon to have an edge here -- each makes superb optics -- yet even great camera companies equip some of their lower-end models with so-so lenses. Pay close attention to optics while shopping; cameras with inferior lenses produce soft and distorted images.
Some relative newcomers to camera-making feature glass from the most renowned lens companies. Sony, for instance, uses top-tier German manufacturer Carl Zeiss for its pricier cameras, while Panasonic uses Leica.
Most cameras offer a digital zoom or a combo of optical and digital zooms. But zooms are the subject of ludicrous marketing ploys. Only the optical zoom specs -- how much the lens magnifies, not the digital processor in the camera -- mean much.
A digital zoom does, in essence, what you can do later (and better) on your computer. Rather than bringing you closer to the image as a lens would, it enlarges and degrades the individual pixels on its sensor. You want to capture the best-quality image you can, not the largest, since better images give you more options later when you're doctoring or cropping them on your computer. If you see a camera sporting a 30x zoom, you're being had. It's mostly digital.
The second most important feature, and most misunderstood, is the camera's megapixel count. Higher megapixel counts allow you to print bigger, clearer pictures. Yet most users rarely enlarge photos bigger than 8 inches by 10 inches.
Costlier high-megapixel cameras earn their keep mostly by producing images you can crop to bits, letting you make a good photo out of the best part of a poor one. By the time you hit the more expensive five-megapixel range, you can plumb a group photo and pull a head shot out of the crowd. If you tend to shoot from a distance -- as travelers often do -- aim for at least four megapixels.
Need for speed
One of the most useful features to look for is a bracketing mode. A single push of the shutter button produces three quick pictures, each with a slightly different exposure, each allowing in a slightly varying amount of light. This increases the likelihood of capturing the scene as you see it (or as you want it to be seen).
Some high-end film cameras can bracket too, but it eats up film and, of course, you pay for the frames you don't like. Remember, with digital cams it costs nothing to take poor shots -- you can delete the two you like least. Digital cameras also handle extra-bright and low-light situations that take careful planning with film. Some can penetrate near darkness, even without a flash.
Digital cameras gulp power and storage. But when you buy them, they come with one set of batteries and an absurdly small memory card. You'll need more, especially when shooting on long trips or at photo-intensive events like weddings or parking lot collisions.
To avoid doubling your purchase price with accessories, look for standard memory and batteries. The two most common types of memory are compact-flash cards and the smaller secure digital, or SD, cards. Prices for a 256MB compact-flash or SD card -- enough to hold 200 high-resolution shots -- have fallen to $65.
It can also pay to pick a camera that uses the same memory format as devices you already own -- MP3 players, PDAs -- and swap the cards as needed. Most camera makers use one or the other memory standard. But Sony, which uses its own Memory Stick, and Olympus and Fuji, which use their new xD cards, charge about double for their media.
Getting standard batteries is more of a challenge. Most digitals today use expensive proprietary batteries -- a lack of standardization that apparently has less to do with consumer needs than with the camera maker's own need to sell specialized accessories with high markups. Even cameras from the same lines often use different battery types. Prepare to pay $50 apiece or more (you'll need one extra set at the very least). A few makers, such as Minolta and Ricoh, have generously stuck to rechargeable AA batteries, costing about $10 for a set of four. Others, such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus, use these generic batteries in some but not all their cameras.
Where to shop
Prices move fast in the digital camera market, and the online retailers tend to respond fastest. Dell has lately been offering aggressive pricing for its limited selection of cameras. Also, look for daily promotions at Tech Bargains, which frequently links to discount coupons for Dell, Buy.com, and others. Reliable New York City mail-order houses B&H and Adorama are also worth checking. You can find help with comparison shopping at two Web sites obsessively devoted to digital cameras, Digital Photography Review and Digital Camera Resource. Pick the features you want, and they will offer a list of current cameras that fit the bill.