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Home > Quick Reference
Digital Camera Quick Reference

What Is A Digital Camera?
(A Webopedia definition)

A digital camera is a camera that, as its name implies, stores images digitally rather than recording them on film. Once a picture has been taken, it can be downloaded to a computer system, and then manipulated with a graphics program and printed. Unlike film photographs, which have an almost infinite resolution, digital photos are limited by the amount of memory in the camera, the optical resolution of the digitizing mechanism, and, finally, by the resolution of the final output device.

Even the best digital cameras connected to the best printers cannot produce film-quality photos. However, if the final output device is a laser printer, it doesn't really matter whether you take a real photo and then scan it, or take a digital photo. In both cases, the image must eventually be reduced to the resolution of the printer.  The big advantage of digital cameras is that making photos is both inexpensive and fast because there is no film processing.

Basic Digital Camera Terminology

Looking for a digital camera, especially for those unfamiliar with the technology and terminology, can be an overwhelming project. Most digital camera manufactures use standard terms on the packaging and in product specifications on their Web site. For those treading into foreign territory, here are a few definitions to some of the most important terms you'll encounter while shopping for a digital camera.

auto focus (AF)
Auto focus is a function of the digital camera where the camera will automatically focus on the subject in the center of the LCD or viewfinder. Digital cameras come standard with auto focus, and more expensive models of digital cameras will have the option to select the auto focus area, rather than just auto focusing on the center of the LCD or viewfinder.

digital zoom
Digital zoom is used to make the image seem more "close-up". Digital zoom on a digital camera works the same as cropping and enlarging a photo in a graphics program. This type of zoom will result in a loss of quality and image resolution because the image is simply being enlarged without any extra detail or pixel resolution being added. Due to the quality of photos taken when using the digital zoom function, these photos may not be of good enough quality to print images larger than 4"x6".

A Megapixel is one million pixels. The term is used in reference to the resolution of the digital camera. When researching cameras, the number of megapixels is equivalent to the number of pixels available to capture an image. For example, a 2-megapixel camera can produce an image with two million pixels. It is important to remember that the number of pixels your camera is capable of using is independent of the optical zoom. A 3-megapixel digital camera will still capture only a 3-million pixel image, regardless of whether you're using 2x or 3x optical zoom.

The more megapixels your camera is able to capture, the larger prints at better print quality you can produce. For example, a 2-megapixel camera can print up  a 4"x6" or 5"x7" photo. If you're interested in larger prints, such as an 8"x10", you should be looking at a camera with at least 3megapixels.

In a digital camera, memory refers to the number of images and/or video files you can store on your camera before you have to transfer the image files to your computer. Digital cameras have internal storage, and many come with removable storage options so you can store more images than the internal storage will allow.

optical zoom
Optical zoom is a "true" zoom feature. It allows you to zoom in (or out) on the subject in the
LCD or viewfinder. This will enable you to get a closer view of the subject before taking your picture. Optical zoom changes the magnification of images with the actual optical glass before the images reach the imaging sensor. Optical zoom allows for better photo quality than digital zoom.

Digital camera resolution is measured in megapixels (see megapixel).

total zoom
Some digital camera manufactures advertise the camera's zoom capability as a total zoom. When you see a total zoom listing, it basically is the digital zoom multiplied by the optical zoom. For instance, a camera touting a 56x zoom could be a digital camera with 8x optical and 7x digital zoom. Total zoom is, in essence, irrelevant and you should always find out how much of the total zoom is true zoom (i.e., optical zoom).

Additional Digital Camera Features & Accessories

While zoom, resolution and focus are the basic options to consider in a digital camera, you'll also find hundreds of built-in features, upgrades and accessories available for most consumer digital cameras. Here is a list of some digital camera features you should become familiar with.

removable storage media
Removable storage media is another important feature of a digital camera. Removable storage allows you to store more images that the internal memory of the digital camera will allow. Different camera will offer different removable storage media options. Many older digital cameras simply allowed users to insert a floppy disk to hold additional files. Now cameras offer a variety of removable storage media such as Smart Media cards, CompactFlash, PC cards, memory sticks or even CDs. In most cases, removable storage media is easy-to-use and it can be erased and used again.

docking station
With some digital cameras you may be able to upgrade to or purchase a docking station. Generally, you will attach the docking station to your computer, then attach the camera to the docking station. Docking stations provide you with an easy way of downloading your pictures to your computer and provide the means to recharge the digital camera's batteries. Some docking stations may also have simple one button options to e-mail photos.

video capability
Many digital cameras today offer some sort of video capture. In most cases, it is simply a matter of changing the camera capture setting, clicking a button to start recording your video and clicking it again to stop. Digital cameras generally allow 15-20 seconds of continuous video capture up to several minutes. It is important to remember that video capture can really eat up your storage space and you should consider removable storage media if taking quick videos will be something you do frequently. Most video capture on digital cameras run at a resolution of 320x240. This resolution works fine for playback on your computer, but if you plan to do video editing and run these on your television you need to look into cameras which offer a video resolution of at least 640 x 480.

image editing features
Most digital cameras will come with a plethora of image features that allow you to change color balance, exposure, remove red-eye, add borders and more. While these features can be useful, it is important to remember that these things can all be done with some basic graphics and photo-editing software after the photos have been transferred to your computer.

Digital Camera Price Points

Like most technology, as time passes prices go down, features increase and last year's hot models are heading towards the obsolete pile. One main concern for those looking at purchasing a digital camera is price points. Interestingly enough, it is believed that due to a bloated inventory and a market now filling up with camera enabled mobile phones, digital camera prices will go down by 15% total over this year and another 15% over next year 2005. This quick price comparison will provide you with a basic knowledge of where price points currently lie in digital cameras, and what features and standards you can find within various price ranges.

Megapixels Optical Zoom Features Price Range
3.2 3x Basic standard point and shoot without many options for focus or exposure. Some added features would include a video capture mode, most likely without audio.

Average price range is
$200 and under

3.2 to 4.2 3x to 4x Basic and standard options plus features like video capture with audio, optical viewfinder, manual exposure settings, focal point options, image format options

Average price range is
$200 up to $300

5.0 to 5.1 4x to 5x Basic, intermediate and some advanced features like better shutter response, ability to photograph action shots, more menu and photo setting features. Average price range is
$400 up to $550
6.1 to 7.1 5x to 7x Basic and intermediate options plus more manual controls, versatile shooting modes, movie mode supporting 640x480 resolution, sound recording, in-camera image processing, Average price range is
$550 up to $650
8.0 and up 7x and up VGA movie mode supporting 640x480 resolution, sound recording, changeable lenses, layers of menu options, LCD, viewfinder, lots of bells and whistles. Above $650 to

From Digital Images to Prints

Regardless of the resolution of your digital images, you will always be limited to your printer resolution if you decide to print your photos. One of the best ways to help decide on which printer to buy is to determine if the printer will be used for tasks other than printing digital photos, and to estimate the total printing cost including paper and ink. Other things to consider include the quality of color photo printing the printer will do.

Color Ink Jet Printers
Basic inkjet printers generally will produce nice output onto photo quality paper. Many color inkjet printers will print up to 4800x1200 dpi within a $100 price range. For a better quality photo printing you can start looking at additional features such as printers that support black & white and color ink cartridges and photo color cartridges. You'll also want to make sure the printer can handle a wide variety of paper types, sizes and thickness. When choosing an inkjet printer it is important to look at the cost of replacement ink cartridges. You may find a great inkjet printer for $100, but you may be looking at upwards of $50 or $60 to replace the cartridges when they run out of ink.

Digital Photo Printers
Digital photo printers are printing devices dedicated to the one task of photo printing. They are usually limited to using just glossy paper, but you may can use smaller paper sizes, like 4x6 for example. Some of these dedicated photo printers will accept a maximum of 4x6 paper.  Photo printers also offer convenient features for digital image printing such as printing directly from a camera or removable storage device. Dedicated photo printers use a technology called thermal-dye which allows the output to be printed in 256 different shades of the primary colors. While these printers usually produce images at around 300x300 dpi, the amount of color shades will produce photos as sharp and focused as photos printed on a 1200x4800 dpi inkjet printer. Another attractive feature of digital photo printers is, of course, their size. They are quite small and this makes traveling with your camera and printer an easy task.

Online & Retail Store Digital Photo Processing
For those not too keen on printing their digital images at home you do have other options. The vast majority of retail stores and specialty photo shops which offer traditional film and negative photo processing services also offer digital printing services. If you have a CD-ROM writer, you can burn your images to a CD and drop it off at local photo processing outlets just like you would traditional film. To gain a competitive edge however, many outlets offer online services which allow you to upload your digital images online, select print sizes, and place an order. You would then either select a store location to pick up your prints or pay a few extra dollars and have the prints delivered to your door. Having your digital images printed for you is not as expensive as one might think. You can expect to pay as low as 24 cents each for a 4x6 photo up to $3 for an 8x10 print.

Different Types of Photo Quality Paper

If you've decided on an inkjet printer, the next step will be to choose the right type of paper for the job. For photo printing you need to purchase specialty inkjet photo quality paper. This paper is designed to prevent ink from spreading out during printing and will result in nice sharp and clear photo prints. From matte to glossy and iron on transfers, here are some of the many types paper you'll want to know about before buying!

Glossy Paper
Glossy photo quality paper is designed to make printed photos look sharp and vibrant. Handling of glossy paper is important as the paper can quickly and easily be marred by fingerprints and dirt. Glossy photo paper comes in several varieties including a specialty color protect/color life paper, semi-gloss, and premium (professional) grade.

Matte Paper
Unlike Glossy paper, matte paper produces nice quality prints but does not have that vibrant color finish. Matte paper is not vulnerable to being marred by fingerprints and it produces a non-glare photo. Types of matte inkjet paper include photo quality matte, premium (professional) grade, double-sided matte, and semi-matte.

Specialty Inkjet Paper
Specialty paper will come in a variety of finishes from matte, to glossy to satin, and then some! Generally you'll find a huge selection of specialty papers to suit any project. Types of specialty paper include photo quality cardstock, greeting card stock, photo quality stickers, labels, transparencies, and even iron-on transfers.


Related Links 

Consumer Digital Cameras

HP Digital Photography Products
Information and specifications on HP's line of digital cameras and photo quality printers.

Kodak Consumer Photography Website
Information and specifications on Kodak's line of digital cameras, accessories, printers, photo paper, processing, batteries, & more.

FujiFilm Consumer Digital Camera Products
Information and specifications on Fujifilm's line of digital cameras and accessories.

Digital Camera Manufactures
This camera database contains over 400 listings of digital camera models with full specifications.

Digital Photography & Image Reference Guides provides news, content and community for graphics enthusiasts

Digital Camera Buying Guide
An excellent resource for digital camera reviews, how-to articles & more.

Photoxels Article: Optical vs. Digital Zoom
An excellent reference article which answers common questions about optical and digital zoom, photo resolution and megapixels.

Howstuffworks "How Digital Camera Work"
Describes how a digital camera and its functions work.

Choosing a Photo Printer
An excellent resource for those looking to purchase a printer for at home digital image printing

Tech Guide: Photo printing paper
You can buy almost as many photo paper types as you can photo printers. This article explains the differences, and how to get the best archival quality prints.

Vangie 'Aurora' Beal - Writer,
Last updated: December 01, 2004

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